Highlanders - Myth and Reality
By Stuart Reid From 'ECW Notes & Queries' (Caliver Books/Partizan Press)

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The title of this article reflects a continuing problem in presenting an accurate picture of the highland levies that appeared, often to spectacular effect, on battlefields in the hundred years between Tippermuir and Culloden.

On the one hand there is the traditional view, backed by a considerable literature, of the highlander as a brave warrior, liberally hung about with weapons. While on the other, the wretchedly equipped and often poorly motivated peasants, as revealed by contemporary documentation and archaeological evidence. The two interpretations appear irreconcilable, save by the creation of a curious hybrid; part barbarian peasant, part Hell's Angel, part Bay City Roller, evidently incapable of affording a decent shirt to his back, but nevertheless equipped with an expensive selection of weapons. The real answer is of course that both interpretations are equally correct, both, but not the third, existed side by side.

A warrior society is not one in which every adult male is a warrior, but rather one dominated by a warrior aristocracy. The highlander of popular imagination did indeed stride forth "as well armed as a modern battleship", but far from being typical of the highland soldier, he represented a warrior elite; a knight, huscarl, or at the very least a yeoman. When he went to war, like the Greek Heroes before him, his servants and dependents, his ghillies, the anonymous spear carriers who made up the bulk of a highland host followed him.

A military census carried out in Perthshire [one of the more affluent areas of the highlands] shortly before the Civil War, revealed that only a quarter of the available fighting men could produce the full panoply of broadsword, targe and musket. Most men, presumable the ghillies/spear carriers, had only dirks, and some of them bows. Fifty years later when James Philip of Almerieclose described the western clans gathered under Viscount Dundee at Dalcomera, the weapon most frequently mentioned is the spear or half?pike. While at Culloden, Cumberland's quartermasters recovered only 190 broadswords from the moor; rather less than a quarter of the highlanders killed there had been carrying one, but most had French muskets and bayonets!

Evidence of this, and the fact that the ranks of highland regiments were filled out with the halt, the lame and the blind as well as "perfect herd boys" and old men, has been available for some time, as has the knowledge that bodies recovered from northern peat bogs have been clad in coats and breeches like their lowland counterparts. The question which therefore arises, is how did the popular image of the highlander become [and remain] so well established?

In the early days of course, he was the creation of heroic oral history. Like the ancient Greek Hero and the medieval knight, the highland gentleman's role as leader, and his weapons, fitted him for a prominent part in any conflict; he engaged in hand to hand combat and exchanged memorable insults [or compliments] with his social equals, or less commonly, slew biblical numbers of the less well equipped and motivated spear carriers. Unless the ordinary clansman distinguished himself in some extraordinary manner, by for example interposing himself between a sword thrust or a missile aimed at his chieftain, his role as a "follower" ensured his anonymity, save perhaps as "one of the men of...." The men whose deeds are recounted in narratives of the Civil War are not the ordinary soldiers, but the gentlemen. Indeed, all too many accounts of battles take note only of casualties amongst the gentlemen present. The common soldiers who fell are dismissed as of no account, save to inflate the numbers of the vanquished slain.

This practice is by no means confined to the highlands. Narratives of battles by Lowland Scots, or Englishmen, will similarly make mention of officers and gentlemen who distinguished themselves ? if only by dying, but very little is said of the common soldier. Perhaps one of the best examples of this deplorable bias is the account by an English Jacobite named John Daniel, who was involved in the 1745 rebellion. His memoirs appear to be a model of clarity. They have every appearance of being comprehensive; describing where he went, what he saw, what he did, who he met and so on. Only in the final pages, while complaining of being robbed of his riding coat, does he mention that a servant accompanied him. The wretched man had evidently followed his master's fortunes to Derby and back to Culloden, "doing for him", and running an equal risk of dangling on the end of a rope, but if he had not lost his master's riding coat, his existence would never even have been acknowledged!

The point is of course, that such accounts were set down for the information of the literate classes, who naturally identified with, and were interested in, the deeds of men of their on class. After all, Dukes are seldom particularly concerned about dustmen. In the nineteenth century, the histories that were compiled naturally drew upon the narratives of the officers and gentlemen. They were very largely written for the edification of the middle and upper classes, whose interest in the common soldier as an individual [as distinct from a set of brave fellows, faithfully serving his lordship] was naturally limited. Only in the twentieth century has mass literacy led to an interest in, and appreciation of, the role of the ordinary soldier.

Most of our present perceptions of the highlander are the product of the nineteenth century histories, and in particular the most influential of them all; Robert Chambers' History of the Rebellion of 1745, first published in 1827 and still in print over a hundred years later. The first hand accounts upon which it was based, were of course written by gentlemen who could afford the broadswords which figure so prominently, not by the ordinary clansmen. More importantly perhaps, the history was illustrated by an engraving of a highland gentleman named Farquhar Shaw, who perhaps more than Sir Walter Scott himself, has done more than anyone else to shape our perceptions of the highlander armed for war.

One of the Black Watch mutineers executed in 1743, his portrait shows him armed with what we now generally expect a highlander to be carrying; a broadsword, dirk, pistol, firelock and ? in a slightly jarring note ? a bayonet! Yet in his day, the Black Watch were not ordinary soldiers, they were mostly highland gentlemen, arming themselves as they thought befitted gentlemen. David Stewart of Garth recalled his uncle telling him of how members of the regiment going to a muster had ridden on horseback, dressed in richly laced clothes, while their ghillies followed behind carrying their uniforms and weapons for them. Once the regiment was properly assimilated into the British Army, and ordinary highlanders replaced those gentlemen who did not obtain commissions, the broadswords and pistols were discarded as a useless encumbrance.

Only as a result of a belated surge of interest in the ordinary clansman are we now fully aware of the anonymous ghillies/spear carriers, following the gentlemen to war. The average highlander is now seen as a Caledonian barbarian, Conan in a kilt, but somehow enough of the romanticism remains to leave him brandishing a gentleman's sword.


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