Native British martial arts?

Any talk of ancient Martial Arts in Britain might conjure up an image of something like valiant English bowmen at Agincourt. Even if they were really Welsh. But this starts further back in time, with a legendary female Scottish character from the Isle of Skye (coincidently my ancestral home).

Scáthach (Scottish Gaelic: Sgàthach an Eilean Sgitheanach), or Sgathaich, is a figure in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. She is a legendary Scottish warrior woman and martial arts teacher who trains the legendary Ulster hero Cú Chulainn in the arts of combat. Texts describe her homeland as Scotland (Alpeach); she is especially associated with the Isle of Skye, where her residence Dún Scáith, or "Dun Sgathaich" (Fortress of Shadows), stands. She is called "the Shadow" and "Warrior Maid" and is the rival and sister of Aífe, both daughters of Árd-Greimne of Lethra.
Ref : Wikipedia Scáthach

Sgiath : From Old Irish scíath (“shield, buckler; protection, defence, safeguard”), from Proto-Celtic *skētos, from Proto-Indo-European *skeyt-, from *skey- (“to cut, separate”). Cognate with Breton skoed, Latin scūtum and Old Church Slavonic щитъ (štitŭ).

I'm told that "in pre-Gaelic times the Picts were a matrilinear society, and the women were more important than the men (Amazons, Boudicca, Catemandua etc). So there could be a remnant there of an Irishman going to a female-led society to practise whatever he did and learn from them".

By the way (for English readers who know not the Gaelic):

In Scotland, Gaelic is pronounced "gallic". If you pronounce it "gaylic", you mean Irish Gaelic, which is not the same thing. Even if both mean the language of the foreigners.

A friend who is an expert on Gaelic tells me that Scáthach is pronounced "Skaahochk". In English, that becomes Schakelock and/or Scathelock, as variations of the even-older Skaahochk.

It came as a pleasant surprise to learn that this makes it the same as "Scathelock", the original form of Will Scarlett's surname (he of the Robin Hood tales).

Copperlily has some nice material on the origins of the names.

The real Will Scarlet?

No one has ever found a really suitable candidate.

P Valentine Harris conducted an exhaustive search of the Wakefield manor court rolls for his 1973 book 'The Truth About Robin Hood'. But he could only find a reference to an Adam Schacklock of Crigglestone in April 1317 who he suggests could be a member of Will Scarlet's family. He concludes rather lamely that Scarlet could also be an alias.

John Bellamy discovered a William Schakelock to whom the Chamberlain of Scotland had paid a sum in April 1305. There is another reference to a Schakelock who was a soldier in the Berwick town garrison in December 1316, and later a William Scarlet among the names of those who in November 1318 were granted pardons for felonies. If these are the same person, it would suggest that this candidate fought in the northern wars.

Ref : A history of Will Scarlet

It seems the further back in time we can track Schakelock and related names, the further north they go. Just like the other characters in Robin Hood.

It appears that Hood is also a Scottish and Yorkshire name (see : Hood surname statistics).

There are also as many Littlejohns in Scotland as in England, see : Littlejohn Forebears
For Mutches in Aberdeen, see : Find My Past : Mutch

Almost equal in total number, but with England having a much larger population, this means the names like Hood and Littlejohn occur more frequently (per capita) and are more statistically significant in Scotland than England. Or maybe this: Robin Hood based on William Wallace

So how did Scottish characters become part of what most people regard as an English legend?

The answer might be with the drovers. Elizabeth McQuillan has described the situation well:

In the absence of lush grazing, and before the arrival of farm machinery, Scottish cattlemen had a pretty tough time going about the business of raising, tending, protecting and then selling their cattle. However, throughout the latter 17th century, the 18th century and early 19th century, there was a huge demand for meat due to the wars that England waged with a smörgåsbord of countries. Salted beef was needed to supply the naval fleet during the Napoleonic wars and the cattle, no matter where they started their journey, had to make it to London to meet demand. In 1794, Smithfield meat market in London processed 108,000 cattle, with an estimated 80 per cent having originated in Scotland, while in 1663, a total of 18,574 cattle were recorded passing north to south via Carlisle.
Ref : Elizabeth McQuillan, The Caledonian Mercury
Drovers and reivers - moving cattle the hard way

Cattle rustling was a favourite pastime of highland clans and especially with the younger men who saw it as part of gaining status and becoming adult. Some might say it continues to this day with gangs of lads. It's just four wheels now, instead of four legs.

Elizabeth McQuillan continues:

Cattle rustling between the clans went on relentlessly, despite the high morality of the Highlanders, and this is said to have been due to the cattle being considered communal property – rather like the Native American Indians and roaming bison. Hence the successful cattle thief had greater kudos within the clan than the skilled and brave drovers. During this arduous journey, the drovers were at constant risk of having their cattle plundered by armed “reivers”, or rustlers. The Border area between central Scotland and northern England had a particularly high population of reivers, ranging from the poorest peasant to landed gentry, as there was a lot of money to be made stealing the cattle. But there were protection rackets even then. The black cattle could be protected at a price – which is where the term “blackmail” is said to be originated. The clan MacGregor, among many others, could be paid to provide an armed escort.

Note the choice of the phrase : "could be paid to provide an armed escort". Selling protection against theft is, of course, a euphamism for a protection racket. Rob Roy MacGregor gave us the word blackmail from the 'rent' he charged drovers for the cattle they moved across his lands. And let's not forget how valuable these cattle were.

During the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries cattle were the main form of transportable wealth. By the end of the sixteenth century the beginnings of a well organised trade in cattle began which involved the movement of large numbers annually from the distant pastures to the main markets in central Scotland and from there to England. This trade in cattle persisted into the nineteenth century.

There is a lane at St Michael, in Cold Kirby, Yorkshire, running north-south along the western edge of the parish, which was once part of the ridgeway or drove road. For centuries the road was a major thoroughfare for Scots drovers, bringing Galloway and West Highland cattle down to the Malton and York markets. In the mid-18th century, over 30,000 head of cattle were driven over this road each year.
Ref : Border Collie Museum on Droving

If blackmail and protection rackets were a serious occupational hazard for you, what would you do about it? The prudent and sensible Scottish drovers would surely have organised their own protection, from trusted clanfolk. Who would have the necessary skills? This is suggestive of Sheila McGregor's old highland hunters (and martial artists), with traditions and beliefs that pre-date Christianity. See Why was the Fisher King Lame? and The Holy Grail?.

Littlejohns with their bowstaffs, Scathelock / Scarletts with whatever Scarletts preferred. Knives or swords? And Hoods with their longbows for forest hunting.

How would these passing drovers be seen by local people? Similar travelling folk, like gypsies and tinkers, were notoriously distrusted as outsiders (in the words of the song : gypsies, tramps and thieves). The drovers were in some respects seen as even worse, with huge herds of cattle that could break down fences and destroy crops. In Norman England, these groups of armed men with martial skills, travelling across country, with no allegiances to local lords or authorities, would have been viewed with suspicion, or regarded as outlaws.

The rest is legend.

Footnote 1 : East Ilsley Sheep Fair

East Ilsley is on the ancient Ridgeway in Southern England, and used to be famous for its Sheep Fairs where:

... a quarter of a million sheep changed hands annually there in the first half of the 19th Century. The village was known as “Chipping Ilsley” in the Middle Ages, then as “Market Ilsley” in the mid-17th Century. (Chipping from Anglo-Saxon cheap = buy, so a market place-name.) ... The markets were held twice monthly, from April to October from 1620 till 1934 ... According to Mr George Woodage, who remembers helping his father at the sales, two Scottish drovers used to start from (the Lowlands?) with 50 sheep; by the time they had reached East Ilsley, they had between two and three thousand.
Ref : East Ilsley Sheep Fair

Footnote 2 : Morris Dancing

I've heard it suggested (half in jest) that Morris Dancing is a well-disguised remnant of an English Martial Art. With emphasis on the footwork and use of bowstaffs. The most militant of the remnant is called "Extreme Morris Dancing". It's not just outside Devon cider bars on a Friday night.

But there might just be a glimmer of some truth to the jest. For example, the Taekwondo 3rd Kup pattern : Joong Gun. The last two moves in the pattern are described as a block against a bowstaff. Personally, having practiced it for some time, I'm still not sure how effective it would be. The person with the bowstaff would have to be very obliging. Like standing still, close to you, and moving the bowstaff slowly. But that might just be because I am getting fat, old and slow. I'm very sorry, could you just try hitting me a bit more slowly?

Next : The Monks of Tiron - a missing link

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