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 –
321. Caen 1944
by Ken Ford
This is another one from the Osprey Campaign series. It looks at the British and Canadian attempts to capture the city of Caen after the D-Day Landings. The fighting north of the city tied down the bulk of the Germany's best troops and armour and would eventually allow the United States Army to break out of its bridgehead against far less capable opposition. But the cost of the fighting around Caen almost crippled the British/Canadian army and the price paid was high. Ken Ford was a well known military historian in 2004 and was perhaps a natural choice to write the text to accompany this lavishly illustrated book with its combination of combat photos, maps and original artwork. But perhaps the decision to compress three major offensives- Epsom, Charnwood and Goodwood - into one slim book was mistake. Ford's text is workmanlike but a little pedestrian and lacking in fresh insights.
320. Canadian Military History
edited by Marc Milner
This is an eclectic pot-pourri of essays and memoir extracts related to Canada's military history. The first entry is an accessible account of the of the suppression of the 1885 rebellion in the Northwest Territories. Perhaps it was felt that conflicts which predated the foundation of modern Canada in 1867, such as the British Conquest in the 1700s and the repulse of the 1812 invasion of British North America by the United States and the Irish republican invasion in the 1860s were already well covered. The selection of topics was made by University of New Brunswick academic Marc Milner and were intended to be both informative and thought provoking. The subjects include Canada's part in the Second Boer War, the formation of Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914, a look at the CEF's legendary (in Canada at least) commander Arthur Currie, Dieppe in 1942, psychiatric casualties, the activities of Canadian squadrons in Bomber Command, the problems faced by the all-too-rapidly expanded Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War and its challenges when it came to anti-submarine technology, the navy's role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, through to operations within Canada in the 1970s and 1990s. This book was a better read than I expected.
319. El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa
edited by Jill Edwards
This book from the American University in Cairo came out in 2012 to help mark the 70th anniversary of the 8th Army's victory over German and Italian forces in Egypt. The book is a series of essays on subjects with some link, sometimes a little tenuous, to the iconic Battle of Alamein. The contributors spread their net wide with looks at, for example, the Siege of Malta, civilian life in Alexandria, the Royal Navy in the Meditrranean, training regimes for the Indian Army, pondering as to whether Rommel was a military genius, contributions by Commonwealth and Free French troops to the campaign, and another look at Claude Auchinlek's successes and failures in the desert. Most of the essays make for interesting reading, though the one about excavating old Italian trenches and gun positions may only be of interest to someone planning a similar project.
318. A Spy Among Friends
by Ben Macintyre
Just when you thought there was nothing more to be said about the dreadful Kim Philby, Ben Macintyre comes up with a slightly different angle and take. Macintyre examines the arch-traitor's career by looking at several of his associates and people who thought he was their friend. In particular, Macintyre looks at Nicholas Elliott. Sadly, charm does not translate well into ink on a page; and Philby was said to be a charmer. Reading this book, I for one am left wondering what people saw in Philby. He and several of his closest associates seem like total shits to me. The degree of incompetence allowed by the Old Boys' network which ran British intelligence in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s is staggering. Just how did Guy Burgess, the Foreign Office diplomat Philby risked his career as a KGB spy to tip off about his pending arrest, keep his job in Washington. Never mind his drink-sodden promiscuity, he was going around Washington tapping highly placed Americans for loans he almost certainly had no intentions of repaying. Is this how British diplomats are expected to behave? Elliott was perhaps Philby's staunchest defender when questions were asked about whose side Philby was really on and how many people had been murdered by the Soviets acting on information he supplied. So, naturally, in the cosy world of MI6 in 1960s, it was Elliott who was sent to tell his fellow agent that he'd finally been rumbled. No suprise that Philby fled to Moscow almost as soon as Elliott's chat with him ended. Elliott, by the way, is the man who master-minded the failed diving expedition under the hull of a Soviet warship on a goodwill visit to Portsmouth which caused an international scandal - and claimed the life of legendary British diver Buster Crabb; a broken bantamcock of a man teetering one breath away from a heart-attack before he even entered the water. And Prime Minister Anthony Eden had forbidden any spying on the Soviets while they were in Portsmouth. But Elliott and MI6 knew better than Eden what was good for Britain. Anyone surprised that Elliott got to keep his job? Macintyre does an excellent job of bringing the seedy class-ridden world of MI6 to life. Philby, posing as a fascist journalist but financed by Soviet intelligence, had received a medal from Spain's General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. So, to MI6 it made complete sense to put Philby in charge of Britain's spies in Spain during the Second World war. Even if Philby was what he claimed to be, was he really the best man for the job? Read this book and judge for yourself.
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
In the News Again
I happened to be checking out the closing-down sale at one of the last remaining locally owned bookshops in Edmonton recently when a newspaper reporter pounced on me as I left and asked me comment on the closure. As a former reporter, I know what a pain grabbing random people on the streets for quotes can be; so I was only too pleased to help. Imagine my delight when the story appeared and I found my quote printed in large type. It made me look like a big deal. There were some genuine big deal Edmonton writers quoted in the story but whoever was designing the page must have just grabbed the first quote they found for the break-out - and luckily for me....
Sadly, the break-out does not appear in the online version of the story but if you're interested Edmonton Journal
In the News
The Scotsman newspaper invited me to put in my tuppence-ha'penny when it published an article about the controversy surrounding the 400th anniversary celebrations in Norway of Battle of Kringen - Scotsman Article
The battle and subsequent massacre of Scottish prisoners in 1612 featured in Scottish Military Disasters.
A new Canadian history magazine The Dorchester Review published a tongue-in-cheek go at the spate of books about How the Scots Created/Invented the country in its launch issue. In an article called How the English Invented the Scots Dr. Chis Champion argued, well, that the Scots are an English invention. Paul’s equally tongue-in-cheek rebuttal can be seen in the second issue of the magazine which is now out. The article, which also includes essays by Canadian columnist John Ivison and London-based writer Hugo Rifkind, is available on line at