The Affair of the Wild Macraas

The Affair of the Wild Macraas

A mutiny of Highlanders in Edinburgh

The year was 1778, only three decades had elapsed since the Act of Proscription which more or less reinforced the 1716 Disarming Act outlawing anyone in ‘defined’ parts of Scotland – i.e. the Highlands, from having or using weapons of any description unless authorised – that was in the service of the British state of course.

Enforcement of these laws had waned over time but suspicion and distrust of Highlanders remained for weren’t they the most ferocious of fighters which made them desirable when it came to raising armies? And the clan system meant they were easy to enlist into the traditional ‘family’ regiments.

During the 1770s when the British Isles were being threatened by American and French naval attacks Highland chieftains were being encouraged to raise troops to defend these shores.

One such chief was the Earl of Seaforth, a Mackenzie, who purchased the family estates from the crown following its seizure from his grandfather, a Jacobite rebel in the ’15. To show his gratitude to the king, Mackenzie raised a regiment of 1130 men from Mackenzie territory, Kintail, Kilcoy, Ross and the areas around Applecross.

Not all of the men were Mackenzies. Some were Macraes or Macraas as the name was pronounced and were described in Chambers Edinburgh Journal as, ‘a small and primitive clan that had long followed and lived under the Seaforth family’.

In May of 1778 the men, having assembled at Elgin, marched on to Edinburgh where they formally became the Seaforth Highlanders or 78th regiment of the line.

Evidently they impressed as a fine body of men, strong in ‘thews and sinews’ – thigh and muscle.

By August they had undergone training and were moved from the castle to Leith. This raised suspicion in the minds of some of the soldiers for when they had ‘inlisted’ it was for duties within Scotland. As Highlanders they had crofts to tend and service abroad would preclude that so the suspicion grew that their officers had tricked them and intended to use them in foreign battlegrounds.

It should have been simple for the regiment’s officers to quell the men’s suspicions but they refused to inform them where they were bound. It was circulated among the men they were to travel only as far as the Isle of Guernsey but as that was not confirmed the soldiers’ doubts remained.

These Highlanders knew how much traditional military allegiances had altered so that instead of following their chief into battle and returning home at the end of the campaign they had been ‘inlisted ‘into the service of the king and the British government. Further, it was being said that their General intended selling them as a fighting body to the East India Company and that both the government and their officers regarded them as, ‘ignorant, unable to comprehend the nature of their stipulations, and incapable of demanding redress for any breach of contract’.

There had been a similar occurrence back in 1743 when the newly raised Black Watch regiment was rumoured to be bound for the West Indies after having enlisted to protect Scotland. More than one hundred of them mutinied and were marching back home from London when they were rounded up at Northamptonshire, court martialed and given the death sentence later commuted for all but a private and two corporals who were taken to the Tower of London and executed. The remainder were indeed sent abroad, to Flanders to fight the French.

So the men of the Seaforth, primarily those called Macrae, suspected they were being duped into service in contravention of their agreement on pay and allowances and conditions. These were the ‘wild Macraes’ or Macraas. Six hundred of the regiment refused to set foot on the boats lined up at the waters of Leith. They demanded to know where they were being shipped. Their officers prevaricated and so the men marched off towards Arthur’s Seat with plaids flying from poles in lieu of colours to the sound of the pipes.

By the time they had reached the hill a large group of curious followers were tagging alongside them. The men arranged themselves with lookouts to prevent capture and established a camp of sorts and the poor of Edinburgh provided support by supplying the grateful men with food.

As for the civil and military authorities they were outraged and an armed body was quickly assembled under Scotland’s leading military commanders, Sir Adolphus Oughton and General Skene: the 11th Regiment of Dragoons, 200 of the Buccleugh Fencibles and 400 Glasgow volunteers were in position the following day.

The Highlanders stood firm insisting they be given honest information about the military’s intentions but still the officers refused to do so and a further night passed with the Macraas camped out on Arthur’s Seat.

Edinburgh city authorities then put it around that the city was in danger from the Wild Macraas, that they were about to march into the town and entrench themselves there. The authorities issued an instruction that, ‘All the inhabitants are to retire to their houses, on the first toll of the fire-bell’. The assembled troops were put on alert to protect the populace. However many Edinburgh citizens were in direct contact with the Highlanders and knew there was no such danger for the men had shown them friendship and gratitude in return for their kindness.

Before nightfall on the Thursday, the military authorities promised the Highlanders their demands would be satisfied, ‘on full examination into them.’ But this did not placate the Macraes who insisted on nothing less than the original promises made when they enlisted and so they spent a further night on the Seat.

By the Friday a bond was drawn up and signed by the Duke of Buccleugh, the Earl of Dunmore, Sir Adolphus Oughton and General Skene: ‘Firstly, a pardon to the Highlanders for all past offences; secondly, all levy-money and arrears due to them to be paid before embarkation; thirdly, that they should not be sent to the East Indies.’ Following consultation, the Highlanders agreed to it and arranged themselves into marching order and with Dunmore at their head and the pipes playing they came off the hill escorted by many of the city’s less than terrified citizens cheering them on their way.

Determined to have the last word the military authorities addressed the men and implored them to fulfil their duties and behave which seems incredible given the treatment of the men by their officers.

Throughout the episode the Seaforth officers made themselves invisible and declined to respond to accusations of having deceived the men and held back their pay. Nevertheless they were furious that an agreement had been made with the Highlanders so much so that on the Friday evening a statement from them was published in the Edinburgh Advertiser.

‘As we conceive the terms granted this day to the mutineers of the 78th regiment to be totally inconsistent with the future discipline of the corps, and highly injurious to our characters as officers, we think ourselves bound to take this first opportunity of publicly declaring, that it was transacted without our advice, and against our opinion. We understand Lord Dunmore was the principal agent on this occasion; we therefore think it necessary also to declare, that he was never desired to interfere by any officer in the regiment, and, we believe, acted without any authority whatever.’

It was signed ‘The officers of the 78th regiment’.

Next day a military court of inquiry was set up in the Canongate by Sir Adolphus Oughton at which the Highlanders were called upon to state their complaints. It decided the officers had no case to answer but a compromise of sorts was cobbled together, ‘the cause of the retiring to Arthur’s Hill was from an idle and ill-founded report that the regiment was sold to the East India Company, and that the officers were to leave them on their being embarked on board the transports.’

Neither side was content with the outcome. The Earl of Seaforth supported his officers against his men. It was being reported he had been forced down on his knees to beg for his life by the Wild Macraas, a claim he denied in print, contending no threat of death would have, ‘procured from him so humiliating a concession’ and at no time had he feared for his safety.

On Tuesday 29th September the men gathered at Holyrood Palace and with Seaforth and Skene taking the lead the six hundred marched back to Leith, the good wishes and cheers from a large throng of onlookers ringing in their ears and embarked for Guernsey.

None of the mutineers was disciplined or put to trial as their officers were unwilling to have a court of law inspect the case. In a comment on the ‘Affair of the Wild Macraas’, Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal notes, ‘it is to be regarded as, on their part, an exhibition as honourable to them, as the cause of it was dishonourable to others.’

During their time on Guernsey the men of the Seaforths (78th) became persuaded they would not be sold to the East India Company and so volunteered for overseas service which is why on 1st May 1781, they set sail for duties abroad.



Chambers Edinburgh Journal  Vol VIII Sat Jan 26 1839

6 Responses to “The Affair of the Wild Macraas”

  1. thanks for the quick response; a shame you can’t recall,; I’d really like to know; it’s a new one for me. I’d say it was a donegood deal later than 1778 though…

  2. What is the source of the image at the top of the post ‘the macraes march to Arthur’s Seat’? There are very few images of highland pipers even by 1781, so this is of great interest if it is contemporary


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