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Thread: Slipping the Leg in Highland Broadsword

  1. Slipping the Leg in Highland Broadsword

    Hi everyone,
    This little tale is so interesting that I’m going to share it in one or two places besides this, so don’t be surprised if you find it re-posted somewhere else. I just came across a fascinating tale of a prize-fight with a wandering stage gladiator in a book called “Tales of My Grandmother” by Archibald Crawfurd, (Edinburgh, 1825) which is a collection of short fiction based on Scottish folk-tales known to the author:

    “As Davie, at this period, was one day proceeding to his labour, he observed the town-crier making a proclamation, that on that afternoon a fencing-master would display, on a public stage, his method of attack and defence, and all lovers of that noble art were invited to come and witness the science which was to be displayed; and that he would with broad sword or rapier, for five gold nobles, try an exchange of hits with any native of this realm. Davie felt himself not a little interested, and at the hour appointed he mingled with the crowd, merely with the intention of being a spectator at this trial of skill.

    Davie was aware, at such a scene as this, that both courtier and plebeian would be present; he therefore thought, that his humble grinding attire which he wore at his labour would best suit the occasion, for fear of again coming in contact with the Laird of Brodie’s butler.

    The hour at last arrived, and Lieutenant Lugar made his appearance. After haranguing the mob which surrounded the stage for a considerable time, and again repeating the challenge, no one appeared to contend for the five gold nobles.

    At this period, John of Middleburgh vaulted on the stage; Lugar then informed them, this gentleman was a Knight of Malta, a friend of his own, and that they would make play, to give time for some gallant to come forward willing to contend for the prize.

    Lugar and John of Middleburgh now set to with rapiers, displaying some little activity, after the manner of these Bear Garden heroes, giving and taking of few hits; and they received abundance of applause. After which, Lugar again harangued them, ordering the town-crier to make proclamation again, saying "That the prize purse was the gift of that noble gallant who had just left the stage; therefore, it was only risking a little blood, or perhaps a limb, for five gold nobles; and hoped, for the honour of the gay gallants of this city, that some one would come forward to contend for the palm of victory. '

    No one appearing to enter the lists with the fencing-master, he now made a few flourishes and hits at a post which rose from one angle of the stage, on which hung the purse which contained the gold. He was about to take it down, when a voice from among the crowd shouted "Hooly, my friend, you and I maun hae twa words anent that first. You see, lathies, I wad be laith to reap your hearst field, sae dinna blame me; for if there's ony o ye wad like to try your hand, I'll surely make way for you."

    "Well said, Aberdeen !" shouted the mob, who had now found a hero to contend with the fencing-master in our old acquaintance Davie Garrie. When Davie was lifted upon the stage, the whole mob burst into loud laughter at poor Davie's squalid figure, for poverty and hard labour had made its impression upon his form.

    "Some o' you, lathies, maun len' me a Ferrara, for mere chance brought me here. I could never dreamt o' getting in my hand, whan sae monie brave gallants war at hand."

    "Bravely spoke," shouted the crowd, when a dozen of swords were handed up for Davie to make choice, when, after trying one or two, and shaking the blade, he returned the others to the owners. Davie now threw himself into an attitude, saying, " Come away, an' let us see wha the gold belongs to."

    The fencing-master by this time began to discover his old friend, who had disarmed him in the shop of Earwind; he, therefore, began to demur about the degree of genteelity of Davie's family; but this was overruled by the mob, as the challenge was a general one.

    "An wha kens," was exclaimed by the mob, "but the sword-slipper may be as guid a man as the sword-wearer." Lugar, therefore, had no method of retreat left with any degree of honour. The combatants therefore set to, the fencing-master discovering no little caution in all his movements. Davie Garrie was a much more expert swordsman; and there is one movement in the broad-sword exercise gives it a superiority over all others, which is the movement of the advanced leg, which had been neglected in Lugar's Backsword and Bear Garden education. Had Davie been inclined, he could have made minced meat of the fencing- master. He, however, had only applied the broadside of his blade, which brought the applause of the crowd with loud shouts, which so provoked the master of defence, that in his rage he became furious.

    Davie now thought he had humbled this vain boaster enough; and again applying his old favourite trick, he made Lugar's sword twirl into the air, as if it had been shot out of an air-bolt.

    " Bravely done," shouted the mob. "Well done, Aberdeen !" shouted another;" he maun put on his gloves when he claws wi the cat;" with a thousand other attempts at plebeian wit, while Davie took his five nobles from the post ; and it was with no little difficulty that he could shake off his numerous new made friends, which his success and cool bravery had created him.”


    What is really interesting about this tale to my mind is this one line: “there is one movement in the broad-sword exercise gives it a superiority over all others, which is the movement of the advanced leg, which had been neglected in Lugar's Backsword and Bear Garden education.”

    The “movement of the advanced leg” would seem to refer to the tactic of slipping or shifting the lead leg, a defining characteristic of the later Regimental Highland Broadsword systems such as that of Henry Angelo (although not unknown in other systems of course).

    Normally, no distinction is drawn between the backsword and the broadsword in terms of method, but this anecdote does draw such a distinction. The “Bear Garden” was where the London backsword masters fought their prizes, and the story specifically says that this tactic of slipping the lead leg was “neglected in Lugar's Backsword and Bear Garden education.”

    The tale also describes this tactic as the “one movement in the broad-sword exercise (that) gives it a superiority over all others”. The hero of this tale seems to be an Aberdeen man, based on the reaction of the mob to his victory ("Bravely done," shouted the mob. "Well done, Aberdeen !" shouted another), but I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book so I’m not sure. The weapon Davie asks for is a “Ferrara,” which refers to a Highland Broadsword.

    James Logan, in “The Scottish Gael,” mentions that even in the 1830s the youths of Aberdeen excelled at singlestick play. Interestingly, Henry Angelo’s broadsword sparring partner was also an Aberdeen man. Angelo’s memoirs describe his training with this man (the journalist Perry) in the same year that he published his Highland Broadsword posters.

    Taking all these points together, there seems to be some implication that slipping the lead leg frequently was a known feature of Aberdeen Highland Broadsword play, and was seen as something that distinguished it from English Backsword play. I don’t know how this figures in with other factors such as the Le Marchant broadsword manual (which also uses this tactic) but some connection to the Angelo Highland Broadsword method does seem to be implied.

    As supporting evidence, consider also this passage from James Grant’s The Romance of War, a novel from 1849:

    In the fashion of the Highland swordsman, he placed forward his right foot with a long stride, presenting it as a tempting object for a blow, while he narrowly watched the eye of his adversary, who instantly dealt a sweeping stroke at the defenceless limb, which the young Gael withdrew with the rapidity of light, bestowing at the same time a blow on the conde, which broke the shell of his Toledo and wounded his right hand severely.

    Although this is a later and completely fictional source (as opposed to the Garrie story, which was fiction based on oral tradition) it does support the idea that the slipping of the lead leg, which is such a defining feature of the Angelo system, was perceived as a characteristically Highland technique.

    -Chris Thompson
    "Am fear a thug buaidh air fhein, thug e buaidh air namhaid."

  2. #2
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    A very good story, and some interesting information. Definitely something to do some thinking on.

    Thanks Chris!
    -John

  3. #3
    Thanks - this is very interesting!
    -Bradley L'Herrou

    Finding Swetnam

  4. #4
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    Fascinating!

    It's hard to imagine that as so relatively-isolated a technique, but it seems as though it might be.

    Aside from being of the period(ish), do we have any information on the authors' pedegrees?

    Thanks for posting it!
    Greg

    ------------------------------------------------------------------
    Glad Grammer is no indikashiun of fighting skillz.

  5. Paul Wagner suggested on the Cateran list that it wasn't that slipping the lead leg in response to a leg attack was uncommon, but that slipping the lead leg with every parry was.
    Sorry, I don't have much info on the authors.
    "Am fear a thug buaidh air fhein, thug e buaidh air namhaid."

  6. #6
    Great read, thank you for sharing.

    Kevin
    The Basque Dane
    HEMA Alliance Member

    Aurrera begiratzen ez duena, atzean dago”. (Basque proverb). [Those who don't look forward, stay behind].

  7. #7
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    [QUOTE=Chris Thompson;1083614]Paul Wagner suggested on the Cateran list that it wasn't that slipping the lead leg in response to a leg attack was uncommon, but that slipping the lead leg with every parry was.
    QUOTE]

    Ah! beat me to it! My thoughts exactly, only better put



    Thanks to Chris for posting this. Two things I was wondering about.
    The first is there any more precise indication of the time frame this story is said to take place? Is this pre or post-'45 for example?

    I found reference to Lt. Lugar's "Bear Garden education" and the author's tone towards "Bear Garden heroes" and their perhaps more demonstration-inclined play "with rapiers, displaying some little activity" all most interesting. It has been hinted at in sundry places that many of the professional stage gladiators of the 18th c. operated according to a spectrum of customary "rules" or pre-agreed limitations to limit the amount of risk while still being martially correct. From an audience perspecive an assault with the most expertly timed voids can be mistaken as two guys swinging out of distance, leaning towards a greater use of low line parries to counter attacks to the leg do give a satisfying clash of steel and also gives a greater repetoire of attacks and counters.
    This is not to equate all stage gladiators or matches to modern sport-entertainment (pro wrestlin') just to note the implied distinction between the Art in differing contexts.
    How may I confuse you further?

  8. >The first is there any more precise indication of the time frame this story is said to take place? Is this pre or post-'45 for example?>

    I'm not sure, but I'm guessing pre-45 because so many audience members are carrying broadswords, which would have gotten them in trouble after the '45. Aberdeen in the old days was a somewhat rough place, with a local "mafia" tradition (the "Knights of the Mortar" or "Society of Boyes") who were supposed to be swordsmen.

    >a spectrum of customary "rules" or pre-agreed limitations>

    Yes, I think this is the explanation. They probably knew about the leg slip as a concept but weren't in the habit of using it due to their fighting conventions. Of course, when you make an open challenge, anything can happen...

    In modern demonstrations of Krabi Krabong, the swordsmen follow pre-set patterns that allow them to perform very dramatic high-speed displays. However, if one makes a mistake and leaves an opening, the other one hits him or indicates that he could hit him.

    That makes me wonder. Page specifically tells us that the lessons he gives are performed by the stage gladiators in an "exact round" with "little variation." Could this be the same thing as what they do in Krabi Krabong?

    What if the sets of two-man forms we have in the broadsword manuals, like the 10 Lessons of Angelo, were actually used by the stage gladiators to conduct relatively safe and exciting "bouts" for performance purposes?

    If both fighters knew the same core set of lessons they could put on quite a show, with none of the hesitancy or caution of a bout in earnest. Then, if one fighter froze up, hesitated or left himself open, the other one could score the winning touch and collect the prize.

    -Chris Thompson
    "Am fear a thug buaidh air fhein, thug e buaidh air namhaid."

  9. #9
    Chris - that's a very interesting theory! It certainly sounds reasonable, and I'd like to see further research into the idea.
    -Bradley L'Herrou

    Finding Swetnam

  10. #10

  11. Thanks for posting this, I knew it existed but wasn't aware someone had found it. Hope's account would seem to disprove my suggestion about gladiators using pre-set lessons. They might have used them for the demonstrations preceding the actual challenges, though.
    "Am fear a thug buaidh air fhein, thug e buaidh air namhaid."

  12. #12
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    lessons he gives are performed by the stage gladiators in an "exact round" with "little variation."........

    What if the sets of two-man forms we have in the broadsword manuals, like the 10 Lessons of Angelo, were actually used by the stage gladiators to conduct relatively safe and exciting "bouts" for performance purposes?
    This sounds like going a *bit* far in the direction of motions for stage combats being semi-coreographed but considering the weapon, it's understandable this suspicion might arise.
    Many writers on the subject (notably Hutton & Castle) stated that the exercises for the broadsword were "monotonous". Indeed play for this weapon has been broken down to 4 or five cuts and 4 or 5 parries, some systems have even less (i.e. the 1908 Corbesier eddition which eliminateds all cutting actions and only reposts with thrusts).
    Stage gladiators would know their respective systems backwards and forwards so indeed any action done cleanly and with less-than-lethal intent could form part of a conversation so effortlessly and adhering so perfectly to the system of parries and appropiate responses that in "making it look easy" two skilled swordsmen "speaking the same language" as it were make for a clean and "perfect" show.

    Another point to note is that the margin for harm in stage gladiation shrunk steadily through the course of the century, in the time of Peyps and Hope (c 1660-1715) stage combat was done (according to eyewitness Peyps) with sharp or semi-sharp steel swords as a matter of course. In the reigns of Georges I and II the swords are either blunted or substituted with cudgels or single-sticks and events still include other weapons as well as barefist boxing which will overtake weaponed fighting in popularity. By the reign of George III the measured distace, head-only target sporting version of singlestick remains, quarter staff, sword and buckler, rapier and dagger and other exotic bits of anacronsim have dissapeared and smallsword fencing demos and competitions have become the preserve of the elites and are done quite apart from the rural, "common", rough singlestick.

    On a final note, demonstrations of fencing skill using a pre-arranged set of lessons was frequently done for the viewing pleasure of VIPs. Prebble wrote about two Highlanders who demonstatred broadsword fencing for George II. The introduction to H. Angelo's Highland & Hungarian Broadsword tells of a presentation of the 10 lessons before Russian dignitary. So such things were done in other demonstative contexts which the stage gladiators' play was only slightly removed.
    Last edited by Ian Brackley; 08-10-2009 at 06:10 PM.
    How may I confuse you further?

  13. #13
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    Apologies for the thread resurrection, but I thought that this may be relevant (an example of the Highland leg-slip in 1869):
    http://www.fioredeiliberi.org/phpBB3...p?f=31&t=20130

    Regards,
    Matt

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    Hi Chris!

    Ha! I actually proposed that as one of the defining bits of the "Highland method" in one of my essays - the "Highland Broadsword" intro I think - based on something Godfrey says. Nice to have some level of confirmation!

    Paul

  15. #15
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    And very cool pictures Matt. BTW my deluxe hardback copy of "Swordsman of the British Empire" arrived yesterday

    Paul

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    Good to hear, Paul. I hope it pleases .

    Yes, I have been quite intrigued about the Highland leg-slip argument ever since I read your intro. I think there is something to it and when I saw these 1869 images of the 78th officers at swordplay I instantly noticed the leg-slip on every parry.
    Regards,
    Matt

  17. #17
    Nice! Thank you.

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