SOLDIER’S FEET MARK the beat of time. Its rhythms are captured in this marvellous biography of an illustrious Scottish regiment. Trevor Royle has deftly interwoven four narrative threads: the story of the Royal Scots, the changing nature of war and soldiering, the relationship between the army and the society it served and the scenarios of the wars in which the regiment was engaged, in other words, ‘the reason why’. These qualities set The Royal Scots apart from the conventional regimental histories and make it a book that will be enjoyed by general readers as well as the military buff.
The Royals began life as a band of mercenaries recruited by Sir John Hepburn of Athelstaneford for service under Louis XIII in 1633. The Thirty Years Wars was in full swing with fifteen years yet to run and Catholic and Protestant princes were trawling the Continent to replenish armies that were constantly being decimated by plague and desertion. Thousands of Scots were already engaged serving both sides. Although a Catholic, Hep-burn had spent twelve years in the service of the Protestant champion, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.
Money mattered to the young Scots who joined Hepburn, many of who were younger sons of Lowland lairds with proud pedigrees and empty purses. Poverty did not erase ancestry and these young gentlemen imagined themselves genetically inclined towards the use of arms. Their breeding made them young men of honour, whose prime ingredient was courage. The capacity for leadership was also believed to be conveyed in the bloodline.
From the time when Hepburn’s mercenaries were incorporated into Charles II’s army as the First Regiment of Foot or Royal Scots, its officers tended to be the sons of Lothian landowners. They were confident gentlemen who played by the rules, had a sense of noblesse oblige and knew what was expected of them in terms of courage. Officers were gentlemen and were required to live like them, devoting their extensive duty hours to riding, hunting and shooting in the daytime and card playing and billiards in the evening.
A country house atmosphere prevailed in the mess and was officially approved, thanks to the sale of commissions which ensured that officers had private resources. The cult of the gentleman survived the abolition of purchase in 1872, for officers still needed private incomes to hold their own in the mess.
So, throughout most of its existence, the Royal Scots mirrored rural Scottish society with gentlemen giving orders and the equivalent of tenant farmers and labourers obeying them. The system worked in an age when armies engaged in close-range duels of musketry and charged their opponents with the bayonet. The exemplary courage and audacity of officers leading from the front could determine battles. One of the book’s illustrations shows Colonel Sir Robert Douglas recapturing the Royal Scots’ standard from a French officer at the battle of Steenkirke in 1692. He was killed moments later, having enhanced his own honour and saved that of his regiment. Portrayals of such acts of dramatic combat appear on the walls of officers’ messes.
Who followed men like Douglas into battle? Although the regiment always had connections with Edinburgh and Lothians, there were times when the Royals were compelled to cast their recruiting net further afield. Soldiering in the ranks was not an attractive prospect throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: men were poorly paid, subject to fierce discipline and until 1881 were liable to be flogged for infractions of military law. The commonest related to drinking; among the last victims of the lash were some Highlanders charged with being drunk on duty in Kabul in 1880.
Defenders of the flogging, including Wellington, argued that it was vital to discipline the criminal elements for whom the army was a place of last resort. During the Napoleonic wars, sheriffs in Fife gave felons the alternative of service with the Black Watch in Spain or transportation to Australia. The former was the preferred destination. Poverty also filled the ranks. Canny recruiting sergeants always kept an ear open for intelligence of local trade recessions in the knowledge that the unemployed and destitute were easily enticed. And there was always Ireland where the growth of population (at least until 1845) kept ahead of jobs. Like all other British regiments, the Royals had a core of Irish recruits.
An escape from poverty could sometimes mean a chance for enrichment. Royle quotes two lines from that recruiting ballad of Queen Anne’s time ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’: “Courage, boys, ‘tis one to ten,/But we return all gentlemen”. Private Donald McBane of the Royal Scots and one of nature’s entrepreneurs found service in Marl-borough’s army an opportunity for filling his own pockets. An accomplished swordsman, he ran a fencing school in the Flanders town where he was quartered for the winter. (War was still a seasonal occupation). McBane was anxious to diversify and discovered that four other master swordsmen were running a profitable brothel and casino. He attempted to muscle in and trounced three of the swordsmen in fair fights, but the fourth took a shot at him with a pistol. McBane gave this cad “a thrust in the buttocks”. Chastened, the quartet gave McBane “a brace of whores” and a new business opportunity. A nice instance of the co-existence of private enterprise with public service, which was amazingly tolerated by his colonel.
McBane the soldier, fencing master and pimp and the regiment he served with were fighting the first great eighteenth-century global wars in which Britain extended its empire of trade and settlement at the expense of France and Spain. As Royle reminds us, the Scots were quick to make their marks and their fortunes in this great enterprise; between 1722 and 1800 thirty-seven Highland regiments were raised, many for overseas service. The Royals found themselves in the West Indies guarding sugar islands against the French (and sometimes the slaves) and in Wolfe’s army which evicted the French from Canada.
Eighteenth century imperial duties were interrupted by what Royle treats (rightly, I think) as the last phase of an extended Scottish civil war, the Jacobite rebellion. At Cullo-den the Royals occupied their traditional position on the far right of the line, where they repelled the onslaught of the Highlanders of Clan Chattan. They were led by Roderick Og Chisolm, whose elder brothers James and John were officers in the Royals. Both remained with their regiment as it moved into the Highlands for a campaign of retribution of singular viciousness, engendered by racial and political loathing for the Highlanders.
Revealingly, a Royals veteran of this campaign thought the war cries of the Cherokees “more terrible than the slogans of the Gaels”. Like the Highlanders, the Cherokees were considered an obstacle to progress, in this case the colonisation of South Carolina, and the Royals were ordered to burn all their villages and kill every adult male they could find. The Native Americans resisted fiercely in a campaign whose sheer nastiness reminds one of the punitive operations in present day Palestine and Iraq.
In 1812 the Royals were back in America, this time defending Canada from an invasion by the United States in what was the republic’s first essay in imperial expansion. The Anglo-American War of 1812-1815 was a distraction from the wider and prolonged world war against Napoleonic France in which the Royal Scots saw service in Egypt, the West Indies, Spain, Portugal and at Waterloo.
Britain emerged from this Herculean effort as the world’s only global superpower. Gains had to be protected and prestige upheld. The nineteenth century saw the Royals fighting in the Crimea, in China, India and kicking their heels in garrisons at Gibraltar, Canada, the West Indies, Malta and southern Africa.