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 –
382. Green Armour
by Osmar White
This is an odd little book about the Second World war as fought in the southwest Pacific. It's really three little memoirs written an Australian journalist. I was tricked by the original 1945 introduction being datelined New York and by the use of American spelling into thinking the author was American. His apparent lack of nationalist sentiment in discussing the performance of Australian troops in New Guinea also suggested the sort of impartiality that might be expected from an outsider. But White, by birth a New Zealander, was just trying to be honest. It was his honest opinion that the Japanese were prevented from reaching Port Moresby not so much by the Australian Army but by the jungle. In this book the jungles of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are the real enemy to be defeated. By far the best part of the book recounts White's trek through the jungle to visit a team of Australian commandos operating on the north coast of New Guinea. Modern readers may find White's attitude to the locals as racist, or at least highly patronising, and he is no fan of the Japanese fighting man either. White argues the Japanese were better prepared and trained for jungle warfare than their Australian and American opponents. The book is more memoir than campaign history. But White is good at both conveying his own experiences and those of the soldiers, sailors, and aircrew he interviewed to give a compelling few of the war from the slit trench, foxhole and oozing jungle slime.
by Max Hastings
Prolific military writer and journalist Max Hastings takes a sombre and sober look at the opening months of the First World War in this heavy tome. He, or his researchers, cast the net wide to find letters, memoirs, articles and diaries of those caught up in one of the great tragedies of European history. Soldiers, politicians, housewives, school teachers and children are all quoted in a tale which spans Europe. Hastings pays more attention than many British writers to the war in the Balkans and the Eastern Front. He appears to have gone out of his way to be honest about the performance of the tiny British Expeditionary Force and the part it played in foiling the German invasion of Belgium and north-eastern France - and it disappointing. Hastings places the blame for the war firmly in court of war mongers in the Vienna and Berlin. I am not sure a completely buy into his argument that the Germans attack on France was doomed to fail. The arguments he makes could almost equally be employed to show Hitler had no chance of winning the Battle of France in 1940. But I do agree that from the British and French point of view that the war had to be fought. The Germans and the Austro-Hungarians did terrible, disgusting, inhumane, things in the the territories they occupied. He also has a go at modern British attitudes to the war and the over-emphasis on the writings of a handful of English poets when it comes to perceptions of the conflict. His point that the British are proud of their part in the Second World War because ordinary people gained something from their suffering, the welfare state, while the aftermath of the First was marked by callous betrayal of their interests is well made. Britain was no paradise for the working man before the war; it was a worse place for them afterwards. Surprisingly for such an experienced journalists, Hastings writing style was just a little stodgy.
380. Soldier I SAS
by Michael Paul Kennedy
This was one of the first Special Air Service memoirs by a non-officer, and therefore was a bit of a pioneer in the genre. Fortunately, ghost-writer Michael Paul Kennedy, taking time away from his duties as a music critic, avoids much of the war porn and squaddie-speak which all too often mars British rank-and-file memoirs. Apart from a couple of over-purpley patches of prose, Kennedy tells his man's tale well and in a highly readable way. There are a couple of unexpected twists as we follow the SAS career of Soldier I, actually Peter "Snapper" Winner, from Oman and the dramatic Battle at Mirbat in the early 1970s through the Iranian Embassy Siege and in the Falklands. Kennedy adds to the tension by returning the story to a psychiatric unit and a couple of times I got a bit lost as to which hospital Winner was in and why. I got the impression that life might have been easier for everyone if a dopey helicopter pilot hadn't insisted Winner examine the bodies of six of the men killed at Mirbat before airlifting back to base. This is an easy, quick, but rewarding read.
379. Soldier Sahibs
by Charles Allen
This book is subtitled "The Men Who Made the North-West Frontier" and follows the fortunes of a group of an extraordinary men who often single-handedly extended British power in India. Author Charles Allen is perhaps best known for his Plain Tales from the Raj. Born in India, he knows the country and its peoples well. Sadly, because they did not leave written memoirs behind, Allen was unable highlight the Indians who more than played their part in the Imperial Enterprise; though it's obvious he would have if he could have done so. The book pulls no punches when it comes to the brutality used by this British Band of Brothers but he also points out that many Indians found their rule preferable to that of their own callous and greedy countrymen. Allen takes up his tale at the time of the disastrous British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, which resulted in the destruction of an entire army. He makes it very clear why the force sent by the British to avenge the loss was known as The Army of Retribution. Allen attempts to build his story around the legendary John Nicholson but despite his efforts, the Ulster man remains an enigma. The story follows British fortunes through the unnecessarily bloody Sikh Wars and the annexation of what is now Pakistan's Frontier Province through to the recapture of rebel capital Delhi during the Indian Mutiny in 1857. The story is bloody and cruel, inspiring and fascinating all at the same time. But a couple of quibbles: the 75th Foot was not a Highland regiment at the time of the Indian Mutiny and may not have even been particularly Scottish in character at that time; Lord Frederick Roberts did not die a natural peaceful death, but from something nasty he picked up while visiting British troops in the opening months of the First World War. If Allen got these things wrong, what else in the book is dubious?
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
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