Scottish Soldiers in the Eighteenth Century British Army

The original quota of other ranks for the Royal Scots at its embodiment in 1633 was drawn from men who had served under its colonel in Swedish and French service or were recruited from Scotland. The officers were drawn from among those Scottish officers in French service. As the eighteenth century progressed, this nominally Scottish regiment became increasingly integrated as a British regiment. By 1757, the Royal Scots was made up of 1,124 men of whom 462 were Scottish, the equivalent of forty-one per cent, 444 were Irish – thirty-nine per cent – and the remaining 218 were of unknown origin, but presumably a large proportion were English. Highlanders became a target for recruitment to regiments of the line after 1739 when the first exclusively Highland regiment, the 43rd, was raised. This marked a watershed, as although Highlanders had long been raised for service, as the presence of kilts in Swedish and Dutch regiments attests, the 43rd became a precedent for an increasing number of Highland regiments. Though the next specifically Highland regiment, Loudoun’s Highlanders, was not raised until 1745, between 1739, the establishment of the first Highland Regiment, and 1799, when the last regiment, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, was raised, fifty-nine Highland regiments (most of short duration) were raised by the British army, representing around 70,000 men.

The creation of so many Highland Regiments speaks of the change that had occurred in public and political opinions regarding the Scottish soldier by the mid- to end of the eighteenth century. Britain’s fear of standing armies inherited by the religious and political turmoil and violence of the seventeenth century had faded. This, with increasing involvement in continental and colonial wars, meant Britain needed a larger army, in turn providing greater opportunities for officers and privates. The effective end of the Jacobite movement and the need to use the Scots as a source of manpower in this expanding army meant that Scots were more tolerated in the other ranks and commissioned grades of regiments. These changes coincided with changes in the European balance of power. The power of Austria, Sweden, Spain and France was transferring to Britain, Prussia and Russia, which changed the demand for mercenaries in European conflicts. It was therefore natural that Scots seeking military service would change from continental to British masters.

Raised in 1633, the Royal Scots were intended for service in France. Charles I’s royal warrant to Sir John Hepburn, its first colonel, took advantage of his military experience. Between 1634 and 1678 Hepburn’s served with the French and Swedes, absorbing other Scottish regiments in Swedish service. 147 At the Restoration the regiment was given the distinction of maintaining a Second Battalion even in peace. 148 Recalled to face the Covenanter threat in 1678, they were deployed to Flanders for the Nine Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession, where they were present at all major battles. Service in Ireland and the West Indies followed. In August 1745, two supernumerary companies, raised the previous summer, were ambushed and captured at Highbridge while marching to reinforce Fort William. This was the first engagement of the ’45 and triggered the recall of the Second Battalion from Ireland. After fighting at Falkirk on 17th January 1746, the Royal Scots joined Cumberland’s army marching north and fought at Culloden. By June 1746, they were encamped at Perth and remained in Scotland until 1749 when they were deployed to Ireland.

The Scots Fusiliers was raised in 1677 or 1678 (depending on the source) by the 5th Earl Mar for domestic security. When ordered south to defend James II’s hold on England in 1688, they declared for William III. They served in Flanders from early 1689 to 1697 and from 1702 or 1708 – sources disagree – to 1714. During the ’15, the Scots Fusiliers fought at Sheriffmuir and remained in Britain until 1742. After three years fighting in the continent, the Scots Fusiliers returned with the majority of the British army under Cumberland to assist in the suppression of the ’45. They formed part of the force that re-took Carlisle, fought at Culloden and provided a garrison for Blair Castle. After a year of service on the continent in 1747, they returned to Britain for garrison duty for the next three years.

By royal warrant of 25th November 1681, two troops of dragoons created in 1678 with the addition of an extra troop were raised onto the establishment as the Royal Regiment of Scots Dragoons, here known as the Scots Greys. Its commander until his death in 1685 was Lieutenant-General Thomas Dalyell (also spelt Dalzell) of The Binns. They had an early history of facing rebellions, first against Argyll’s Rebellion in Scotland in 1685, demonstrating that, pre-Union at least, there was no difficulty feared in sending Scots to fight Scots. They also deployed to England to prevent the invasion of 1688, but joined William III and were sent to Scotland to face the 1689 Jacobite Rebellion under Viscount Dundee and saw action at Cromdale in April 1690. From 1694 to 1697, 1702 to 1713, and 1742 to 1749, the Scots Greys formed part of the army on the continent in the Nine Years War, the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession. During peace they were recalled to Britain and were part of the domestic force that faced the Jacobites in skirmishes at Kinross and Dunfermline, and fought at Sheriffmuir in 1715, and again at Glenshiel in 1719.

The 1609 Statutes of Icolmkill made chiefs responsible for the actions of their clans and encouraged them to take control of policing and punishing lawlessness. This was reiterated in the royal warrant of 1667 that charged the 1st Marquess of Atholl to create the first companies to keep “a watch upon the braes.” The Independent Highland Company that fought the Jacobites at Killiecrankie in 1689 so impressed the Commander-in-Chief of the forces in Scotland, General Mackay that he caused five companies to be added to the Scottish Establishment. Between 1690 and 1717, the number of companies fluctuated as more were added at times of unrest, such as in 1701 after poor harvests and rumours of invasion, or removed, as in 1690 as an economising measure. The three companies extant during the ’15 were not involved in the Battle of Sheriffmuir, but assisted escorting arms for the militias and were responsible for persuading clans not to join the rebellion and tracked fleeing rebels in its aftermath.

Though recognised as useful for their hardiness, by 1717 the level of petty corruption and suspicions regarding many chiefs’ loyalties meant that the Independent Highland Companies were disbanded. The creation of six new companies was one of General Wade’s many proposals for increasing the security of Scotland in his 1725 report. In 1739, these companies and ten new ones were raised onto the British Establishment as the 43rd Regiment of Foot or Crawford’s Regiment named for its first colonel. After the necessary training at Aberfeldy in May 1740 and three years home service, the 43rd was ordered to march south for deployment abroad. Suspecting deployment to the diseased West Indies, insulted at the lack of a royal review and believing that they had been raised for home service only, 120 men deserted to return to Scotland. After being re-captured and tried, three were chosen by drawn straws to be shot and the rest transported to regiments in Gibraltar, Minorca, the Leeward Isles and Georgia. The remainder of the regiment was deployed to Flanders. In 1745 the `43rd returned to Britain under Cumberland when the rebellion began but did not join the army in Scotland. Three supernumerary companies were recruiting in Scotland but were only partly assembled when two were captured at the fall of Fort George on 20th February 1746. After Culloden, the 43rd returned to Flanders and then saw service in America and Ireland, and did not return to Scotland for another thirty years. The Regiment became the 42nd in 1749 and added `Royal’ to its title marking its bravery at Ticonderoga in 1758. It did not gain the official epithet `The Black Watch’ until 1861.

The period of the Seven Years War, between 1756 (or 1754 in North America) and 1763, witnessed a transformation in the scale of the British Empire and of Scottish activity in it. Coupled with major changes at home, this period, and far more so than 1707, ought to be regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland and the Empire. The scale of this global conflict, and the resulting extension of the Empire, demanded an expansion of the armed forces.

The East India Company army grew from three thousand regular troops in 1749 to twenty-six thousand at the end of the Seven Years War, and by 1778 it numbered sixty-seven thousand. The vast majority were sepoy troops, complemented by around four thousand European soldiers and officers. It was in the officer corps that Scots were especially prominent, with as many as one in three Europeans being Scots, compared to one in eleven among the European ranks.

In North America and the Caribbean the threat from French and Indian forces required the stationing of British Army regulars. Scottish regiments played prominent roles in many of the major set-piece battles on American soil. Scots were also prominent as military commanders, in both the British Army and Navy, in the American and Caribbean theatres of war.

The real significance of high-ranking Scots in an imperial context lies in their assumption of the civilian commands in colonial territories once peace returned. Across the Empire, civilian authority was increasingly vested in the hands of military commanders. In 1763 the new governments in Quebec, East and West Florida, and the Ceded Islands were handed to four Scottish governors, all of whom had recently held military commands. These particular posts relied in part on the patronage of Lord Bute, but they also represented a general trend in British thinking about the role of military men in the civilian governance of empire.

Officers were mobile throughout the Empire and it was common for them to serve in different parts of the Empire. The trajectory of Sir Archibald Campbell of Inverneil’s career serves to illustrate the point. Inverneil is perhaps best known as the Governor of Madras between 1786 and 1789. But he began his career in the Caribbean when he served on the captured French island of Guadeloupe under another Scottish commander, Robert Melville, during the Seven Years War, before being stationed in Bengal in 1768. He then went back to the Americas, this time at the head of a 3,500-strong expedition to Georgia during the American War, before being promoted to Lieutenant Governor then Governor of Jamaica between 1781 and 1784. For Scots officers military service brought a global sense of their empire.

For most regular troops and especially those drafted to serve, any overseas posting was unpopular: financial considerations, separation from families, capture, and the risk of death from disease as well as war, all acted as significant demoralizing elements. There is evidence that highlanders signed up for the army believing that they would not be forced to serve overseas. In January 1783, just as the American War ended, the 77th Regiment, the Athol Highlanders, were told they were going to India. They mutinied at Portsmouth, refusing to be ‘like bullocks to be sold’ to the East India Company. When it transpired that another highland regiment, the 78th Seaforths, had been sent to India and then disbanded there in 1784, rather than in Scotland, it fostered a deep distrust towards military service. By the 1790s, when recruitment drives were made across Scotland, recruiters were at pains to explain that military service would be confined to Scotland, unless England was invaded. But the experience of the Athols and Seaforths remained in the popular memory. When Lord Seaforth tried to raise a new fencible regiment in the Western Isles in spring 1793, he faced serious popular opposition. In 1797, after the introduction of the Scottish Militia Act, there was widespread civil disobedience and rumours circulated in Perthshire and Stirlingshire that recruits were to be drafted into regiments for the East and West Indies, or even to be sold into slavery.

This general anxiety was heightened by the very real dangers of military service overseas. If death and disease were constant threats, then the risk of capture by enemy forces and the accounts of it that filtered back represented both personal trauma and the continued insecurity of the Empire. Robert Gordon, a Scottish ensign, wrote of his maltreatment after being captured by the forces of Mysore in India: ‘they tore off our clothes and behaved in a most indecent manner’. Meanwhile in North America, captivity narratives by Scots officers tended to highlight the brutality of their captors in ways that were likely to frighten further potential recruits. Accusations of cannibalism—‘While they were feasting on poor Capt Robson’s body’—intentionally marked non-Europeans as ‘savage’.

In India, the Scottish military relationship with empire was not straightforward or a wholly successful one. The growing number of Scottish officers and troops, for example, did not always cover themselves in glory. At Pollilur in September 1780, Colonel William Baillie of Dunain and his men presided over a defeat so ignominious that Indians disparaged them and Britons feared for their empire in the East. In the Americas, the defeats inflicted during the early years of the Seven Years War and then in the American Revolutionary War, with the loss at Yorktown in 1781 coming hard on the heels of the reverse at Pollilur, likewise resulted in heavy casualties among the disproportionately large Scottish contingents among British forces.

To the rank and file, then, imperial endeavour was not something to be welcomed uncritically by the century’s end. But for officers, imperial service in India, North America, or the Caribbean remained attractive as long as it held out the prospect of advancement. In this sense, for them the Empire was a means to an end, and in this officers had much in common with other Scots in the expanding British Empire.

The gradual emergence of Britain’s overseas empire in the second half of the eighteenth century and the growing need for soldiers to fight in colonial wars diverted Scottish eyes from Europe to territories further afield. With this trend came a gradual forgetting of what had gone before – that, in the seventeenth century, the Scots had a reputation in Europe as fighting men. It is not a reputation that is entirely enviable, although it has persisted in slightly different contexts to create a pride with a dark side. It is fine to be known as men to be relied on in a crisis but it also means the Scot became a man to be exploited when soldiers were needed and in the long run ‘no great mischief if they fall’, the words used of Highland soldiers by Major James Wolfe when clansmen were recruited to the British army after Culloden. Fortunately, we also thrived in other walks of life – as merchants and scholars – and that aspect of our history also deserves to be remembered and celebrated. We have always crossed the North Sea to share in the common history of Europe, and by no means only as swordsmen for hire.



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