Author interview with Ben Kerr

By | 18th June 2019

1) You made a reproduction of Donald McBane’s book The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion that we published back in 2015. Can you tell us a little about this book, and do you think it is still relevant for HEMA practitioners today?

McBane’s work was the basis of my MLitt dissertation at the University of Glasgow. Upon reading it I knew that it was something special and the copy at the University was in pretty bad shape at the time. I reached out to the holders of the other copies and began the process of photographing them to prepare a reproduction. I would have liked to create a facsimile but none of the extant copies were in good enough condition so instead I went to work reproducing the work letter by letter, image by image.

For those who have not heard of him McBane was a Scottish soldier who fought on the government side at Killiecrankie and later across Europe. Born in Inverness he had a fantastic career and his memoires provide an illuminating view of the common soldiery during his time period. That said McBane was anything but common, in every town he visited he would beat up the local pimps and gamemakers and take over their business.

If there was an opportunity to make money on campaign you better believe McBane was somehow involved.

2) It seems like McBane was a bit of a character. Can you give us a brief summary of who he was and why you find him interesting?

McBane was a reformed rogue when he wrote his memoirs. As I said, he gives a series of fantastic stories but he does not overly glamourize himself, he loses a LOT of fights. He is also honest about his business dealings and things he did in his early career that are cringeworthy.

I find him fascinating as his memoires give credence to his advice regarding fighting. We know that this wasn’t some printmaker turned student of swordplay or worse a shop keeper wanting to offload some old swords, he was a soldier who had fought in battle, fought in duels, fought in prizeplays, and fought everyone from nobles to dirty fighting scallywags. Also for a historian to hear a first-hand account from a common soldier rather than a high ranking officer is rare and always a pleasure.

3) His life story sounds incredible – perhaps a bit too much so. Do you think his story is based in fact and reality or do you think he just made it all up?

I will be the first to tell you that McBane clearly does not let the truth get in the way of a good story, a true Scottish storyteller. That said there are aspects of his story that we have been able to verify via other sources. The most famous is his final prizefight in Edinburgh where he fought a young Irish Rogue and won while in his 50’s. This fight is reported in the newspaper, which is a brilliant secondary source.

I think his memoires have truth in them, even if there is exaggeration, and they do provide a glimpse into his life.

4) What sort of swords would people have been using when training the methods set out by McBane?

McBane appears partial to a spadroon but he regularly changes his sword to whatever is available throughout his story. I think the section where he gives advice would be applicable to a wide array of swords from this period. Personally, I use it with broadsword as well as broadsword and targe often. McBane is not presenting a system, he isn’t Roworth or Angelo, but rather has a useful additional set of information to work alongside these systems.

5) Has your understanding or interpretation of McBane’s system(s) changed at all since you published the book with us? If there have been any changes, can you say what they were and how they came about?

Not so much as I didn’t set out to interpret but rather to reproduce the original work.

The Expert Swordman’s Companion, 1728 is now available with a 10% discount for the rest of this week: