As did you all, I read with great enjoyment Craig’s “Tickling The Wire” post, which set me to ruminating upon his observation that our bad-tooth, grisly-and-bubbling-infections-and-finally-death past is a mere camera-flash away from us.
This, of course, set me to contemplating the wild, colorful career of Donald McBane. As one does.
You see, Donald McBane should have died young of some grisly and bubbling infection after being shot, slashed, stabbed, blown up and beaten any number of times. Instead, this 18th century Scottish Highland soldier, gambler, racketeer, whoremonger, and expert swordsman lived to a fair old age, still crossing swords with foes into his 60s.
Donald McBane was a rough-and-ready character with a pirate’s nose for drink, loot, and quim — but he was also a close student and master instructor in his chosen calling as a swordsman. His treatise The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, written in 1728, is highly regarded by modern practitioners of the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). McBane offers instruction in the Highland broadsword and backsword, the spadroon, the quarterstaff, and his preferred weapon, the small sword.
The memoir portion of the book, recounting his campaigns in the service of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, is considered something of a classic in military literature. Historian and swordsman Jared Kirby, with assistance from HEMA expert Ben Miller recently produced a heavily annotated edition. Miller observes:
“His life reads like a strange drunken dream — a whirlwind of blood, wine, warfare and women — at turns … intense, shocking, horrifying, humorous, and never for a minute boring.”
The man was a living, breathing Pogues song…
It’s of a gentleman soldier
As sentry he did stand
He saluted a fair maiden
By a waiving of his hand
So then he boldly kissed her
And he passed it off as a joke
He drilled her up in the sentry box
Wrapped up in a soldier’s cloakAnd the drums are going a rat-a-tat-tat
And the fifes they loudly play
Fare you well polly my dear
I must be going away
McBane was born near Inverness, Scotland, in 1664, and went for a soldier in his early 20s and fought in the clan battles that marked the civil war known as The Killing Time. It was in these battles that he made his bones with broadsword and targe (a circular shield).
He fought in the service of King William of Orange in the massive battle at the beautiful Pass of Killiecrankie in 1689, in the first Jacobite Rebellion.
McBane was unfit for settled life, and went abroad to seek his fortune as a soldier in Britain’s nearly constant Continental brawls with France. Seeking one’s fortune as a soldier at the turn of the 18th Century meant setting up a school of swordsmanship, running gambling rackets and the procuring and marketing the services of “Campaign Ladies” in the tent cities that followed European armies of the day. McBane quickly proved himself most enterprising. Of course, that royally pissed off the established racketeers, and just like any gangster McBane had to fight for supremacy and respect.
“They took all Methods and ways to do me Mischief, which obliged me to be constantly on my Guard, and to fight Twenty-four Times before they would be perswaded that I was Master of my Business.”
And, of course, any businessman looks for growth opportunities. In winter quarters in Flanders:
“I continued keeping my School. A short Time after I came to know that there was Four good Swords men in the Town that kept Women and Gaming, the Wheel of Fortune and Ledgerdemain (card tricks) by which they got vast Money. I resolved to have a share of that Gain, at least to have a fair Tryall for it. I Fought all the Four, one by one…”
He whipped them all. The last of the four tried to escape the superior bladesman by the age-old expedient of turning tail and running. McBane simply stabbed him in the ass.
“I tarried there till Night, then went Home to my Quarters and called for his Commerads that same Night, who agreed to give me a Brace of Whoors and Two Petty Couns a week. With this and my School I lived very well for that Winter.”
McBane would set himself up for comfortable living throughout his illustrious military career. In a “camp of pleasure” at Breda in the Netherlands, McBane married and set his wife up as a wine-seller.
“So we lived very well, and my wife was never jealous of me.”
Pretty sure that means what we think it means…
Another method of acquiring loot, which was ever McBane’s primary preoccupation, was to “go Partizaning,” which essentially meant authorized raids through the countryside, stealing whatever wasn’t bolted down, and capturing French military prisoners, who could be ransomed. McBane displayed considerable tactical acumen in these raids and, as usual, he made bank and built on his reputation as a badass.
McBane fought in the epic Battle of Blenheim in August 1704 where Sir Winston Churchill’s illustrious ancestor delivered a victory as significant as Waterloo over the forces of King Louis IV. Charles Spencer (Princess Di’s brother) presents an excellent documentary on the campaign, with is available on Amazon Prime and Youtube.
The battle went very well for the Duke of Marlborough — not so well for McBane. Wounded and left for dead on the battlefield, he went nearly mad from thirst in the August sun and drank dead men’s blood, which made him terribly sick. His comrades finally found him and took him off to a hospital set up to treat the thousands of wounded from the major battle.
He convalesced for a month or so, setting up gaming tables and fighting over them with another hospital inmate, an Italian.
“…you may judge how the spectators did laugh to see two lame men fight.”
Perhaps his worst wounding came from a grenade failure during the Siege of Liege:
“I took up one of them with design to throw it amongst the enemy but it prevented me and broke in my hands and killed several about me and blew me over the pallasades, burnt my cloaths about me so that the skin came off me. I and my gold fell among Murray’s company of granadeers, I was stead like an old dead horse from head to foot, they cast me into water to put out the fire about me. The fort was taken and plundered; our army got the money that was to pay the French army.”
As always, McBane kept his eye on the prize.
McBane retired from the army at the age of 49 and moved to London, bearing wounds from blade and musketball, and allegedly a silver plate in his busted skull. He continued to keep a school of the sword while his wife tended bar at their alehouse. The couple may have also run a brothel. McBane took up prize fighting — not pugilism, but challenge fights with various types of sword. He fought in the notorious Bear Gardens in London. These were not duels of honor and not to be fought to the death — but given the state of medicine, wounds could easily lead to death by “grisly and bubbling infection.”
In his final bout, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a 63-year-old McBane took on a much younger opponent, an Irishman named Andrew O’Bryan. He wounded the man seven times and broke his arm with a falchion.
McBane seems like a character out of picaresque novel, and his exploits and escapades seem the stuff of legend. However, Ben Miller went to great lengths to turn up corroborating sources, including archived newspaper challenges for his gladiatorial bouts. His memoir is quite matter-of-fact and understated, and there doesn’t seem to be much stretching of the blanket.
Donald McBane, who finally gave up the ghost at age 68, was the real, wicked and wild deal.