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Caithness Archives

The Military Tradition in Caithness:Part 1-The 18th Century


This year is notable for two anniverseries. Ninety years ago the Territorial Army was constituted, a military force which, in 1914, was to form the vanguard of the mighty army that left Britain for France, to fight a campaign many thought would see them safely in Berlin by Christmas. Four years and a million dead Britons later, an Armistice ended the First World War. On the eve of the 80th Armistice Day, with the Territorial Army in Caithness facing an uncertain future, it seems fitting to remind our readers of those traditions of military service for which this county is justifiably famous.

It all began with the upstart king of an impoverished petty state, that sprawled across what is now a part of Germany. This king was a tyrant, a bully and a boor. His life's sole delight was his collection of grenadiers, all over six feet tall, enticed with promises of rich rewards by recruiting agents who combed Europe on the king's commission. No doubt statuesque Highlanders from the Far North were included in these ranks of impeccably drilled soldiers, destined never to fire a single round in anger throughout their royal master's reign. The whole of cultured Europe laughed at this toy soldier army. They laughed, too, at the king's son, a would-be philosopher and second-rate poet who played the flute. When the old king died, in 1740, his son inherited the throne. Overnight the playthings of idle time were laid aside; the country's outdated administration was put on a modern footing; and the superbly drilled army was expanded, battlefield manouvres replacing parade ground display. Suddenly, Europe wasn't laughing anymore.

King Frederick of Prussia was hardly a cold corpse when Charles, Emperor of Austria died. To Charles goes the credit for keeping European at peace for almost 30 years through his diplomatic masterwork known as the Pragmatic Sanction. This instrument had settled the succession to the Austrian throne on his eldest daughter, Maria Therese, and its formal acceptance by all the European nations prevented those dynastic wars which had desolated the continent for hundreds of years. Prussia had signed up to the Pragmatic Sanction; its new king, Frederick the Second declared himself Maria Therese's most ardent champion. A month later Prussian troops invaded the Austrian province of Silesia.

At once Europe sprang to arms. The Pragmatic Sanction evaporated in a storm of grapeshot. Bavaria invaded Bohemia, France made war on Austria, Sweden attacked Russia, and Britain joined the Dutch on the side of the Austrians. Directly or indirectly the violent deaths of all those killed in the War of the Austrian Succession, which spread all over the globe, from India to Canada, is attributable to the rapacious treachery of Frederick of Prussia.

For over a century Scottish regiments had served the British Crown - the Royal Scots, raised in the Lowlands in 1625, laid claim to being the very first regiment in the British Army. Now they were joined by troops raised in the Highlands. The Black Watch date from 1742, owing their origin to the inspired foresight of two men; William Pitt, the great Prime Minister, and Lord-President Forbes of Culloden. Impressed by the quality of the Highland warriors who fought on the side of James Stuart during the ill-fated 1715 Jacobite Rising, Pitt took Forbes's advice and enlisted the Highlanders martial abilities into the service of the British Government. During the War of the Austrian Succession the Black Watch lined up alongside English regiments fighting the French in the Low Countries.

The French were old enemies of Britain. They held extensive possessions in North America, India and the West Indies, possessions coveted by the commercial interests who were beginning to dominate the British political landscape. In 1745 the French sponsored Prince Charles Edward Stuart on his abortive attempt at reclaiming the British throne for his father. The facts of Charles Edward's expedition are well-known, if obscured by the romantic smokescreen that formed years after the event when it was safe to sing Jacobite songs and drink toasts to the unfortunate Stuart dynasty. Briefly, Charles Stuart, against the advice of his friends, landed in Scotland, raised an army of fighting clansmen - many of them press-ganged into service by violent threats - and made war on the legal government. After initial success against inept British commanders, the Jacobite army invaded England, capturing Carlisle and Manchester. At Derby, weakened by desertions and dissillusioned by the failure of English Jacobites to join his cause, Prince Charles reluctantly ordered a retreat back to Scotland, pursued by seasoned troops under command of the Duke of Cumberland. The game was up for the Stuart cause.

Heroic failure; end of an era; prelude to oppression; victory for plain sense and the coming age; Culloden was all these. It was also a landmark in British history, a milestone on the road to a truly United Kingdom. The Union of 1707 was generally unpopular in both Scotland and England. In Glasgow serious rioting broke out. Yet within 8 years, the same city was offering troops and prayers for the defeat of James Stuart, a would-be king whose cause was identified with Scottish opposition to the Union. Time had mollified rage. The Glasgow merchants had come to appreciate the commercial advantages of unfettered access to English markets. Throughout the Lowlands it was the same story. The Union had brought prosperity to those who mattered politically. No doubt certain Scottish commercial interests suffered from the import of cheaper English products, but by and large, the emergent new industries and trading companies preferred a Hanoverian monarchy under control of the House of Commons, to a has-been dynasty beholden to France and the Church of Rome. The Battle of Culloden tereminated Stuart pretensions once and for all.

While England and the Scottish Lowlands rejoiced at the news of the Jacobite defeat, the Highlands groaned under the oppressions and outrages of an insolent victor. That the old clan system with its arbitary justice, its power of pit-and-gallows, life and death, invested in the person of an hereditary chieftan, was an open invitation to tyranny cannot reasonably be denied. Its end was violent. The Duke of Cumberland was son of the king of a civilised country. In his hands he held the power to be merciful. He chose otherwise, earning for his immortal reputation the odious names of 'Butcher' Cumberland and 'Stinking Billy'. Just how much his summary executions, the depredations carried out by his troops, their burnings and ravishings, really shocked a native population whose history was written in the blood of its neighbouring clans, is open to conjecture, but two wrongs seldom make a right.

Caithness lacked the Celtic traditions that made the clan system so strong in the rest of the Highlands. Families rather than clans dominated the political fortunes of the county. When the '45 broke out supporters of the Jacobite cause were either few and far between, or wisely restricted their support to drinking private toasts to the exiled Stuarts. Those recruiters for Prince Charles who visited Caithness went away empty handed. Leading Caithness branches of the family Sinclair tried hard to divine which way the prevailing wind was gusting. They dithered, hedged their bets - and did nothing. Perhaps the influence of their powerful neighbour, the staunchly Protestant Lord Reay, persuaded any latent Jacobites among them to keep their peace. True, Sinclair of Geise and four of his tenants were arrested for complicity in the rebellion, but the fate of his kinsman, the Laird of Dunn, is more revealing. This gentleman having failed to enlist his tenants under the Jacobite banner, promptly shot himself.

Disinterested rather than disloyal, Caithness shared with the rest of Scotland the mixture of good and evil that followed the '45. The old feudal power of the clan chiefs was finished - no longer could their menaces compel a man to rustle his neighbour's cattle, nor could they shut their enemies up in a cave and suffocate them with smoke. But the country had to be governed by someone. Laws were passed transforming former warlords into landowners, exchanging man-service rent for money rent, homes in cold, mountain strongholds for Georgian terraces in Edinburgh or London. The gentrification of the ancient Highland aristocracy gave rise to that constant need for money which led directly to the infamous Clearances of the 19th century. The need for the Highland lairds to curry social and political favour in the great capital cities caused them to volunteer manpower for the growing British Army, then engaged in worldwide campaigns, chiefly against the French in India and Canada. Europe was once more plunged into universal war.

Although the War of the Austrian Succession had ended in 1748 with the reaffirmation of the Pragmatic Sanction, Prussia still held on to conquered Silesia. A spirited woman, Maria Therese harboured a corrosive hatred of King Frederick. By 1756 the Austrian queen had succeeded in uniting all her previous enemies against the upstart Prussian king, whose military might terrified all Europe. Frederick had spies in every European capital. Appraised of the alliance against him, he struck the first blow, advancing through Saxony at whirlwind pace. The enemies of Prussia formed a formidable confederation: Austria, The Holy Roman Empire, Russia, France, Sweden and most of the German states. Frederick's army was outnumbered twenty to one. There could be, it seemed, only one end to such an uneven contest. Seven years later it was all over. Prussia's enemies had been humbled in the dust of a score of battlefields, their king's name was on everyone's lips - Frederick was the greatest hero in the world. Thus was born that idea of Prussian military superiority which held sway for nearly two centuries.

During the period of the Seven Years War the Highlands raised many fine fighting regiments. In 1757 the 77th Regiment and Fraser's Highlanders (both disbanded in 1763) were formed. In 1759 forerunners of the famous Gordon Highlanders appeared in kilted uniform, along with 8 other short-lived bandings of privately raised Highland companies, all of them stood down in 1763. Incidentally, the role of Highland Regiments in preserving the Highland costume, banned in the aftermath of the '45, is worthy of note. All of these Highland regiments saw service overseas in Europe, India and North America, the next theatre of war in which British arms were involved.

In 1775 recruitment began for another batch of Highland regiments, required for service in the American War of Independence. Again, most of these regiments were disbanded by 1784, but one of them, Seaforth's Highlanders, raised in 1778 continued in service, joined in 1787 by the Highland Light Infantry and the Gordon Highlanders. Were there any Caithness men present in these regiments? It seems probable despite the lack of affirmative documentary evidence. We know that Lord Berriedale was a Major in the 76th Highlanders, with whom he was wounded at the seige of Charlestown; and that a certain David Henderson of Latheron is recorded as having served in America, but for how long, in what rank, and in which regiment is presently unknown. The Government perceiving Caithness to be a county unaffected by any lingering pockets of malignant Jacobite sympathy, probably deemed it unnecessary to recruit any potential enemies of military age and ability into its own ranks. A surplus population whose energies could not be converted into profit, did not seem to have been an obvious Caithness problem, either. The herring fishery was getting under way, advances were being made in agriculture. The Army was not a first-thought career option for an ambitious young Caithness chiel.

In 1759, at the height of the Seven Year's War, the Earl of Sutherland recruited a regiment of soldiers from among the tenants of his vast estates. This regiment was embodied at Fort George the following year as The Earl of Sutherland's Fencibles, one of a number of such companies raised in Scotland, at Pitt's instigation, for purposes of 'internal defence'. Clearly, the lessons of the '45 were still fresh in the minds of those who dictated national policy. For three years the Sutherland Fencibles drilled, practised marksmanship and did a round of garrison duty in Inverness, Aberdeen, Old Meldrum, Dundee, and Edinburgh Castle, before their disbandment at Fort George in 1763.

During the American War of Independence, the French were still thought to pose a threat to Britain's internal security. The long, lonely Scottish coastline seemed ideal landing territory for a determined enemy, who might yet find popular support among the native population for an attempt on the reigning monarchy. Accordingly, the Fencible regiments were reconstituted. In 1779 the 2nd Sutherland Fencibles were raised by the Earl. Embodied at Fort George in June of that year, the regiment saw service around Edinburgh and in Shetland. It was stood down in 1783 at the termination of the American War.

By now the first indications of an agricultural revolution that was to change the face of the Highlands, were becoming apparent. In Caithness those ingenious men Traill of Olrig and John Sinclair of Ulbster were setting in motion schemes, the end of which they could not have foreseen. Traill started the Caithness flagstone industry; John Sinclair brought north the great Cheviot sheep, for whose sake and grazing space whole communities were evicted from their ancient ancestral homes among the hills.

The Highland Clearances are an emotive subject. Their tragic aspects have been hijacked by every dissident group who wishes to prove the injustices inherent in the past government of the Highlands. It is all true. But it always was and it always will be. The Clearances have innumerable historic parallels whereby an innocent and unresisting population has been shipped wholesale to foreign parts.

In England political opponents and religious dissenters were standard exports to the forced labour plantations of North America and the West Indies. The Lowland Covenanters joined them in bondage, white slaves, punished for their unfashionable principles. However, what shocks us most about the Highland Clearances is that the ancestors of those who sanctioned the evictions owed their exalted positions as clan chiefs to the very people whose descendants they now drove out of house and home. And the evicted, still clinging to the outmoded idea of chief as father of his clan, went on their mournful way, unresisting for the most part, their dignity intact, the true nobles of the piece.

Meanwhile, far away from Caithness, one of the great events in modern history burst on to the world stage. The French Revolution set Europe ablaze. Its path laid out by rationalist intellectuals, utopian moralists and learned enemies of tradition, the French Revolution stands as an object lesson of what can be done when worthwhile ideas fall into the clutches of ruthless men of action. Britain - a country which had not only given shelter in their hour of persecution to those who hatched the Revolution, but was also the birthplace of certain thinkers whose reputations gave it a gloss of intellectual respectability - trembled at the growing strength and violence of events across the Channel. In 1793, following the guillotining of Louis XVI, Britain, along with the rest of Europe, was at war with France.

In Scotland everyone was a loyal supporter of the Crown. Everyone was proud to be British. The threat from France was regarded as so great that the whole island came together as one people, a real United Kingdom. In Caithness the effect was twofold. On one hand the Army's demand for food and uniforms created a ready market for the meat and wool of the Cheviot sheep; on the other, the demand for soldiers to fill those uniforms caused many a patriotic young man to enlist in one of the newly raised Highland companies.

Fencible regiments were resurrected. In 1793 the Earl of Sutherland raised a third regiment of these useful troops; two years later, Sir John Sinclair formed the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles. Embodied at Forfar, Sir John's Fencibles were sent to Ireland. Two years later they volunteered for overseas service, and 4 officers and some 200 men signed on with the 79th Cameron Highlanders and the 92nd Gordons. Not to be outdone, Lord Reay raised his own Fencible regiment which was embodied at Fort George in 1795 before proceeding to Ireland, where it helped crush an Irish rising, inspired by the dangerous example of the French Revolution. At Tara Hill and at Castlebar, where the rebel Irish were assisted by a French force sent to assist them, the victorious Reay Fencibles displayed those martial qualities which inspired such fear in their enemies.

The Fencibles were required, if necessary, to serve anywhere in Britain. For local defence a Highland Militia corps was raised for the duration of hostilities with France. These militia regiments were a kind of early version of the Home Guard. Caithness men were, from 1798 onward, recruited into four different militia outfits. They saw lengthy service at places as far apart as Lerwick and Portsmouth. No doubt they too supplied first class recruits for the regular army, the campaigns of which will feature in next week's article.

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David Bews 1998
Steven Cashmore 1998

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