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The Round Shield or Scottish Targe

By Lady Caolifhionn inghean ui Magil Ruanaidh

Example after example can be found, from the time of the Greeks and Ro­mans, who had coins showing the goddess Minerva holding a round shield, to 10-12th century ivory carvings of so called barbarians with the shield, and modern archaeological digs that find surviving Viking round shields with its center boss and handle, and into the 16oo’s with the Scottish Targe. This round shield was the one I was most interested in, not a shield that was held by a cen­ter handle but had an armband and grip.

An excerpt from the book, Ancient Scottish Weapons by Joseph Anderson, gives a very good description of the Targe
The form of the Highland Target is round, usually from 19 to 21 inches diameter. It is constructed of two layers of some light wood, often of fir, the grain of the one layer crossing that of the other angu­larly, and the pieces dowelled together.
Over the wood, a covering of leather is lightly stretched for the front of the target, and a piece of hide, often of calf-skin, with a stuff­ing for the back. A handle, sometimes of leather or iron and an arm-strap were fixed at the back, near the opposite sides of the circumference of the target. Occasionally there were two arm-straps and some­times instead of arm-straps, a sleeve of leather was fastened to the back of the target. A boss of brass usually occupies the centre of the front of the target. The boss was occasionally pierced for a spike which screwed into a socket at the base of the boss. When not in use the spike was carried in a sheath at the back of the target.

The ornamentation of these targets is peculiar and highly effective. The central boss is frequently surrounded by other bosses placed in the centres of contiguous circles defined by rows of nail-heads. The spaces between the circles are decorated by studs, or by segmental plates of brass, fastened with studs in the centre, and with nails round the borders, and ornamented with pierced or engraved work.

These plates, when of pierced work, were placed over a lining of scarlet cloth, which showed through the openings and sometimes the bosses them­selves were thus pierced and lined. Occasionally the decoration is confined to the formation of simple geometric patterns, on the face of the target, by the disposition of the studs and nail-heads. Sometimes this simple form of decora­tion is conjoined with the use of nails and studs but more frequently, the
surface of the leather covering is tooled with a variety of pat­terns, disposed in symmetrical spaces.(1)

It was also interesting to find that Anderson also listed laws that pertained to the round shield or targes
The use of the target in Scotland was not confined to the Highlands. The statutory equipment appointed by the Act of 1425, for such yeomen or burgesses as were not archers, was “sword and buckler, and a good axe or broggit staff;” and in 1481 the axemen who had neither spear nor bow were required to provide themselves with targes “of tree “or leather, according to patterns which were sent to each of the sheriffs. The watchers of the burgh of Peebles, in 1569, were armed with jack and spear, sword and buckler.

It is a hard item to document, the dis-arming act that took place af­ter the Battle of Culledon in 1746 had the targes stripped of its leather and the wooden core was made, “ to serve as the covers to their butter-milk barrels”.(2) From a reprint of a book written in 1873 by James Drummond called Highland Targets and Other Shields, I was able to find illustra­tions that were in the in the National Museum of Antiquaries in Scotland, the one that I was interested in was an illustration of the MacDonald of the Isle Targe. I was able to confirm that the Targe in now in the National Museum of Scotland and dates to the 1600’s, also through correspondence with the museum I was able to get a picture of the targe proving that the illustration from Drummond was very accurate.

Making the Targe
This project is my interpretation of a Scottish Targe and took several years to complete. It was always intended to represent a ceremonial piece, something to be considered an art piece by whoever saw it. The wooden core of this project is 3/4’’ birch, cabinet-grade plywood, cut with a ban-saw and a circle cutter, that was made to work with the saw. The use of the ply-wood is the modern equivalent to planks being layered cross-grained then pegged together for strength.
The leather used for this project was all various weights of vegetable tanned leather. This leather was chosen because it can be molded, shaped, incised and tooled allowing the design to stay after the work has been allowed to dry. From Anderson’s discription, “but more frequently, the surface of the leather covering is tooled with a variety of patterns, disposed in symmetrical spaces”, I am able to understand that a vegetable tanned/cured piece of leather was used in the making of targes. Also leather of this type has been used in period to make a variety of items from throughout history.

I am able to document the use of celtic knot work on leather through John W. Waterer’s book, Leather Craftmanship. This book has a section on Irish book satchels or budgets. Two of the examples are still in existence, one is the Breac Moedic Budget that is in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin and dates to the 8th or 9th century and the other is the Satchel of Armagh which is now at Trinity College, Dublin and dates to 11th or 12th century.
The front of the Targe has the four types of Celtic design represented: a spiral design covers the middle center like a ‘boss’ would; zoomorphics, in four sections, in a design of intertwining hounds and herons forms the inner circle; knotwork, in four sections, forms the outer ring and keywork or maze-work incorporated into the leather tabs that wrap around the outside edge. Historical references (3) were always a starting place for the designs but I felt that I should work up my own designs in order to have the ‘fit’ I wanted for the various elements needed for the front of the targe.

The spiral, zoomorphic and knotwork, on the front, are worked in a process called ‘Plug Embossing’, and the technique was known 13th or 14th century proven by a surviving leather covered box that shows a small amount of relief or embossing with ‘something’ under the leather, again found in the book, Leather Craftmanship . In the simplest of explanations, after a design has been drawn onto a backing (A), plugs of leather are cut, shaped and glued to the wooden core (B&C) and a thin (2-3 oz. vegetable tanned) piece of leather is then glued down and worked over the plugs in order for the design to stand out in sharp relief. (D) 
I used leather working tools to make the spiral impressions that are in the back-ground of the knotwork and the rounded impressions that are in the background of the zoomorphics. The use of the tools helped in securing the glued leather to the wooden core. Stamp im­pressed leather items have been found dating from the 1400’s and before, there are several examples in Goubitz’ Purses in Pieces.

Anderson also describes the use of studs and nails on the targes by stating “The spaces between the circles are decorated by studs, or by segmental plates of brass, fas­tened with studs in the centre, and with nails round the borders’. Iron nails were used throughout history to build homes and settlements to fabricating everyday items. In Britain, early evidence of large scale nail making comes from Roman times 2000 years ago. Roman occupation and its need to built a fortress or settlement would have had the blacksmiths busy fashioning the metal items needed by the army. At the fortress of Inchtuthil in Perthshire, they left behind 7 tons of nails (4). I did not try to fashion my own nails and by the time I was able to use them on my project, did not know of any blacksmiths to
make them for me. It is a per­sonal belief that there was a lot of bartering was going on between craftsmen and that, if the targe maker was not a blacksmith also, he would have had an outside source for nails and studs. I was
able to buy what I wanted through a company called Restoration Hardware, the nails looked hand wrought (wrought= beaten or formed by hammer blows) and I was actually looking for two sizes of nail heads for this project and was able to find both at this company.

The brass nail heads........ I was not successful in finding documentation on the common use of them, only various pictures of targes from the late 16th into the 18th century and modern reproductions. Again I came back to Anderson’s de­scription, “by segmental plates of brass, fastened with studs in the centre, and with nails round the borders’”, interpreting the word ‘studs’ to mean the use of a brass tack or nail. I then used artistic license and used the brass nails/tacks on the back of the Targe to hold the leather tabs securely and tack down the Shetland
pony hide us­ing leather strips to hold down the edges.

The strip of hide on the back of the targe came from a vendor some years ago at a Highland Games selling the raw materials for sporrans and other miscellaneous items. He told me it was Shetland pony from foals that did not survive the birth­ing. I have kept it for some time looking to use it on the right project. This piece of hide
seemed the right match for the targe. The Shetland pony is known by horse breeders to be that oldest of known breeds. The experts agree that this breed originated in Scotland (Shetland Islands) and are believed to trace back to the origins of other small ponies found in other countries like Ireland and Wales.(5)

One of the things that held up the finishing the targe was that I wasn’t sure how to finish the arm strap and grip/handle. There are modern targe makers in Scotland and other parts of Britain, but I was not convinced that what they were showing was correct. I probably should not have second guessed these makers. I found an il­lustration confirming the handle and arm strap or band. Staying mostly true to the description from Anderson, “A handle, sometimes of leather or iron and an arm-strap were fixed at the back, near the opposite sides of the circumfer­ence of the target. Occasionally there were two arm-straps and sometimes instead of arm-straps, a sleeve of leather was fastened to the back of the target” and the illustration, I made both items from vegetable tanned leather. I wanted to continue with the idea that this would be a ceremonial piece and designed these pieces to c
omplement the front of the targe. The arm band is decorated with spiral, knotwork and keywork designs. It was then lined and sewn with a dyed and waxed linen thread. It was then attached using the same nails that were used
on the front of the targe.

The handle is made by gluing three layers of sole leather together, shaping by cutting away the unwanted areas, creating the bent shape, then covering it in a thinner piece
of leather. The join is under the handle and was cov­ered by sewing another piece of leather over the top of it. The decoration is simple keywork, I felt that with such a highly decorated project I didn’t want the handle to be plain. Again this piece was nailed to the wooden core using the nails that had been used on the front. The only cut work or incising was done on the key work designs on the edge tabs and the ends of the armband. All other work was either the plug work or impression work in which the design is not cut before the tooling was done, especially on the armband. Cut work is not as common in period pieces as impression work but has been documented by Olaf Goubitz in his book, Purses in Pieces.
The glue, dyes, paints and antiques that were used on this project are all modern and were used long before considering this project acceptable for an A&S project, I do think that I would have decided to use them anyway because the acrylics of today are much safer and much less toxic than some of the pigments used in history. I am interested in working with period dyes and finishes but at this time the right project has yet to be found.
I am extremely happy that this project as finally come to a completion, the time spent on it was well used in learning new techniques and solving problems concerning construction. With this challenge behind me, it is time to find another one!
End notes:
 (1) Anderson, James Ancient Scottish Weapons 1881
(2) Drummond, James Highland Targets and Other Shields pg.13
(3) Bain, Ian Celtic Knotwork pg. 60
Bain, Ian Celtic Key Patterns pg. 27 
Meehan, Aiden Celtic Design: Spiral Patterns pg. 143-145 
Meehan, Aiden Celtic Design: Animal Patterns pg. 136
 (4) “Nail-making” <http://www.glasgowsteelnail.com/nailmaking.htm>
 (5) “Shetland Pony” <http://www.furrycritter.com/resources/horses/Shetland_Ponies.htm>
Bibliography and Sources:
 ed. Bennet, Matthew. The Medieval World at War. New York: Thames and Hudson 2009
 Beatson, Peter. “Ninth Century Shields from Tira Bog, Latvia” NVG Miklagard  <http://members.ozemail.com.au/~chrisandpeter/shield/tirskom.html>
Varberg, Jeanette. “Rare Viking-era shield found in Denmark” The Kings Fortresses.
 Anderson, James. Ancient Scottish Weapons. Edinburgh: Waterson and Sons 1881
Drummond, James. Highland Targets and Other Shields. Edinburgh: Neill and Sons 1873 reprinted W. Virginia: Scots Press 1999
Goubitz, Olaf. Purses in Pieces. Netherlands: Stichting Promotie Archeologie 2007
Bain, Ian. Celtic Key Patterns. New York: Stirling Publishing Co. 1994
Bain, Ian. Celtic Knotwork. New York: Stirling Publishing Co. 1992
Meehan, Aiden. Celtic Design: Spiral Patterns. New York: Thames and Hudson 1993
Meehan, Aiden. Celtic Design: Animal Patterns. New York: Thames and Hudson 1992
Waterer, John W. Leather Craftsmenship. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publisher 1968
Glasgow Steel Nail Co. “History of Nail-making”, RICS Building Conservation Journal. <http://www.glasgowsteelnail.com/nailmaking.htm>
Breed Organization “Shetland Pony”, Shetland Pony Stud-book Society. <http://www.furrycritter.com/resources/horses/Shetland_Ponies.htm>