The Aketon – Battle Dress of the Lords of the Isles? By Brian McGarrigle

The Battle of Harlaw, known as “Red Harlaw” because of its ferocity, was fought on the 24 July 1411 near Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. It represented an attempt by Donald, 2nd Lord of the Isles to enforce his claim to the Earldom of Ross. Exactly how Donald appeared on that July day is unknown but research has proved revealing and has resulted in the construction of a model figure.

The visitor to the island of Iona, in the West Highlands of Scotland, will come across an unusual form of grave slab. These portray warriors of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, armed, armoured, and ready for battle. What is unusual, however, is the kind of armour depicted – the aketon – a type of defence long since abandoned in lowland Scotland and elsewhere in Europe.

The aketon was a form of ‘soft’ armour. It was a padded garment worn under plate or mail to absorb blows and to prevent the breaking of bones. Occasionally, as in the West Highlands, it was used as a protection in its own right. It consisted of 2 pieces of material, sewn together in long, vertical lines. The space between this stitching was closely stuffed with any material that would cushion a blow; cloth, wool or even grass. The aketon thus took on a quilted or baggy appearance. The sepulchral monuments show that aketons reached to the knees or ankles. They were divided down the front and secured by ‘buttons’ which were sometimes left partially undone to allow for freedom of movement. Such protection extended to the arms. Here, bands above and below the elbow secured it closely.

The colour, or finish, of the aketon, is open to speculation as no trace of paint remains on any of the effigies. If left in its unbleached state, a natural colour such as ‘stone’ or ‘beige’ might result. Again, knowing the medieval love for display, bright dyes may have been used. What is known, however, is that the Scots of the lower orders, liked to daub them with pitch.This would both stiffen the garment and make it waterproof.

The protection afforded by the aketon should not be underestimated. Incidents are recorded where soldiers, pierced by spears and bristling with arrows, have fought on regardless. In Europe, however, the aketon was an anachronism. There men of rank wore armour which offered almost complete plate protection.

Peeping out from the wrists of the aketon can be seen the decorated cuffs and buttons of an undergarment. This would indicate a linen shirt. Below the shirt would be worn a pair of linen ‘drawers’ secured by a cord. Hose would be pulled over the knees and up to the groin being held up by ‘points’ tied at the waist.

A more up-to-date note is struck by the helmets. They are high, pointed and close fitting ‘bascinets’ of a type popular in northern Europe. The crown and brow are frequently reinforced. All are open faced with no provision for a visor. A mail hood protects the head, neck and shoulders and reaches far down the chest The mail at the throat seems to have been of an extra thickness.

This lack of face defence calls for comment. In Europe, protection was invariably provided by the distinctive ‘pig-face’ visor. The hood had been abandoned. In its place the mail was secured to the helmet.

The hands are protected by intricate ‘hour-glass’ gauntlets while knee, shin and foot defences are all represented. Around the ankles are strapped the knightly rowel spurs.

The weapon most depicted is the sword. Similar to the ancient Viking model, some are of extreme size, certainly hand-and-a-half and perhaps even double-handed. The hilts have distinctive pommels while the long quillons incline downward (in Scottish fashion) to end in slightly flattened terminals. They are always depicted sheathed and thrust through (or suspended) from a belt.

Such swords were for ‘cutting’ whereas the trend in Europe was for stiffer, pointed swords used for ‘thrusting’ between armour joints.

Many figures grasp an axe or spear in their right hands. Axes enjoyed a long popularity in the West Highlands; recorded as late as the 16th century. The blade was of a long established design – a fearsome weapon capable of lopping off limbs.

The spears have a leaf shaped head reinforced by a central ridge. They would thus be capable of both thrusting and cutting. It should be noted that such fighting would be done on foot.

The shields are of a well known type, but of diminutive size. This small size is probably caused by the restrictions of a tomb slab. Made of linden wood they were hung from the neck by straps. When in use the forearm was passed through an additional support. They display a wide range of West Highland heraldry.

Such protection was used for a very long time in the islands; it is not until the end of the 15th century that grave sculpture yields to the depiction of plate armour. Why this conservatism? The answer must lie in its practicality. The aketon provided the West Highland chieftains with a protection that was ideally suited to their particular brand of warfare. Plate was neither necessary nor required.

Such a distinctive armour, peculiar to the West Highlands, was surely that worn by the Lords of the Isles.

Peter Armstrong, a specialist in this period, undertook to create a figure based on this evidence. An 80 mm ‘Lord of the Isles’ was sculpted and cast in metal. The result was superb.

Lack of firm evidence as to coat of arms of Donald, 2nd Lord of the Isles, meant that the figure bears those of Bricius MacKinnon, a member of the Council of the Isles. However, Mr Norman MacDonald, of Clan Donald Magazine, provided the required information ‘a lymphad surmounted by an eagle surrounded with the royal tressure’

A satisfactory conclusion – surely at last we are as close to a Harlaw as we can. I like to think that Donald might recognise himself.