That the British army should make a point of recruiting whole regiments of Highlanders following the 1745 rebellion may seem paradoxical, but the truth of the matter is more complicated. The recruitment of soldiers from those clans that had come out for Charles Edward Stuart was held up as a means of rehabilitation. Actually, only a relative minority of clans actively supported the Stuart cause in 1745, and those tended to be weaker or outlawed clans.0 This stands against around three fifths of the clans being divided, neutral, or loyal to the government.0 Highland recruitment in the eighteenth century was governed by two competing interests, one being the need to maintain order in the Highlands, the other being the need for troops to fight overseas. The result was that the Highlanders ended up taking on a combination of military and policing responsibilities within their own territory, an arrangement that was unique at the time.0 The raising of formal Highland units began in the context of policing, with the raising of independent companies for that purpose. The Watch, as those companies were collectively known, represented one of the first attempts to formally employ Highland Scots as soldiers, as opposed to the older practice of having the clan chieftains raise their hosts. Even so, the soldiers of the first Watch were provided by their respective chiefs.
As part of their role to police the Highlands, they were granted sanction to kill those they deemed enemies of the King.0 Issuing letters of ‘Fire and Sword’ against troublesome Highlanders had been a common practice in the sixteenth century. The Glencoe Macdonalds, whose fate is so well remembered and yet little understood, were subjected to such a writ in 1692. The first Watch was disbanded in 1717 after several of its members joined the 1715 rebellion on the orders of their chiefs. Replaced for a time by garrisons of English and lowland soldiers, it was resurrected in 1725 as a force of six companies with a more formal military styling. It also gave the British army the custom of regimental tartans, its own standard tartan being blue and green. As the colours could merge into black at a distance, or perhaps for some other reason, the Watch became known as Am Freiceadan Dubh, or the Black Watch. The social background of the Black Watch’s members was noticeably different to that of other British soldiers. General David Stewart of Garth described the men of the Black Watch as being the sons of gentleman farmers and tacksmen, essentially the gentry of the clans.0 Burt goes even further, describing them as having Gillys, or personal servants, to attend to their needs and even carry their weapons for them.0
In this respect, the Black Watch in its earliest years represented the older method of Highland recruitment. Under this ancient and essentially feudal arrangement, the clan chief was responsible for the raising armed men from among his relatives and tenants. The Highland chiefs were themselves the objects of much mythologizing, their portrayals running from noble and fatherly patriarchs to grasping and uncaring landlords. Edward Burt, for his own part, had little good to say about the Highland chiefs. He describes the attitude of a particular chief, who was his host, and one of his preferred methods of maintaining control:
This chief does not think the present abject disposition of his clan towards him to be sufficient, but entertains that tyrannical and detestable maxim, that to render them poor, will double the tie of their obedience; and accordingly he makes use of all oppressive means to that end. To prevent any diminution of the number of those who do not offend him, he dissuades from, their purpose all such as show an inclination to traffic, or to put their children out to trades as knowing they would, by such an alienation, shake off at least good part of their slavish attachment to him and his family. This he does, when downright authority fails, by telling them how their ancestors chose to live sparingly, and be accounted a martial people, rather than submit themselves to low and mercenary employments like the Lowlanders, whom their forefathers always despised for the want of that warlike temper which they (his vassals) still retained.0
There is a particular irony in this, that a Highland chief would use the myth of a warrior past to shame his tenants into obedience. It is equally telling that Burt describes the chief as walking in his garden armed with dagger and pistol, ‘as if he feared to be assassinated.’ Be they kind or cruel, the clan chiefs were central to the raising of clan hosts, and played a crucial role in the raising of the Highland regiments, with motives that were not much different.
The trained fighting strength was provided by the clan gentry, of which there were two distinct types. The most senior of the chief’s relations held land by royal charter, while those further down the hierarchy held their land from the chief as ‘tacksmen’. Their role was as middlemen, managing the clan townships and sub-letting the land they held to sub-tenants.0 From those sub-tenants they would raise armed men when called-upon. The other distinct type was the buannachan, or household men. These were the military elite of the clan, full-time soldiers who often served as mercenaries, and whom ordinary clansmen were required to support at their own expense. Despite the myth of common descent that had taken hold by the eighteenth century, it was unusual for ordinary clansmen outside of this elite circle to have any blood tie to the chief.0 Clans were for the most part held together by a powerful sense of mutual solidarity and responsibility, which prevented clansmen from simply leaving when times were hard.0 Despite this, many clans acquired their tenants through simple territorial self-aggrandisement, whether by taking over the land they inhabited or bringing in others from elsewhere.
An example can be found in the story of the Macdonalds of Dunyvaig and the Glens. Having been defeated by the Campbells of Argyll, and finally becoming extinct in 1626, their land was resettled by Presbyterians imported from the lowlands.0 Substantial amounts of land changed hands during the Time of Forays, and those clans willing and able to retain royal favour were able to acquire land forfeited by delinquent clans.0 The defeat, outlawing, and extinction of clans led to many ordinary clansmen being left landless. Those who did not leave or resort to banditry ended up as itinerant labourers or else as cotters, as sub-tenants of sub-tenants were known. The lowest in the clan hierarchy, they were easy and often preferred targets for military recruitment.
The raising of the Highland regiments began in 1739, at the beginning of the War of Spanish Succession. The first of these was the Black Watch, reorganized into the 43rd Highland Regiment.0 The 43rd would go on to be the most famous of all the Highland regiments, rising one place in seniority to become the 42nd Regiment in 1748, later amalgamating with the 73rd (Perthshire) Regiment in 1881 to become the Royal Highland Regiment (The Black Watch), the old title being added in brackets out of respect. The raising of Highland regiments was, perhaps understandably, equated in the popular mind-set with the raising of the clan hosts. Indeed, a strong clan ethos became attached to the regiments, going far beyond the reality of their recruitment and makeup. A regiment might begin at a given locality or with a given clan, and be named as such, but it would be unlikely to remain that way throughout its life. Others, be they lowland Scots, English, or even Irish, might be used to make up the numbers if the first raising did not meet full strength. Even if it did, the regiments were reinforced using whatever manpower could be acquired, regardless of origin. An example is the 97th Highlanders, for which Sir James Grant raised over four hundred men, a third of whom were in fact English.0 Maxwell and Skelly’s company of the 71st Foot was raised in 1776 from an area of over twelve thousand square miles, with few parishes providing more than three men.0
The reality was that post-Culloden Highland recruitment had taken on a very different ethos, moving from feudal obligation to entrepreneurialism. The individual interests of the chiefs were part and parcel of the recruitment process, be they social, political, or economic. Clan chiefs regarded themselves as being a part of the ruling elite of Great Britain, just as they had been in pre-union Scotland. To them, providing soldiers for Britain’s armies was a powerful means of proving their loyalty, as well as their wealth and status.0 It was similarly in their interest to do so in as inexpensive a manner as possible while not drawing too heavily on the supply of labour. Land improvement, such as ditching and enclosure, were very labour-intensive processes, and vitally important to local economies as Sir James Grant points out:
If the country is to be drained not only in time of war by every other
method in time of peace, how is the ground to be laboured, manufactures to be carried on or the poor farmer to live?0
Recruitment practices were tailored to avoid these problems, with recruiters avoiding tax-paying tenants, at least in their own chief’s lands, in favour of landless cotters and itinerant labourers. Highland recruitment was highly successful, providing approximately twenty-three regiments of line infantry and twenty-six regiments of fencibles from 1756-1815. This came to about forty-eight thousand men out of a regional population of between two hundred and fifty and three hundred thousand.0 By way of comparison, the King’s German Legion at its height included a Corps of Engineers, two batteries of horse and four of foot artillery, two regiments of dragoons and three of hussars, two battalions of light and eight of line infantry, and a battalion for foreign veterans. Though unit strengths could vary wildly, as many as seventeen thousand officers and men entered the legion between 1803 and 1814.0
Despite a distinctly pragmatic approach to Highland recruitment, many regiments nonetheless acquired a strong clan ethos. Much was made of the ‘Highland spirit’ of the new formations, with ideas of clanship being applied not only to the recruitment process, but to the identities of the new regiments themselves.0 This tendency flew in the face of reality, for not only had the traditional Highland way of life essentially ceased to exist, but a significant proportion of supposedly Highland recruits were not members of the clans in question and in many cases not Highlanders or even Scots. Nevertheless, the idea of clanship dominated popular understanding of the clans, a perception that existed at the highest levels of society and government. This is reflected in the number of new regiments in the late eighteenth century that were given to Highland proprietors to raise. Simon Fraser of Lovat was given his own regiment in 1775, the 71st Fraser Highlanders, for service in North America, while Francis Mackenzie of Seaforth was similarly endowed in 1793 for war against Revolutionary France.0
The idea of clanship was reflected to some extent in the organisation of the new regiments, and in the mindset of those who occupied their upper echelons. The networks of patronage that developed among Highland officers reflected to some extent the old system of dependencies within clans. At the same time, many of the lower-ranking officers were themselves tacksmen, who with the decline of the clan system had lost their traditional economic and military roles. Combined, these factors created an illusion of clan structure, around which a much larger image could develop.0 The importance of clan identity was similarly reflected in the choice of uniform. Despite penal laws against the wearing of Highland dress, Highland regiments would wear what amounted to updated versions thereof, whether the iconic kilt or phellie beg or the more conventional trews. This tendency was applied to varying degrees in different units, as evidenced by the Fraser Fencible regiment. Its uniform was to be ‘usual Highland dress’ for sergeants, consisting of cloak and kilt in Fraser tartan, while lower ranks would wear trousers of grey linen. 0 Sir John Sinclair’s Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles, by contrast, wore tartan trews.0
Fencible regiments tend to come across as a Scottish peculiarity, though similar formations existed in England. Colonel Gwyllym Wardle, who became involved in the Mary Anne Clarke scandal in revenge for being denied a regular commission, had held rank in a Welsh Fencible regiment.0 The term ‘Fencible’ is thought to derive from the term ‘defencible’, and whether true or not the allusion is apt. Fencible units occupied a grey area between the regular army and the militia, maintained as regular soldiers for the duration of a given war.0 Though intended to free up regular regiments for deployment abroad, in practice many Fencible regiments were also sent abroad. In most cases the destination was Ireland, which could be considered ‘home’ territory, though the 3rd Argyll Regiment was sent to Gibraltar in 1800 to free up troops for the expedition to Egypt. The particular connection with Scotland lies in the fact that there was no militia in Scotland until 1797, due to concerns over arming the populace.0 As such, the Scottish Fencibles played much the same role in Scotland as the English Militia did elsewhere. Despite whatever concerns might have existed, forty regiments of Fencibles had been raised in Scotland by the end of 1794.0 Of the seven Fencible regiments raised in 1793 alone, five were of Highlanders, further indicating the trust in which the Highlanders were held.0 The Fencible regiments were disbanded over a period of 1799 to 1802, many of their personnel joining the regular army and militia.
A direct look at the less romantic aspect of Highland recruitment is provided by Thomas Pococke, who describes himself as having been born to ‘poor but respectable, parents in Edinburgh,’ adding that they ‘bestowed upon me an education superior to my rank in life.’0 The image we are given, reinforced somewhat by the sophistication of the prose, is of an educated young man, not entirely unlike Private Wheeler. As has been shown earlier, such a person would have been most valued as a recruit, if only for his ability to read and write. He describes his attempt to enter the theatrical profession, much to the horror of his parents, only for the attempt to end in disaster. The author, driven by an adolescent mortification, later encounters a party of recruits and asks to be taken along with them. He is accepted into the 71st with minimal preamble. The manner of the author’s joining, and his self-confessed desire for self-punishment through military service, is at odds with the myths. The account itself is in narrative form, describing the author’s experiences in some detail, including his apparent reconciliation with his family, and his gradual adaption to military life. The author admits to a desire for combat, and feelings of frustration at ‘running away from an enemy we had beat with so much ease at Vimiera, without even firing a shot.’ More immediately relevant is his mention of one of his fellows being an Irishman, whose presence along with his own is further evidence that a Highland regiment did not contain Highlanders alone.0