Scotland’s Bravest and Britain’s Best

Two books, by Sarah Fraser and Victoria Schofield, provide an invaluable and accessible insight into Scottish military history

Books Military
The gallant forty twa: Black Watch soldiers relaxing in Dover shortly after the Crimean War in 1856

As talk of independence threads through the tapestry of Scottish politics today, the role of the Scottish soldier has become, once more, a national issue. Would an independent Scotland be able to maintain a viable army? Would the Highland battalions survive? And if they did, who would serve in them? The Jocks are as proud of their traditions today as they ever were. In Afghanistan, where they fight under the general banner of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, their identity hidden under the anonymity of names like “3 Scots” or “5 Scots”, they make no bones about where their allegiance really lies; their T-shirts proclaim unmistakably “Black Watch” or “Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders”, their loyalty is to their history and heritage rather than a collective name.  

The modern soldier, however, is probably just as interested in the army as a career, and the prospects it offers, as he is in nostalgia or past allegiances. Would a small Scottish army, committed to domestic defence, offer him the range and variety of a British defence force — to say nothing of the action?

Two books, whose publications are coincidental, reflect these issues — and throw up both the contradictions of Highland history and the extraordinary qualities of the fighting men who have emerged over the centuries from this small corner of Britain. 

In The Last Highlander Sarah Fraser has assembled a vivid portrait of the last aristocrat to be executed in the Tower of London — Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, who backed the rebellion of Charles Edward Stuart in 1745, and paid the ultimate price. Victoria Schofield has written a formidable history of the Black Watch, a first volume only, which takes us from the founding of the regiment in 1739 to the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1899. Its battle honours criss-cross the world, from Fontenoy to Ticonderoga, Quatre Bras, Waterloo, the Indian Mutiny, Egypt, and the West Indies; no war takes place without “the gallant forty twa” at its heart, and in the course of it they fight with broadswords, rifles, cannon, bayonets or their bare hands, garnering the highest praise from their commanders and eliciting fear and loathing among their enemies. In the course of it they collect 14 Victoria Crosses, surely the highest number garnered by the smallest, tightest knit group of soldiers in the British Army.

The two books meet in the person of Simon Lovat, who is instrumental in raising one of the component companies of the regiment. Yet here, already, is a massive irony. For surely Lovat was a Jacobite, his clan devoted to the return of the Stuarts, a sworn enemy of the Hanoverian cause — how come he is helping a British government by raising troops to defend it? The answer, as Sarah Fraser skilfully reveals, is that this noble clan chief, head of an illustrious Highland family, and as a Fraser, the epitome of glamour, is in fact a complete blackguard. He plays both ends against the middle, deals clandestinely with his enemies, and seems to have deserved his grisly end on the executioner’s block.  

The artist William Hogarth caught up with him as he was on his way to the Tower, and captured the image of a corpulent old rogue, a half smile on his face, his eyes fixed on the main chance, his fingers perhaps counting the number of times he had betrayed his friends. In the end, it appears, his only loyalty was to his own ambitions, and those were the securing of his lands and title. If that involved switching sides, so be it. 

His principal opponents were not, initially, the government, but his own kinsmen, the Murrays of Atholl, who perhaps had a better claim on the inheritance, but who were outwitted and outfoxed by a man whom one of them described as “wicked, dangerous and notoriously to be suspected”. Lovat would resort to any stratagem, however violent, to achieve his ends. This included the abduction and rape of his first wife, Amelia, who had been born a Murray, and who stood to inherit a vast swathe of Highland land and power if she took the name of Fraser. This she did, poor lady, but entirely against her will and only by force. 

Sarah Fraser is clearly both entranced and appalled by the behaviour of the family into which she has married. She makes it clear that Simon Lovat inspired great devotion among his clansmen, who would loyally follow him in battle, whatever side he happened to be on at the time, and she admires his manly qualities. But she is unflinching when it comes to recounting his treachery. Deciding that the accession of Queen Anne offered him no chance of advancement, Lovat threw in his lot with the Stuarts and went into exile at St Germain-en-Laye, where plans for reclaiming the British throne were the principal currency. He undertook to go back to Scotland to encourage the clans to rally to the Stuart cause, and to discover who could be relied on. In fact he went straight to see the Duke of Queensberry, High Commissioner in Scotland for Queen Anne, and offered to pass on information about French plans to invade. He had become, in effect, a double agent, or as Sarah Fraser explains: “In his heart a Jacobite, he must now dedicate himself to the Hanoverian cause, for his own and his clan’s survival.”

This he did by working hard to help suppress the more rebellious clans. He raised an independent company of Highland soldiers, effectively a private army, mostly drawn from the Fraser clan, and he passed on information to General Wade who had been sent north to pacify the Highlands. Neither Wade, nor his Hanoverian allies in the North entirely trusted him, but his soldiers did, and the fact that they were now serving a different cause did not seem to bother them. When, in 1739, the regiment that was to become the Black Watch was raised, one of the companies incorporated into it was Lovat’s. He was not, however, given its command — Wade was too suspicious of him. And rightly so, it turned out. For when Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland in his bid to reclaim the throne, Lovat finally showed his true colours and threw in his lot with the Stuarts, sending his son Simon to fight for the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden. 

It was a decision that cost him his life, and, in the end there is something admirable about the old villain coming good in the end and facing his death with bravado. Sarah Fraser recounts all this with verve and great authority, leavening the history with colourful accounts of the clothes, food, customs and cruelty of the times. She is perhaps a little too reliant on her imagination to be entirely acceptable to historians. Observations like “he put down his drink and forced himself to be civil . . .” or  “a tense and wearied ride full of half-imagined voices”, make one a trifle suspicious as to whether this is history or romance. But hers is a gripping story, compellingly told.

Victoria Schofield, on the other hand, is the author of an official history, and she takes no liberties with the facts. That does not make her story any less gripping or any less compelling. And this too is an exercise in paradox. For while Black Watch recruits were raised to suppress their own countrymen, they drew, for their traditions and their inspiration, on the dress, habits and customs of the very Highlanders they were there to subdue. Their motto, Nemo me impune lacessi — “no one harms me and gets away with it” — was the same as that chosen by the Jacobite rebels of 1715. At least 300 of them were bound by ties of kinship with those who had supported Bonnie Prince Charlie; they wore the same dress (the kilt, in a dark green tartan, hence the regiment’s name), played the same pipes, and spoke the same language. When the articles of war were read out to them, they were delivered in Gaelic and English. And when they were dispatched to America to fight the French, one of the regiments came under the command of Simon Fraser, son of the executed Lord Lovat. 

They fought ferociously in the name of the British interest, British ambition, and the expansion of British power, without ever losing their pride in being Scottish. After Fontenoy, their first battle abroad, which was narrowly lost in 1743, a French officer wrote: “The Highland furies rushed in upon us with more violence than ever did a sea driven by a tempest . . . in short we gained  the victory; but may I never see such another.” That suggests that they had inherited another military tradition of their countrymen — the Highland Charge, used to such effect by Montrose and Dundee in the 17th century. Yet they went on to develop the strategy of the traditional square formation, which requires absolute discipline and control, prompting the Duke of Cambridge to utter the memorable words after the Battle of Alma in 1854: “Well done 42nd, you are a lot of bricks!”

They also acquired, early on, a self-belief which was itself enough to turn several encounters their way against seemingly overwhelming odds. “We have troops brave enough to attempt the reduction of the Universe”, wrote a young ensign in the West Indies in 1757, adding: “Nothing can or dare withstand us.”

This is the first serious history of the regiment since (and I declare an interest) my father Eric and brother Andro wrote their combined account in 1977. It draws on that and contemporary diaries, letters and reports of which there are many. Victoria Schofield, whose biography of Lord Wavell showed that she has a sure grasp of military matters, here enlivens the usual litany of campaigns and battles with contemporary observations on a soldier’s life which shows that, while much has changed in the British army, certain themes remain the same. Their complaints about equipment, pay and long service abroad would be immediately familiar to the troops of today, though we have not heard any recent complaints about the Highland plaid being cut too short. Defence cutbacks in time of peace were discussed as much in the 18th century as today. Compensation for injury in battle also crops up — a sergeant whose arm was severed at Fontenoy was promised “compensation to the value of an arm”, though what that was is not specified.

Some things, however, have changed. When the regiment was reorganised under George III, the pay for those embarking for India was five shillings a day and a black servant for every man. Before the battle of Seringapatam, they were given a dram and biscuit. Women were an extremely important part of campaigns well into the 19th century, not just to prepare food, wash uniforms, and keep campsites tidy, but because they did so much for morale. Four women were assigned to each company, and when, in 1815, on the way to face Napoleon, this was reduced to two, there was a near-mutiny. 

Victoria Schofield has compiled as authoritative a history of the regiment as we are likely to get, and one that acts as a reminder of a key aspect of soldiering, which is as important today as it was at Ticonderoga, Alma or Tamai. Most soldiers, plucked from civilian life and thrust into the unfamiliar and gruelling life of a campaigning army, turn to their comrades, their officers, and the traditions of their regiment for succour and support. Remove that loyalty, and you remove a central component of a successful fighting force. 

Whether that can be retained within an army confined to patrolling North Sea oil installations or mounting military parades is one of the many challenges that Alex Salmond may have to face if he pulls off his own campaign victory in 2014. History suggests that the soldiers of today, as yesterday, look for a little more.