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 –
364. Bravely into Battle
by Strome Galloway
This is the story of the World War Two experiences of one of the Canadian Army's legends, Strome Galloway, in his own words. With his distinctive moustache and consciously British mannerisms, Galloway cut a striking figure on the battlefields of North Africa and Italy. But he was no fool and also brave. The "Bravely" in the title supposedly refers not to him but to the rank and file who followed him into action, or were sent to death or serious injury by him. The original title was "The General Who Never Was". That perhaps speaks to his disillusion with the Canadian military establishment. Towards the end of the conflict the tiny pre-war regular officer corps looked after its own, with a collective eye on peacetime careerism, by putting inexperienced members in command positions over the heads of battle-hardened veterans in a primitive system of ticket punching. The same policies came close to destroying the American military in Vietnam 20 years later. Galloway had been a reservist before the war and worked as a newspaper sub-editor and reporter. I found his writing strong and his eye for a story, comic or tragic, good. He was among a handful of Canadian officers and senior NCOs sent to serve with the British Army in North Africa to gain combat experience; his own service being as a company commander with the London Irish. He then served with the Royal Canadian Regiment in Sicily and Italy. This was a good and a quick read with some interesting insights into wartime soldiering.
363. Bloody April
by Peter Hart
What makes this different from most books I've read about the war in the air 1914-18 is that this one also looks at what's happening on the frontlines down below on the ground as well. Peter Hart of the Imperial War Museum explains why it was so important that British pilots and aerial observers went up into the skies over Arras in the spring of 1917 in aircraft that were easily outclassed by their German foes. The answer, if you haven't already guessed, was to act as spotters for Britain's war-winning artillery. And it is these men, rather than the more high-profile fighter pilots, that Hart declares to be the true heroes. For numbers and courage were the only two things the Royal Flying Corps had going for it during what became known as Bloody April. Hart, not surprisingly as he is (or was) the IWM's oral historian, leans heavily on first-hand accounts from the airmen on both sides. There is little romanticizing of the participants as "Knights of the Air". This is a balanced and honest account told mainly in the words of those who took part in the grim battle between the pioneers of aerial warfare. One very minor complaint I have is that there is not much in the book from Canadians. By May 1918 more than a third of the RFC/RAF pilots were Canadian and I believe the Canucks would have represented a very large proportion of aircrew a year earlier. Perhaps Hart focused a little too much on British sources for his information.
362. Zulu Rising
by Ian Knight
This is another one for the 2017 Book of the Year shortlist. One of Britain's acknowledged experts on the 1879 Zulu War, Ian Knight, revisits the disaster at Isandlwana and the epic defence of Rorke's Drift, immediately afterwards, for the umpteenth time in his writing career. But rather than a stale retread, Knight has knitted together a gripping narrative that neatly captures the nightmare. He draws on not only British and white settler accounts but also on Black African sources, both Zulu and those who allied themselves with the British. More than half the book is gone before the fighting begins but the background and sense of time and place woven into Knight's narrative means this is not a drag. Knight's exhaustive knowledge of the terrain comes through and his writing skills make the landscape as much a character in this tale as the men involved. Squalid and violent deaths feature far more than glory but Knight also captures the bravery of men on both sides. But he is also not slow to highlight some less than creditable behaviour. This is not just a book about the Zulu War but also about all wars. Anyone who has seen the film versions of the destruction of the British force at Isandlwana and the subsequent defence of Rorke's Drift, Zulu Dawn and Zulu, will learn some truths and have some myths busted for them.
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