The earliest references to martial training in Scotland comes down to us from the Celtic legends of the warrior, CúChulainn, a ‘Champion of the Red Branch’ who travelled in his youth to Alba (Scotland) to learn the arts of war from Scathach ("The Shadowy One" or "She Who Strikes Fear") a fearsome female expert in martial arts. Her training camp was believed to be based on the Isle of Skye....

The 'student' had to complete a combination of athletic training and fighting techniques described in the Tain Bo Chuailagne – (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), as cleasa or feats.

The Apple-feat: Juggling metal balls which could be thrown to injure or kill an opponent?
The Edge-feat: Displaying sword guards and angles of attack?
The Level Shield-feat: Demonstrating the ability to deflect and ward off sword attacks with a shield?
The Little Dart-feat: Demonstrating the ability to throw a projectile with speed and accuracy?
The Rope-feat: a training technique using rope?
The Body-feat: Body building or perhaps the ability to shape shift, distorting the body into Yoga-like positions?
The Feat of Catt: ? A favourite warrior?
The Hero's Salmon-leap: This has often been interpreted as an upright vertical leap like a salmon jumping out of the water?
The Pole-cast: Throwing a pole, or perhaps tossing a caber?
The Leap over a Blow: This may have been the Swordsman’s Leap which is performed in the Dirk Dance, jumping above an opponent’s sword blow in combat
The Folding of a noble Chariot-fighter: The ability to duck to avoid javelin throws both on the ground and on a moving chariot?
The Gae Bulga ('the Barbed Spear'): CuChullain’s special weapon,
The Vantage (?) of Swiftness: foot-racing or sprinting?
The Wheel-feat: Lifting & tossing a heavy weight?
The Rimfeat: Using the rim of a shield as a weapon?
The Over-Breath-feat: breath control?
The Breaking of a Sword: Power shots with a sword?
The Champion's Cry: A war cry or Chi shout?
The Measured Stroke: Precision cutting with the sword?
The Side Stroke: Striking with the flat of the Blade?
The Running up a Lance and Standing Erect on its Point, and Binding of the Noble Hero; extreme martial art skills?

It may come as a surprise that the Scots practiced and developed systems of armed and unarmed combat with dance-like forms or kata, an abdominal shout similar to the Japanese Ki-ai, conditioning exercises and meditation techniques. Scots can be found among many of the western masters who wrote and published treatises of their techniques, styles & theories. They include stick-fighting, swordsmanship and grappling, many of which are illustrated and now widely available on the internet. These arts were practiced throughout the British Isles and Ireland, although on the surface, little evidence remains today, other than those kept alive in the traditions of morris dancing, sword dancing, country fairs and Highland games.


In Scotland, Martial art gymnasiums, referred to in Gaelic as Taigh Suntais, were training schools that existed in the Highlands until the British government proscribed the weapons of the Highlander and dismantled the clan system, after the battle of Culloden in 1746. Similar to the martial art dojo's of Asia, the first recorded taigh suntais was erected by Domhnuil Gruamach, Lord of the Isles in 1400 for his strongmen and wrestlers. In later years, sons of successive clan chiefs created their own gymnasiums where training was often held in the open air. “It was a custom in the Highlands of Scotland before the year 1745 that the gentry kept schools to give instruction to youths in sword exercises, and the laird of Ardsheil kept a school for the instruction of the youth of his own district. He stored the cudgels behind his house. There were cudgels for the lads, and there were cudgels for the laddies, and the lads and laddies went every day to Ardsheil to receive instruction on the cudgel from the laird. After the laddies had received their day's instruction each got a bannock and lumps of cheese. They were then sent to try who would soonest ascend a mountain and eat the bannock and cheese; and whoeverwas first got another bannock and lumps of cheese home with him."


Sometimes the laird's champion or a skilled veteran of the European wars was employed to instruct the young men of the clan, who from the age of six, practiced the art of single-stick, wrestling, archery, dancing, swimming, leaping and pitching stones. In time the single-stick would be replaced with the broadsword dirk and targe and as the warrior became proficient in the arts, he could be expected to test his skills by competing against the youth of friendly clans in swordplay, wrestling, throwing the stone or tossing the caber. These contests would be re-created in a fashion in 1826 as the 'Highland Games'.


Stick fighting, was a popular pastime throughout the whole of the British Isles. In Scotland young men would learn the seven angles of attack and six guard positions and like the Phillipino systems, training involved the use of the left hand to parry or disarm, and wrestling throws & trips. The weapon typically consisted of a yard-long ash wood stick with a wicker basket guard, which was usually the combatant's only protection. Village fairs and Highland Games often held singlestick or cudgelling matches which began with the short prayer, "God, spare our eyes", after which the object of the game was to break each others heads, "for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten".

Singlestick revival at Milngavie Highland Games

In the western isles of Scotland an old Skye dancing song, Bualidh mi u an sa chean, (I will break your head for you) still survives, which might indicate that this form of stick-fighting was fought to music or 'danced'.

Training was just as tough as any Eastern martial system, students were not spared the "kiss of the ash plant" and no doubt many suffered fractured skulls, and broken bones. Although there are no records of 'death matches' there are accounts of combatants almost beating each other to death and having to be hospitalised.


Wrestling was another pastime of the Highlander and carvings dating between the 7th and 9th century depicts the earliest form of unarmed combat in Scotland, the loosehold and backhold styles of wrestling. It's not surprising to find that the oldest forms of Highland dance with it's kicks and sweeping leg movements would seem to imitate many of the wrestling techniques found in Celtic wrestling and the Viking style of "Glima". As in Asian martial arts, combative dances could have been used to train clansmen in the rudiments of unarmed combat to circumvent the laws that prohibited combative training in times of government prohibition. This tradition of militaristic dance has survived into the present day within Highland regiments of the British Army, although the possible combative applications would seem to have been long forgotten.


Highland dance was also performed with weapons including the Lochaber axe, the broadsword, targe & dirk and the flail. The Highland Dirk Dance, which resembles a combative dance similar to those of Indonesian Penjak Silat, has the performer-executing knife techniques combined with kicks, trips and sweeps. One version of the dance involved attacking and defensive techniques with single-sticks and targe shields and was last performed in Britain in 1850 by two brothers named MacLennan. Another version that still survives was recovered in Canada by renowned dance researchers Tom and Joan Flett, back in the 1950's. (Interestingly the dance was passed to Mr Flett only on the condition that it was a personal dance and not to be made public).

The origins of Scottish combative dances with swords, cudgels or unarmed fighting techniques, are impossible to trace, the ancient custom of dancing over crossed swords as in the Ghillie Callum has long been linked with an ancient victory or battle dance but just like the Filipino Escrimador, who steps over crossed swords laid out on the ground to develop angular footwork, side stepping and evasion, the concept of crossed swords could well have been used as a training aid in the Highlands. In another version of Scottish sword dancing, the Highlander danced on his targe shield, this has similarities with an ancient Roman exercise in which the man standing on a shield had to defend himself and stay upright while others tried to pull it out from under him.


Although many of the combative techniques of the Taigh Suntais went unrecorded, it is possible to piece together training methods & fighting skills of this period from a variety of sources including historical accounts, language, folklore and the still living traditions of Highland wrestling and dance.

14thC West Highland Warrior and Sword Carvings at Kilmartin 


The most recent facial reconstruction of Robert the Bruce. He bears a large sword scar above his left eye - this gave the impression of a fearsome, ruthless and cunning warlord: the type of individual required to defeat opposition in Scotland, keep Edward I at bay, and hammer his pleasant but less effective son into the ground.
He had suffered for some years from what some contemporary accounts describe as an "unclean ailment"; the traditional story is that he died of leprosy, but this is now rejected. However it is unclear what his illness actually was.


Female Flail Fighter 1745