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 –
by Stephen Brumwell
British military historian Stephen Brumwell casts a dispassionate eye on one of the most vilified men in American history - Benedict Arnold. Arnold's treachery during the American War of Indpendence, perhaps more accurately 'The First American Civil War', is widely believed in the United States as being motivated by pure greed. But as a British historian writing of time when most white people in North American regraded themselves as British, Brumwell is able to take a more nuanced approach and provide a more sympathetic reason for Arnold's change of side. Brumwell starts the book by putting Arnold's narrowly foiled attempt to turn the key Rebel fortifications at West Point over the British into context and explains how this could have ended what was in reality a very un-civil war in North America. The Eighteenth Century wars in North America are Brumwell's area of expertise and he is an accomplished researcher. He admirably resists the temptation to slow down the story by including non-essential details which would demonstrate the amount of painstaking research which went into the book. Brumwell's Arnold is not a particularly nice man but by his own standards he was an honourable man. Some of the best bits of the book come when Brumwell delves into the murky world of Eighteenth Century espionage. This book was obviously written for the American market but I fear not enough Americans will read it and too few Britons will be interested in this twisted tale of treachery.
412. The Royal Air Force - An Illustrated History
by Michael Armstrong
I have never seen this book sold in Canada for anywhere near the cover price. It is always in the bargain bins. That could be because it is a bit pedestrian. It perhaps falls between too many stools. It is not that lavishly illustrated. Sometimes it seems more concerned with internal service "housekeeping" than anything else with exhaustive lists of which squadron flew which aircraft under what squadron number when. The book is dominated by the Second World War. Perhaps this is fair comment because it was never bigger in terms of personnel and aircraft. And it is not uncritical of the RAF leadership or various British governments. Author Michael Armstrong is in fact Air Chief Marshal Michael Armstrong, a former apprentice who became a pilot and later one of the RAF's top brass. So, his observations should be taken seriously. However, he may just be too much of an insider and product of the RAF. Sometimes the book reads more like a PhD thesis. Was it a bargain? Yes, for the price I paid for it. But I didn't take the bait even when it was in the bargain section bur got it at a library sale. As I say Armstrong may have tried to satisfy too many conflicting readerships. It had too few insights for my taste. Oh, the book was first published in 1993 to mark the 75th anniversary of the RAF.
411. My Mystery Ships
by Gordon Campbell
I knew torpedoing a ship from a submarine was not as straightforward a process as most of the war films make out. Until I read this book I had not grasped how tricky it was for a Royal Navy manned converted merchant ship to blast a submarine with its hidden guns. This book by one of the most successful of the Q-ship captains of the First World War was a real eye-opener. Gordon Campbell refers to these ships, made out to look like tramp cargo boats but packing a powerful short-range broadside, as Mystery Ships. I had not realised that the standard MO for these ships was to get themselves torpeoed and apparently abandoned by the crew in the hope of luring the German submarine to come within range of the concealed guns. In one action Campbell's ship was set on fire by an enemy submarine and the hidden stores of shells were expected to explode at any moment. Campbell decided that despite the danger, the gun crew should remain hidden until the German came closer. What he did not realise was that communications with the gun crew had been severed but the gunners themselves had made the decision to stay at their posts until they could get a clear shot at the sub. No wonder Campbell is unstinting in his praise for his crew and points out several occasions when a single mistake or act of cowardice by one crewman could wreck the whole mission. At first I found Campbell's prose style flat but either he got better at writing as he progressed or I got more used to his turn of phrase. This book, published in 1928, was a real find.
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.
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