As long as there has been warfare there have been elite troops. Irregulars, special forces, whatever label someone wants to put on them, they were the men king and country called on when it was time to take off the kid gloves. Also, more often than not, these forces started their lives as mercenaries. From the French Foreign Legion to the Swiss guard to the feared Hessians of Germany, no man among them would swing steel until he had his gold. Perhaps one of history’s most feared, and most elite, groups of warriors before the sun set on the sword were known as the Gallowglass troops.
Who Were the Gallowglass?
The Gallowglass were elite warriors from the North of Scotland who first came to historical relevance around the year 1200 (or thereabouts). Terrors on the battlefield, they fought in the summer wars between the Irish Lords who wanted an edge over their enemies. The Gallowglass would plant their crops in the spring, pick up their swords for the summer wars, and then come home to harvest in the fall.
What Made Them So Terrifying?
The Gallowglass were the human equivalent of a Liger. When the tiger of the Scottish highlanders got together with the lion of the Vikings, the result was the Gallowglass. The word, a rough approximation of the original Gaelic, meant “foreign Gauls.” What was even worse than an already infamous set of parents though were the weapons the Gallowglass inherited. On the one hand they received the Sparth ax from their Scandinavian side. The Scottish, not to be outdone, bequeathed the mixed offspring the massive, two-handed greatsword called a Claymore. When wearing mail and charging into battle a Gallowglass could tear the enemy apart with either or both of these weapons. To paraphrase “The Deadliest Warrior,” the result of their use was not dissimilar from being hit by a train.
What Happened to Them?
Like any new thing in warfare, the Gallowglass eventually became a status symbol. They began serving in the 1200s, right around the end of the Viking era. When the Irish nobility saw how effective these great weapon wielders were, everyone just had to have their own. At their height there were 60 different groups of Gallowglass, all serving the lord that was willing to pay for their sword arms. However, by the 1500s the Gallowglass had ceased to be mercenaries and simply become elite fighting forces. They were given land and title, along with nobility, and expected to fight when called upon. Though native Irishmen were allowed into the ranks, they still had to learn the best way to wield the force’s traditional, overpowering weapons.
Of course, as with many other accepted parts of warfare, the Gallowglass were rendered moot by the adoption of gunpowder into the mix. As with other armored juggernauts that relied on hand to hand weapons, the Gallowglass could no longer close the deal by charging into a hail of gunfire. They hung on bravely though, and in the 1600s there was still a demand for Gallowglass troops. Eventually though the Gallowglass faded away, the weapons of mass destruction of another age altogether.
“A History of the Gallowglass in Ireland,” by Russell Shortt at History-Website
“Gallowglass” by Anonymous at Citizendia