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In Focus: Scotia McDonald

From Monday to Friday, Scotia McDonald can be found at the University of St Andrews’ IT desk, but on Sundays, she becomes a medieval knight.


Since 2009, McDonald has been a Training Officer for the Shire of Caer Caledon’s medieval fighting re-enactment group, or as they are more commonly known, “the guys who fight outside the library”. She gives up her Sundays to supervise, instruct, and fight the St Andrews students who dare to take up arms. This week, I found myself in the fortunate position of interviewing Scotia via video call to discover how one becomes experienced in the rather unusual skill sets of sword-fighting and spear-wielding, the associated risks, and the crazy experiences she has had. 


It was by joining the St Andrews “Shire of Caer Caledon” that McDonald acquired her skills.


“There’s no professional accreditation for this kind of thing,” she said. “It’s quite reputational.”  Alongside her job with IT Services as a software developer —  the paid job which keeps her “good with rent and food… and swords” — volunteering with the Shire is something she finds fulfilling and a way to engage more with the University.


“It’s actually quite nice to go out and meet students and remember that, ‘Oh yeah, these people who keep emailing me wanting things are in fact people!’” She added, “It’s also a nice level of exercise. It’s not at the level of being a sport. It’s more relaxed.”


Just like how the University sports teams have home and away fixtures, the St Andrews Shire group travels to join training events in other parts of the country. Here, multiple re-enactment groups will get together and put on larger fights or even full-scale shows of historical battles. “A big fight for the Shire is 12 a-side,” McDonald said. “But in these public shows, there are more like hundreds of people on each end.” 

At the end of the academic year, the St Andrews shire hosts a show called Beltane, which marks the start of the fighting festival season. “For a lot of people, it’s the first show of the year, so they come here to knock their rust off,” McDonald said.


The dedicated training has paid off for the St Andrews Shire. McDonald recalls the moment during a joint training event last year when she realised just how skilled the group had become. 


“What I realised was that the lot that we had trained up and taken with us to the event were not just competing, they were really munching through people,” she said.


So, where can medieval fighting skills take you in the 21st century? One answer is into historical film or theatre. Two films have been made with Shire members and one is in production at the moment. McDonald admitted it is tiring. 


“You can see me get progressively redder as it goes on,” she said. “I was fully armoured up on the sunniest day of the year.”

One of the Shire’s previous presidents has gone on to use her training at drama school.


“When she went to learn stage combat, she had a much easier time than anyone else,” McDonald said. “She’d overcome that first step.” 


That first step (a reassuring tribute to our human nature) is apparently just getting over the fear of hitting someone with a sword. “The very first thing I do is get people to hit me, just so that they’ve had that experience,” McDonald reflected, before adding with a laugh, “I also need to assess how hard they are doing it.”


Unfortunately for fans of authentic medieval warfare, movie directors don’t always focus on portraying a realistic fight.


 “A lot of the time when you watch cinematic portrayals of medieval combat, it’s like professional wrestling,” McDonald commented. “Not only are both people working together to make it happen, [but] the move requires that one of them stands very still and position their weapon in exactly the right place and wait for the other.” 


Scotia admitted she has seen a fair few unrealistic fights in medieval-themed films and TV series.


“There’s a lot of pirouette-y things that look amazing on camera but if somebody did that to me in real life, by the time they finished turning, well, I’ll have moved.” 

She clarified, “Not that what we’re doing is completely realistic either. Striking lower is something that we do a lot, because, funnily enough, if you come up and strike someone in the head, we will not take very kindly to that.” 


However, McDonald praised George RR Martin for the first few A Game of Thrones books. The series surprised her with its realistic depiction of duels that she could vividly imagine while tracking the sequence of movements. 

“It felt like he [George RR Martin] had actually spoken to someone about it,” she said.


Unsurprisingly, McDonald has enjoyed many moments of battlefield glory. One of her favourite moments in her fighting career, but perhaps one of the less glorious, was being defeated in combat during "The Children’s Battle” at a fighting event. 


“You hand the children some pipe insulation and you get the crap beaten out of you. By children,” she described. 

In one of these dangerous engagements, she ended up back-to-back with another fighter from a different group. “We were trying to fend off blows until three of the children managed to smack me at once, and I realised I was going down. I think that must be the funniest thing that’s ever happened, being mullered by children whilst someone treats it as the most epic disaster in human history.” 


Jokes aside, McDonald acknowledged the potential danger involved in fighting re-enactment. She remembered one time when she failed to fend off “three very big lads” who were practising a wedge formation against her.


“I landed with my feet in the air. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘did anyone get the number of the bus that just hit me?’” 


In general, she noted that it is the Training Officer’s role to ensure safe combat. 


“The worst we’ve had is a couple of broken fingers, and even that usually results in the wounded confessing: ‘Why was a sword coming towards me, and why did I punch it on purpose?’” The only bloody injury that she remembered being inflicted was simply, “when someone walked into a tree.”


When asked about her weapon of choice, McDonald said she tries to cycle through different ones to keep her skills sharp.


“I have a couple of one-handed swords that I own,” she said. Taking me by surprise, she pulled one down from her wall and showed it to me. “It’s light on the blade and heavy on the hilt in a way that I have gotten used to,” she added.  


Surprised by both the size and, well, the point of the weapon, I ask McDonald how one transports such weapons around St Andrews and across the country. 


“If I’m carrying my sword around, I’ll use a hockey bag,” she said. “We have had them on buses and trains. The legal classification is that you need to have a bonafide reason, but that’s very much in the eye of the beholder, so you have to be able to talk your way out of trouble essentially.” 


She acknowledges that when rigged out in fighting gear, she must appear incredibly strange to the citizens of St Andrews. 


“It’s great fun going to Tescos and realising I can’t use my left arm because I’ve strapped a shield to it.”


McDonald wishes to encourage anyone interested in fighting reenactment to get involved, even if the idea of running at each other with weapons might at first seem daunting. 


“Being nervous is completely normal. So was I, many moons ago. Honestly, a big part of it is just [to] give it a go and have fun. We make it so that training has quite a relaxed atmosphere.”

Image by Scotia McDonald

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I should have mentioned - if you're reading this, and you're interested in taking part but can't find training, please do email shire@! we don't stay behind the library for the full year, since we need to let the grass grow back.

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