|Irish actor Dave Swift in Redshank attire circa late 1500s|
Link to purchase book: The Laggan Redshanks, The Highland Scots in West Ulster, 1569-1630
It is not known when the term Redshank came into general use, but the word began to appear in published works by the mid 1500s. At that time Redshank was a Lowland Scottish term for a Gael from the ‘Highlands.’ Scottish writer John Jamison included the term in his Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language published in 1825. His entry is an interesting summary of early usage of Redshank in English. Jamison includes quotes by the sixteenth-century writers Edmund Spenser, Thomas Stapleton, Raphael Holinshed, and John Elder. In the citations provided by Jamison the term Redshank is consistent in that it always refers to a Scottish Gael. As for the origins of the word Redshank there are two stories; one that the name came from the hair-out roe deer buskins (a calf high boot) commonly worn by Gaels and the other being that the name came from the Gaels going bare legged, or ‘rough footed.’
The dress of Scottish Gaels in the 1500s was in general very similar to Irish Gaels. The léine, or linen shirt, and short woollen jacket were worn in both Ireland and Scotland. The léine came down to just above the knee and in warm weather the wearer would be barelegged. But, while this mode of dress was common, various forms of trews were also in wide use. Most contemporary examples of the trews are ankle length, though there is one illustration from the 1570s drawn from life which shows a short trew, or a short pant, similar to a type that was worn in other parts of Western Europe at that time. The use of the kilt, or the féileadh mór, dates to the mid 1500s, and it was worn over the léine. So, during the 1500s when the term Redshank came into common use in Scotland, Ireland, and England, a Scottish Gael would have been dressed various ways, both barelegged and with trews. Of importance perhaps is that the one consistent element of Gaelic dress was the hair out roe deer buskins, which is at least suggestive that this gave rise to the Scottish Gaels being known as Redshanks.
Whatever the origin of the term is, the meaning in the sixteenth century was certainly clear. Raphael Holinshed, in his History of Scotland, describes some of the soldiers with Robert the Bruce as ‘Irish Scots, otherwise called Katerans or Redshanks.’ Holinshed’s work was published 1577 and the word ‘Irish’ meant ‘Gaelic’ in modern usage. Calling Scottish Gaels ‘Irish’ was common in the 1500s. There was a need in the sixteenth century to differentiate between the ‘Irish’ or traditional Gaelic Scots and those Scots in the Lowlands, especially the southeast Lowlands, which spoke Lallans and had developed their own unique society. Additionally, Tudor writers often would describe Highland Scots in Ireland as Scots-Irish or Irish Scots, to give clarification when they were referring to Gaels from Scotland in Ireland and not native Irish Gaels.
The term was used for several centuries. In the 1600s, in both the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) and the Williamite War (1689-1692), Scottish Highlanders from both Ulster and Scotland were commonly referred to as Redshanks in English. Redshanks, sometimes styled ‘Redlegs,’ was also used in the Caribbean to describe poor whites, usually of Gaelic origin, that were the descendants of Highland soldiers exiled there by Cromwell. It was also used to a certain extent to describe all poor whites of Gaelic ancestry, even Irish. In the Caribbean the term ‘Beck e neck’ or ‘baked neck’, meaning ‘red-neck.’ was also used to describe Redshanks. Any possible etymological connection to the Southern USA term Redneck can only be speculated upon, but it is of interest that in the American South this term referred in large part to the descendants of Gaels in Upland and rural areas.
In the 1500s the Gaelic writers in Ireland called the Redshanks, who had settled in Ulster ‘Albanaigh,’ which is Gaelic for ‘Scots.’ The term ‘New Scots’ was also used to describe Redshanks as a way to distinguish them from the ‘Old Scots’ that were the Gallóglaigh clans in Ireland. The Gallóglaigh Scots settled in Ireland circa 1250 AD to 1350 AD and as previously noted, Redshank settlements came later, from 1400 to 1600 AD.
Some consider Redshank as a pejorative term, but many Scottish Gaelic writers when writing in English would describe themselves as a Redshank without any negative connotation. Redshank is still occasionally used to describe people of Highland Scottish ancestry both in Ireland and Scotland.
Redshanks were a common feature of Irish armies throughout the 1500s. Almost all of them came from the western Highlands, primarily Argyll, and from the Hebridean Islands, but there are examples of Redshanks coming from Ayrshire and Gallowayshire in the southwest Scottish Lowlands. In the 1500s the southwest Lowlands still had a sizeable Gaelic speaking population and a culture that was not significantly different from the Highlands. Clann Chaimbeul had lands and alliances in the western Lowlands and they were the largest suppliers of Redshanks. The Caimbeuls drew men and captains from these southwest Lowland connections to serve in their military forces. The Redshanks were also in high demand in both the English Tudor army and with various armies on the Continent. As mercenaries they were considered hardier than English soldiers and superior to Irish soldiers.
The Elizabethan English were very cognizant of the Redshanks in Ireland. The Calendar of the State Papers Relating To Ireland has many letters and reports of English officials in Ulster concerning Redshank activities from the mid 1500s until the early 1600s. English concern and fear of the Redshanks grew greatly when they began to settle in Ulster. The nature of the Redshanks’ function was changing in Irish society. Initially, the Redshanks were only paid for time in service and there was the added benefit that the Irish lords did not need to grant them land to live on. This made them popular with these lords as they were less expensive than Gallóglaigh. However, more Scottish warriors were needed as the wars against the Elizabethan English escalated. The Redshanks were available in much greater numbers than the Gallóglaigh and the broadening scope and changing nature of warfare of the 1500s led some Irish lords, those that could afford it, to have Redshanks settle in strategic areas on their lands.
From the early fourteenth century, the Gallóglaigh were the elite element in Irish armies. They were the armoured heavy infantry and were a warrior caste that functioned much like the samurai did in medieval Japan. The Gallóglaigh were drawn from Hebridean and west Highland kindred groups. Their leaders married into the Irish aristocracy and were granted lands throughout Ireland. These warriors had not changed their basic mode of warfare and accoutrement of battle since the 1200s. They had an iconic dress and weapons which included a conical helmet, coat of mail, and two handed axe. Their accoutrement of war was archaic even in their heyday and was drawn from their mixed Gaelic and Norse heritage. The Gallóglaigh were very effective on the field of battle. They could stand up to the shock of English cavalry and were superior to English infantry. Every Irish lord of any importance had them in his retinue. In the 1500s however, the technology of war was changing along with the scale of warfare in Ulster. Gallóglaigh were expensive to equip and train and it was very hard to organize them in numbers sufficient to counter the growing English threat in Ulster. The Redshanks were available in much greater numbers and became the most effective way to counter the growing English threat.
The Redshanks were very successful soldiers and had distinct advantages over the English soldiers they faced and also over the Irish infantry and Gallóglaigh. The Redshanks were not a structured entity in Gaelic society as were the Gallóglaigh. The Gallóglaigh required very formal, elaborate, training and often the sons of a Gallóglach would follow their father into the profession. In this sense the Gallóglaigh were a bona fide warrior caste and were more than simple mercenaries. The Redshanks were much more flexible. There were some similarities of course and at times there was very little difference between a Redshank warrior and a Gallóglach. The Redshanks were also soldiers for hire and they came from the same Hebridean and Argyll kinships as did the original Gallóglaigh. The Redshanks were trained and hardy, but they were not a Gaelic societal institution as were the Gallóglaigh. As soldiers they were straight forward mercenaries, but they would farm, or fish, or turn to a trade if they tired of a soldier’s life.
The Redshanks were also more flexible even as warriors. They were quick to take up the use of firearms to supplement their two handed swords and bows and they were noted for their excellent marksmanship. They provided the swiftness of Gaelic light infantry, or the Ceithearn, yet also had the dynamic hitting power and shock of the Gallóglaigh. By 1575 Redshank pay was equal to that of the famed Gallóglaigh. An example of their increasing importance in Ireland is found in the 1566 letter to the Elizabethan court by Sir Francis Knollys, an English agent in Ireland. The letter referenced the growing number of Redshanks the English encountered in the Irish armies they faced. Knollys reported to Queen Elizabeth that 300 Redshanks were ‘harder to be vanquished in battle than 600 Irishmen.’
As mentioned, the initial settlement of Redshanks in Ulster was in the Glens of north Antrim. The Biséd family of Scotland had gained control of the Glens circa 1245 AD. The family held the Glens until the end of the 1300s when the head of the clan, Eóin Mac Eóin, failed to produce a male heir. His oldest daughter, Máire Nic Eóin, married Eóin Mór Mac Dónaill of Clann Dhónaill in 1399 AD. The marriage was the beginning of a large migration of Redshanks into north Antrim under Clann Dhónaill’s auspices. These Redshanks settled in the Glens and Route districts that were controlled by Clann Dhónaill. In 1542 John Travers, the Master of the Ordnance in Ireland wrote:
where as a company of Irishe Scottes otherwise called Redshankes daily commeth into the northe parties of Irelande and purchaseth castels and piles uppon the seecoste there so as it is thought that there be at this present above the nombre of 2 or 3 thousande of them within this Realme
In April of 1571 Lord Justice William FitzWilliam wrote to the Privy Council:
The Scots in the North build, manure the ground, and settle, as though they should never be removed.
There is a description of Redshanks found in the early 1600s book Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill (Life of Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill), written by the seanchaí of Clann Uí Dhónaill, Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh:
They were recognized among the Irish soldier by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and claves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks. Many of them had swords with hafts of horn, large and warlike, over their shoulders. It was necessary for the soldier to grip the very haft of his sword with both hands when he would strike a blow with it. Others of them had bows of carved woods strong for use, with well seasoned strings of hemp, and arrows sharp pointed, whizzing in flight.
Ó Cléirigh’s comments referred to an arrival in Derry of a thousand Scottish Gaels lead by Dónall Gorm Mac Dónaill (presumably from Skye) and ‘Mac Leóid’ of Arran in 1594. These Redshanks were in the service of Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill. Ó Cléirigh was an eye witness of the Redshanks living in west Ulster and his comments provide an accurate assessment of their dress, weapons and characteristics. By the late 1500s the unique Scottish dress of the belted kilt was worn by many Redshanks. The two handed swords and bows described by Ó Cléirigh were favourite weapons of the Redshanks. Ó Cleírigh also notes the Gaelic dialect of the Redshanks, which was unique to the Isles and Argyll. As in Antrim, so many Redshanks settled in west Ulster that they influenced the Gaelic spoken there, giving it many elements of Scottish Gaelic.
The Redshank migration to Antrim came primarily from the Hebrides and Kintyre, which were lands controlled by Clann Eóin Mhóir. The Redshank movement into West Ulster came primarily from mid Argyll and western Lennox and was organized by Clann Chaimbeul.