A History of Scottish Pistols
By Brian Beck
That time of year is almost upon us again! The time of year where you pull your kilt out of the closet, get all of those annoying pleats ironed and looking sharp, and have a beer or two that are darker than anything you normally drink. No, I’m not talking about St. Patrick’s Day, I’m talking about Tartan Day! Haven’t heard of it? Well, it’s a celebration of Scottish heritage in the United States, much like St. Patrick’s is for the Irish. Now I may be a little biased towards this holiday, with my Scottish family heritage, having lived in Scotland for three years, and graduating from one of their ancient universities. Or maybe it’s because it falls on April 6th, which also happens to be my birthday. Regardless, I think it’s a holiday that should be celebrated on the same level as St. Patrick’s Day. I mean who wouldn’t love another day of parades, delicious food, and good beer? And before you ask, yes, haggis and black pudding are delicious! As for beer, I’d suggest Belhaven Stout, Caledonian Best, or if you prefer a lighter brew, a Tennent’s lager (which in Scotland is about as important as, I don’t know… water or oxygen). But we’re not here to talk about food and beer, we’re here to talk about firearms. What better way to complete your 2019 Tartan Day attire than with a beautiful Scottish belt pistol? After all, they are about as important to a highlander’s attire as a sporran or a sgian-dubh. Before we dive right into the wonderful pistols we have available for you in May, let’s take a quick look at the history of these things, and just where this tradition came from.
Records of pistol use in Scotland first appear around the mid-16th century, when a wheellock pistol was reportedly used in the killing of Mary Queen of Scots’ Italian Secretary David Rizzio in 1566. This was followed by the famous assassination of James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray (an ancestor of mine) in 1570. Most of these early firearms appear to have been made either in England or continental Europe as records of Scottish gun making around the time are almost non-existent. This is not to say that there were no Scottish gunmakers as early as the 16th century, but they certainly appear to have been few and far between. These early pistols however can be seen as the start of a long tradition, especially among highland Scots, of being armed to the teeth with firearms.
A major point in the evolution of Scottish belt pistols began to appear in the early 17th century with the so called “fishtail” and “lemon-butted” pistols. These are often seen in pairs with the locks on opposite sides of the guns, leading to the assumption that they were intended to be used with one in each hand. These styles of pistols would not have differed all that much from their counterparts found in England or continental Europe. It was at this point in Scottish history that these pistols started to become a normal part of a highland nobles armament, often along with a broadsword, a shield or “targe” (that was often ornately decorated and leather covered), as well as various daggers and dirks. This tradition of the well-armed highlander evolved partially out of necessity, as clan warfare was quite common through the 16th and most of the 17th centuries. It was not until 1688 that we saw the last of the clan battles, a dispute between Clan Mackintosh and an alliance of Clan MacDonald and Clan Cameron. Often these weapons are seen in highly ornate forms, due in part to the fact they were often only owned by the rich nobility and clan chiefs. Additionally, there was a general distrust of modern paper currency in the highlands, where a generally feudal social structure was practiced for far longer than many other regions. So these elaborate firearms weren’t just a symbol of their wealth, they were the wealth and highlanders wore them proudly.
These early pistols seem to have enjoyed a fairly long period of service as there are very few examples of transitional pistols between these early forms and the later, more commonly known examples we will discuss shortly. This lack of a transitional period is likely due to Scotland being embroiled in a series of bloody civil wars through the mid-17th century, a period that also included involvement in the civil war to their south in England. Known as the Third English Civil War, it involved a crushing Scottish defeat by Oliver Cromwell’s new model army at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 as well as the occupation of much of lowland Scotland, where many of the gunmakers were located.
This gap marks a significant point in Scottish gunmaking and a visible separation between the mainstream European styles of the earlier period and a movement towards a more distinct, truly highland or Scottish style of belt pistol. The first of these styles was the “heart-butt” pistol which begins to appear in the mid-17th century, mostly after the period of stagnation discussed earlier, and continued in service until about 1730. This style developed almost entirely in the East-Lowlands including Elgin, Dundee, and Aberdeen (where I went to university). They are most commonly constructed entirely of steel. However, they will occasionally be of brass construction or a mixture of brass and steel, with wood stocks being extremely rare.
The final evolution of the highland belt pistol is the one most commonly known, often referred to as the “rams horn butt,” a name which comes from the horn-like scrolls on the butts of these pistols. This style entered the picture in the late 17th century and endured until around the late 19th century, though by the end of this period they were mainly just a decorative part of traditional highland dress. Examples of these pistols are almost entirely of all metal construction, and rarely seen of brass construction. This style of pistol is what would have likely been carried by many members of the Jacobite army under “Bonnie Prince Charlie” Stuart when they were defeated at Culloden. Additionally, this style of pistol would later adopted by the highland regiments of the British army, with officers generally wearing them tucked under the left arm.
We have a few very fine examples of these pistols available in our May 2019 Premier Auction here at Rock Island Auction Company. Many of these examples were made by Campbells, who were prolific gunmakers in Doune, near Sterling. This area was one of the centers for the production of highland pistols, as well as being important to my heritage with Doune Castle being the ancient seat of the Stuart Earls of Moray. They are all excellent examples of the type of belt pistols that any true highland gentleman shouldn’t be seen without.
This first pair of pistols are attributed to John Campbell and were likely manufactured in the mid to late 18th century. They are finely engraved with scroll patterns with silver inlays on the backstraps, silver side plates on the wrists, and silver balls on the triggers and vent pricks. They have belt hooks as typical of these pistols and wonderful sculpted ramrods. This pair would undoubtedly make a fine addition to your Tartan Day attire.
Another example we have available for you in May is also by a Campbell of the Doune area. It is finely engraved like most highland pistols, featuring a panalopy of arms surrounded by beautiful scrollwork and a thistle, the national emblem of Scotland, on one side of the wrist and a cairngorm set in silver on the opposite side. This pistol also has a belt hook, and would be perfect for completing your formal highland attire.
Another pistol available in the May auction is an example from later in their period of popularity. This one was made by John Blisset in London sometime around the mid-1800s. Like the others it shows very fine extensive scroll and martial motif engraving and the typical “rams horn” butt. Many of these pistols were manufactured in England to meet the demand of British officers in highland regiments.
Now if you’re sitting there having a look at these pistols and thinking to yourself that you’re just not much of a kilt-wearing kind of guy, I may have a solution for you. We have another “Scottish” pistol up for auction in May that would pair nicely with a pair of tartan trews. It’s a W. Griffiths retailed, Webley-Pryse revolver that is inscribed to Kenneth Girdwood, a member of a Scottish family, who was almost certainly an officer, and likely in a highland regiment. You can certainly see the long tradition of highland warriors and their pistols that this revolver emulates with its bright finish and an engraved bird straight off the Girdwood coat of arms.
With that I bid you a happy Tartan Day, and good luck bidding on these beautiful Scottish pistols!
Whitelaw, Charles E. “Scottish Arms Makers A Biographical Dictionary of Makers of Firearms, Edged Weapons, and Armour Working in Scotland from the 15th Century to 1870”