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 –
339. Rank and File
Compiled by T H McGuffie
I must have read this collection of old soldiers' tales before I was ten years old and have always remembered it fondly. So, I was delighted to find recently that the old memory had not been playing tricks on me and it is actually quite a good read. Rank and File is clue to what the book is all about. McGuffie went through a number of memoirs written by soldiers who had served in the ranks and picked out some of the best of their stories and tales to give an often lively picture of how they lived. Most of the contributors served in the British Army but there are also some from the American Civil War, the French Foreign Legion and the French Army in the Napoleonic Wars. The time period covered goes from the 1640s through to around 1900 and geographic range is worldwide, ranging from South America, Africa, India, Europe and across the globe to New Zealand and Australia. The book follows the men, and one woman, through their experiences in both peace and war, good times and bad. First published in 1964, it was a pioneer of a kind when it came the collected recollections of the ordinary fighting man genre and has stood the test of time of well. But where it really scores is that many of the tales it tells are simply fascinating yarns, good stories, not just Old Soldiers' tales.
338. The Art of Betrayal
by Gordon Corera
This book is subtitled The Secret History of MI6. But of course it isn't. Fortunately, BBC man Gordon Corera himself tipped me off that this book should not be taken too seriously. He refers to an British agent toting a Browning revolver. If the agent had such a thing, it was very rare. Browning made his name designing automatic pistols and machine guns. I don't have a lot of specialist knowledge when it comes to MI6 but when a writer appears to make such a basic mistake, I have to question what else he has got wrong. Perhaps he does not let research get in the way of a well-turned phrase. And of course, the sources he does have are not exactly reliable. Mis-information and deceit are all part of the game. Every journalist should ask themselves when dealing with sources, why am I being told this? In the case of MI6, there is also the question of deflecting the blame for their blunders. Corera makes a good point when he says that arch-traitor Kim Philby cannot be blamed for all the Secret Intelligence Service's failures. No, an accurate and honest history of MI6 is impossible; it's the nature of the beast. What Corera has produced is a collection of anecdotes which give a glimpse at the world of spies. Sometimes his writing is annoying, it took a full page of text to put a name to a part-Dutch traitor but anyone interested enough to pick up the book would know straight away it was George Blake. Get on with it! He also ignores great chunks of the story. No Northern Ireland and, as far as I recall, nothing about the failure in South America to spot an Argentinian invasion force heading for the Falklands. The account of MI6's part in disseminating the false information which was used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq reads like a Mad Hatter's Tea Party. But perhaps that is the way it really was. The wounds are still too fresh and the implications too relevant to today to expect much honesty from sources. This is a reasonably good read but should be taken with a large, a very large, pinch of salt.
337. Highland Warrior
by David Stevenson
This book by St. Andrews University professor David Stevenson was first published in 1980 but wears its age well. It looks, mainly, at Montrose's royalist campaign through the eyes of his Celtic warriors under the command of Alisdair MacColla. Stevenson works hard to rehabilitate the Highlander's reputation from that of the self-serving bull in a china shop imposed on him by Montrose's admirers - a braw fighting man perhaps but a poor commander. The first chapter, about the fall of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles and the rise of the Campbells to domination of the southwest Highlands can be heavy going at times. But it's worth sticking with the book as after that the tale of treachery, violence, intrigue and clan politics in mid-17th Century Scotland and Ireland unfolds. A stalwart cast of clansmen, nobles, religious fanatics and career soldiers people this complicated story as cultures clash and local and national politics mingle. Stevenson does a good job of putting the tragedy of the death throes of Gaelic culture into a wider historical context, while also keeping the story clipping along at a good pace. He also gives serious attention to traditional oral accounts of events alongside the all too often self-serving written records from the time. I have to admit I found some of the written quotes could have done with more modern and standard spellings, as it wasn't always easy to translate them quickly and smoothly in my head. Anyway, Stevenson does a good job of making the case for MacColla being more than just Montrose's barbaric side-kick; more interested in killing and pillaging Campbell territory in a private clan war than doing anything else. The last chapter, about events following MacColla's death, is a bit slow again but does explain to a large extent the clan support for the Jacobites which ended in disaster in 1746. This was an area of Scottish history that I am sad to say I did not know as much about as I thought I did - so, this was a fascinating and valuable read from my point of view.
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