It becomes necessary to examine the image of Highlanders once they have become soldiers. This is not simply a clash of myth and reality, but of conflicting images of the Highlander, both as soldier and as civilian. Highland soldiers were seen as being obedient and reliable, yet at the same time they had a reputation as rogues. An account of the Munroes of Fowlis expresses surprise at the obedience and reliability of the Highlanders, referring specifically to the 42nd Highlanders under Sir Robert Munro:
It is indeed surprising, that a regiment, composed of Highlanders, who are generally used to so rapacious a life at home, should yet by discipline have been brought to so good a behaviour, as that they should be judged the most trusty guards of property; and that, when the people in Flanders were allowed a protection for their goods, they should choose to have some of this regiment, among others of the British soldiers, appointed to protect them. This may indeed seem hardly credible; yet my informer assures me, that he had it from an officer of their own, of unquestionable credit; who added farther, that it was but seldom he had observed a man among them drunk, and as seldom heard any of them swear. This is very agreeable to the high character which I heard of this regiment from an English gentleman then in Flanders, whose veracity is undoubted, and who cannot, I am sure, be suspected of any prejudice here.0
It is significant that this double vision with regard to the Highlanders was acknowledged even at the time. The Highland soldier was both the rogue he had been before, and the loyal soldier he had become after Culloden. What sets the Highland soldier apart, therefore, is that his apparent loyalty and obedience were seen as strange or surprising. It was as if the Highland man was somehow supposed to be near-feral bandit, yet had somehow taken on the appearance of a disciplined soldier. This nevertheless needs to be seen in the context of a wider shift in attitudes, in which the ‘scum if the earth’ vision of the British soldier was being gradually replaced with a more positive conception. As was shown in chapter three, the necessity of a professional army was increasingly accepted, and the Highlanders had become so much a part of that army as to almost become symbolic of it.
The question ultimately arises as to how the Highlanders saw themselves, and what their ultimate motive was in going along with these developments. It may seem strange at first glance that they accepted, without apparent question, what can be reinterpreted as a wholesale repackaging of their culture and the imposition of a particular image. It may also seem strange, to modern sensibilities at least, that they were so apparently content to play a military role in British society, to the point where they were largely defined by it. In modern times, where ethnic and cultural self-determination have become such important issues, it seems inconceivable that the Highlanders would simply go along with this whole process. Their apparent acceptance ties into the myths that came to surround Highland soldiers, that they were an entirely loyal and reliable source of soldiers who would neither fail in battle nor betray the British Empire. The most direct answer as to why the Highlanders went along with this is that they simply did not care, or did not think in such terms. The former implies a certain confidence in themselves and their identity, while the latter implies the precise opposite, a failure to understand themselves and their value in proper nationalistic terms.
Attempting to understand how the Highland soldiers saw themselves reveals something of the differences between contemporary and modern thought. Nationalism muddies the waters by allowing for only two statuses for those it regards as nations; enslaved or free. For a nation to count as free it must possess a high culture of its own creation, which it can and must impose on low cultures within its territory. A low culture must therefore break away and develop a high culture of its own, or else be dominated by an alien high culture.0 But as this chapter has already shown, the Highlanders did not fall neatly into either category. While they had a culture of sorts imposed on them from the outside, it was separate and distinct from the wider British pan-culture. Also, this culture was not forcefully imposed in an organised fashion, but rather was tacked-on by popular culture or absorbed through the experiences of institutions such as the Highland regiments. The mystery of the Highland soldiers therefore lies in how they truly saw themselves, and their place in British society.
The answer to the question lies in the Highlanders’ past as mercenaries, a trade that had proven sufficiently profitable for Highlanders to continue engaging in it for several centuries. After Culloden the Highlanders continued to see themselves as part of a large polity, albeit one named Great Britain rather than Scotland, though they could not have failed to notice that they occupied a relatively low position in its social and political hierarchy. Despite this, the Highlanders must have become aware of their value as military manpower, in only from the sheer number of recruitment drives. A seemingly endless need for replacement or additional soldiers in the decades following Culloden gave the Highlanders a convenient way of improving their status within the British state and Empire. This was seen in part from a Highland or even Scottish perspective, as the Highlanders came to see military service as a means of altering the relationship of the Highlands, and Scotland as a whole, with England. In a double standard not unlike that alluded to so bitterly by Rudyard Kipling in his poem ‘Tommy’, lowland Scots tended to have more respect for the Highlanders in time of war.0 This attitude extended gradually to the rest of the British Isles, combining with the aforementioned assumptions of British governments regarding clan identity and a gradual rise in the profile of Highlanders in high society circles. Proof of this rising profile could be found in the formation of the Highland Society of London in 1778, and their success in securing the repeal of the 1746 Dress Act a mere four years later. That they could markedly increase their status by virtue of putting on the red coat cannot have gone unnoticed among the Highlanders.
The accounts of Highland enlisted men, where they exist, make little mention of any kind of ‘Highland’ identity. Like other contemporary soldiers, those actually able to write may have lacked the literary wherewithal to express such attitudes, or may simply have felt no need to. While a wider process of romanticising the Highlanders was already underway, it would not see its greatest effects until well into the nineteenth century. Neither Thomas Pococke nor Sergeant Donaldson make any mention of such identities, a fact made less surprising by the fact that the former was from Edinburgh and the other from Glasgow. The only particular hint of a Highland connection comes shortly after Donaldson’s enlistment;
When night came, the room was cleared, and the forms ranged around. An
old Highlander in the room had a pair of bagpipes, which with two fifes
constituted out music, and when we were all assembled, the drinking
commenced, handing it around from one to another. After a round or two,
old Donald’s pipes were called for, and the men commenced dancing with the women of the company. The stamping, hallooing, and snapping of fingers which ensued, intermingled with the droning sound of the bagpipes, was completely deafening.0
The most that can be taken from this is that Donaldson and his fellows, regardless of their origins, had no objection to bagpipe music. A greater focus on the Highland cultural connection can be found in the accounts of officers, especially if they were written or published some time after the wars. An example of this tendency is a biography of lieutenant-colonel John Cameron of Fassiefern, written by the Reverend Archibald Clerk and published in 1858. The Highland connection is emphasized, with much being made of the role of family in the beginning of Cameron’s career;
In 1794, however, the Marquis of Huntly resolved to raise a regiment on
his father’s extensive lands, and there being a considerable portion of these
in Lochaber, he addressed himself to the gentlemen there. He called on
Fassiefern, and offered to his son John a Captain’s commission in the regiment thus to be raised – first numbered as the 100th of the line- afterwards so well known as the Gordon Highlanders, or 92nd Regiment. Fassiefern declined the gratifying honour, on the ground of his inability to raise the number of men requisite to entitle his son to such a rank; whereupon the Marquis, with great kindness, offered the rank without any stipulation or condition, saying he would be glad to have John Cameron a Captain in his regiment although he brought not a single recruit.
Fassiefern resolved to exert himself to requite such generosity. He applied to his Chief, Lochiel…who at once sanctioned the undertaking. McNeill of Barra, whom we have already mentioned as brother-in-law to John Cameron,
sent twelve very active, soldierly men from his insular property. With such
aid the full complement was speedily gathered, and Cameron joined the
regiment with a hundred men as brave and true as any who ever fought under
the British banner.0
There is a clear difference in style compared to previous accounts. Clerk makes much of the role of George Gordon, Fifth Duke of Gordon and Marquis of Huntly. What motivated his generosity in providing John Cameron with a captaincy, despite being unable to provide enough recruits, is not explained. Nor is it made clear by what means the recruits were eventually acquired, though Clerk enhances his credibility by pointing out the ‘prejudice against enlisting’ in the Highlands, which he claimed to have been stronger in the Highlands than anywhere else in the British isles, and far stronger than at the time of writing several decades later.0 Clerk puts the apparent enthusiasm of the recruits down to ‘attachment to, and confidence in their leader.’ This can imply the old clan loyalty, but also a pragmatic belief that they would be well-led.