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 –
452. Eighth Army
by Robin Neillands
This book by prolific British military historian Robin Neillands about the iconic 8th Army proved both fair and insightful. Neillands, a former commando, follows the story from North Africa through to the German surrender in Italy in 1945. It is a book of two halves. This might be because the North African campaigns involved a smaller number of troops and the battles were more dramatic than the slog up Italy. Neillands starts his tale long before the 8th Army even officially existed; with the first clashes between the forces of the British Empire and the Italians. When the Germans became involved, the short-comings of the British Army, especially its senior officer corps, became all too evident. Neillands's assessment of the British generals is hard to fault and his assessment of Bernard Montgomery balanced and fair. American military historians, quite rightly, get a hard time in this book for ignorance and bias. I feel Neillands may have been too kind to the odious American general Mark Clark, who decided the personal glory of capturing Rome was more important than destroying a German army. The book is heavily dotted with personal reminiscences and anecdotes from former members of the 8th Army and also with thoughtful analysis of high level strategy. One of Neillands's best books.
451. Hidden Soldier
by Padraig O'Keeffe with Ralph Riegal
When the Irish army turned Padraig O'Keeffe down, he turned to the French Foreign Legion. That must raise questions about recruiting for the army in the Irish Republic because O'Keeffe seems to have taken to soldiering like a duck to water. Former trainee chef O'Keeffe comes over as an engaging but perhaps at times prickly character. He sees service in Cambodia and Bosnia before the changing face of the Legion leads him to leave. Part of the problem seems to have been the same that afflicts to British Special Air Service, namely too many officers there getting their ticket punched on their way up the career ladder. After eight years of unsatisfactory civilian life back in Ireland, O'Keeffe spends the second half of the book as part of a private security outfit in Iraq. It comes very close to costing him his life. His accounts of frontline service ring true but it's hard to know how much is Irish journalist Ralph Riegal's work. The story is hard to verify but some of the checkable facts are a little bit wobbly - for example, the Chinook helicopter is not from the Sikorsky stable; a bit of an "anorak" quibble but if someone can't get that right, what else did they get wrong? This is an easy but worthwhile read.
450. Marked for Death: The First World War in the Air
by James Hamilton-Paterson
The author of this book about the First World War in the Air, James Hamilton-Paterson, brings a refreshing perspective to a subject that sometimes seems to have been done to death. It is more a look at what it was like to fly than a history. Hamilton-Paterson sometimes strays well beyond the years 1914-18, for example when he reveals that only 15% of aircrew from Lancaster bombers during the Second World War succeeded in parachuting from the aircraft whereas US crews had a 50% survival rates, as he harvests fascinating insights about military aviation from its early days through to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is hard to argue with him when he claims, particularly when it came to British pilot training, that many many young lives were needlessly squandered. Paterson-Hamilton, himself privately educated, is also highly critical of the snobbery and elitism that often made a tough job harder than it needed to be. His discussion of what an unstable and unpleasant place Britain was for many people in the years immediately before 1914 is also insightful. Though his claim that for many working class soldiers that life in the trenches was better than life in the industrial slums may be over-egging the pudding a little. Hamilton-Paterson breaks the chapters down into technology, experiences, medical matters and military history; with just enough history to put the text into context. While the focus is mainly on the British and the Western Front, he also looks at winged warfare in Africa, the Alps, the Balkans, and Middle East. This is a lively well written and insightful addition to the canon. It might even be in the running for the 2019 Book of the Year.
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?
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.