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.”
A Coyote armoured vehicle on patrol near Kandahar Airfield.
Scottish Military Disasters has been launched as an e-book. And it’s now 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 –
331. Field Guide to the Kokoda Track
by Bill James
Why would would someone buy a guidebook for a treck through the New Guinea jungle that they will probably, almost certainly, never undertake? Because that guidebook is actually an excellent history of some of the key battles of Second World War. The Kokoda campaign is little known outside Australia and author Bill James argues that it's not even well enough known there. Basically, raw Australian troops held off a Japanese force marching across New Guinea on a jungle track until the enemy ran out of steam and reinforcements arrived. James has collected material from a wide range of memoirs and regimental histories to make the events of late 1942 and early 1943 alive. He also visited the scenes of the some of the toughest fighting with some of the men who took part in it. And the fighting was tough, and miserable, and bloody, and merciless. Because it is intended as a guide to hikers retracing the route of the fighting, both the Australian retreat and advance, the format is geographical rather than chronological. After a historical introduction, the book takes up the story in Port Morseby, the target of the Japanese offensive. The survey of the old military installations around the capital of Papua New Guinea is an excellent reminder of just what goes into supporting the soldiers in the frontline. The tales James coaxed from the veterans and selected from the memoirs give an excellent picture of men at war - and in trouble. Tales of bravery and what the Australians call "mateship" outnumber those of cowardice - but maybe that's how it was. The book has few Japanese contributors and serves to remind how unnecessarily cruel and murderous the Nipponse could be to both enemy soldiers and civilians. James has also harvested a rich crop of illustrations, both from the campaign and contemporary, and the book has many helpful maps. I would say this book is required reading for anyone interested in the little known, outside of Australia anyway, Second World War campaign.
330. Six Days
by Jeremy Bowen
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen tackles the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and her neighbours Egypt, Syria and Jordan. And as is to be expected, the reaction to this 2003 book attracted howls of anti-semitism from the Pro-Israel lobby. Certainly his claims that Israeli soldiers murdered prisoners and civilians and looted Arab property could be expected to draw the ire of those who favour the plucky little Israeli school of history. Bowen argues the 1967 War was indeed a David Vs Goliath affair - only the Israel was military Goliath. Not that, according to Bowen, all Israelis were in on the secret of how much better prepared for war their country was than their Arab neighbours. Bowen marshals his facts well and while obviously no fan of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank he is also critical of the Arab leaders who so mishandled the war and in fact the whole crisis, sacrificing soldiers and civilians needlessly. The United States of America and the Soviet Union hardly come out of this book well either. Bowen gets away with rapid changes of location and side in a fast paced timeline based narrative which encompasses military, diplomatic and civilian experiences. He succeeds in putting a human face to war and suffering both during and after a war which is still not, fifty years later, still not really over.
329. Sweating the Metal
by Flt Lt Alex "Frenchie" Duncan
This is a look at the experiences of Royal Air Force Chinook pilots in Afghanistan. I was suspicious about the better than average quality of the writing, so I looked beyond the author credit on the cover page and found the copyright is not Duncan's name but that of journalist and military writer Antony Loveless. The pair tell Duncan's tale well. There are also contributions from some of Duncan's fellow pilots sprinkled throughout the book. Most of the best stories relate to picking up wounded soldiers and civilians while under fire. Duncan comes over as a nice enough bloke; he takes pain to stress that the bravery awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Force Cross, reflect as much on the excellence of his co-pilots and crews as on his own actions. He heaps effusive praise on the squaddies manning isolated bases dotted around Helmand Province. His rather more dismissive comments about some members of the military who never left their bases but bought great big killing/combat knives before their return to the UK appears to have raised the ire of those who never left their base and bought great big killing/combat knives before their return to the UK. I liked the fact that towards the end of the book Duncan admits he is not that keen on returning to Afghanistan. The early chapters focus on the training Duncan had to go through before being trusted with an expensive and complicated Chinook twin-rotor helicopter. There is a very odd mistake when it comes to the name of the American military supermarket known as the PX; the name appears in the book as BX, mistranscription from tape or a slip of the typesetter's finger? It would be interesting to know more about the mechanics of Duncan and Loveless's collaboration. At least I'd be interested. This is a well constructed look at life in the firing line and helps widen the public's picture of what went on in Afghanistan.
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
The Dorchester Review, based in Ottawa, Canada, recently published an article I wrote about one of the more eccentric of the British regiments - Victoria's Royal Canadians. Most Canadian historians seem unaware of that a regiment was raised in Canada to fight in the Indian Mutiny.
The Winter Issue of the Scottish American Military Society's magazine The Patriot contains a two page interview with yours truly. I thought the least I could do in return was give them a plug. At a later date, I'll see about either linking to the article or posting a version of the interview on the SMD site.
It’s been a busy few weeks. Last Saturday (Nove. 3) the Scottish Daily Mail published a two page spread under my byline about the 2/10th Royal Scots campaign against the Bolsheviks in northern Russia 1918-1919 titled "The Tsar's Fighting Invalids". I’ve found a link to a site which carries the article but before I post it I want to make sure I’m not sending you somewhere you might regret going. The Daily Mail article let the cat out of the bag when it comes to the fact that I’m working on a new book – working title, Jock and Rorie – Tales of Scottish Soldiers. Read about the Forgotten War