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The Real Tartan Army at War – Scottish Review of Books
by Trevor Royle

The Real Tartan Army at War

October 20, 2009 | by Trevor Royle

AS NATIONAL EVENTS are viewed by the public, the emergence of The Royal Regiment of Scot-land on March 28 2006 was hardly an event of seismic proportions. No big parades, tar-tanry kept to a minimum and only a few fellows in kilts with bagpipes. A handful of soldiers were presented with the new cap badge – a crowned lion rampant mounted on a saltire with Scotland’s ancient motto: Nemo me impune lacessit – which the Jocks quickly christened “the crucified pussy”. It was all very low-key but the absence of ceremonial had as much to do with the paucity of actual badges as it had to do with the worldwide deployment of the new regiment’s five active service battalions. In addition to a predictable badging ceremony in Edinburgh castle there were similar ceremonies in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Belfast, Basra and Canterbury.

Few people outside the army community paid much attention to what was happening, bar the protestors who had waged a lengthy, high-profile but ultimately futile campaign to stop the whole process. The latter’s beef is simply stated: as a result of a wide-ranging review of the structure of the infantry regiments of the British Army in 2004 new large regiments with multiple active service battalions came into being to replace the old single-battalion regiments with historic titles and local associations.

For Scotland this meant the demise of familiar names such as The Black Watch and the marching into history of The Royal Scots, the oldest infantry regiment in the British Army, right of the line, second to none and in deference to its antiquity known as “Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard”. Inevitably these latest changes created a great deal of sadness in the army community and more widely throughout Scotland with regret being expressed for the loss of cherished names and the conversion of regiments into a new formation. However, the history of the British Army shows that the story of its regiments has been one of constant development, with cutbacks, amalgamations and changes of name being part of a process of evolution stretching back over several centuries. In every case the development has not led to a diminution of the army’s capabilities but has produced new regiments which are the equal of their predecessors.

That argument, of course, is not what the supporters of the regiments wanted to hear. To them the loss of the so-called “historic” infantry regiments was not just a betrayal of cherished traditions – many soldiers regard regiments more as families than as military formations – it also seemed to be an insult to the people of Scotland. There were sounder arguments about the wisdom of changing a system which had worked well in the past, especially the requirement for regiments to maintain their connections with the local community, and the need to concentrate on numbers to prevent over-stretch but these were swept aside by the military challenges

of conflict in the twenty-first century. Reform was in the air and it was balanced by the promise to retain the “golden thread” which will bind the new regiment to its historical antecedents. The military reformers’ thinking is perhaps best encapsulated by the argument put forward by the prince in Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Two years after that tumultuous period (for so it seemed to the army community) The Royal Scots have had the good sense to reveal the arguments and counter-arguments which brought The Royal Regiment of Scotland into being. As the senior regiment that is their right and once again Lieutenant Colonel Robert Paterson has put us all in his debt by producing a volume of regimental history which is a model of its kind. Now, through the words of many of the contributing authors, it is possible to see how the changes came about largely as a result of falling recruitment numbers in Scotland, a phenomenon which has been caused by a declining population, improvements in tertiary education, the unpopularity of the war in Iraq and the introduction of compulsory drug testing.

All those problems conspired to signal the end of the small single-battalion regiments; now it’s a case that size really does matter. Naturally, the instinct was to oppose the changes but as a Royal Scots officer told me, “There comes a time when you salute, turn to the right and get on with it.” That “can-do” philosophy is central to the way the army sees itself and the way it operates, whatever the conditions its soldiers happen to be facing. It goes a long way to help explain why the British Army is so good at what it does and why it succeeds in spite of interference from political busybodies who like the idea of soldiers in uniform but will not find the baw-bees to give them proper kit.

But what about the Scottish regiments themselves: are they really the nation in uniform and how have they become such a potent symbol of national identity? On one level it is possible to see in the Scottish soldier a powerful manifestation of a certain type of mocked-up Caledonian identity. Marching in serried ranks with his panoply of kilts, ostrich feathers and diced hose behind the pipes and drums he is as familiarly Caledonian as the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond or the heather-covered Road to the Isles. At a more basic level, though, the kilted Jocks represent the strength of the union because first and foremost they are British soldiers. Even their regiments are not always what they seem: the King’s Own Scottish Borderers spent many years as the Sussex Regiment and several time-honoured Scottish regiments had their Highland status removed in the nineteenth century because of their failure to attract recruits. As for the tartan uniforms they certainly look the part but most were invented during the heyday of Queen Victoria’s world empire.

In the middle of the nineteenth century Scotland was gripped by the Volunteer craze, a harmless Victorian fancy for part-time soldiering which involved some gentle shooting practice and drills and, best of all, dressing up in turkey-cock uniforms. In Scot-land the recruitment figures for the Volunteer units were twice the UK average, a figure which was undoubtedly assisted by the creation of units with Highland affiliations, most of them in the Central Belt. With their panoply of kilts, tartan trews, ostrich feathers and ornate sporrans they were an irresistible attraction and everywhere men rushed to wear them. Most of those outlandish uniforms owed nothing to tradition but were invented by local colonels and they came to represent self-conscious nationalism or what the military historian John Keegan has described as “a force for resistance against the creeping anglicisation of Scottish urban life.” Nostalgia for a half-forgotten romantic past was a factor, as was the existing iconography of the Scottish soldier which found its apotheosis in Roger Fenton’s Crimean War photographs of the sternly bearded Highland soldiers of Queen Victoria’s army. However, there was more to soldiering than putting on fancy dress. Being a part-time soldier meant following an honourable calling: it was companionable, offered self-respect and produced steadiness of character, all important moral virtues in Presbyterian Scotland.

From being a feared figure, no better than a bare-arsed bandit in the badlands north of the Highland Line, the Highlander was reborn as an entirely admirable character and his dress, a much despised dull checked cloth, was transformed into confections based on a colourful and carefully codified set of tartans, most of them created with unhistorical abandon. Even the regiments were given their own contrived tartans and added further adornments, buckles and badges to produce a military fashion which would have been unrecognised by any soldier who had fought under Montrose and Alasdair MacColla in the seventeenth century Wars of the Three Kingdoms or with Charles Edward Stewart and Lord George Murray during the Jacobite rebellions.

The phenomenon also owed its existence to what may be called the “military kailyard”, an outburst of Scottish militaristic sentimentalism which mirrored its literary counterpart during the same period in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many of its effusions were fostered and published by the

Edinburgh publishing house William Black-wood which was also the publisher of Black-wood’s Magazine, founded in 1817. Initially it was mainly a literary magazine which attracted writers such as James Hogg, John Galt, and Thomas de Quincey but it quickly became a more general publication with a strong Tory bias. It was also very successful largely because successive Blackwood editors were able to reflect the spirit of the age. At the end of the Crimean War in 1856 John Blackwood, grandson of the founder, decided to create what he called an informal “military staff” of writers from army backgrounds to produce material for his magazine. The intention was to enter the debate about the much-needed reforms of the army in the wake of the widespread and well publicised mismanagement which had been revealed during the conflict, but Blackwood was also keen to benefit from the accompanying interest in military literature which blossomed in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign.

He was well placed to make this move because amongst his stable of regular contributors were some of the best known military writers of the mid-Victorian period and being a shrewd publisher Blackwood also understood that military literature, fiction as well as non-fiction, sold well. Although Blackwood considered himself to be a British publisher in that his firm had offices in Edin-burgh and London and his list included a wide range of authors, including the novelists George Eliot and R. D. Blackmore, there were a number of Scots amongst his “military staff”. Amongst the most notable were Sir Archibald Alison, the soldier son of the historian of the same name, G. R. Gleig, the author of The Subaltern (1826) one of the most entertaining fictional accounts of life in Wellington’s army, James Hope Grant, a general turned military historian and Laurence Lockhart whose uncle was Walter Scott’s biographer John Gibson Lockhart. Along with writers such as A. W. Kinglake, George Chesney, Edward and William Hamley they kept Blackwood’s Magazine and the publishing house of William Blackwood at the forefront of contemporary military writing for most of the nineteenth century.

As a publisher Blackwood was fascinated by the two great military near-disasters of the 1850s – the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. During the latter part of the decade the magazine carried articles on such subjects as “The State of the Army”, “Military Education”, “Fleets and Navies”, “Ironclad Ships of the War”, “Medicine and Surgery in the Army”, all written by naval and military experts. He also showed that he was also unafraid to cover the war in a disinterested way and in October 1854 he started publishing first-hand accounts of the fighting from a young artillery officer, Edward Hamley, one of three brothers who were to become regular contributors. Published in the magazine under the title “The Story of the Crimea” and in book form as The Campaign of Sebastopol, the despatches painted a realistic and “not particularly sanguine” picture of the front-line fighting and the problems facing the soldiers of the British Army. After the war Hamley returned to Britain and on being posted to Leith where he quickly became a member of the “military staff”. Laurence Oliphant was another journalist-cum-historian who was associated with both The Times and Blackwood’s Magazine. He was born in Cape Town in 1829 where his father was attorney-general but his family had deep roots in Scottish society, his father being the third son of Ebenezer Oliphant of Condie and Newton, Perthshire, and Mary, daughter of Sir William Stirling of Ardoch. As a child Laurence Oliphant had spent time in Scotland at the family home at Condie and throughout his life he had a maudlin attachment to Scot-land and all things Scottish. Described by theOxford Dictionary of National Biography as a “diplomatist, traveller and mystic”, Oliphant had been sent by The Times to accompany the Turkish forces in the campaign in Circassia which ended with the fall of Kars and his experiences were published in 1856 in The Trans-Caucasian Campaign under Omar Pasha: A Personal Narrative.

Leslie Stephen called Oliphant one of the most brilliant writers of his generation and his first novel Piccadilly (1870) showed that he possessed both narrative flair and a gift for satire but despite a glittering diplomatic and political career he was undone by falling under the influence of Thomas Lake Harris, a spurious self-proclaimed prophet who had established a community in New York state called the Brotherhood of New Life. So completely did Oliphant fall under its spell in 1867 that he surrendered all his money and property to Harris. Supported by a small allowance he was allowed to continue writing for Blackwood and quickly established himself as a regular contributor to the magazine, writing on a wide variety of subjects. Despite his curious subornment to the Brotherhood which also cost him his marriage he remained as interested as ever before in events in the outside world – in 1870 he covered the Franco-Prussian War for The Times – and showed himself to be a shrewd and disinterested observer of international affairs.

Oliphant’s near contemporary Laurence Lockhart had a similar, if less exciting career as public figure and writer. Born at Inchinnan in Renfrewshire in 1831, the third son of the Revd Laurence Lockhart of Milton Lockhart, Lanarkshire, and his wife, Louisa, daughter of David Blair, an East India merchant of Glasgow, he was educated privately and at Glasgow University and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. After graduating in 1855 Lockhart received a commission as an ensign in the 92nd (Gordon Highlanders) and served with them as part of the Highland Brigade in the Crimean War. Following a number of regimental appointments in England and Scot-land he served with the 92nd in India before retiring from the army with the rank of captain in 1865. In his retirement he became a regular contributor toBlackwood’s Magazine, writing authoritative articles on military reforms in addition to short stories with a Scottish background and Scottish themes. It was perhaps not surprising that these fell into the category of sentimental exploitation so beloved of many of the writers associated with the Blackwood group. His first novel Doubles and Quits, a light-hearted comedy of errors set in the army was published in 1869: its only claims to any merit are Lock-hart’s ear for dialogue and his comic talent for describing ridiculous situations.

Lockhart was also deeply interested in the volunteer movement largely because it offered him the opportunity to retain his links with the army. It also gave him the background for his story “A Night with the Volunteers of Strathkinahan” which appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in September 1869, shortly before Lockhart joined the 2nd Royal Lanarkshire Militia. Like his first novel, the style is conversational and told from the first person; the ambience is intimate as if trying to make the reader feel at home. (“One autumn day, a good many years ago, I was taking mine ease in mine inn in Edinburgh, when it was announced to me that a visitor, by the name of Captain Cumming, was waiting below.”) From the outset, too, the tone is set so that the reader is in no doubt about the backgrounds of the two main protagonists: the narrator and Tom Cumming are old army friends, the latter having changed his name on marriage to inherit a Highland estate but finds himself in difficulties in his role as adjutant of the 2nd Administrative Battalion of the (imaginary) Keltshire Volunteers. And the reader of Blackwood’s is left in no two minds that the narrator and Cumming are from the upper classes, both enjoy hard work and his own endeavours, the honest tenant farmers who give of their best for no other reward than their families’ improvement and sickly virginal heroines who are not long for this world. Behind them are stock rapacious landlords, self-satisfied incomers and the ever-present figures of death and disease. The city only appears in the distance as a place to be avoided; instead the virtues of village life are emphasised and in the case of Lockhart’s Strathkinahan membership of the Volunteers plays an important part in maintaining local cohesion and creating pride in country.

However not everything is blooming in the kailyard. The locals of Strathkinahan have rebelled against the appointment of an unpopular landowner as their new captaining military and landed backgrounds and a shared experience in the army. When Cumming invites the narrator to stay with him the underlying assumption is that the reader will know perfectly well the kind of world both men inhabit.

“Couldn’t you make a run down with me, and then come on for a few days to my place and try your hand at some grouse-driving? It’s a glorious district – splendid scenery, and all that – and I’m sure the natives will amuse you; and then your diplomatic talents might be of immense assistance in helping an old friend out of a difficulty.”

This is a bucolic Scotland made for hunting, shooting and fishing and inhabited by quaint rustics, a rural arcadia where everyone knows their place and are happy with their lot. The officer classes are at the apex of local society and below them the Volunteer soldiers are a collection of local worthies, some better than others but all distinctly below the salt. In that sense Captain’s Cum-mings’ Strathkinahan bears all the marks of the kailyard: here is a well-defined arcadia of rural sentimentality peopled by characters who represent solid virtues: the minister or the village worthies who uphold local morality, the industrious son who rises by dint of because he is a “temperance man” and it is left to the narrator and Cumming to sort out the matter by appealing to their sense of duty, an important consideration in the creation of the Volunteer movement. The plot is flimsy and absurd, involving the narrator’s subterfuge as a senior officer to impress the Volunteers, but that is secondary to Lock-hart’s purpose. The narrator and Cumming represent military tradition and social stability from a strictly unionist point of view. (Asked by a Volunteer if Queen Victoria speaks any word of Gaelic, Cumming retorts: “Not a single one, she’d be ashamed to do it.”) On the other hand the Volunteers are all stock local characters – a bibulous sheep farmer with an incomplete command of English, a tremulous doctor and a variety of peasant-like worthies, all in need of some military discipline. The narrator’s description of the entry of one of the Volunteers makes clear two aspects of Lockhart’s thinking: first, he is adopting an attitude of superiority which he expected his readers to share and, secondly, the inference is that his distorted and debased image of Scottish rural life can only be rectified by military discipline and the commonsense methods of the Volunteer system.

“His English was broken and almost unintelligible, and every sentence was preceded, accompanied, and followed by a series of sputterings and hootings which, with the working of his face, I could refer to no mental emotion whatsoever.

Mephistopheles, the Black Dwarf, the Gorilla, Waterton’s Nondescript, the laughing hyena, the horned screech-owl, and the vampire, were a few of the ideas instantly suggested by the contemplation of this Highlandman.

‘Well, Mr M’Tavish,’ said Tom, ‘so you got my letter all right; I suppose you warned the corps, and I hope we shall have a good meeting, and get through our business?’

‘Shess, Captain – that’s Adjutant, shess, sir. Letter? Shess, corps come? Shess. Business? Tit, tit, tit! No business.’ Then after a pause, and with an insinuating assortment of puckers playing all over his face. ‘Bheil Gaelig a’gad?’

‘What?’ said Tom.

‘Spoke Gaelic? Tit hish!’

‘No,’ said Tom.

‘No spokes? Ach tit! No spoke Gaelic?’ ‘But we have business, Mr M’Tavish, and very important business too.’”

While the men are all portrayed as drunks or half-wits whose native cunning makes them difficult to control, the saving grace is that they are members of the Volunteers and can be made to accept discipline.

Lockhart died in 1882, Oliphant in 1888, his last scheme being a plan to create a Jewish settlement at Haifa in Palestine, and their passing broke up the “military staff” of John Blackwood who had predeceased them in 1879. Not that the firm changed direction. Under William Blackwood III both the publishing house and the magazine continued to produce work from senior generals and admirals – amongst the contributors were Garnet Wolseley and Horatio Herbert Kitchener, both leading late Victorian generals – but the writing became more realistic and factual. George Washington Steevens of theDaily Mail wrote an account of Kitchener’s campaign in the Sudan, With Kitchener to Khartoum, which sold 100,000 copies when it was published in 1899 and Blackwood’s also published the work of Charles à Court Repington, the distinguished military correspondent of The Times who wrote about his experiences in the Boer War. As a result the writing in Blackwood’s Magazine became less Scottish and more bound up with the imperial ethos; in time John Buchan would become a leading contributor, a writer who managed to retain his inner sense of Scottishness while adopting the persona of a British imperialist.

Ironically the last flowering of the military kailyard in Scotland was perhaps the most successful. In the hands of Blackwood contributor James Grant it reached its apotheosis with the publication of the author’s many novels based on military and historical subjects and an equally large number of popular and readable historical narratives including Memoirs of Montrose (1851), British Battles on Land and Sea(1873), Cassell’s Illustrated History of India (1876), and his best book, the three volumes of Old and New Edinburgh (1880). Grant was a prolific author and it comes as no surprise that he was related to Sir Walter Scott on his mother’s side of the family. He was born on 1 August 1822, the eldest son of an officer in the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders who had served with distinction in the Peninsula Wars and who was appointed to the garrison in Newfoundland in 1833. Grant followed his father into the army in 1840, being commissioned into the 62nd (Wiltshire) Foot but he resigned three years later to join a firm of architects in Edin-burgh. Once back in his native city he turned to writing and published his first novel Romance of War in 1845 which told the story of the Scottish regiments in the campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Egypt and the Peninsula. Many of the episodes were based on stories told to him by his father and with their breathless style and high romance his novels represented a heroic view of battle.

As he was to do in later novels Grant managed to marry his pride in being a Scot and a member of a martial nation with his understanding that the action was taking place within a British context. Romance of War attracted an enthusiastic readership and he followed it up with a sequel, The Highlanders in Belgium (1846). Grant was now on a well-worn and increasingly lucrative track and by the middle of the century he had emerged as one of the most successful writers of his generation. His output in forty years of writing was 61 novels and 12 narrative histories but although this brought him fame and, in time, considerable wealth not all of his contemporaries were impressed. “These figures may be impressive as evidence of energy, ingenuity and mental power, but are deplorable from an artistic point of view,” wrote Stewart M. Ellis in one of the first literary surveys of Victorian writers. “No man has it in him to write twelve or more superlative books.” In fact most of Grant’s best fiction was written in mid-life and Thomas Hardy admitted that The Scottish Cavalier was an influence on his own early writing.

Like Lockhart, Grant was an enthusiastic Volunteer and was one of the main supporters for introducing uniforms which were identifiably Scottish. In that capacity he advised the War Office on questions regarding uniforms, especially facings, and was much in demand as an expert on military matters. He was also associated with another mid-Victorian enthusiasm in Scotland, the emergence of a nationalist sentiment and a movement to regenerate many aspects of Scottish life. There were calls for a greater Scottish political involvement at Westminster and objections to the lack of parliamentary time for Scottish affairs and while these arguments came mainly from the fringe they did add to a belief that, in the words of one of the activists, the Rev James Begg, Scotland was “sinking in our national position every year, and simply living on the credit of the past”. Grant entered the fray in 1852 when he started producing a series of letters and articles which listed Scottish grievances since the Act of Union 0f 1707 and which attempted to demonstrate that the highest rates of public expenditure had been devoted to England. In particular he pointed out that there were fewer government offices in Edin-burgh, naval expenditure was concentrated on English shipyards and that as result of lack of investment Scottish talent was being attracted to London. Grant’s solution was to restore Scottish institutions and to increase Scottish representation at Westminster.

At the same time he and his brother John Grant who acted as Marchmont Herald appealed to the Lord Lyon asking him to suppress various irregularly quartered arms used by flags on public buildings such as Edin-burgh castle as well as on the new florin coin, on the grounds that they contravened laws of heraldry and the Act of Union. The heraldic grievance became a popular issue and which was supported by the Convention of Royal Burghs and demonstrated that it was possible to whip up popular support on a nationalist issue. As a result the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights was founded a year later, 1853, under the chairmanship of the Earl of Eglinton, a prominent Tory, and it attracted a broad level of support in its campaign to uphold Scottish rights. On the Left it was backed by Begg and the Edinburgh reformer Duncan McLaren while on the Right it received the support of leading Blackwood writers including Alison and Aytoun. Public meetings were held and pamphlets published and for the next three years the association and Grant received a good deal of publicity. Amongst their demands was the restitution of the post of Scottish Secretary of State with a seat in the Cabinet and a greater Scottish representation at Westminster. Not everyone was impressed. The association and its promoters were attacked by theScotsman which called the campaign “ludicrously lame” and later by The Times which published a vicious leading article leaving its readers in no doubt that the Scots were the authors of their own misfortunes and that by fretting over emblematic devices they were simply living in the past: “The more Scotland has striven to be a nation, the more she has sunk to be a province.”

The problems thrown up by the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny put paid to any of the association’s ambitions being acted upon and gradually nationalist sentiment was transferred to a campaign to build a monument on the Abbey Craig near Stirling to commemorate Sir William Wallace and his victory over the English army in 1297 during the Wars of Independence. Funded by public subscription it was eventually completed in 1869. By then the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights had disappeared and by then too Grant seems to have taken the decision to leave Scotland. The following year he left Edinburgh to live in Lon-don where he quickly became forgotten and he died in some poverty in 1882, leaving his first biographer to lament: “In Edinburgh he was a notable personality and had hosts of friends. In London he was no one in particular, and seemingly unknown in literary or social circles, for his name does not appear in any memoirs of the period.”

In his heyday Grant was a popular and best-selling author but after his death his military novels and histories were quickly forgotten and remained out of print. However, a clue to his thinking can be found in his promotion of the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights. At its core was a demand “to obtain for Scotland the benefit of local administration in all matters which are exclusively Scottish” but behind that seemingly nationalist statement of intent there was an equally strong desire “to place the Scottish nation on a footing of full and permanent equality with the English nation” In other words, although the association was involved in a nationalist discourse it was doing so within the framework of the union and its supporters were at pains to argue that they were not interested in secession but “wanted to maintain the power of the Scottish local state and civil society within the Union and the Imperial Parliament.”, The same thing might said about Grant and his fascination with the military aspects of Scottish history. With their kilts and tartans, the soldiers and regiments he wrote about so lovingly were expressions of Scottish identity but they served in a British army and the wars they fought were imperial wars in pursuit of British power and authority. That understanding also lay at the heart of the military kailyard: its literature was a manifestation of Scottish identity, albeit warped, but it was created within a solidly British framework.

Robert H. Paterson, ed.,
The Royal Scots History Committee, £85
pp 1101, ISBN-10:0954090608

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