Schiltrons


The origin of the term Schiltron, also variously spelled schiltrum or schiltrone, is obscure. A strong body of opinion holds that it translates as a shield-round or shield-ring, but whilst at first sight attractive this interpretation is not supported by the evidence.

Shield-rings as used by Saxon and Norse warriors were a defensive formation protected by an interlocking ‘wall’ of large round shields. Scots pikemen on the other hand sometimes carried a small round shield or target, but this was very much a secondary weapon to be used with a sword when pikes were broken or discarded. Moreover with the notable exception of Wallace’s debacle at Falkirk, the schiltron was not a ‘round’ defensive formation at all, but rather a dense line or column. Contemporary writers in fact use the term indiscriminately to describe any formation of infantry drawn up in close order.

A far likelier interpretation of the term therefore is that it is a composite of the old Scots word schilt or sclut which means to tread slowly and deliberately as men in formation must, and rone, which is an old term for a thicket.The moving forest or thicket of pikes is a frequently encountered similie, used to describe such formations in English sources, and may indeed also echo the famous advance of Birnam Wood on Dunsinane.

From the very beginning the Scots were spearmen. The nobles, knights, bonnet lairds and burgesses who led them might have had more and better armour, and swords as well, but that merely fitted them to stand in the front ranks of the schiltrons; this evocative term which has been variously interpreted but which best translates as moving thickets – a veritable forests of pikes.

Scots law required every man between the traditional ages of sixteen and sixty to turn out in time of war, but most of them probably got no further than the local wapinschaw – weapon showing – where only those adjudged fit to bear ‘arms defencible’ were entered on the rolls – hence the term fencibles. Then, depending on the scale of the levy, one man in four or even one man in eight would actually be picked, thereby ensuring minimal disruption to the local economy and leaving a substantial reserve which could still be called upon in an emergency. In theory those men who were actually levied out were only bound to forty days’ service. There was no question of course of their simply turning around again and heading for home at the expiry of those forty days. But if the campaign continued beyond that time the responsibility for feeding and maintaining them passed from the sherriffdom or royal burgh which had levied them out, to the Crown.

It is important to draw a distinction between what might be termed local and Royal levies, for only the latter were maintained in service long enough to receive proper training at unit level. The normal size for a body of infantry throughout military history has always been about 5-600 men whether it be called a schiltron, a regiment or a battalion, and, until the advent of the musket, they were normally formed up in six ranks, which was the optimum depth for both stability and manoeuvrability. Three or four of these self-contained units could be brigaded together under a single commander, but if they were then to move, let alone manoeuvre effectively without dissolving into a rabble, it was necessary to drill them – intensively.

Scots infantrymen were primarily armed with 3.6 metre (12 foot) spears which eventually evolved into long pikes. Their English counterparts on the other hand were generally armed with bills. These were relatively short weapons with large blades, whose resemblance to tin-openers was far from co-incidental, and which were extremely effective in hand-to-hand fighting. The Scots also used to them to a degree, but the evidence suggests that for so long as the momentum of the attack could be maintained the ordinary Scottish spear was more than effective enough to quite literally push back the opposing formation.

It is worth emphasising this pushing business, for while it might be expected that the pikes or spears might transfix those getting in their way it seems to have been a rare occurrence. Indeed if it were otherwise it would have been very hard to find anyone willing to stand in the forefront. Instead, a contemporary account of the Battle of Langside in 1568 provides an interesting description of what really happened when two bodies of pikemen met head on:

‘…He and Grange, at the joining, cried to let their adversaries foot lay down their spears, to bear up theirs, which spears were so thick fixed in the others jacks, that some of the pistols and great staves, that were thrown by them which were behind, might be seen lying upon the spears… Grange reinforced that wing which was beginning to fly; which fresh men with their loose weapons struck the enemy in their flanks and faces, which forced them incontinent to give place and turn back and long fighting and pushing others to and fro with their spears… the only slaughter was at the first rencounter, by the shot of the soldiers which Grange had planted at the lane-head behind some dykes…’

It is also worth noting the emphasis placed on the fact that there were few casualties in the encounter, first because instead of transfixing the opposing soldiers, the pikes were lodged in their jacks – padded coats or jerkins – and secondly because Grange allowed the defeated side to get away. Ordinarily, if the scrum collapsed the victorious side would mercilessly set about the losers as they struggled to rise and flee. The fact of the matter was that despite its dramatic potential relatively few men were ever slain in hand-to-hand combat, but a great many were killed running away from it.

Should the momentum of the attack be lost however, as described at Langside, the handier bill then came into its own and from the English point of view therefore it was vital to bring the schiltrons to a halt as quickly as possible. At first it appeared that the natural solution was to ride them down with cavalry, of which English armies were always well provided, but it soon proved to be a chasteningly one-sided encounter and unless the schiltron was already in disorder the English cavalry invariably came off worse.

Indeed in looking at the relative effectiveness of pikemen and cavalrymen, the conclusion has to be that it was no contest. In theory a heavily armed knight should have no trouble whatever in riding down any number of infantrymen, but a formation of pikemen six ranks deep will quite literally present a veritable hedge of about a dozen spear-points, which a horse will invariably ‘refuse’. A good rider might be still able to force a well schooled mount forward, but not with sufficient momentum to seriously disrupt the formation – as a surprising number of English knights time and again discovered the hard way.

A far more effective way of stopping the schiltrons soon proved to be the English longbow. Although the Scots also employed longbowmen they were never as effective as their southern counterparts, but it is important to note the near uniqueness of the English article. It is all too easy to see him as a humble peasant bringing down the mighty chivalry of France at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, but in reality he was a well trained and equipped professional soldier. He had to be, for archery was certainly not a part-time occupation. Mastering a yew bow with a draw-weight of some 100lb required long training from boyhood and constant practice thereafter. He had to be in superb physical condition, well fed and possessed of sufficient time to dedicate to developing and maintaining his skill. For that reason archers were drawn from amongst the sons of yeoman farmers and they expected, and received, high wages commensurate with their services.

Those services at their most basic level boiled down not to displaying individual feats of marksmanship, but upon laying down a heavy indirect fire upon the target; shooting rapidly into the air in order to create an arrow storm which dropped with considerable velocity on to the schiltrons from above, sowing death and dismay on the unarmoured men in the rear ranks rather than the better protected men in the front.

For the Scots then, winning battles meant attacking, marching forward and then maintaining the momentum of the assault long enough to break the enemy formations in front, while conversely for the English it was all too often a matter of simply standing their ground and shooting down enough Scots to stop them.

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