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.”
Scottish Military Disasters has been launched as an e-book. And it’s been improved.
Preparing the book in e-book format offered the chance to correct some minor errors.
“I wouldn’t say it’s worth someone who has the print version going out and buying the e-book,” said author Paul Cowan.
“But in preparing the e-book we’ve corrected a couple of little irritating misprints and one mistake that probably only annoys me and a couple of my relatives.”
The book is one of the first from the Neil Wilson Publishing catalogue to be released as an e-book.
“Neil’s stable of authors includes such giants as Nigel Tranter, so this is a real honour for me,” said Cowan.
“This will make the book far more accessible to readers in Scotland and around the World – and also in certain countries far more affordable.
“I’ve found where it is reasonably priced overseas, it’s been selling like hotcakes.”
Glasgow-based Neil Wilson said the move into e-books was as a result of public demand.
Wilson teamed up with the respected e-book team at the Faber Factory for the conversion to the new format which will make Scottish Military Disasters available on a variety of devices, including most e-readers and mobile phones.
“We will also go online with Apple soon,” he added.
For details of how to buy the e-book version –
by Peter de Rosa
There may be some out there who believe that an armed insurrection at Easter must have involved angels and saints. If you are one of them, then this is the book about the 1916 Rising in Dublin for you; especially if you are also a Catholic mystic. The rebels, according to de Rosa, were all wise, brave and pure of heart. Many of the members of the Crown Forces are murdering thugs. The first clue that there was something wrong with this book was when the King's Own Scottish Borderers were described as kilted. Not only that but the Dublin crowd in 1914 teased them about their kilts. Anyone who has seen a photo of the KOSB around the time of its men opened fire on the a mob hauling smuggled rifles into Dublin can see they are not wearing kilts. The next clue is the amount of dialogue in the book which is surely a figment of de Rosa's imagination. Of course, perhaps the words were recorded in letters or memoirs. But de Rosa's grasp of the facts suggests a chronic lack of proper research. There was no British 178th Division, though men of the 178th Brigade were sent to Dublin in the days following the seizure of several key buildings in Dublin. Colonel Stewart was killed trying to get out of Khartoum in the mid 1880s, not into it. There are numerous other examples. Much the same has to be said for the thoughts ascribed to people in the book. It's unlikely anyone is privy to them. And the words de Rosa puts in the words of his characters in this grotesque eulogy show a tin ear when it comes to dialogue. I've never come across a Belfast man who used the word "bloomin'". The book dwells at almost pornographic length on the executions, and lead-up to them, of the rebel leaders and in fact ends with the last one. I would actually have been interested in de Rosa's explanation of how the feeling of outrage against the fanatics who fought in the interests of the German Kaiser for their own vision of Home Rule turned into to widespread support for Irish independence. The people of Dublin who shouted abuse at the rebels are in de Rosa's opinion either venal or criminal, often both. I regret picking up this piece of tosh. And I'm disappointed in it because the Easter Rising is a fascinating historical episode with tragic repercussions which have lasted to this day. If I was awarding a prize for the worst book I've read in 2019, this would be without doubt the firm favourite at the moment to win.
424. The Rommel Papers
edited by B H Liddell-Hart
This is a smorgasbord of legendary Nazi general Erwin Rommel's own thoughts and those of some who knew him. I say "Nazi" rather than "German" because Rommel was once the commander of Hitler's bodyguard. The book charts Rommel's growing disillusion with his leader and his eventual forced suicide on Hitler's orders. By far the best bits of the book are Rommel's recollections of the French campaign of 1940 and the war in the Western Desert 1941-1942. These give an excellent insight into how one of the top German practitioners of armoured warfare operated and why he did what he did the way he did it. Rommel intended to write a book about his experiences in the Second World War and these chapters are very polished drafts. The rest of the book is a mish-mash of letters home, memorandums and the recollections of one of his chief sidekicks G Fitz Bayerlein and his son Manfred. The latter two are not entirely satisfying but their inclusion gives the book some narrative continuity. The book was edited, and footnoted, by once highly regarded British military writer Basil Liddell-Hart. He interviewed a number of surviving German generals after the war and was keen to make a case for them being great admirers of his work prior to World War Two. Either that or the generals knew when some flattery and soft-soap might pay off and they told the British writer what he wanted to hear. Perhaps Liddell-Hart was too keen to accept Rommel's own excuses and version of events but this book is still worth reading.
423. The Patrol
by Ryan Flavelle
This Canadian book about the war in Afghanistan was a pleasant surprise and it's a pity I took so long to get around to reading it. I'd put it as one of the two best books I've read about Canada in Afghanistan, the other being The Taliban Don't Wave (Review 141). It's notable that both were written by frontline soldiers. Too many of the others are love letters to the Canadian Army written by journalists; I guess they know what sells. The Patrol, perhaps not surprisingly, is centred on a week-long patrol through Taliban territory in Kandahar province in 2008. Flavelle was the company commander's radio operator. He was also a reservist and in civilian life a university student. Flavelle readily admits to not being the greatest soldier and in fact describes himself as geek. But he was there and tells his tale well. The combination of fear, danger, boredom and physical exhaustion make for a realistic picture of life in an ordinary infantry section. He is also reflective and honest. It all makes for a good read - and with luck will provoke some thought and reflection on the part of the reader.
Canadians Invade Russia
An article I wrote about the 1918 Armistice Day battle against the Bolsheviks in Northern Russia has been published in the Spring/Summer edition of Dorchester Review. It’s a companion piece to “Archangel” but focuses on the role of the 67th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery rather than the 2/10th Royal Scots. The new article is called - Canada’s Winter War
The Defenceless Border
The Canadian - United States border is said to be the longest undefended frontier in the world. The latest Dorchester Review, Canada's best history magazine, carries an article I wrote about a time when though American invasion seemed highly likely, Scottish troops found themselves with useless rifles in their hands. The article is called Undefended Border
The September/October edition of History Scotland magazine included a two page article I wrote looking at who really captured a French general in 1808 and why the credit might have been given to another member of the Highland Light Infantry. The official version of General Brennier's capture by the HLI at Vimeiro has gone down in British Army legend, "We are soldiers, Sir, not plunderers", but what ordinary members of the regiment had to say, or did not say, about the episode paints a less flattering picture of it and its aftermath. As the November/December issue is now available, here is the article The Real Mackay?
Pension Misery Highlighted
The Dorchester Review , a leading Canadian magazine when it comes to history, is carrying an article I wrote about British Army pensioners, many who served under the Duke of Wellington's command, who were caught up in a disastrous scheme which involved them giving up their pension entitlement in exchange for land in the British Colonies or United States. I became interested in what happened to the so-called Commuted Pensioners after realizing one of the main suspects as a contributor to Vicissitudes in the Life of a Scottish Soldier had been lured to Canada under the scheme.
The latest edition of Canada's Dorchester Review features not one but two articles from Paul - Churchill in the Trenches and Drug Store Commandos. The first link takes you to an extended version of the article which appeared in the DR about Winston Churchill's time in command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on Western Front while the second is an article about the Lovat Scouts training in the Canadian Rockies as mountain warfare specialists.
Canadian Connection with With Wellington in the Peninsula?
The British Canadian newspaper ran an article in its May edition about a possible connection between one of the soldiers in my new book With Wellington in the Peninsula and a disastrous government scheme to settle ex-soldiers in Canada while depriving them of their pensions.
Irish Terrorism in Canada
In between working on a major project, I wrote another article for the Dorchester Review here in Canada. The attempt by terrorists to destroy a Canadian canal lock in 1900 is often dismissed as being the work of bunglers. But a closer look reveals a tale of murder and links successful bombing of the House of Commons more than a decade earlier. Few seem to know that one of the gang was found dead with a bullet through his heart. Attempts by US politicians, including President William Taft, to persuade the Canadian authorities to release the terrorists is better known. Dynamite Dillon
Also see - Dorchester Review