A comparison of British and French Military Identity and Organization during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Timothy Paul Candlish Phd university of York History March 2012



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Symbolism and Identification

Such incidents aside the story of the Highland regiments, once they got on campaign, was of battlefield success. Success breeds confidence, and there can be little doubt that every battle honour gave the Highlanders a greater pride in themselves and what they represented. Being human, it would be hard for such men not to be flattered by the attention and fame lavished on them by a public that, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, grew increasingly to admire them. One of the main reasons for the attention, apart from their immediate past, was that Highland regiments were comparatively easy to identify. Identification was possible primarily through their wearing of tartan, along with other distinctive symbols and badges. Any study of the symbols used by Highland regiments must begin with tartan, easily the most recognizable symbol of Highland soldiers, which in the decades following the Napoleonic wars would become a symbol of Scotland as a whole. The term itself is often used as an umbrella term for the various forms of Highland dress, which might or might not have been coloured in that style.


By the eighteenth century, Highland dress existed in three specific and related forms. The kilt, otherwise known as the filibeg or phellie beg, enjoys the highest profile, though it is also the most historically recent. Its immediate predecessor was the plaid cloak, or quelt, essentially a loose cloak belted at the waist. The third variant was the trews, essentially a combination of breeches and stockings made of tartan. Trews were worn primarily by the higher echelons of Highland clans, especially by clans in regular contact with the lowlands, where breeches were commonplace and proved influential. The officers of Highland units would wear trews as a sign of distinction, with plaid as a cloak.0 Burt found the quelt to be very common among ordinary Highlanders, though his attitude towards it is representative of ‘civilized’ reaction in general:
This dress is called the quelt; and, for the most part, they wear the petticoat so very short, that in a windy day, going up a hill, or stooping, the indecency of it is plainly discovered. A Highland gentleman told me one day merrily…that a lady of a noble family had complained to him very seriously, that as she was going over the same place with a gilly, who was upon an upper path…she was so terrified with the sight of the abyss that, to avoid it, she was forced to look up towards the bare Highlander all the way long.0
As for the kilt itself, its appearance is yet another of the ironies that may be discovered in the study of cultural identity. It was invented by a certain Thomas Rawlinson, an English Quaker and iron master from Lancashire, in 1727. The story goes that Rawlinson leased land from Ian McDonell, Chieftain of the McDonells of Glengarry, near Inverness for the purpose of charcoal production. Rawlinson’s modification of the belted plaid, ostensibly for the convenience of the McDonell clansmen in his employ, would become known as the ‘felie beg’, sometimes written as ‘philibeg’, meaning ‘small kilt.’ This made the skirt a distinct garment, essentially the modern kilt. Rawlinson wore it at first, no doubt seeking to convince the Highlanders of his good intentions, as did Ian McDonell. This concession seems to have overcome any resistance on the part of the clansmen, who in obedience of their Chieftain soon wore the kilts.0 The story was given in 1768 by a Highland gentleman who knew Rawlinson personally, and confirmed by Sir John Sinclair, then considered one of the greatest living authorities on Scottish customs.0
Though the kilt has acquired its modern status as a result of nineteenth-century romanticism, it was hardly unimportant at the time. The evidence strong implies that Highland soldiers regarded their Highland dress, whichever version it happened to be, as an integral part of their identity. In 1804 when the War Office considered abandoning the kilt and plaid in favour of trews, a certain Colonel Cameron of the 79th Highlanders took the suggestion rather badly, expressing a preference for ‘that free congenial circulation of pure wholesome air’ the kilt allowed.0 The 73rd regiment went so far as to mutiny over the issue, not wishing to be amalgamated with a non-Highland regiment for fear of being required to wear breeches.0 Despite this apparent embrace of the kilt, some regiments wore trews from their founding without apparent complaint. Fencible regiments did not all favour trews or breeches over kilts, however. The Reay Fencibles are described as wearing Highland dress, specifically as follows:

They had the Breacan-an-fheilidh, or Belted-plaid (kilt and Plaid in one) of Mackay tartan, of the same sett, but of a lighter Shade than that now worn ; twelve yards (six yards double width) for the officers and sergeants, and a smaller quantity for the men. For ordinary duties, unless the belted plaid was specially ordered, the men wore the feilebeag, or little kilt, which was really the lower half of the " breacan-an-fheilidh," with the pleats permanently stitched.0


If the importance of regimental identity is borne in mind, then the apparent disparity between the perceived importance of Highland dress and its questionable authenticity is easily filled. The simplest explanation is that individual regiments adopted whatever they were given as their own, regardless of whatever other meaning or relevance it might possess.
Highland regiments made use of other symbols within the norms of the British army. Most badges in the British army were the letters GR, for King George III, and the regiment’s number which also appeared on buttons. However, there were some notable exceptions. The 42nd regiment was one such exception, its badge being a thistle and crown until 1802, when it was replaced by a sphinx, almost certainly in commemoration of the regiment’s part in the Egyptian campaign. The latter distinction they shared with the 79th Cameronian Volunteers, later the Cameron Highlanders, and the 90th Perthshire Volunteers. The 42nd were also known for wearing a red hackle, made from vulture feathers, in their headgear. The origin of that particular custom is disputed, though custom holds that the regiment received the distinction for their conduct at the Battle of Geldermalsen in 1795. The distinction was formalized in 1822 as the regiment’s unique privilege. Studies of regimental symbols in this period can be fraught with confusion, due to a series of amalgamations and reorganizations that took place throughout the nineteenth century.
Despite this, common imagery can be found. The thistle is very common, while the Seaforth Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders acquired a stag as their badge in 1881. The thistle needs little introduction, being a stock symbol of the Highlands which, much like the Highlanders themselves, was later applied to the whole of Scotland. In heraldry, the stag is taken to symbolize one who will not fight unless provoked. This may be a reference to the motto Nemo me impune lacessit, meaning ‘No one provokes me with impunity’, used by the 42nd and many other Scottish regiments. Interestingly, both examples of the stag came with Gaelic mottoes, whether Cuidich’n Righ or ‘God save the King’ in the case of the Seaforth Highlanders, or Bydand, or ‘firm’, for the Gordon Highlanders. This shift towards Gaelic over Latin in mottoes can be taken as part of the repackaging and acceptance of Highland culture throughout the nineteenth century. In the period in question, however, the symbolism of the Highland regiments fell very much within the norms of the British army. This even applied to the bagpipes, perhaps the most authentic aspect of Highland culture to be incorporated into the regiments. Specifically the Great Highland Bagpipe, the bands of Highland regiments were organized around this particular instrument, along with drums and fifes. This actually represents the only noticeable organizational difference between Highland regiments and the rest of the British army.
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