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Crying for The Kilt

The kilted Highland soldier is a Scottish icon. I was reading recently of how the Highland Light Infantry came to regret declining to abandon their tartan trews for kilts in the 1880s when they got the chance. I thought I would share the story. The re-organization of the British army into two battalion units in 1881 involved several shotgun marriages between many proud regiments. Amongst the proudest was the 71st Highland Light Infantry and they were very proud of being a Highland unit. Recruiting figures in Scotland did not justify the number of supposedly Scottish regiments in the British Army. And the number of true Highlanders in the Army did not justify the number of Highland regiments on the books. But the kilted Highland soldier was a central pillar of Scottish identity in the latter part of Queen Victoria's reign. The HLI held its own when it came to attracting recruits born in the Highlands and Islands and felt confident that wearing trews rather than kilts gave the regiment an added distinction and tone. The regiment had originally been kilted but in its early years arduous foreign service meant it was often issued with trousers. By 1808 it had adopted trews and when it was made an elite light infantry unit the following year the kilt was finally abandoned. By the time of the Battle of Waterloo it was wearing standard issue grey trousers but trews were restored around 1829.  Before 1881 there were four regiments wearing trews - The 72nd Duke of Albany's Own Highlanders, the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders, the 74th Highlanders and the 71st HLI. The 71st and 74th formed the new Highland Light Infantry while the 91st became the first battalion of the kilted Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The 72nd, also donned the kilt, as the 1st Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. The new HLI accepted having its depot in the Scottish lowlands at Hamilton. After all, nearby Glasgow provided was the Army's largest single source of recruits born in the Highlands and Islands. Unease grew as the Lowland Scottish regiments, the Royal Scots, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Cameronians/Scottish rifles all donned tartan trews. The HLI felt their Highlandness was being undermined. Then in 1899 General Hector MacDonald tried to kick the HLI out of the otherwise all-kilted Highland Brigade and bring in the old 75th Stirling Regiment which had become the 1st Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders in 1881. Despite it's supposed Scottish county connection, the 75th in 1881 was in reality an English regiment. Outrage in both Scotland and the Anglo-Scottish community in London brought the HLI back into the Highland Brigade fold. Too late the HLI had finally realised that kilts had come to equal Highland regiment in the public mind and trews, Lowland. There were calls to switch to kilts but in 1905 when the War Office divided the Scottish regiments into Highland, administered from Perth, and Lowland, run from Hamilton, The HLI were in the latter grouping.  When the 52nd Lowland Division was formed just before the First World War, the HLI provided battalions to it rather than the 51st Highland Division. The 9th HLI, the Glasgow Highlanders, were a kilted battalion serving in a Lowland Division. The HLI's campaign to return to its original kilted status finally bore fruit in 1947. But it went back into trews in 1959 when the HLI merged with the Royal Scots Fusiliers to form the Royal Highland Fusiliers. Oddly, the senior officers of both regiments were in favour of the RHF being kilted but were over-ruled by Whitehall. Finally in 2006, when the RHF became the 2nd Battalion of the newly formed Royal Regiment of Scotland the iconic kilts were restored.  

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