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The gallowglasses (also spelt galloglass, gallowglas or galloglas; from Irish : gall óglaigh meaning foreign warriors) were a class of elite mercenary warriors who were principally members of the Norse-Gaelic clans of Scotland between the mid 13th century and late 16th century. As Scots, they were Gaels and shared a common background and language with the Irish, but as they were descendants of 10th century Norse settlers who had intermarried with the local population in western Scotland, the Irish called them Gall Gaeil ("foreign Gaels").

Irish language Goidelic language spoken in Ireland and by Irish people

Irish is a Goidelic language of the Celtic and Indo-European language family, originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is spoken as a first language in substantial areas of counties Galway, Kerry, Cork and Donegal, smaller areas of Waterford, Mayo and Meath, and a few other locations, and as a second language by a larger group of non-habitual speakers across the country. A speaker of the Irish language is known as a Gaeilgeoir.

Mercenary Soldier who fights for hire

A mercenary, sometimes known as a soldier of fortune, is an individual who takes part in military conflict for personal profit, is otherwise an outsider to the conflict, and is not a member of any other official military. Mercenaries fight for money or other forms of payment rather than for political interests. Beginning in the 20th century, mercenaries have increasingly come to be seen as less entitled to protections by rules of war than non-mercenaries. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions declare that mercenaries are not recognized as legitimate combatants and do not have to be granted the same legal protections as captured soldiers of a regular army. In practice, whether or not a person is a mercenary may be a matter of degree, as financial and political interests may overlap, as was often the case among Italian condottieri.

A warrior is a person specializing in combat or warfare, especially within the context of a tribal or clan-based warrior culture society that recognizes a separate warrior class or caste.


Large numbers of gallowglass septs settled in Ireland after being dispossessed of their lands in Scotland for choosing to fight on the side for independence from England in the Wars of Scottish Independence. An early family of gallowglasses were the MacSweeneys, settled by the O'Donnells in north Donegal. These were followed by MacDonnells, MacCabes and several other groups settled by powerful Irish nobles in different areas. The gallowglasses were attractive as a heavily armoured, trained aristocratic infantry to be relied upon as a strong defence for holding a position, unlike most Irish foot soldiers, who were lower class and less well armoured than the typical Irish noble who fought as cavalry. In time there came to be many native Irish gallowglasses as the term came to mean a type of warrior rather than an ethnic designation.

A sept is an English word for a division of a family, especially of a Scottish or Irish family. The term is used in both Ireland and Scotland, where it may be translated as sliocht, meaning "progeny" or "seed", which may indicate the descendants of a person. The word may derive from the Latin saeptum, meaning "enclosure" or "fold", or via an alteration of "sect".

Wars of Scottish Independence war of national liberation

The Wars of Scottish Independence were a series of military campaigns fought between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

Clan Sweeney is an Irish clan of Scottish origin. The Mac Suibhne family did not permanently settle in Ireland before the beginning of the 14th century, when they became Gallowglass soldiers for the O'Donnell dynasty of Tyrconnell. The clan also claims an Irish descent from a prince of the O'Neill dynasty, Ánrothán Ua Néill, son of Áed, son of Flaithbertach Ua Néill, King of Ailech and Cenél nEógain, died 1036. Through this descent the clan can claim a descent from Niall Noigíallach.

They were a significant part of Irish infantry before the advent of gunpowder, and depended upon seasonal service with Irish chieftains. A military leader would often choose a gallowglass to serve as his personal aide and bodyguard because, as a foreigner, the gallowglass would be less subject to local feuds and influences.

Gunpowder explosive most commonly used as propellant in firearms

Gunpowder, also known as black powder to distinguish it from modern smokeless powder, is the earliest known chemical explosive. It consists of a mixture of sulfur (S), charcoal (C), and potassium nitrate (saltpeter, KNO3). The sulfur and charcoal act as fuels while the saltpeter is an oxidizer. Because of its incendiary properties and the amount of heat and gas volume that it generates, gunpowder has been widely used as a propellant in firearms, artillery, rockets, and fireworks, and as a blasting powder in quarrying, mining, and road building.


A Medieval Hebridean warrior. Norse-Gael Warrior.PNG
A Medieval Hebridean warrior.

The term is an anglicisation of the Irish gallóglaigh (lit. "foreign young warriors"), with the English plural -s added to the end. The singular of gallóglaigh is gallóglach. The word óglach comes from Old Irish oac (meaning "youth") and Old Irish lóeg (meaning "calf" but later becoming a word for a hero). Although the English term comes from an Irish plural, Encarta specifies the plural of gallowglass to be "gallowglasses". Shakespeare uses the form "gallowglasses" in the play Macbeth .

Anglicisation, occasionally anglification, anglifying, Englishing, refers to modifications made to foreign words, names and phrases to make them easier to spell, pronounce, or understand in English. It commonly refers to the respelling of foreign words, often to a more drastic degree than romanisation. One example is the word "dandelion", modified from the French dent-de-lion.

Old Irish is the name given to the oldest form of the Goidelic languages for which extensive written texts are extant. It was used from c. 600 to c. 900. The primary contemporary texts are dated c. 700–850; by 900 the language had already transitioned into early Middle Irish. Some Old Irish texts date from the 10th century, although these are presumably copies of texts composed at an earlier time period. Old Irish is thus forebear to Modern Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic.

<i>Encarta</i> Digital multimedia encyclopedia

Microsoft Encarta was a digital multimedia encyclopedia published by Microsoft Corporation from 1993 to 2009. Originally sold on CD-ROM or DVD, it was also later available on the World Wide Web via an annual subscription – although later many articles could also be viewed free online with advertisements. By 2008, the complete English version, Encarta Premium, consisted of more than 62,000 articles, numerous photos and illustrations, music clips, videos, interactive content, timelines, maps, atlases and homework tools.

The Oxford English Dictionary prefers the spelling "galloglass" and provides several examples attesting to ordinary English plural forms of the word, dating back to a c. 1515 use of "galloglasseis". "The etymologically correct form galloglagh appears later than the erroneous galloglass, which was probably the result of the plural gallogla(gh)s; in some early instances galloglas seems to be used as a plural, but galloglasses is found already in our earliest quot." [1]

<i>Oxford English Dictionary</i> Premier historical dictionary of the English language

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the principal historical dictionary of the English language, published by Oxford University Press (OUP). It traces the historical development of the English language, providing a comprehensive resource to scholars and academic researchers, as well as describing usage in its many variations throughout the world. The second edition, comprising 21,728 pages in 20 volumes, was published in 1989.


The gallowglass were from the western coast of Scotland, principally Argyll and the Western Isles. [2] Their weapon of choice was a battle axe, but claymores were not uncommon. Each was usually accompanied by a man to see to his weapons and armour and a boy to carry provisions.

Battle axe axe specifically designed for combat

A battle axe is an axe specifically designed for combat. Battle axes were specialized versions of utility axes. Many were suitable for use in one hand, while others were larger and were deployed two-handed.

Claymore sword

A claymore is either the Scottish variant of the late medieval two-handed sword or the Scottish variant of the basket-hilted sword. The former is characterised as having a cross hilt of forward-sloping quillons with quatrefoil terminations and was in use from the 15th to 17th centuries.


A description from 1600, speaks of the Gallowglass as "...pycked and scelected men of great and mightie bodies, crewell without compassion. The greatest force of the battell consisteth in them, chosing rather to dye than to yeelde, so that when yt cometh to handy blowes they are quickly slayne or win the fielde." [3]


The first record of gallowglass service was in 1259, when Aedh Ó Conchobair, King of Connacht, received a dowry of 160 Scottish warriors from the daughter of Dubhghall mac Ruaidhri, the King of the Hebrides. They were organised into groups known as a "Corrughadh", which consisted of about 100 men.

The importation of gallowglasses into Ireland was a major factor in containing the Anglo-Norman invasion of the 12th century, as their ranks stiffened the resistance of the Irish lordships. Throughout the Middle Ages in Ireland, gallowglass troops were maintained by Gaelic Irish and Hiberno-Norman lords alike. Even the English Lord Deputy of Ireland usually kept a company of them in his service. (See also: Norman Ireland .)

In return for military service, gallowglass contingents were given land and settled in Irish lordships, where they were entitled to receive supplies from the local population.

By 1512, there were reported to be fifty-nine groups throughout the country under the control of the Irish nobility. Though initially they were mercenaries, over time they settled and their ranks became filled with both Scots-Norse and many native Irish men.

In 1569, Turlough Luineach O'Neill (The O'Neill) married Lady Agnes Campbell, daughter of Colin Campbell, 3rd Earl of Argyll, and widow of James MacDonald, 6th of Dunnyveg. Her dowry consisted of at least 1,200 gallowglass fighters. Along with two young men as support and friends on top to assist or fight this could easily have numbered over 5,000 current and future gallowglasses coming into the area. [4]

They were noted for wielding the massive two-handed sparth axe (a custom noted by Geraldus Cambrensis, died c. 1223, to have derived from their Norse heritage) and broadsword or claymore ("claidheamh mór"). For armour, the gallowglass wore a mail shirt over a padded jacket and an iron helmet; he was usually accompanied by two boys (like a knight's squires), one of whom carried his throwing spears while the other carried his provisions.

Shakespeare mentions gallowglasses in his play Macbeth , although along with other aspects of the play it is an anachronism, as the historical Macbeth lived in the 11th century:

The merciless Macdonwald,
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villainies of nature
Do swarm upon him, from the Western isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied

In a paper entitled "A Description of the Power of Irishmen", written early in the 16th century, the Irish forces of Leinster are numbered at 522 horse, five battalions of gallowglass (gallóglaigh) and 1,432 kerne, and those of the other provinces were in like proportion. Mac Cárthaigh Mór commanded 40 horse, two battalions of gallowglass, and 2,000 kerne; the Earl of Desmond 400 horse, three battalions of gallowglass, and 3,000 kerne, besides a battalion of crossbowmen and gunners, the smaller chieftains supplying each their quota of men.

Irish gallowglass and kern. Drawing by Albrecht Durer, 1521. This is now thought to have been derived from a 1518 written account by Laurent Vital, rather than a drawing from life. Galloglass-circa-1521.jpg
Irish gallowglass and kern. Drawing by Albrecht Dürer, 1521. This is now thought to have been derived from a 1518 written account by Laurent Vital, rather than a drawing from life.

In 1517, "when the reformacion of the countrye was taken in hand", it was reported that the Irish forces in Thomond were 750 horse, 2,324 kerne, and six "batayles" of gallowglass, the latter including 60 to 80 footmen harnessed with spears; each of these had a man to bear his harness, some of whom themselves carried spears or bows.

Every kerne had a bow, a "skieve" or quiver, three spears, a sword, and a skene [5] (Irish scian or Scottish Gaelic sgian), each two of them having a lad to carry their weapons. The horsemen had two horses apiece, some three, the second bearing the "knave" or his attendant.

The 16th century in Ireland saw an escalation in military conflict, caused by the Tudor conquest of Ireland. Gallowglass fighters were joined by native Irish mercenaries called buanadha (literally "quartered men") and by newer Scottish mercenaries known as "redshanks". The flow of mercenaries into Ireland was such a threat to English occupation that Queen Elizabeth I took steps against them in 1571—around 700 of them were executed after the first of the Desmond Rebellions.

Despite the increased use of firearms in Irish warfare, gallowglasses remained an important part of Hugh Ó Neill's forces in the Nine Years War. After the combined Irish defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, recruitment of gallowglasses waned, although Scottish Highland mercenaries continued to come to Ireland until the 1640s (notably Alasdair Mac Colla). They fought under the Irish general Eoin Roe O'Neill at the Battle of Benburb when O'Neill had an overwhelming victory in 1646. The gallowglasses of the Mac Cárthaigh Riabhaigh are recorded as having attacked Mallow in County Cork as late as 1645.[ citation needed ]

Images of gallowglasses fighting as mercenaries in European mainland armies were sketched by Dürer in 1521 and later by French and Dutch artists [6] . Gallowglasses served in the Dutch Blue Guards, Swiss Guard, the French Scottish Guard, and the forces of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in his invasion of Livonia during the Thirty Years War.[ citation needed ]

Milford or Millford, historically called Ballynagalloglagh (from Irish: Baile na nGallóglach), is a small town and townland in County Donegal, Ireland. The Irish Baile na nGallóglach literally means "town of the gallóglach". A battle between the Irish (helped by gallóglaigh) and the English took place on a hill in the townland and this is where the name comes from.

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Sgian-dubh small Scottish dagger, part of traditional Scottish male Highland dress

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Milford, County Donegal Town in Ulster, Ireland

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Aedh mac Felim Ua Conchobair, also known as Aodh na nGall, was King of Connacht from 1265 to his death on 3 May 1274. He is credited with turning the tide on Norman expansion into Connacht.

Birlinn Middle ages Scottish ship

The birlinn was a wooden vessel propelled by sail and oar, used extensively in the Hebrides and West Highlands of Scotland from the Middle Ages on. Variants of the name in English and Lowland Scots include "berlin" and "birling". The Gallo-Norse term may derive from the Norse byrðingr. It has been suggested that a local design lineage might also be traceable to vessels similar to the Broighter-type boat, equipped with oars and a square sail, without the need to assume a specific Viking design influence. It is uncertain, however, whether the Broighter model represents a wooden vessel or a skin-covered boat of the currach type. The majority of scholars emphasise the Viking influence on the birlinn.

Gaelic warfare

Gaelic warfare was the type of warfare practised by the Gaelic peoples, that is the Irish, Gaels in Scotland, and Manx, in the pre-modern period.

The Battle of Farsetmore was fought near Letterkenny in County Donegal, north-western Ireland, on 8 May 1567, between the O'Neill and O'Donnell Túath. Shane O'Neill, chief of the O'Neills of Tyrone, was defeated by Aodh mac Maghnusa Ó Domhnaill and the O'Donnells freed themselves from O'Neill aspirations of ruling Ulster as its King.

Norse–Gaels ethnic group of mixed Celtic and Norse heritage in Viking Age Scotland

The Norse–Gaels were a people of mixed Gaelic and Norse ancestry and culture. They emerged in the Viking Age, when Vikings who settled in Ireland and in Scotland adopted Gaelic culture and intermarried with Gaels. The Norse–Gaels dominated much of the Irish Sea and Scottish Sea regions from the 9th to 12th centuries. They founded the Kingdom of the Isles, the Kingdom of Dublin, the Lordship of Galloway, and ruled the Kingdom of York for a time. The most powerful Norse–Gaelic dynasty were the Uí Ímair or House of Ivar.

The Battle of Glentaisie, was an Irish battle fought in the north of Ulster on 2 May 1565. The result was a victory for Shane O'Neill over the Clan MacDonald of Dunnyveg. The conflict was a part of the political and military struggle, involving the English and occasionally the Scots, for control of northern Ireland. Although the MacDonalds were a Scottish family, based principally on the island of Islay in the Hebrides, they had long been associated with the Gaelic polity rather than the kingdom of Scotland.

Kern (soldier) Gaelic soldier, specifically a light infantryman in Ireland during the Middle Ages

A Kern was a Gaelic warrior, specifically a light infantryman in Ireland during the Middle Ages.

Gaelic Ireland Gaelic political and social order that existed in Ireland from the prehistoric era until the early 17th century

Gaelic Ireland was the Gaelic political and social order, and associated culture, that existed in Ireland from the prehistoric era until the early 17th century. Before the Norman invasion of 1169, Gaelic Ireland comprised the whole island. Thereafter, it comprised that part of the country not under foreign dominion at a given time. For most of its history, Gaelic Ireland was a "patchwork" hierarchy of territories ruled by a hierarchy of kings or chiefs, who were elected through tanistry. Warfare between these territories was common. Occasionally, a powerful ruler was acknowledged as High King of Ireland. Society was made up of clans and, like the rest of Europe, was structured hierarchically according to class. Throughout this period, the economy was mainly pastoral and money was generally not used. A Gaelic Irish style of dress, music, dance, sport, architecture, and art can be identified, with Irish art later merging with Anglo-Saxon styles to create Insular art.

Redshank (soldier) Scottish mercenaries

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Clan MacAlister of Antrim is an Irish clan and a branch of Clan MacAlister of Scotland. The clan was established as an Irish sept in Antrim in north-east Ulster, as gallóglaigh (galloglasses), in the service of the Lord of the Isles and Clan MacDonald of Dunnyveg.

Clann Ruaidhrí Scottish clan

Clann Ruaidhrí was a leading mediaeval kindred in the Hebrides and the western seaboard of Scotland. The eponymous ancestor of the family was Ruaidhrí mac Raghnaill, a principal member of Clann Somhairle in the thirteenth century. Members of Clann Ruaidhrí were factors in both the histories of the Kingdom of the Isles and the Kingdom of Scotland in the thirteenth- and fourteenth centuries. The family appears to have held power in Kintyre in the thirteenth century. By the fourteenth century, the family controlled an extensive provincial lordship stretching along north-western Scottish coast and into the Hebrides. As a leading force in the Kingdom of the Isles, the family fiercely opposed Scottish authority. With the collapse of Norwegian hegemony in the region, the family nimbly integrated itself into the Kingdom of Scotland.

Clan MacAuley of the Glens was a small Irish clan that descend from south-western Scotland, who originally come over to Ulster to serve as galloglass mercenaries. They held lands in the Glens of Antrim in modern County Antrim and the chief was at one time known as Lord of the Glens. In 1559, the clan participated in the Battle of Aura, in which the McQuillans were defeated by the MacDonnells. The MacAuleys and MacPhoils arrived midway through the battle, and had planned on siding with the McQuillans and O'Neills, but the chief of the clan was persuaded by Sorley Boy MacDonnell to join forces with the MacDonnells.

Toirdhealbhach Ó Conchobhair was a King of Connacht.

Mac Scelling Twelfth-century warrior

Mac Scelling, also known as Mac Scilling, was a prominent twelfth-century military commander engaged in conflicts throughout Ireland. He is first recorded in 1154 commanding the maritime forces of Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn, King of Cenél nEógain in a bloody encounter against Toirrdelbach Ua Conchobair, King of Connacht. Muirchertach's naval forces were drawn from the western peripheries of Scotland and the Isles. He next appears on record in 1173/1174, supporting the cause of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, King of Connacht against the English colonisation of Mide. An early modern Scottish source claims that a man of the same name was a bastard son of Somairle mac Gilla Brigte, King of the Isles. If Mac Scelling was indeed related to Somairle, this relationship could cast light on the latter's conflict with Guðrøðr Óláfsson, King of the Isles, a man who appears to have opposed Muirchertach at some point in his career. Although not termed so in contemporary sources, Mac Scelling may be regarded as an early archetype of later gallowglasses, heavily-armed Scottish mercenaries recruited by Irish rulers in centuries that followed.

The Meic Lochlann, also spelt as Mic Lochlainn, and Mac Lochlainn, were a leading branch of the Cenél nEógain, who were in turn a segment of the Uí Néill. The Meic Lochlainn descended from Domnall Dabaill, son of Áed Findliath. Another son of the latter was Niall Glúndub eponymous ancestor of the Ua Néill. As a result of their descent from Domnall Dabaill, the Meic Lochlainn were known as Clann Domnaill or Clann Domhnaill. The eponym behind the surnames of the Meic Lochlainn—Mac Lochlainn, Ua Lochlainn, Ó Lochlainn—is Lochlann mac Máelsechnaill, King of Inishowen. The surnames themselves formed not as a result of Lochlann's prominence, but as a consequence of the remarkable success of his grandson, Domnall Ua Lochlainn.

Ó hÁdhmaill is a Gaelic Irish clan from Ulster. The name is now rendered in many forms, most commonly Hamill. The clan are a branch of Cenél nEógain, belonging to the Uí Néill; they claim descent from Eochu Binneach, the son of Eógan mac Néill. Their descendants in Ireland are found predominantly across Ulster, and County Louth, Leinster.

The Battle of Belleek, also known as the Battle of the Erne Fords, was fought on the River Erne near Belleek in Fermanagh, Ireland, on 10 October 1593. It was part of the buildup to the Nine Years' War. The battle was fought between a Gaelic Irish army under Hugh Maguire, lord of Fermanagh—who had begun a revolt against the English—and an English Crown expeditionary force under Sir Henry Bagenal, supported by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Maguire's force was defeated, but the bulk of his army was unscathed. Hugh O'Neill would later join Maguire in war against the English.


  1. "galloglass". Oxford English Dictionary .
  2. Cannan, Fergus. Gallowglass 1250–1600, Osprey Publishing, 2010, ISBN   9781846035777.
  3. Tracts relating to Ireland, Irish Archeological Society, vol. ii., Dublin, 1843
  4. "Gallowglass children in battle".
  5. Sgian-dubh
  6. 1931–1996., Somerset Fry, Plantagenet (1991). A history of Ireland. Somerset Fry, Fiona. London: Routledge. ISBN   0415048885. OCLC   22907123.

See also