Now that all the Scottish infantry battalions, with the exception of the Scots Guards, have donned the kilt it seems odd to discover that around 130 years ago senior Scottish officers regarded it as a drag on recruiting and actually wanted to cut the number of kilted regiments.
The debate in the run-up to the 1881 re-organization of the British army was every bit as heated as the one surrounding the recent amalgamation of all six regular Scottish infantry battalions into one super-regiment. In the immediate run up to the 1881 changes, the only Highland regiment stationed in Britain was the Black Watch.
Its colonel was the only Highland regimental commander consulted about the proposals to double the number of kilted battalions from the five that existed prior to 1881.
Colonel Duncan MacPherson said those five kilted regiments already had enough problems recruiting Scots, never mind true Highlanders, into their ranks.
He suggested it would be better to create one regiment, “The Highland Brigade”, which would recruit from the whole Highland area.
He, like the other Highland colonels, was anxious not to dilute the Highland character of the regiments any further.
The colonels were even prepared to give up their regimental tartans if it meant keeping their recruiting grounds in the Highlands - only the Camerons refused to surrender their distinctive Cameron of Erracht tartan. This scuppered a proposal to put them in Government tartan as the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch.
One former commander of the Gordon Highlanders took a less dramatic line. General J.C. Hay declared more than 120 years ago that he’d worn the Gordon tartan for 30 years and would be sad to see it go.
“But I would rather have the right men in the wrong tartan, than the wrong men in the right tartan,” he said
Up until 1881, the Gordons regarded themselves as an Inverness-shire unit. The regiment had been recruited in 1794 from the Duke of Gordon’s Highland estates, which stretched all the way to Lochaber at the time
But despite this, by 1881 only about half the regiment came from homes in the Highlands and Islands.
Since the early 1870s the Gordon’s base had been at Aberdeen. They shared a depot with the Sutherland Highlanders as part of a scheme drawn up by Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell to link different regiments for recruiting purposes.
Under Cardwell’s scheme, while one of the linked battalions was overseas policing the British Empire, the other would be recruiting and training reinforcements for it. Every few years the two battalions would switch duties.
The new Secretary of State for War Hugh Childers decided the system of linking could be improved if the one battalion regiments were welded together into two battalion regiments. Each of the new regiments would be assigned a specific recruiting area.
These shotgun marriages created some disappointing combinations for the Highland purists.
The Gordons were “married” to the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment in 1881. The 75th had previously been linked for recruiting and training purposes to the Dorsetshire Regiment.
The only possible justification for the union was that the 75th had been raised as a Highland Regiment in 1787 but when the flow of Highland recruits dried up around 1809 it was decided to abandon the kilt in a bid to recruit more Lowlanders, English and Irishmen into its ranks.
For the same reason, three other Highland regiments were deprived of the kilt in 1809. Childers re-organization would put all three back into the kilt. The Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, who had reclaimed at least part of their Scottish identity in 1825 by donning tartan trews, became the 1st Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders; the 73rd Perthshire Regiment put the kilt back on as the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch; and the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders became the 1st Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
The controversy over the future of the Highland regiments became a major sore point for Childers. The powerful Anglo-Scottish community in London were ignorant of the serving officers' proposal to form one kilted regiment, and were lobbying to “save” all five.
Childers, in a humorous letter to Lord Reay, joked about the London Scots’ campaign.
“The tartan question is one of the gravest character, far more important, as your friend suggests, than the maintenance of the union with Ireland,” he wrote.
“All the thoughts of the War Office are concentrated upon it, and the patterns of tartans -past and present - fill our rooms.
“We are neglecting the Transvaal and Ashanti for the sake of weighing the merits of a few threads of red, green, or white.”
There was heated debate over which historic regiments would lose their Scottish identity entirely because there were not enough Scots to fill the ranks of all of them. The present feeling in Whitehall that there are too many Scottish units in the British Army is not new.
The King’s Own Scottish Borderers almost became an English regiment based at York.
Whitehall mandarins felt that the Royal Scots, as the First of Foot, premier line infantry battalion in the British Army, would be better off based and recruiting in London.
The Scottish Lowland regiments were nearly all among the oldest in the British Army and had long followed the English practice of recruiting throughout the British Isles.
The recruiting records for the King’s Own Scottish Borderers for the years 1808 to 1816 show it enlisted 344 Scots, 613 Englishmen, 506 Irishmen and 37 “foreigners”. In 1851, 358 of 696 members of the Royal Scots Fusiliers were Irish.
In the 1860s the Argyllshire Highlanders counted 501 Englishmen and 323 Irishmen in their ranks and only 241 Scots.
As the 19th Century progressed the Lowland regiments became keener to retain their Scottish identities and were increasingly insistent on wearing tartan and having pipers.
Perhaps they were jealous of the attention the Highlanders attracted on the battlefield in their kilts and feather bonnets. Many military men tipped their hats to the Highland regiments when it came to generating publicity for themselves.
The King’s Own Scottish Borderers, after some fierce lobbying, managed to get their recruiting and training depot moved from York to Berwick on Tweed.
Two other Scottish regiments were not so lucky. The 94th "Scotch Brigade" became the 2nd Battalion of the Connaught Rangers with its depot in Ireland. The 99th Lanarkshire Regiment was transformed into the 2nd Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment.
Regimental names were also a big issue back in 1881.
Military chiefs had considered creating a Clydesdale Regiment from the 73rd Perthshire Regiment and 90th Perthshire Light Infantry. Instead, as already mentioned, the 73rd became the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch, while the 90th was joined the Cameronians to become the 2nd Battalion of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). At one point it was suggested the Cameronians and the 74th Highlanders should be combined to create the Cameronian Highland Regiment.
Unlike the amalgamation which created the Gordon Highlanders, the Perthshire-Cameronian marriage was not a great success at first. Right up until the First World War the 2nd Battalion insisted on being referred to as The Scottish Rifles while the 1st would only answer to “The Cameronians”.
Before Childers reforms in 1881 gave the new regiments gained the names and forms we knew them until today, several alternative combinations were considered.
It was suggested the Gordons should join the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders to become the Gordon and Sutherland Highlanders. The Highland Light Infantry and the Ross-shire Buffs faced merger into the Inverness and Ross Regiment. There was talk of merging the Argyllshire Highlanders with the Duke of Albany’s Highlanders to create the Seaforth and Argyle Regiment. And the Royal Scots Fusiliers was at one point going to be renamed the Ayrshire and Border Regiment.
The only Highland regiment to remain unaffected by the 1881 changes was the Cameron Highlanders. Until 1897 when it was ordered to raise a second battalion, it was the only one battalion regiment in the British army.
The Cameron Highlanders had caught the eye of Queen Victoria and was one of her favourites. She had their name changed to the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. It is believed she wanted it to become part of the Brigade of Guards but the thought of two Guards regiments recruiting in Scotland was too much for the War Office.
Despite the concerns of the Highland colonels, the 1881 changes were highly successful. Putting more soldiers in kilts did not hurt recruiting and there are many Scots alive today who are proud to have served in their local regiments.
Even if those regiments had only been local for just over 130 years.
You may also be interested in The Great Kiltie Con
This article was written several years ago; around the time of the creation of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Sadly, it failed to find a home at that time in the Scottish media. I've updated it slightly.
Here's what Alan Cameron, who formed the Cameron Highlanders, had to say in defence of the kilt when he was asked about plans to force his men into trousers in 1804 :
"On my return hither some days ago from Stirling, I received
your letter of the 13th inst. (by General Calvert's orders), respecting
the propriety of an alteration of the mode in clothing Highland
regiments, in reply to which I beg to state, freely and fully, my sentiments
upon that subject, without a particle of prejudice in either way,
but merely founded on facts as applicable to these corps at least as
far as I am capable, from thirty years' experience, twenty years of
which have been upon actual service in all climates, with the description
of men in question, which, independent of being myself a Highlander,
and well knowing all the convenience and inconvenience of
our native garb in the field and otherwise, and perhaps, also, aware of
the probable source and clashing motives from which the suggestion
now under consideration originally arose. I have to observe progressively,
that in course of the late war, several gentlemen proposed to
raise Highland regiments some for general service, but chiefly for
home defence ; but most of these corps were called upon from all
quarters, and thereby adulterated by every description of men, that
rendered them anything but real Highlanders, or even Scotchmen
(which is not strictly synonymous) ; and the colonels themselves being
generally unacquainted with the language and habits of Highlanders,
while prejudiced in favour of, and accustomed to wear, breeches, consequently
averse to that free congenial circulation of that pure wholesome
air (as an exhilarating native bracer), which has hitherto so
peculiarly benefitted the Highlander for activity and all the other
necessary qualities of a soldier, whether for hardship upon scanty fare,
readiness in accoutring, or making forced marches, besides the
exclusive advantage, when halted, of drenching his kilt in the next
brook, as well as washing his limbs, and drying both, as it were, by
constant fanning, without injury to either, but, on the contrary, feeling
clean and comfortable ; whilst the buffoon tartan pantaloon, with
its fringed frippery (as some mongrel Highlanders would have it),
sticking wet and dirty to the skin, is not very easily pulled off, and
less so to get on again in case of alarm or any other hurry, and all
this time absorbing both wet and dirt, followed by rheumatism and
fevers, which alternately make great havoc in hot and cold climates ;
while it consists with knowledge, that the Highlander in his native
garb always appeared more cleanly, and maintained better health in
both climates than those who wore even the thick cloth pantaloon.
Independent of these circumstances, I feel no hesitation in saying
that the proposed alteration must have proceeded from a whimsical
idea, more than from the real comfort of the Highland soldier, and a .
wish to lay aside that national martial garb, the very sight of which
has, upon many occasions, struck the enemy with terror and confusion,
and now metamorphose the Highlander from his real characteristic
appearance and comfort in an odious incompatible dress, to which it
will, in my opinion, be difficult to reconcile him, as a poignant grievance
to and a galling reflection upon Highland corps, as levelling that
martial distinction by which they have been hitherto noticed and
respected, and from my own experience, I feel well founded in saying
that if anything was wanted to aid the rack-renting Highland
landlord in destroying that source which has hitherto proved so fruitful
in keeping up Highland corps, it will be that of abolishing their
native garb, which His Royal Highness the commander-in-chief and
the Adjutant-General may rest assured will prove a complete deathwarrant
to the recruiting service in that respect ; but I sincerely hope
His Royal Highness will never acquiesce in so painful and degrading an
idea (come from whatever quarter it may) as to strip us of our native
garb, (admitted hitherto our regimental uniform,) and stuff us in a
harlequin tartan pantaloon, which, composed of the usual quality that
continues as at present worn, useful and becoming for twelve months,
will not endure six weeks' fair wear as a pantaloon, and when patched
makes a horrible appearance ; besides that, the necessary quantity to
serve decently throughout the year would become extremely expensive,
but, above all, take away completely the appearance and conceit of a
Highland soldier, in which case I would rather see him stuffed in
breeches and abolish the distinction altogether.
" I have the honour to be, Sir, &c.,
(Signed) "ALAN CAMERON."
And here is the 1809 order which "de-kilted" several of the Highland battalions -
Horse Guards, 7th April, 1809.
As the population of the Highlands of Scotland is found to be
insufficient to supply recruits for the whole of the Highland corps
on the establishment of His Majesty's army, and as some of these
corps laying aside their distinguishing dress, which is objectionable to
the natives of South Britain, would, in a great measure, tend to facilitate
the completing of their establishment, as it would be an inducement
to the men of the English militia to extend their services in
greater numbers to these regiments : it is in consequence most
humbly submitted, for the approbation of His Majesty that His Majesty's 72nd, 73rd, 74th, 75th, 91st, and 94th regiments should
discontinue, in future, to wear the dress by which His Majesty's
regiments of Highlanders are distinguished, and that the above corps
should no longer be considered as on that establishment.
(Signed) HARRY CALVERT,
The 1881 reforms put the 72nd, 73rd, 75th and 91st back into kilts.