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 –
395. The Irish Civil War 1922-23
by Peter Cottrel
This is one of books from the Osprey Essential Histories series. If you didn't know that the conflict between the Treaty and Anti-Treaty forces after Ireland was granted independence from the United Kingdom was bloodier than the fight against the British to gain it, then this will be an eye-opener. I was interested in the conflict because I was intrigued as to how the new Irish government managed to defeat many of the same men who fought the British to a standstill between 1919 and 1921. The answer, according to my reading of this book, was that the civil war split the IRA into two camps and most of the brains went with the pro-Treaty, pro-Government, side. And the pro-Treaty side was far more ruthless and prepared to ignore the law than the British ever dared to be. And in a counter-insurgency war, the Pro-Treaty men had better intelligence sources than the British ever enjoyed. Cottrel, a British Army officer when he wrote this book, is pretty even-handed when it came a conflict which until recently was still a bleeding wound in the Irish body politic. The Government, pro-treaty, side also had a vote from the majority of the Irish population favouring the treaty. The book is bare-bones when it comes to the narration, has some good maps and excellent illustrations. It takes a brief look at events leading up to 1922, the combatants, the early fighting, the descent into guerrilla war, the Anti-Treaty IRA men's dumping of their arms and events right up to the Good Friday Agreement. This book does exactly what it promises; it is an excellent primer/summary.
394. In the Service of the Sultan
by Ian Gardiner
I think even if this book doesn’t win the 2018 Book of the Year award, it will certainly take the bargain of the year as it only cost me £2 for a pristine hardback copy. But, it may well take the Book of the Year too. The Sultan being served is Oman’s Qaboos bin Said al Said, a former officer in the Cameronians/Scottish Rifles. And Gardiner was a young officer in the Royal Marines when he was seconded to the Omani army between 1973 and 1975 as it battled Communist-controlled rebels in the province of Dhofar. Gardiner, the product of one of Edinburgh’s private schools, gets away with the workable conceit of laying the book out a little like a play with chapters along the lines of setting the scene, the actors, First Act, Act Two, etc. The first chapter reads a little like something form the Arabian Nights but does a nice job of introducing the reader to one of the more fascinating parts of the Middle East. Gardiner was obviously smitten with the place. But he also puts the bush war into context. If the Communists in Yemen who were acting as a proxy for the Soviet Union had succeeded in over-throwing the Sultan, control of the narrow straits of Hormuz and the oil tankers that use it would have been lost. Many British army and air force officers were seconded to the Sultan’s forces and there were also a large number of former officers on contract to him. Gardiner obviously spoke to a number of them and incorporates their experiences into the book along with his own. He is a good writer and his modesty isn’t over-done. Much of his war was spent defending hilltop bases from the Adoo or trying to ambush them as they made their way into Oman from neighbouring Communist Yemen. Gardiner would go on to command a company of Royal Marines in the Falklands War and incorporates some of his experiences there into this book as well. His comments on soldiering in general and counter-insurgency are well worth reading and considering. His experiences commanding and working alongside Muslim troops also make for some interesting anecdotes. Gardiner comes across as a born ranconteur who is able to translate his patter into prose.
393. Armor and Blood
by Denis E Showalter
As the spelling of the title indicates, this is an American book. But as American "histories" go, it isn't too bad. This might be because no Americans are involved in the fighting. This book is about the 1943 Soviet-German clash at Kursk - often labelled the Biggest Tank Battle in History. I moved this book up on the "to-read" pile because I wanted to do a comparison with Lloyd Clark's Kursk (See Review 386 below). Overall, I prefer Showalter's book. It is shorter and perhaps that makes the analysis seem sharper and more pithy. Showalter also makes less use of eye-witness testimony and this keeps the narrative clipping along at a fair speed. The photographs in the book are all German and this led me to fear that text would be too heavily titled towards the German viewpoint. It does indeed seem to look through the German lens more than it does the Soviet but this may be the due to the availability of sources. Showalter is careful to warn that many of the memoirs of the German commanders are self-serving in a "Hitler's interference lost us the war" sort of the way. The German generals blamed the loss of the First World War on a stab in the back from civilian politicians and the loss of the Second on Hitler. Neither is true. But he also warns that official Soviet records and commanders' memoirs are also heavily slanted. Showalter's narrative is, in the main, easy to follow and fair to both sides. His attempts at folksiness and use of American sporting metaphors in the writing can be a little grating to a reader not brought up in the United States but apart from that it is, for an American history, quite a reasonable book. But James Graham was the Marquis of Montrose, not the Earl. One thing I did learn from the book was that the Soviets used British Churchill tanks at Kursk.
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