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The Military Tradition in Caithness:Part 2-The Territorial Road to 1914


Time was when Charles Wolfe's poem on the burial of General Moore was one of the best-known in the English language. Glasgow-born Sir John Moore was killed leading his troops in a brilliant rearguard action at Corunna on the north coast of Spain, to where the British expeditionary force sent to wrest the country from the French, had retreated in January 1809. Moore died a hero's death, his fame immortalised in verse. How many schoolboys reading those verses pictured themselves at the gallant General's side? Alexander Carnaby, of Thurso, serving as a lieutenant with the 76th Highlanders was with Moore when he fell. Buried at dead of night on the ramparts of Corunna, his cloak an improvised winding sheet, a select few mourners in attendance, Sir John Moore's funeral was a sombre affair. Caithness man David Brodie of Latheron was there, so too was his fellow parishioner Donald Mackay, a Black Watch veteran of 27 battles during the wars that convulsed Europe during the early years of the 19th century.

That great social upheaval the French Revolution dredged up numerous personalities from the pit of dark obscurity. Men with talents well-suited to dangerous times, when the whole civilised world threatened to avenge itself on a renegade nation that had murdered its own king. Men like the regicides Robespierre and Danton; and Carnot, the veteran soldier. One figure dwarfs them all - Napoleon Bonaparte.

From 1796, when he took command of an army of half-starved, ragged French soldiers, until that day 19 years later, when his star finally fell below the Waterloo horizon, Napoleon dominated European history. The Duke of Wellington may have been, in latter days, his rival; but Napoleon's only equal was Horatio Nelson. And as the victor of Trafalgar was a sailor, the two men never crossed swords on the battlefield.

In retrospect Napoleon's career seems incredible, beyond the energies of a single human being. For example, during the Austerlitz campaign of 1805 when his supreme tactical skills destroyed the combined forces of Austria and Russia, Napoleon is said to have spent a week in the saddle, snatching sleep between spells of fighting. Then there was his famous 1812 invasion of Russia. Starting out at the end of June, by September the French were marching through Moscow, a lightning advance, far swifter than Hitler's in 1941. In truth the Russian expedition finished Napoleon. Already a sick man, he retreated to France to meet with defeat and exile to the island of Elba. Ten months later the battlefield alchemist returned, regalvanised the exhausted French army and almost succeeded in defeating his allied enemies, Britain and Prussia. As Wellington himself admitted, Waterloo was a very close run thing.

It was during the Napoleonic wars that the Highland regiments of the British Army came of age. The regimental rolls reveal that Caithness regulars bore their due share of the fighting. Bower sent Andrew and William Creach, Alexander Morrison, the brothers Donald and William Waters. David Henderson of Stempster was a captain with the 10th Regiment of Foot, his brother Alexander, a serving lieutenant in the 10th Bombay Infantry, drowned during an expedition to the Persian Gulf. John Mowat of Canisbay, father of Sir Oliver Mowat, Prime Minister of Canada, fought at Corunna; his fellow parishioners, Magnus Houston and John Angus lined up with Wellington at Waterloo. There were Dunnet men at Waterloo: Donald Henderson, Donald Banks, Donald Elder of the 9th Foot, George Sutherland a Piper with the Black Watch, Alexander Forbes, and Sergeant William Calder, later to serve with that most Highland of regiments, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders.

Two brothers, Donald and James Williamson, left Halkirk to become captains in Wellington's army during that most bitter of struggles, the Peninsular War. From the same parish came William Henderson and Donald Macleod of the Cameron Highlanders, side by side at Waterloo, where Captain William Gunn, also of Halkirk, performed bravely enough to warrant a mention in Wellington's own dispatches. Black Watch privates from Halkirk who fought against Napoleon included David Nichol and Alexander Gunn. There may have been more of these disciplined men of high moral standards, a stark contrast to the rest of the British army, whom Wellington himself referred to as 'the scum of the earth'.

Judging by the number of its sons who fought in their ranks, Latheron must have been fertile recruiting territory for both the Black Watch and the Cameron Highlanders. Among those recorded as having served with those regiments in the Napoleonic wars were Alexander Cormack, William Calder, David Dunnett, John and William Bain, Sergeant Alexander Doull, John Macdonald, wounded at Waterloo, and George Robertson who lost an arm at at the same battle. When discharged George went home to forge a local reputation as a one-armed mechanic. Then there was Sergeant-Major John Sutherland, and the Barnie brothers, William and Alexander. All these men returned with service medals bearing the coveted clasp AWaterloo.@ Where are these medals today, we wonder?

Of Latheronian James Sutherland, a sergeant with the 71st Highlanders, it is recorded that he fought in 15 pitched battles between 1809 and 1815. We know, too, that the Camerons had in their ranks a Lieutenant Alexander Robertson who took part in the seige of Salamanca, and was three times mentioned in dispatches. But of Alexander Forbes, Alexander Begg, Donald Elder and Joseph Mackay we know nothing except that they were Latheron men who fought at Waterloo.

Olrig sent relatively few soldiers to fight against Napoleon, but one of them, Sergeant Donald Andrews, took part in almost 30 fights under Sir John Moore and the Duke of Wellington. The struggles with Napoleon were not confined to Europe. The French invaded Egypt, threatening the vital British possessions in India, the source of so much of this country's past wealth. Among those who battled the French under the shadow of the timeless pyramids were Reay men Charles and Angus Macdonald. Their neighbours Joseph Mackay, Sergeant William Mackay and Robert Mackay were at Waterloo, alongside Captain William Gunn of the Camerons and Donald MacRob of the Black Watch, both Reay.

As could be expected, men from the two Caithness towns figured prominently in the muster rolls of the Highland regiments. Thurso sent a good crop of fighting soldiers to serve with the Cameron Highlanders - Donald Mackay, Walter Dunnett, Richard Gunn, veteran of Egypt, Spain and Waterloo, his kinsmen Alexander and Wiliam Gunn, Sinclair Sutherland and John Keith. Then there were the Davidson brothers, Sergeant William, James killed at Salamanca, and Captain Sinclair Davidson who fell at Fuentos d'Honor. All three had enlisted with the Camerons. Another Cameron was George Sutherland, a fighting piper, captured at Corunna. Poor George never saw Thurso again - he died in a French prison.

Wick, too, seems to have received profitable visits from the recruiting sergeants of the Cameron Highlanders. Among those from the Royal Burgh who signed up for the Napoleonic wars were Duncan Simpson, Thomas Robertson, John Rosie, James Mowat and Alexander Macbeath. Finally we come to Watten, home of William and Donald Georgeson, John Munro, Robert and James Gunn, all of whom joined the Black Watch. Then there was Sergeant George Gunn, a Peninsular War veteran, wounded in distant Mauritius when the British captured that island from the French.

The above listing is not exhaustive. There are other Caithness men known to have served in the regular ranks during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, but to list them all would be monotonous. Sufficient are included to underline the historical fact that this county has, for almost two centuries, been a tried and trusted source of enthusiastic soldiers; loyal, trustworthy men whose successors deserve better than the shabby treatment threatened by the present Government. To disband a trained and efficient fighting force purely on questionable economic grounds, is at best an act of folly. Even in these so-called enlightened times, a country's international credibility is still measured by its military potential. The reduction of that potential has in past times bred serious consequences. Safe futures are never guaranteed - who, for example, could have foreseen the Falklands conflict, or the war against Saddam Hussein?

Had History any sense of justice, Napoleon would have died fighting on the field of Waterloo. It was not to be. His warlike spirit quite worn out, the mighty military genius was left to fret away his days on remote St Helena, while the continent that had for so long been subject to his restless ambition, laid down its arms. France had been bled white. Britain's economy was nigh on its last legs. Great swathes of Germany, Austria, Prussia and Poland had been turned into wasteland. Evil days were at hand. Everywhere there were widows, orphans, good citizens gone to ruin, limbless ex-soldiers hobbling about in rags, begging from all and sundry, It was to be almost a century before Europe witnessed conflict on the scale of the Napoleonic wars.

The victorious British Army came home to receive the accolades of an ecstatic public. Medals were handed out, poets lauded to the skies the Heaven-blessed prowess of British arms, lavish promises were dished up by the bucketful. Such has been the aftermath of every major war. Unfortunately, the politicians who make such promises have a false sense of their own capabilities. The real power always lies elsewhere.

When the Caithness soldiers left the Continent, exchanging the barren, gloomy mountains of northern Spain, and Belgium with its sad plains brooding under iron-grey skies, for the familiar lands of their birth, a few of them did so reluctantly. Ten years before they had looked upon Morven and the Ord as marking the frontiers of the known world. Caithness was their home, their life; they neither knew nor needed any other. Now, courtesy of the Army, they had seen the world with its hurly-burly towns, its bustling cities full of opportunities and temptations. Some Caithness men arrived at Dover, went through the process of disbandment, and settled down to life in the south. Of those who returned to Caithness, not all stayed. During their absence on the King's business, changes had come about in the Far North.

In 1800 Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, raised a regiment of soldiers from among the tenantry of her vast estates. At its formation two thirds of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders were from that county. Strangely, this regiment was never sent to the Continent during the Napoleonic struggles; instead it saw service in South Africa and Newfoundland. Later, during the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War, the 93rd was destined to become the most famous Highland regiment of all. However, by that time there were more Caithness men than Sutherlanders amongst its ranks. Ironically, the cause of this reversal of circumstances in an organisation designed for war, was that most peaceable of creatures - the sheep.

Those discharged veterans who came home to Caithness in 1815 found themselves involved in that process called by posterity ` the Clearances, aspects of which will appear in this newspaper at a future date. Briefly - at Langwell, Noss, Duncansby and the lands in West Caithness owned by William Innes, the local people were relocated, their places taken by flocks of Cheviot sheep.

Many of those evicted looked into the future and divined it bleak and uncertain. Accordingly they left Caithness for America or Canada, or went to swell the expanding populations of the industrial cities of England and Strathclyde. But Caithness was both exporter and importer of human beings. Across the county march came Highlanders made homeless by the notorious Sutherland evictions.

The name of Patrick Sellar, perpetrator of the worse excesses against the peaceable inhabitants of Kildonan and Strathnaver, is still odious throughout the North. That he acted entirely on his own initiative is no longer a valid question. That he was the willing agent of his ducal master no sensible person now denies. But Sellar's loutish outrages had an unexpected consequence - the understandable reluctance of Sutherland men to join a regiment so closely associated with their oppressor's master, opened the way for Caithness. That glorious period when Caithness military history was inseparable from that of the 93rd Highlanders, a period whose crowning moment was the award of a Victoria Cross to Private David Mackay, of Lyth, during the Indian Mutiny, that period is indirectly attributable to the Sutherland Clearances.

To a younger generation depressed at the prospect of life spent within the confines of a croft, or hard toil at Traill's flagworks, the adventurous tales spun by Wellington's veterans must have struck a sympathetic chord. That many a cold winter's evening beside the peat fire resounded with the sacred names of Quatre Bras, Salamanca or Corunna, cannot be doubted. When recruiting parties arrived in Caithness they found that old soldiers had already sown the seeds from which sprang a new crop of Far North warriors.

Wars of the Victorian era were fought for different reasons than the dynastic struggles of previous centuries. Napoleon, a Romantic at heart, had been a child of the French Revolution. His initial task had been to spread the burning irreligious, republican faith born of that great event. Later, conquest became a terrible addiction to him. In contrast, the pragmatic British looked upon their armed services as instruments for assisting commercial expansion and enforcing trade treaties. That acts of heroism and honour were rooted in such sordid ground is, perhaps, ironical. It is true, nonetheless. When Cameron Highlander John Oman of Thurso, took his place among Lord Raglan's elite bodyguard at Balaclava, he didn't consider that the real reason for his regiment's presence in the Crimea was not to preserve Turkey from the Russians; they were there solely to protect the trade interests of a few millionaires. Britain didn't give a hoot for the welfare of a few heathen Turks. In all probability, neither did John Oman.

Time passed. The Crimean War came and went; so too, the Indian Mutiny. Peace on a large scale broke out. But the Government was careful not to fall into complacency's snare. No-one could be certain when a major new conflict might start up in Europe. Had not Bismarck, the warlike Prussian Chancellor, recently succeeded in uniting the squabbling German states? A unified Germany, armed to the teeth and possessing in Helmuth Von Moltke, a military genius of the highest order, posed a constant menace to European peace. The British had a duty to be prepared.

During the 40 years following Waterloo, descendants of the old Volunteer Force, stood down in 1815, were allowed to form themselves into Rifle Clubs. These unofficial organisations kept alive the military flame, their members training along army lines as well as holding regular sharpshooting contests. On May 5th, 1859 the Government gave its permission for the establishment of Volunteer Rifle Corps throughout Britain. Organised on a county basis, the raising of these Rifle Corps was entrusted to the respective Lord Lieutenants. Volunteers enlisted on condition that they could be called out to deal with invasion or civil unrest. While under arms they would be subject to martial law, and no man could leave his unit whilst on active service. In peace, 14 days quittal notice was required. This was the birth of the Territorial Army.

Alongside the Rifle Corps, an Artillery Corps grew up. In 1860 Caithness formed 3 companies of each of these volunteer corps. Thurso and Wick boasted both riflemen and gunners; Halkirk had a rifle corps; Lybster had artillery. Watten formed a rifle corps in 1867, by which time Caithness had been incorporated, along with Orkney and Lerwick, into the Golspie-based Sutherland Rifle Volunteers Administration Battalion. On July 1st, 1881, during the great reorganisation of the British Army, these part-time soldiers were regimented into the Seaforth Highlanders.

Service with the Volunteers was unpaid. Nevertheless, there were compensations. As part of its duties the Caithness Corps was often required to appear at military displays throughout Scotland. Honour guards for distinguished visitors were also a feature of Volunteer life. All this involved travel. Golspie, Inverness, Aberdeen, distant Edinburgh even; how small a price voluntary military service must have seemed to a Caithness man, given the opportunity to visit the Capital!

Then there were the camps and local games days when different companies would compete for donated prizes. Instruction in matters military was provided by discharged regulars, old soldiers who, having done their 21 year stint in the 93rd, returned on half-pay to pass on the tradition to stay-at-homes. Not all service was confined to British soil. During the Boer War of 1899-1902, the Far North Rifle Volunteers sent 87 men to South Africa as part of three companies raised for service there.

Meanwhile, across the North Sea, the great Prussian military machine was getting into gear. In 1866, Prussia went to war with Austria. The war lasted a mere 7 weeks, by which time the Austrian army was on its knees. The French brokered a peace. Six years later, they themselves decided it was time to draw the Prussian tiger's fangs.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was but a taster for the slaughters of 1914-18. Briefly, France believing its army to be invincible, invaded Prussia. The French had enthusiasm and abundant self-belief. 'On to Berlin!' was their clarion call. Unfortunately, they had no plans, no strategy, no military intelligence. An army of sheep went forth to attack a pack of wolves. The results were predictable. Ruthless Prussian efficiency swept aside the French armies. Paris was occupied. Only payment of the colossal sum of 1 billion dollars, caused the Prussians to leave French soil. There were lessons aplenty to be gleaned from this war. But whatever was learned had been long forgotten by 1914.

On April 1st, 1908 a Territorial Force of 221 battalions was constituted in England, Wales and Scotland. The Caithness Rifle Volunteers became part of the 520 strong 5th (Sutherland & Caithness Highland) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders. With over 1,500 Rifle Volunteers in the two northern counties, 900 of them Caithnessians, there were bound to have been a lot of glum faces, especially as the 5th Seaforths was, for some reason, required to have a majority of Sutherland men in its ranks. Almost 400 Caithness volunteers were stood down to permit the implimentation of this unjust policy.

Numerical changes were not the only ones. The Territorial Force was a paid service with the requirement to turn out for drill on certain weeknights, as well as at weekends. An annual two week camp was introduced, attendance at which was mandatory to quality a man for the annual Bounty. Cash payment at camp, often led to sore heids, when domestically oppressed men had access to strong drink without wifely interference.

Camps also had a serious side. Here the Terriers learned the finer points of defence and attack, how to dig trenches, set trip wires, roll out barbed wire entanglements, build strongpoints out of sandbags, bridge streams with planks. Great emphasis was placed on shooting, athletic sports and piping, prizes being eagerly competed for, medals being awarded to the best performing companies. Attendance at these camps involved travel for Caithness Terriers. Here is a list of annual summer camps between 1908 and 1914: Kingussie; Burghead, where Castletown took the cup for the largest company at camp; Aviemore, where Castletown repeated their feat; Tain, with Wick the largest company; Burghead, again; Dornoch; and Kingussie for a second time. Plenty of fun and games, new friends found, common bonds of comradeship forged. Halcyon days, the high summer of territorial soldiering. But nothing lasts for ever, happy days least of all.

From the turn of the century, Europe prepared for war. The economies of Britain and Germany were underpinned by vast expenditure on armaments of every kind. A late starter in the colonial expansion stakes, Germany sought to bully its way to an empire. Britain saw its supremacy threatened. Every new German warship, every giant gun that left the Krupp factory ratcheted up the tension between the two powers. In the near east, the rotten old empires of Turkey and Austria wheezed and gasped like two ridiculous geriatrics posing as gladiators, while Russia waited, vulture-like in the wings. War seemed inevitable.

We would like to thank Major Graham Dunnet, Lord Lieutenant of Caithness, for his assistance in compiling the above article.

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David Bews 1998
Steven Cashmore 1998

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