New book on Highland Swordsmanship

Ben Miller, Author of the phenomenal book „Irish Swordsmanship“, publishes another masterpiece in cooperation with Jared Kirby and Paul MacDonald: Scottish Fencing: Five 18th Century Texts on the Use of the Small-Sword, Broadsword, Spadroon, Cavalry Sword, and Highland Battlefield Tactics.

We all know and use the several written sources on the Use of the Highland Broadsword, like Donald McBane, Thomas Page, Captain Sinclair and others. However, up until now, a number of scottish treatises on the use of the sword have not drawn the attention of fencers, readers, authors and publishers. So it is indeed great news, that here are five such texts presented, published again for the first time in more than two centuries.



I. Examination & Vindication of the Highlander’s Manner of Attacking and Fighting the Enemy in a Day of Action. — Though not a fencing text, this is an unique early eighteenth century manuscript on battlefield techniques that has never before been published, and is now presented here with the permission of the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Authored by an anonymous Highland veteran, it includes a spirited defense of the native manner of fighting, and provides new insight into the use of the targe during the period of the great Jacobite conflicts.

II. The Sword’s-Man; Containing a Series of Observations on the Use of the Sword. — This treatise, authored in 1788 by Edinburgh fencing instructor John Ferdinand, contains instruction in the use of the most popular side-arms of the period: the broadsword, small-sword, and spadroon.

III. A Dictionary, Explaining the Terms, Guards, and Positions, Used in the Art of the Small Sword. — This useful and interesting glossary on the art of fencing is embedded with numerous instructions, and was written by Hary Fergusson, a native of Aberdeenshire who taught fencing in Edinburgh and North America during the 1760s and 1770s.

IV. A Treatise on the New Sword Exercise. — This treatise on the use of the cavalry saber was first published in 1797, shortly after the widespread adoption of the 1796 pattern cavalry sword. Its author was Sholto Douglas Sorlie, a native of Edinburgh, Sergeant in the 7th Queen’s Own Light Dragoons, and later a veteran of Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrennees, Navelle, Orthes, and the Peninsular War.

V. This final chapter explores the life and career of Donald McAlpine, a soldier from Inverness and officer in the famed Queens Rangers (an early Special Operations unit), who taught the use of the back-sword in Boston during the American War of Independence. His student sketched what is currently the earliest known illustration of fencing technique in the American colonies. The full, original page containing the illustration of McAlpine’s instruction is faithfully reproduced herein for the first time ever.

Additionally the contributors also wrote about the authors and historical background of the texts.

The genesis of the book began a few years ago, after Maestro Jared Kirby and Ben Miller managed to obtain some rare Scottish fencing treatises: John Ferdinand’s “The Swords-Man,” and Hary Fergusson’s Small-sword “Dictionary.” The work by Fergusson was actually helpful in compiling the glossary for Ben´s earlier work, “Irish Swordsmanship,” as Fergusson’s text contained a few definitions that didn’t seem to be found in other fencing glossaries of the period.

After some more time passed, Ben came across another obscure treatise, such as one on the Cavalry exercise, by a Scottish soldier named Sholto Douglas Sorlie, and the two authors decided that there was enough material worthy of being published as a book.

In 2017 Ben came across another discovery while combing through the online catalogs of the Royal Library at Windsor Library in Berkshire. This was an anonymous manuscript treating of (and defending) the native battlefield tactics of the Highlanders. You can see the original text published here.

Back then the material was not online, so after contacting the staff at the Royal Library they agreed to scan it and send it to Ben. In reading the text, it initially seemed like it was written by an outsider defending the Highlanders. However, in the second half of the text, it became clear from the language used that the author was certainly a Scot (and likely Highlander) himself.

Ben told Maestro Paul Macdonald about this text, when they met at a Martinez Academy exhibition and event. He sent Paul the text, and with his knowledge of Scottish martial history he was able to discern even more information about the author, and greatly narrow the time when the manuscript must have been written. Paul later compiled this information in detail, and penned an Introduction to the book.

In 2018 Ben recontacted the Royal Library and asked them permission to publish a transcription, which the Librarian most kindly granted. As good fortune should have it, Ben was also able to add one more chapter concerning Donald McAlpine.

He had first written about McAlpine in 2009 in an article on Fencing in Colonial America for the AHF (to read the article follow this link). McAlpine taught the Back-sword in Boston, and one of his students sketched what is currently believed to be the earliest illustration of fencing technique in the American colonies. This sketch was crudely reproduced in a 19th century text on the famous Count Rumford (who was McAlpine’s student), who was born in the colonies, but later becoming a Count in Bavaria, being responsible for many reformations of the Bavarian Army as well as other great inventions next to his influence on the creation of the famous English Garden in Munich.

Ben however wanted to find the original diary and he finally managed to locate it’s whereabouts, and the New England institution that owns the text kindly granted permission to publish. So the mystery of the “diary” has finally been solved, and some additional information about McAlpine – such as his role in the Queen’s Rangers and his ultimate fate – are explored in the book. Some other essays were inclueded in the book about what could be found about the other treatise authors such as Fergusson and Ferdinand.

This is really great work and thanks a lot to Ben, Paul and Jared and all others involved to makes this happen. This is an amazing cotribution to the HEMA-community and the scottish swordsmanship enthusiasts especially.

You can pre-order the book here.

(informations within the text with kind permission of Ben Miller)

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