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 –
343. High Command
by Christopher L Elliott
A retired British Major-General takes a look at what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan between2003 and 2010 by putting the workings of the Ministry of Defence and the top brass of the three armed services under the microscope. Basically Christopher Elliott argues that no matter how talented and well intentioned the military chiefs are, the system is dysfunctional and poor decisions are almost inevitable. The top officers in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Army often found themselves out of the loop when it came to discussions and decisions about crucial operations. Elliott interviewed a number of the key politicians, civil servants and military commanders involved and this, added to his own experiences at the Ministry of Defence, means that what he has to say and suggestions he makes should be treated seriously. Some very necessary changes had already been made by the time this book was published 2015 but many more issues still remain unresolved. Elliott argues that the British might do well to adopt several practices already employed by the United States forces. As the British are now very junior partners of the US in military matters this makes a lot sense. Elliott also argues for longer spells in the top jobs as the present two-to-three years in the top job leaves little incentive for long term or very original thought. He was appalled to find there was no record of how certain disastrous decisions regarding British involvement in the two conflicts were actually made. And he adds too many people involved who had power without responsibility or responsibility without any real power. Too many military men were without the formal education required to deal with highly educated careerist civil servants or politicians focused on the short-term goals rather than considering the long-term and bigger picture. And there is also the question of senior officers who found themselves being bypassed or sidelined due to a complicated chain of command. Sometimes Elliott seems too reluctant to offend his former colleagues by criticising them too directly. It's not enough to say that fifty percent of the Chiefs of the Defence Staff failed to do this or that, he has got to name the guilty men.
342. The War That Never Was
by Duff Hart-Davis
This book about British-led mercenaries operating in Yemen in the mid-1960s was a serious disappointment. It is hyped as the first time the full story of the operation has been told and not only that but it was to be recounted in the style of a top notch thriller. It was neither. The writing style is often turgid. People don't climb steep hills in this book, they perambulate percipitous slopes. The bulk of the book appears to be based on files hoarded for decades by two of the usually London-based leading administrators of the small force of British and French mercenaries sent to support tribesmen loyal to Yemen's Royal Family following a military coup in 1963. The reader is left with little feeling for what life was like for the mercenaries. This is the war in Yemen as seen through the eyes of two members of a Tory Old Boys' network. The British Government, thanks to pressure from the United States, could not be seen to openly oppose the Egyptian-supported Yemeni republican government. Much of the British "unofficial" support comes from the part-timers of 21 Special Air Service. Most of them spend their time in Yemen as glorified radio operators. A couple of them may be fairly described as Walter Mitty types. Tory MPs, cabinet ministers even, are in on operation: as are serving or alarmingly recently discharged, members of the real SAS, 22 SAS. The money comes from Saudi Arabia and the weapons drops are carried out by the Israelis. Both countries want to turn Yemen to into Egyptian President Nasser's very own Vietnam. When a Labour government is elected the conspirators defy British policy, official and unofficial, to continue their operations. I guess Old Etonians do indeed know best when it comes to Britain's true interests. This book is far from a full account but it does provide an interesting perspective. Neither is the mercenary operation as little known or written about as the hype on this book's cover would have the reading public believe.
341. Victoria's Wars - The Rise of Empire
by Saul David
I got the paperback and I have to warn you not to be misled by the picture of a bayonet wielding kiltie on the cover. The book winds up about 20 years before members of the Highland regiments wore the kind of uniform shown. The book actually runs from the disastrous British intervention in Afghanistan in 1839 through to the burning down of the Emperor of China's Summer Palace outside Peking in 1860. Historian and author Saul David argues that this was the period when the British Empire was actively expanding and later campaigns were primarily concerned with protecting it from the other European powers. The book also takes in the conquests of Scind, the Punjab, fighting in Burma, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and clashes with China between 1856 and 1860. David attempts to sew his story together by looking at the role of Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, and her numerous Prime Ministers, played in events. But I was left feeling that David had some unused research notes left over from previous projects and was looking for a way to turn them into a book. One of the dilemmas faced by anyone who tries to make a living from writing books is that you have to keep pumping them out. This is a book for someone who hasn't read much about the period. Otherwise, there's not much new material or insight.
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