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 –
373. Sea Harrier Over the Falklands
by Commander "Sharkey" Ward
This book about 801 Naval Air Squadron's part in the 1982 Falklands War bills itself as "controversial". Ward can indeed be unsparing in his criticism; particularly of his fellow fleet air arm colleagues in 800 Squadron, who he felt failed to make best use of that marvel of military aviation design, the Sea Harrier. He's also pretty unimpressed by the Royal Air Force. Some of the senior naval commanders involved in the campaign, both at sea and back in England, also feel the lash of Wards's prose. But he tells his tale well and sensibly. Ward's 801 Squadron flew from the Invincible while most of the senior naval task force commanders and 800 Squadron were based on the Hermes. According to Ward, stupid decisions were made and both lives and ships were lost unnecessarily. He is obviously a man of character, but I'd be interested in reading some other points of view. Some would say he comes over as arrogant. But others say self-confidence is key when it comes to combat flying. And the few comments I have been able to find from men who served in 801 Squadron are pretty positive. I found this a very good read as an account of jet jockeys at work; their real work. But I took it all with a pinch of salt, sea salt.
372. Monty's Men
by John Buckley
I was so impressed by Professor John Buckley's insightful look at the truth about the performance of British tanks and their crews during the 1944 Normandy Campaign (see Review 369 below) that I made a special effort to get my hands on a copy of his account of the British Army's campaign in Northwest Europe. Once again professional historian Buckley takes many recent authors, British and American, to task over what he, pretty convincingly, argues is their unfair treatment of British Army's performance between June 1944 and May 1945. He accuses them of swallowing the self-serving testimony of German soldiers after the war who claimed the British performed badly and would have been driven back into the sea if it had not been for their massive, overwhelming, superiority in fire-power. In fact, Buckley shows, superior fire-power alone was never going to be win the war. Most of the British troops were new to battle and contrary to what many popular war writers claim, were part of an organisation that learned quickly and learned well. In any case, Britain's Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery deliberately played to the strengths of his army, including artillery and engineering know-how and sheer numbers of tanks, in a politically and militarily necessary bid to avoid casualties. After some sticky fighting early on in Normandy the British found their groove and the one time subsequently they departed from it, Arnhem, the wheels came off badly. Buckley's argument that Arnhem/Market Garden should never have been attempted is concise and compelling. He states the only surprising thing about it is that it came anywhere near succeeding. About half of the book is a recap of his tanks in Normandy book with a little more focus on the activities of non-armoured units. The British Army's performance in Northwest Europe was not flawless but it, Buckley argues well, was nowhere near as dire and disappointing as the likes of Max Hastings would have readers believe. Buckley builds his case on a strong foundation of memoirs, interviews, official reports, and the work of previous writers to persuade readers that the 21st Army Group actually did very well. Though, no-one ever plays a perfect game. I think he meant the 5th Cameron Highlanders rather than the 5th Cameronians in an account of the 51st Highland Division in action. By the way, he makes a good effort to rehabilitate the 51st's reputation in the face of criticisms of its performance during the Normandy Campaign.
by Michael Carver
Despite the title, Tobruk only really features in the second-to-last chapter if this book when its defences collapse and it is captured by the Germans and Italians under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in June 1942. The bulk of the book is about the two campaigns which preceded the fall of the North African port. The author, Michael Carver, has to be taken seriously. He rose to be Chief of the Imperial Staff in the early 1970s and he was there in the thick of the action in North Africa as major acting as 30 Corps' commander Lt-Gen. Willoughby Norrie's right-hand man. Carver proves to be no great fan of Rommel's, regrading him as an often reckless gambler and chancer. Though the British Empire forces often enjoyed both numerical and equipment superiority, even the Italians with their completely inadequate tanks could beat them. Carver puts this down to British command muddling and inefficiency throughout the seven months before the fall of Tobruk. The Germans were quicker to take advantage of their enemy's mistakes than the British and made better use of their equipment. Sometimes Carver's account seems confused and the fact that opposing battle-groups were scattered across the battlefield with no clear frontline does not help. He draws heavily, but well, on first-hand accounts and unit histories to bring the desperate fighting to life. This is a good book but not a great book.
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