The MacArthurs of Lochaber

“The Notched-Axe of MacArthur”

The Lochaber axe is the iconic, exclusively Scottish, heavy weapon, designed to deal with cavalry and armoured knights. This devastating weapon is first recorded in 1501, as an "old Scottish batale ax of Lochaber fasoun". The Lochaber fashion was the addition of a "boat hook" to the rear of the axe blade on a six-feet long pole. This was used to hook a rider (or plate armour) and drag the opponent to the ground, prior to delivering the death blow with the axe head.

The MacArthurs of the Braes of Lochaber were the famous Lochaber axe bearing bodyguard of MacDonell of Keppoch, the most famous battling Clan in Lochaber who could bring "300 claymores" to the field. The MacArthurs arrived in Lochaber after the Battle of Leachdar in 1497, just four years before the first recorded use of the Lochaber axe. These MacArthurs were from the shores of Loch Awe and spent much of their life on the water. They were boatmen, amphibious warriors. It would not be out of place to suggest that it was the MacArthurs from Loch Awe who brought the "boat hook" to the Lochaber poleaxe.

Beinn Dorain
Beinn Dorain – Site of the Battle of Leachdar

This recorded event took place around 1554:

“A certain fierce Glen Roy MacArthur of that turbulent time, not a man to forgive and forget, was excited to learn that Duncan Stewart, Younger of Appin, was coming into the Braes to give his daughter in marriage to Ranald Og of Keppoch.  Wedding with a mate from a different clan was a risky business.  Once the news spread round the glens of an outsider attending the festive occasion, hopeful clansmen pondered how to lift his cattle during the celebrations, whilst vengeful ones brooded upon speeding the departed guest into the next world.  Duncan Stewart probably made for home with relief.  His daughter was wed, and he had left the customary tocher (dowry), which included a small party of Stewarts to keep the girl company in Brae Lochaber.  But Stewart may have been uneasy about the escort Keppoch had provided to see him safely on his way.  If so, his fears were justified.  On the party reaching Ben Nevis, MacArthur struck the Stewart down, and cut another notch in the long handle of his Lochaber axe.  Had some insults been exchanged at the festivities?  Had the Stewart tocher been a bit short on promised cows?” (Stuart Macdonald Back To Lochaber)

From that day on the MacArthurs threatened foes, and unruly sons, with ‘Tuagh bhearnach Mhic Artair’ (the Notched-Axe of MacArthur).

The design of the Lochaber axe varied extensively. Some versions had the traditional triangular or half-moon axe head, whereas others were more rectangular, possibly forged from old or broken ploughshares. The end of the shaft was fitted with a butt spike to counterbalance the weight of the heavy axe head, and langets (steel strips) were incorporated down each side of the shaft to prevent the axe head from being lopped off. These would only extend part of the way down the shaft so as not to interfere with the grip.

Three replicas of “MacArthur’s Notched-axe” have been commissioned, one for Scotland and two for the USA. They have been forged by “Armour Class” in Glasgow and the handles are inscribed with ‘Tuagh bhearnach Mhic Artair’.

Commissioned Lochaber Axe

Hugh McArthur, Clan Arthur Seannachie
(with contributions from JC Carter, Aide to the Seannachie)