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 –
Do us both a favour: Only order from a well established reputable retailer. I wouldn't even risk trying to see if any of the numerous sites offering a supposedly free version do more than download something malicious.
580. Boy Soldiers of the Great War
by Richard van Emden
I had hoped this book would be more about soldiers' experiences in World War One than about the emotive subject of teenage soldiers. To might delight it proved to be. People mature at different ages, I can remember going to high school with a couple of guys who were over six feet tall aged fourteen, so I can see that some folk were capable of soldiering from the age of sixteen. The British Army seems to have leant heavily on boys in their mid- teens to fill the ranks before conscription was introduced. Though it is hard to see how twelve and thirteen year olds were accepted as being nineteen, the age for frontline service. Almost as criminal as the blatantly underage was making upperclass boys in their midteens officers. It's one thing to fire a rifle, it's another for a sixteen year old public school boy to be responsible for 30 or 40 men. I'm pretty sure the Scots and Irish are underrepresented in this book. van Emden writes that when the Army finally pulled the underagers out of the frontlines in any great number many of them were Scots but this is not reflected in the most of the text. But the book does stand as a excellent collection of frontline experiences.
579. Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth
by Nicholas Harman
This 42 year old book was an attempt to take an honest look at the legendary Second World War evacuation of the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940. And in general, freelance print and television journalist Nicholas Harman makes a fair fist of it. The book has more to say about how the Royal Navy muddled through than it does about the Army. The BEF comes over as poorly equipped, poorly trained and poorly led and in Harman's very rarely gets to grip with the Germans. And when it does fight many of the Tommies are ordered to take no prisoners. The French do most of the fighting, unaware that the British are planning to desert them. The RAF barely even tries, preferring to keep its powder dry for the expected Battle of Britain. Churchill basically has to order the Royal Navy to evacuate French troops and even then the Senior Service bungles it.
578. Twentieth Century Warriors
by Field Marshal Lord Carver
Sadly, this book proved be somewhat of a curate's egg, good in some parts, not so good in others. The former British Chief of the Defence Staff takes a look at some of the major military players of the 20th Cenury - Britain, France, the USA, Germany, Russia, Japan, and China through the years to 1986. As a Cold War Warrior himself it perhaps shouldn't come as surprise that Michael Carver's strongest chapter is on Russia/the Soviet Union. Know your enemy, I suppose. The weakest is the British chapter. I'm not clear whether Carver was simply blind to the faults of the British or simply did not want to offend his former masters and colleagues. I felt he wanted to say more about the Americans but decided to mute his criticism. The look at armies, the French and German in particular, which dabbled too much in politics provide a much needed warning. The flashes of insight and clarity are balanced by too much coyness. Just about a worthwhile read.
Scottish Forrest Gump
Visitors to this site surged over a 24 hour period last month. Hits went up ten- fold. The bonus visitors were all interested in the tale of American- Irishman Dynamite Dillon. The article first appeared in the Dorchester Review Following this link gives access to more material from the DR.
The Canada Scam
I was asked by the Dorchester Review to write an article about how part of Edinburgh Castle is officially part of Nova Scotia in Canada due to a legal loophole dating back to the 1620s. That turned out not to be quite true and it might be just as valid to say that Nova Scotia is part of Edinburgh. Anyway, I found a court case from 1831 which involved this legal fiction - Selling Nova Scotia
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?