Guest writer Jennifer Morag Henderson delves into a new edition of the Highlander's extraordinary memoirs

AN expert swordsman who fought at Killiecrankie, and a fencing-school manager and brothel-keeper, Donald McBane’s life was not without colour.

Now a new edition of the remarkable memoir by the legendary combatant from Inverness has been republished – fittingly by an American book-lover who also happens to be a stunt co-ordinator for stage and screen.

First published in 1728, McBane’s book The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion has been described as “possibly the most ingenuous autobiography in the English language”.

Defying all comparison, it tells of McBane’s life in the army, fighting at the battles of Mulroy and Killiecrankie and then across Europe, as well as his sideline activities of duelling and running a fencing school, a brothel, gaming house and ale house, and finally his “retirement” working as a prize-fighter.

This new edition of McBane’s autobiography faithfully reproduces the original text and illustrations, and also contains new research into his extraordinary life story – which proves that this most unusual of memoirs, that “reads like a strange, drunken dream”, is actually based wholly on fact.

It is the work of Jared Kirby, a fencing master based in New York who teaches actors fight co-ordination, and who has worked with performers from shows such as The Walking Dead and films including The Hunger Games and Captain America: Civil War.

Kirby first came across a copy of McBane’s autobiography on a trip to Scotland several years ago, and became fascinated with McBane’s descriptions of fencing method and, of course, the extraordinary life story of a man he calls “an insane character”. Donald McBane was born in 1664 in Inverness, where his family kept a farm and public house. He was originally apprenticed to a tobacco-spinner (tobacconist), but, when his boss started to stint on the size of the meals he was served, McBane decided to leave and enlist in the army.

His first taste of fighting was at what became known as the Battle of Mulroy in 1688. This is sometimes called the last true clan battle, and was fought between MacDonald of Keppoch and the Clan Chattan confederation led by Clan Mackintosh.

The Mackintoshes were given some government support and soldiers – including Donald McBane – but they were no match for MacDonald of Keppoch, who has been described as “virtually a professional bandit”. “The MacDonalds came down the Hill upon us without either Shoe, Stocking, or Bonnet on their Head,” wrote McBane in his autobiography. “Seeing my Captain sore wounded, and a great many more with Heads lying cloven on every side, I was sadly Affrighted, never having seen the like before … I took my Heels, and Run Thirty Miles, before I looked behind me …” The Mackintoshes and McBane’s government troops were soundly beaten.

McBane does a fair amount of running away in his book – frankly, it’s surprising, given his adventures, that he survives as long as he does – and his most famous escape was at the battle of Killiecrankie. Fighting on the government side against Claverhouse’s Highland Jacobite army, McBane and his colleagues were once again soundly beaten. Chased by a Highlander waving a pistol and sword, McBane ran to the River Garry, where he jumped 18 feet over the deep water at a place now commemorated in the name “Soldier’s Leap”.

After accidentally falling asleep on a troop ship at Leith after a few drinks, McBane woke up on his way to Holland and began his career on the continent, starting at the siege of Namur, which was part of the Nine Years' War against France, where he was seriously wounded – not for the last time.

McBane had begun to take lessons in fencing after an argument with a senior officer about the delivery of his pay, and he became an expert swordsman. However, his “Highland Blood warmed” in arguments, leading to several duels: after wounding another senior officer he was obliged to leave one regiment for another, and ended up in Ireland for a time, where he begins to tell in his autobiography stories not only about fighting but also about women, as he convinces a local girl that they are married even though the priest has refused to go through with the ceremony.

Back on the continent again, McBane set up a fencing school to supplement his army pay. He soon realised that other fencing masters were making even more money by running gaming tents and brothels as well. He challenged four of these good swordsmen to duels, fighting and defeating them one after another like a rogue D’Artagnan until he made the last one promise to cut him into the brothel and gambling business. “With this and my School, I Lived very well For that Winter,” McBane remarked with his characteristic matter-of-factness.

McBane continued his extraordinary career, keeping up to 16 “professors of the sword” and 60 women at his fencing school/brothel and making enough money to marry. His wife, a formidable woman, helped in the business by selling beer and “genever” (gin) to soldiers.

By 1709, she and McBane had at least two children. During the battle of Malplaquet their three-year-old son was left in the safe-keeping of another woman, but when the child-minder heard that her husband was dead, she rode with the child to the front line, then, as McBane describes in a masterpiece of understatement, “she threw the boy at me; then I was obliged to put him in my Habersack [rucksack] … as we were inclining to the Right, the Boy got a Shot in the Arm, I then got a Surgeon and dressed it, I had neither Bread nor Drink to give him, I got a Dram to him from an Officer and a Leg of a Foul, then he held his Peace…” McBane’s wife rescued her son the following morning.

McBane’s autobiography continues in this breathless style, recounting the 27 times he was wounded (not including the occasion when he was blown up by his own hand grenade), his 16 battles, 15 skirmishes and nearly 100 duels.

In 1712 he decided to leave the army and went to England, where he opened an ale house in London and took up “prize-fighting”. Despite the apparently unbelievable details McBane recounts, the fascinating introduction which is included in Kirby’s new edition of McBane’s work shows that the “historical record is on the side of the old Highlander”.

Kirby has worked with historian Ben Miller and illustrator Sarah Goebler to produce a faithful reproduction of McBane’s text alongside new artwork that replicates McBane’s diagrams of his fencing style. McBane’s practical treatise includes details on the best methods of fighting with swords including the backsword, small-sword and Spanish rapier, and other weapons such as the Lochaber axe and pistols. The section on how to deal with “dirty tricks” is notorious and clearly based on personal experience.

THROUGH Miller’s careful research in newly digitised newspaper archives, Kirby’s team discovered that the extraordinary stories in McBane’s autobiography are not only true, but are in fact somewhat underplayed.

For example, where McBane stated briefly that he took part in exhibition fights, it turns out that he actually fenced more than 30 times in the Beargarden gladiatorial contests in London, including one fight against “England’s most celebrated gladiator, James Figg”. Figg maintained a record of 270 wins and was considered Britain’s top swordsman. Sadly, there is no record of the outcome of Figg’s fight against McBane.

McBane’s final stage or exhibition fight was held in Edinburgh in 1726. Now aged 63, he comprehensively defeated Irishman Andrew O’Bryan, after which he resolved “never to Fight any more but to Repent for my former Wickedness”.

McBane has long been a figure of fascination to Kirby and others in the small historical fencing community, but his laconic autobiography deserves to be better known and this edition and the new research it contains will hopefully bring him to a wider audience of those with an interest in Scottish history.

Kirby says that he used to look on McBane’s memoir as “a fantastical exaggeration of self-importance”.

Now he wonders what else he did that he didn’t even tell us about.

The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion is available direct from, or via Amazon, ISBN 9781542618328