The debate over whether Scotland produces some of the finest fighting men in the World could go on for ever. What is certain is that pride in the military is woven into the Scottish psyche and that that pride has been ruthlessly exploited by the British Establishment.
In the popular imagination the Scottish soldier is a kilted infantryman. The infantry are the men who go through the meat grinder in almost every war and Scotland has provided the British Empire with more than its fair share of infantry. In the fighting after D-Day in 1944 a British study suggested that although the infantry made up only 25% of the troops involved; they suffered 71% of the casualties.
(While I can’t put my hand on my heart and say my research for Scottish Military Disasters points to the Scots having the worse military record in Europe, for most of recorded history it hasn’t been very spectacular. People remember Bannockburn because it is one of the few battles against the English that the Scots won. Even when the English were heavily outnumbered, at battles such as Flodden in 1513 and Dunbar in 1650, they still managed to win. Many English, and Irish and Welsh soldiers for that matter, regard their Scots counterparts as a bunch of blowhards who write cheques with their mouths that their battlefield performance fail to honour. The counter-argument goes that the Scots go that extra mile to back up their boasting.)
But where does this Scottish martial pride which encouraged so many young Scots into the infantry during two world wars come from?
The answer goes back to the period of just over 50 years which followed the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746 and in a piece of massive cynicism. The wild Highland charges which defeated the Government forces at Prestonpans and Falkirk could not fail to impress a British Establishment looking for troops to fight in the conflict with the French around the globe over domination of international trade. The hopeless charge of the Highlanders at Culloden into a blizzard of musket fire coming from the well-drilled regulars of the British Army at Culloden only served to encourage the notion that here was a pool of manpower well worth tapping.
General James Wolf, a veteran of Culloden who was die in the battle against the French which brought Canada into the British Empire, summed up very nicely the official attitude to the remnants of one of the last warrior-based societies in Europe. “They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country and no great mischief if they fall,” he wrote in 1751. Recruiting Highlanders into the army also drained off the potential recruits for any further rebellions. Later the army was dumping ground for young males deemed surplus to the requirements of a remorseless economic system which left very little room for people in the Highlands and Islands.
The Gaelic-speaking Highlanders proved a great success from the first. They came from a society which valued military prowess and reckless courage almost above anything else. Unlike much of the rest of the British Army of the time they were not otherwise unemployable semi-alcoholic ne’er-do-wells driven by the threat of the lash. They took well to day-to-day military discipline but were difficult to control in battle due to a tendency to attack the enemy no matter the odds, or their orders. Their frequent refusal to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds led to unnecessary casualties. But sometimes rash charges and a refusal to bow to what seems obvious defeat can win battles.
It’s not clear today how many of the Highlanders were willing warriors in the cause of empire. The clan chiefs had contracts with the British Government to raise a certain number of troops by a given date and they weren’t too fussy about how they did it. Tales of coercion and threats go back to the early days of the Highland regiments. The threat of family eviction unless a strapping son put on the red coat was a powerful one. How else do you explain why every man selected in 1799 by the Duchess of Sutherland’s cousin General William Weymss for service in the 93rd Highlanders showed up for its first parade? Weymss and his henchmen went to every parish on the Sutherland estates and inspected the young men. The best specimens were given a pinch of snuff and told they were now soldiers.
Even with what may have been a natural enthusiasm for soldiering backed up by coercion, many of the Highland regiments still had to recruit Lowland Scots and Irish to bring their numbers up to the 1,000 or so needed.
By 1809 the Highlanders’ rash courage in battle meant high casualty rates at the same time as the pool of recruits had run almost dry. Britain had been involved in an almost constant war with the French since before Culloden. The conflict had been fought out in northern Europe, North America, India, Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean and Egypt. The Highland regiments had fought the French and her allies around the globe and had also taken heavy losses in the American Revolution.
One of attractions for Highlanders of military service was that they could wear the kilt, which had been outlawed for civilians after Culloden. The civilian wearing of kilts was legalized again in 1782 but by 1809 the kilt were seen as a hindrance to recruiting people from other parts of the United Kingdom to replace the dead Highlanders. Of the 11 kilted regiments in 1809, six were put in trousers. It took almost 140 years before they all got their kilts back. Just why would regiments filled with Lowland Scots whose ancestors once looked on kilts as a symbol of the savage menace to the north become so keen to wear them? Canadian troops don’t parade in Indian feather war bonnets.
The Highland regiments during the brief period when they were truly Highland had gained a reputation for gallantry on the battlefield - particularly when on the attack. They began to attract men who nowadays would go into the Parachute Regiment or the Royal Marines. Highland recruits were still preferred; they were generally country lads with a more highly developed sense of deference than their cousins in much of the rest of Scotland. Most Highland regiments would settle for Scotsmen but even a prestigious unit such as the Black Watch could find one-third of its recruits coming from England or Ireland. While the Highland regiments were vacuuming up the available Scots recruits many of the Lowland regiments were only notionally Scottish. Then, as now, the mandarins in Whitehall felt there were too many Scottish infantry regiments. When it was decided in 1881 to link infantry regiments to specific areas of the United Kingdom one of the supposed Scots regiments became Irish and another English. The Royal Scots and Kings Own Scottish Borderers only narrowly avoided becoming English units.
The Highland regiments as well as generally having more Scots in their ranks than the Lowland regiments had another advantage when it came to grabbing the attention of Victorian Scots seeking to strengthen their sense of national identity. Their fighting reputation and fancy uniforms attracted well-connected English public school boys as officers. Their links with the British Establishment meant that the Highland regiments got military assignments which gave them a chance to shine in the public eye. One of the most blatant examples was the Gordon Highlanders getting themselves sent to South Africa to fight the Boers in 1881 in preference to the less well connected regiment originally assigned. Some would argue a similar thing happened when the Scots Guards and their Welsh counterparts were sent to the Falklands in 1982 instead of regiments considered by many observers to be better prepared.
The mass media of the Victorian age, newspapers, built up the reputation of the Highland regiments. The Scots, being slightly more literate than their English cousins before World War One, were more likely to be newspaper readers. Scots of the time followed the exploits of the Highland regiments the same way their descendants now follow the fortunes of the Scotland football team. The Boys’ Own pulp fiction of the day would have ex-English public school boy officers serving with Highland regiments against the wily but savage tribesmen of India’s North West Frontier as its heroes. As the First World War approached the Highland regiments became a greater and greater focus for national identity and pride. The attitude seems to have been that “If even the English say we are great soldiers, we must be”. The Lowland regiments even started “tartanizing” themselves with everything short of kilts to take advantage of the increasing enthusiasm of the Scots for things military.
When the British Army was re-organizing in 1881 the commanders of the Highland regiments actually suggested cutting the number of kilted soldiers. They would rather have had two or three genuine Highland regiments recruiting north of the Highland Line than continue to have their units diluted with Lowlanders, Englishmen, and Irishmen. But they were over-ruled by Whitehall, which faced a noisy campaign driven by the Anglo-Scots in London to save the Highland regiments. The number of kilted battalions was actually eventually increased by four, with a fifth added in 1897.
The image of kilted soldiers was used to sell everything from whisky to coffee substitute. Their commanders, such as General Andrew “Red Mick” Wauchope and General Hector “Fighting Mac” Macdonald, received the kind of public adulation nowadays reserved for professional sportsmen and women. Wauchope, one of the richest men in Scotland thanks to his family’s Midlothian coalmines, was to die in 1899 at the head of the Highland Brigade at the Battle of Magersfontein. Macdonald, who started his army life as a private in the Gordon Highlanders, took command of the brigade but in 1903 blew his brains out in a Paris hotel room while facing charges of homosexuality.
The Highland regiment brand and the kilts which symbolized it had become very powerful and even the disaster at Magersfontein when the Scots regiments ran for their lives failed to damage it. The kilt itself had a psychological impact on recruits. The change from civilian trousers to a kilt stressed that no matter what a man was before, he was now something different and much was expected of him.
When the First World War broke out in 1914 the War Office was not slow to tap into Scotland’s love affair with its Highland infantry. The British spent a lot of money on equipping large numbers of Scots soldiers with kilts rather than trousers. Almost half of the Scottish infantry battalions in the war belonged to kilted regiments. That money wouldn’t have been spent that if it there hadn’t been a pay-back. Remarkably, even though many of the Scottish infantry were from the same industrial slum background in civilian life, professional observers detected a difference between the Highland and Lowland regiments. The Highlanders were said to be more likely to reach their objective and to suffer heavier casualties. Exactly the traits shown by the original Highland regiments. And the same observers noted that unlike the members of the Lowland regiments, the Highlanders showed little personal initiative after they lost their officers. Could that have been deference smothering initiative?
The Scots’ pride in their supposed military prowess meant the country provided more than its share of volunteers for the First World War. One estimate is that more than 40% of males of military age joined up. One in four of them died. Many would argue Scotland has never recovered from the loss of so many of its brightest and best men at that time.
The Highland regiments were ordered to turn in their kilts early in the Second World War but that didn’t stop the War Office again exploiting the brand image.
Three out of the 10 British infantry divisions which fought in Europe after D-Day in were Scottish - their identity only signalled now by the Tam o’Shanter bonnets they wore with their two-piece “garage mechanic” uniforms and the pipe bands which appeared at victory parades. The infantry are the ones that really go through the meat grinder in a full scale war. It’s apt that one of the best memoirs of the fighting after D-Day is by an officer from the Gordon Highlanders called “So Few Got Through”. In a single month in late 1944 the 15th Scottish Division suffered 2,562 infantry casualties. That works out to the equivalent of three of its nine infantry battalions in one month of war. A rough count shows that of the 153 front line battalions serving in British infantry divisions in 1944 no fewer than 41 were Scottish - more than one in four. And half of them were “Highland”.
That so many Scots accepted their lot as infantry soldiers suggests that the kiltie con had worked again. Such was its power that in 1947 the Highland Light Infantry donned the kilt again for the first time since 1809.
The old Scottish regiments have recently gone through the equivalent of a giant shot-gun marriage. Only time will tell how successful the five battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland will be in fostering the old spirit and traditions so long regarded as two of their greatest strengths. All five battalions are kilted.
Link to an article based on the essay above:-
You may also be interested in The Right Men in the Wrong Tartan