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 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 –
391. In Foreign Fields
by Dan Collins
This book sat for too long on the "to-read" pile. It is based on interviews with 25 British winners of bravery medals awarded for work done in either Iraq or Afghanistan. I think I was put off my the disappointingly sloppy "Spoken from the Front"; a similar collection which bears the imprint of the Andy McNab brand. But former sports journalist seems to have had a knack of putting his subjects at ease and getting them to open up. Most come over as decent modest people. Many of them, I think, were genuinely embarrassed that they got a medal while the courage of those around them went officially unrecognised. The stories and experiences vary as widely as the sort of the people who serve in the British military. Some touch on the transition back to peace-time soldiering, others on how it feels to kill people. There are also tales of what is like to see a friend, or respected colleague, die in action only a few feet away. A couple lament the lack of understanding and interest the British public appeared to have when it came to events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some admitted to having trouble adjusting back to normality and domestic life. It's pretty obvious that Collins's list of questions included "How and When did you find out you were getting a medal" and "Tell me about meeting the Queen". This book proved to be a sensitive but reasonably honest account of British men, and one woman, at war. I may well put it on the shortlist for Book of the Year. If I do, it will be the first book to make the 2018 list.
390. Agincourt: A New History
by Anne Curry
This book by University of Southampton history professor Anne Curry is obviously a labour of love. It is the results of years of poring through 15th Century accounts of the historic clash between the English army of Henry V and a French force. Curry also leans heavily on the financial records of the treasuries of the two countries. The book's coverage of the actual fighting on 25 October 1415 is short - because 15th Century accounts of the battle are vague. As a professional historian, Curry is reluctant to venture too far from the written records. Much of the book is along the lines of "So-and-so says this but Such-and-such says that". I wish Curry had given her opinion on who to believe a little more often than she did. She after all knows the sources better than the average reader and can do a better job of evaluating their validity. One thing she does do is look at how much what would nowadays be known as spin-doctoring goes on in nearly all the accounts, depending on which faction (even within the French and English camps) the source favours. This was an interesting read but not always a smooth one.
389. Maverick One
by David Blakeley
This military memoir turned out to be better than I expected - but then I wasn't expecting much. The writing and structure soon struck me as a little too smooth for a beginner and so I began to suspect a ghost writer might be involved. Sure enough, the copyright is shared with Damien Lewis, who seems to specialise in working to help soldiers tell their stories. Lewis has a patchy record (See Review 347 below) when it comes to this kind of book. But in case of Capt. Blakeley, the result is readable and reasonably interesting. Blakeley was from a working class area but became a leading junior show-jumper. He then managed to get himself into the Ministry of Defence boarding school at Welbeck for his final year before going to Sandhurst for officer training. It had been understood that he would become an officer in the artillery or engineers but he managed to swing it to join the Parachute Regiment. Much of the book is taken up by the time he spent on the tough selection course to join the Pathfinder platoon and in fact this book is the follow-up to a best-seller detailing his sole combat mission in Iraq. He also gives accounts of his time as an officer with the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The Kosovo material was interesting to me because I was there around the same time, though not in Pristina. I would also have liked to have read more about his first platoon command. His men had only recently returned from Northern Ireland and there would seem to have been some morale problems. Oh, the Pathfinder selection course provides some interesting tips for hard-core hillwalkers. As I say, this was better than expected. And I never expected it to live up to the promises contained in the blurb on the back of my paperback copy. I think this book might best be taken with a pinch of salt handy.
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