The Cateran Society

An Comunn Ceatharnach

Flourishing with the Highland Broadsword

Flourishing with the Highland Broadsword

Flourishing,” known in the most ancient Gaelic sources as faobhar chleas or “the edge feat,” is the practice of solo fighting techniques as a display of skill. It is the equivalent of the solo forms practice found in Asian martial arts, although flourishing is generally not choreographed ahead of time.

Flourishing plays a major role in the Cateran System from Level IV onward, but students often seem uncertain as to how they should approach this exercise. To help apprentices learn how to flourish, Cateran Matt Park designed a five-stage process:

How to Flourish with the Highland Broadsword

1- Using only the lunge and the shift, attack and defend against an imaginary opponent. Make one cut every time you lunge and one parry every time you shift. Keep it simple and clear.

2- Add in the advance and retreat, but stick to simple attacks and parries.

3- Add in multiple opponents attacking you from all directions. Fight the opponent in front of you for a few moments, then turn suddenly to deal with an attacker to your right, left or rear.

4- Add broken rhythm- instead of only making simple cuts and parries, add feints and other off-rhythm movements. Your flourishing should now strongly resemble an actual fight.

5- Add “enclose and command” by acting out disarms and grappling maneuvers.

Flourishing videos are worth ten points toward Cateran rank, but only stage five flourishing will be counted for this purpose. A flourishing video should be a high-level display of skill with the broadsword, not just a rote performance of cuts and guards. Think of flourishing as a chance to display your art!

Highland Singlestick

Readers of the HEMA Misfits blog will remember the strange “Guard of the Scottish Highlander” found in French fencing master Alexandre Valville’s 1817 manual for the Russian Imperial Guard.

Valville shows a kilted man standing with a basket-hilted cudgel in a version of the hanging guard. His left arm is held up over his head, protected by what seems to be a rectangular home-made targe. This video is our interpretation of what we think Valville was trying to show – a Highland version of the singlestick game based on the “broken head,” with the addition of a targe.

We also have another video of an informal bout with singlesticks.

We found both bouts so much fun that we’re going to start using singlesticks on a weekly basis again.

Both videos feature the new “Stryker” singlestick baskets from Purpleheart Armoury. These baskets are unusually large and robust, which gives them two advantages over the older baskets. Traditional leather singlestick baskets are often too small to allow the fencer to wear a padded glove, leaving the thumb at risk from the occasional hard strike coming down from above. Also, traditional baskets tends to get soft over time and to lose some of their ability to absorb the force of the opponent’s strikes. These new baskets are big enough to use with padded protective gloves, and hard enough to take a lot of punishment. We expect these baskets to last a long time.

Peasant Rebellion!

This video explores the combative use of the sickle, an agricultural tool that could also be used as an improvised weapon. Some clips show the use of one sickle against the broadsword, and others show two sickles. The approach shown here is based on the Cateran System’s “MacGregor Method” rather than on any historical sickle training. We found the sickle to be one of the most interesting weapons we have ever played with. The curved blade of the sickle allows it to easily capture the opposing sword blade and whirl it off-line. Training weapons from Purpleheart Armoury, music by Finnish folk metal band Korpiklaani.

Sword and Dagger

According to Scottish swordsman Donald McBane: “When you fight sword and dagger, you are to keep your sword as directed at a good outside guard, your dagger above your brow in order to defend your head, often having them across.”

McBane would have used this weapon combination during his career as a stage gladiator, after he had returned from the wars in Europe. The dagger he’s referring to is a basket-hilted parrying dagger, long enough to be considered a short sword. It is possible to extrapolate a surprisingly large number of techniques from McBane’s simple advice, many of which can be seen in this video. The techniques are presented in slow motion so you can see exactly how to do them.

For anyone who took the sword and dagger class at Iron Gate 2015, this is the same set of techniques plus a few extras we didn’t discuss. Enjoy!

Cudgeling: Stick-Fighting in the MacGregor Method

Note: in this video, we use Action Flex foam weapons so we can hit each other without holding back. We usually train with actual sticks, but of course that requires much more restraint.

This video teaches the basic principles of cudgeling or stick-fighting in the Cateran Society’s MacGregor Method, a system for using all cold weapons according to the principles of the Highland broadsword.

One of the most famous manuals on the use of the Highland broadsword was written specifically to teach self-defense with the cudgel or stick, applying the principles of the broadsword to that weapon.

The author was Captain Sinclair, a retired officer of the Black Watch, and his manual was called Anti-Pugilism, referring to the superiority of the stick over the fist in a street fight.  According to Sinclair, training with the cudgel or broadsword is “well calculated for chance encounters in the street, as there is no show or preparation in it, and our adversary probably supposing you are totally unacquainted with the stick, will heedlessly attack you, when in all human probability you will settle the difference with the point of your stick, without any trouble, or receiving a single blow.”

Battlefield Broadsword

The Highland broadsword is a battlefield weapon, but the broadsword fencing system is designed for single combat. Considering the popular martial arts saying “you fight like you train,” why is this the case? This exercise should help clarify the issue.

A duel of skill with the Highland broadsword is a much more complex scenario than anything likely to occur in a melee fight. First-hand accounts of real broadsword combat suggest that battlefield swordfights were usually short and simple, often lasting no more than a second or two.

To simulate the conditions of the battlefield, designate one fighter as the antagonist and the other as the protagonist. The antagonist sees the protagonist, runs in and makes between one and four simple but powerful attacks. The protagonist must respond with an effective defense and end the encounter with a decisive technique.

Rather than starting from a guard position, the antagonist should simply raise the sword and cut as if charging at the enemy. The protagonist should start with the broadsword lowered, the safest and least fatiguing way to carry it on the field.

As you can see from this video, the battlefield use of the broadsword is much less sophisticated than a standard broadsword bout. Anyone trained in the art of broadsword fencing should find this type of encounter almost simplistic by comparison. The training is actually much harder and more complex than the scenario you’re training for, giving you a distinct advantage against an opponent without equivalent skills.

Presented in slow motion for clarity.

Birthday Bouts

Broadsword Academy Germany and Razmafzar Persian Martial Arts put together this video of their training as a birthday gift. Thanks guys!

Taking the Initiative


Drills for seizing the initiative in a Highland broadsword bout.

Martial Exchanges

Loud, spooky post-punk music by The Soft Moon.

In the Cateran Society, earning mentor rank requires a “certification bout” with an opponent from another style or school. We’ve been doing this since the Society was founded, and Cateran Society president Chris Thompson has bouted with opponents from a number of different styles, including German longsword, Italian saber, English backsword, Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, Tai Ji, Hung Gar, Praying Mantis, Kali and several others. Some of these styles are not usually known for being open to this type of bout, but they are often more willing to give it a try if you propose a “martial exchange” instead of a challenge.

What is a martial exchange? Simply a bout where you don’t keep score, and where the emphasis is on exploring and displaying your art rather than on winning or losing. When you’re hit, you just say “touch” or tap the spot to acknowledge the hit. This video provides a few examples of the concept to help our members understand it.

The first bout is Highland broadsword against Highland broadsword, but is still fought according to the martial exchange concept. You can see a range of techniques from the Cateran System in this bout that you might not see as often in a bout fought for points.

In the beginning of the bout, Chris makes a number of aggressive probing attacks against Matt. These are intended to draw a response and expose an opening- an example of the Provoke strategy from our Seven Words. This is the primary strategy Chris uses throughout the bout, while Matt relies more often on Wait.

At :51, Chris switches to Old Style broadsword, Level II of our curriculum.

At :54 and 3:20, you can see the Bind. This technique can be found at several points in our Core Curriculum, as the Turkish Disarm in Lesson 5 of Levels I and II and as the Bind in Level III.

At 1:50, you can see McBane’s “cut outside, thrust inside” feint- one of the most effective feints in the art of the broadsword.

At 2:24, Matt pulls off a Whirling Feat from Level V. It doesn’t look exactly like the Whirling Feat in Lesson 10 of Level V, but it’s the same idea. Matt spins to avoid the attack and thrusts to the face, stopping the attack dead in its tracks.

At 3:30 you can see the Elbow Lock from Lesson 8 of Levels I and II.

The second bout is Highland broadsword against messer. There are several long exchanges of attack and defense in this bout, examples of the Overwhelm strategy in action. These are followed by an interesting example of “listening” at 5:13, in which both fighters use their weapons to try to feel the opponent’s intentions through blade pressure. This is also an example of the Wait strategy- when Seth attacks, Chris is able to sense the attack through the blade and counter with a strong cut to the shoulder.

The third bout features unusual weapon combinations. Matt uses double broadswords (referenced in Gaelic folkore as an option for unusually strong fighters) and Chris uses the broadsword and dirk. It’s hard to see in this video, but if you look closely you should be able to spot several parries with the dirk, as well as several Binds. This bout is an example of Level IV in the Cateran System, the MacGregor Method.

This is what we mean by a martial exchange- a bout where you don’t just try to win but to demonstrate your skill in the Cateran System, including our fencing strategies and some of the techniques from the Lessons. If you’re planning to fight a certification bout, we want to see the art displayed to the best of your abilities based on your current level in the system. If you’re certified through Level IV and working on earning your Cateran rank, we want to see martial exchanges with a range of techniques and strategies comparable to what you see in these bouts.

Broadsword in the Blood


This photo shows William John Mackay (1819-1877), great-grandfather of Cateran Society mentor Elmo Mackay, who is based in Nova Scotia. As Elmo says, the use of the broadsword only skipped two generations in his family! Thanks for sharing this, Elmo.

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