Companies of Fencibles were raised in Great Britain during the latter 18th and early 19th centuries when regular forces were over-stretched in times of conflict. Fencible is a Scottish term derived from defencible and relates to military service restricted to the defence of the homeland. Fencibles militias were created on a temporary basis for the duration of a particular emergency.
The year 1778 was a difficult one for George III and his government led by the Tory Lord North with American colonists continuing their revolt against the dead weight of British imperialism. Since 1775 the American Revolutionary War had tested Britain’s war machine trying to cope with increasing numbers of enemies … France, the Netherlands and Spain as well as the American rebels.
The cost in maintaining the British Empire were astronomical both financially and in human life but regarded as a price worth paying to hold the thin red line in its declining stake in America.
In his revelatory book, Deeside Tales, John Grant Michie1 describes Highland Scotland as ‘a nursery for soldiers’ in the post-Jacobite period. Highlanders once ruthlessly pursued and slaughtered in the name of the king of Great Britain were by 1756 being sought out to defend that same establishment which harassed, slaughtered and raped it in its drive to implant civilisation in the Highlands. The man who recognised the potential of Highland cannon fodder when he saw it was Lord Chatham –
‘I sought for merit wherever it was to be found; it is my boast that I was the first minister who looked for it, and found it in the mountains of the north. I called it forth, and drew into your service a hardy and intrepid race of men … they served with fidelity, and they fought with valour, and conquered for you in every part of the world.’
In 1778 alone, five Highland regiments were created.
‘In the year 1778, the young Duke of Atholl received from the Government authority to raise a regiment of a thousand men for the service of the state, with power to appoint officers. This was the usual practice of the time and such letters of authority were much sought after by the heads of great houses, as they were thereby enabled to find commissions for a large number of their poorer relatives. Most of the Highland regiments were raised in this manner.’ 2
According to Michie, the army became an instrument used by the lairds to carry out their ‘cruel evictions’ of Highland families and if a Highlander enlisted he was given up for lost by his relatives which might go some way to explain the lengths a number went to avoid the recruiting parties sent in to round them up. He cites the example of Rory Gunn.
[a]‘ “Son of mine in a red coat, to be sold as a slave, or forced to pull his countrymen out of house and hauld at the bidding of the laird! I’d rather see him in his grave-clothes – there would be no degradation there.”’3
The British army earned notoriety among the people of the Highlands for its officers’ duplicity towards men who were likely to be sold to the East India Company as they approached the end of their agreed term of service.
“The value of the transaction to one officer was said to be a firlot of gold – we forget if it was specified whether it was to be heaped or not.’
There are several instances of this happening. One is the Affair of the Wild Macraas which came out of their recruitment into the Northern Fencible.
Various ‘mutinous ballads’ were composed on the threat of being compulsorily shipped overseas – the following is an extract from one sung to the tune of the Jacobite song Johnnie Cope –
“To the East Indies we were sold
By Murray, for a bag o’ gold.
But, hold! For we will a tale unfold,
And it will rust his glory.
Oh, Charlie! Are ye wakan’ yet,
Or are your drums a beatan’ yet,
The Highland drums to arms do beat,
Will ye go on board this morning?
If it were to fight with France or Spain,
With pleasure we would cross the main;
But for like bullocks to be slain,
Our Highland blood abhors it.
To the East Indies wwe winna go,
To serve Eyre Coote or Hec. Munro;
Our time is oot, and hame we’ll go
In spite o’ a’ their noses.”4
Families would hide their men until the levy in their area was up and away which might take some weeks. It was not always a case of enlisting but impressing recruits and recruiting parties were very determined to get their men. Of course not everyone was so resistant and many were happy to sign up, for the statutory three years at least, for life was full of hardship at home and prospects becoming ever gloomier.
For many a regular soldier in 1777 the war in America was where his hopes for a better future ended. In a vain effort to retain the area of Hudson River 4000 British men died at Saratoga in October but as with so many instances of great and tragic loss it is the death of an individual and a civilian which creates the biggest outcry. Jane Mcrae’s grandfather had emigrated to America from Galloway in 1688. In 1777 his 25 year old granddaughter Jane was killed and scalped while being accompanied by two native Americans in the pay of the British forces garrisoned at Fort Edward. During the ensuing furore resistance to the British forces increased and France formally declared war against GB.
In the course of the Revolution some 24000 on the British side were lost to injuries or disease. Such was the extent of losses and the increased threat to the long shoreline of the British Isles from enemy navies that a call went out for temporary defence forces to man the most vulnerable coasts and free up regular troops for action abroad. Several towns responded positively but, interestingly, not the two with the strongest American connections, Bristol and London.
A call to arms
With the decision taken that the British Isles were in imminent danger an opportunity arose for various noblemen and ‘gentlemen’ to create a role for themselves by raising men in their name. For some it meant exploiting the traditional obligations of clanship to draw in volunteers or have them volunteered by their recruiting agents. In Scotland there were government payments on offer to lairds while towns were expected to shoulder the burden of costs involved in forming local militias. And so in 1778 several new companies emerged from northern Scotland to augment its three regiments – the Black Watch or 42nd; Fraser’s Highlanders or 71st (two battalions); the Royal Highland Emigrants or old 84th (two battalions). In addition Highland soldiers were also to be found serving in the 1st, 25th and 26th Lowland corps as well as in the 3rd or Scots Regiment of Foot Guards and numerous English regiments of the line.
Four months after the decisive Battle of Saratoga, in February 1778, fears of invasion were at their height so convoys were employed whereby armed cruisers accompanied inshore trading ships and boats as well as British vessels trading abroad. On shore defence systems were set up or extended as enemy vessels threatened the coasts especially around the Moray Firth and along Scotland’s east coast where a number of seaports formed their own local defence units to secure their shores from landings by patrolling American, French, Spanish and Dutch privateers which were clearly visible to the alarm of local residents. The men of Banff were encouraged to learn how to handle the great guns (cannon) provided by the government – two 18 pounder cannon, four 12 pound guns and five hundredweight of cannon powder. As many as 426 were trained and 23 given overall responsibility for manning them at the hastily erected battery with its spyglass or telescope trained on the German Ocean (now known as the North Sea). In the northeast the Dutch mariners created the greatest fear for they had been traders with this part of Scotland for centuries and were familiar with the Scottish north-east coast.
These civilian volunteers had their numbers augmented from time to time by men from the 73rd – Lord Macleod’s two battalions, the 74th Argyle Highlanders, the 76th Lord MacDonald’s, the 77th Atholl Highlanders, the 78th Seaforths, the 81st Aberdeenshire or the Argyle Regiment of Fencible Highlanders – in all eight battalions made up of ten companies each.
By February 1781 at least two companies from the Northern Fencibles under General Mackay were quartered at Banff to assist in its protection. In June, however, the Anne of Banff was taken off Troup Head by a Dunkirk privateer and shortly after the village of Gardenstown became the target of naval bombardment.
While life was proving difficult for people on the mainland it was even harder for the inhabitants of the northern islands dependent on merchant shipping for supplies. In September 1782 a convoy of provisions and men safely manoeuvred its way up the coast from Leith to Shetland via Aberdeen accompanied by the sloop-of-war Flirt which was armed with fourteen 4-pounder guns and twelve ½ pounder swivel guns. Troops were shipped to Lerwick to help defend Fort Charlotte in the wake of an emergency which had its population in panic when a 28-gun warship HMS Tartar and two merchant vessels were mistaken for privateers sailing in through the fog.
John Paul Jones, the Kirkcudbrightshire-born turned American rebel through his abhorrence of the British slave trade was best known of the privateers. Jones harried shipping and ports around these shores by Galloway and foraying into the Forth to threaten Edinburgh to the extent it reinforced its defences with the construction of Leith Fort.
The 4th Duke of Gordon was keen to have himself front one of the new defence forces and in April 1778 he received his mandate; a Letter of Service for a Battalion of Fencible Men for the internal protection of North Britain.
The Duke’s regiment was raised under the old system of contract with each officer instructed to levy a certain number of men according to his rank: each field officer 75, captains 50 each, lieutenants 25 each, ensigns 15 each. Normally this was a simple enough task in Northern Scotland because of the legacy of clan kinship but the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746 had undermined the feudal authority of clan chiefs and by 1778 the Highlands had already been depleted of so many of its healthy young men to military service the area could ill afford to lose yet more. Resentment was considerable that the very state which had and still was so cruelly repressing Highlanders and their way of life was eager to entice away its youth. So these fit, young and some not so young men from the Highlands were sought out to fight the Union’s battles … men so recently outlawed by that same government. To realise the quota the usual age limit of 18 years was reduced to 15 and the upper age scrapped altogether along with easing of the levy per county but finding sufficient men proved tricky. Gordon was granted several time extensions but he fell short on numbers. In his defence he protested that competing levies were able to entice men with bonuses while he was restricted to offering one guinea per recruit (others were paying 4 guineas) to cover the purchase of 3 good shirts, 2 pairs of shoes and hose. He further complained that his impoverished Highlanders were in dire need of decent clothing with men from Lochaber particularly poorly clad on presentation to barracks.
The relative failure of the levy in light of the government’s military commitments led to the passing of an Impress Act in December 1779 which replaced volunteering with enforced conscription. Men taken by this means were not provided with necessities other than shoes and these only when essential. Neither could they choose which regiment to join. The government justified the Act on grounds it would soak up the idle and able-bodied out of service. A Fochabers woman presented the recruitment party with her ‘three young stately lads’ and later, their cousin.
Smuggling was a major industry at the time and any man convicted of running goods valued at £40 had the choice of punishment or being pressed into service. Harvest hands were exempt between May and October only with a certificate. As we’ve seen the age restrictions were loosened but men under 5 feet 4 inches without shoes were not taken and neither was any man with a parliamentary vote. The country was scoured and any non-working individual outside of these groups rounded up and jailed before appearances in front of a Justice of the Peace and military commissioners who inevitably turned him over to the naval or army authorities. Not all JPs co-operated. In Moray where agriculture was suffering because so many able men were being forced into military service they were disinclined to continue their collaboration citing the damage of this policy on the health and welfare of the people of their area.
This action was exceptional. Mostly orders were not questioned and constables were appointed to round up the so-called ‘disorderly and idle’. In Elgin four constables were employed, in Urquhart eight, Spynie had six, Alves seven , Forres or Ffores four and Kinloss six.
Some of the Gordon men were from other corps or recently disbanded regiments so ensuring some trained personnel familiar with army discipline were available to set an example to new recruits. Officers were encouraged to pay attention to the health and morals of their men by ‘keeping them clean, sober and orderly’, feeding them a ‘wholesome diet’ and discouraging fights between corps of ‘these testy Highlanders’.
A Captain Cumming complained about the lack of discipline among Lieutenant Alexander Grant’s men and suggested Gordon give him ‘what in the army we used to call chocolate.’ 5 I don’t know what was meant by this although there is a reference elsewhere to an officer having hot chocolate poured over him in an act of humiliation.
On the whole it appears the men were ‘very tractable and obedient’ despite their reputation with the government albeit inconsistent in their inclination to keep clean barracks. The company under Macdonald appeared to be particularly sluttish. ‘The Barracks we found very dirty and the bedding very bad’ according to a Major Chissholm(sic).
By October the regiment was as complete as it was going to be. Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon was its colonel and James Chissholm and James Mercer its majors. There were four captains including Lord Haddo who was only 14 years old (it was common to grant commissions to children, even infants, said to be ‘on leave’ until they were of an age to take up the appointment). Another captain was Sir William Forbes of Craigievar and of seventeen lieutenants, the most notable was James Shaw6 .
There was some controversy over the regiment’s two Englishmen and five Irishmen for the Whig Opposition in Parliament was raging against Highland regiments whose clan chiefs could claim £3 a head for each recruit while town regiments were not subsidised in this way. The accusation was hurled that recruiters from the Highlands were going into English and Irish streets to, ‘pull off the breeches of Englishmen and Irishmen to full up their Highland regiments’.7
First Muster at Fort George
The Battalion of Northern Fencibles comprised eight companies plus Grenadiers and Light Infantry. Each company had its own captain, two lieutenants, an ensign, five sergeants, five corporals, two drummers and one hundred troops. The Light Infantry included one extra lieutenant. Companies assembled at Fort George early in December 1778; one was stationed at Cromarty on the Black Isle and one ‘on command’ at Inverness. During the regiment’s inspection at the Fort recruits had to run or march past the officer in charge for his assessment of them. The majority passed muster with only a very few rejected at this point. Officers were said to have ‘saluted tolerable well’, were ‘attentive to their duty’, that non-commissioned officers were ‘well looking stoute men’, drummers, fifers and pipers ‘played and beat tolerable well’ and the body included ‘two good pipers’. The ordinary men were likewise described as ‘stoute men of a very good size’, noting there were ‘exceeding fine fellows’ at front and rear ranks but those making up the body were ‘rather low and young’.
All in all it was considered a good company of men (and boys) apart from eighty who were discharged as too old, weak or infirm. One hundred and seven were reported as sick – the cause being put down to the men’s previous habits of ‘indolence and excess of drinking’. A few recent recruits died in training.
The Grenadiers who took up position on the right of the regiment when in line and at its head when in column was made up of the tallest and biggest of the recruits while the Light Infantry or Light Bobs company as it was known, though not comprising the smallest men necessarily was said to incorporate the fittest and most intelligent. They occupied the left of the regiment when in line and the rear when in column.
This then was the Duke of Gordon’s Northern Fencibles, raised with more than a nod to traditional clan obligations by which men were expected to swap the spade for the sword and follow ‘their chief’ whose powers had been emasculated as a consequence of the Union of Parliaments. Reciprocated duty, once the foundation of clan organisation, was now strictly a one-sided affair. While clansmen responded to their nominal chief’s summons to arms they were signed up and being paid (in theory) to defend the state of the Union not to defend clan lands and honour.
The role of the Fencibles was to provide temporary protection within Scotland, unless the south of Britain was invaded. Such a temporary arrangement was important to many of the men as they had family responsibilities and commitments to their crofts which had to be put on hold until their return. The majority of these troopers came from around Aberdeen, Banff and Moray, Caithness, Sutherland, Lochaber, Ross and Nairnshire and the vast majority were solely Gaelic speakers.
Fifes and drums and pipes
Although bagpipers were not officially recognised in the British army until 1854 pipers were engaged in all Highland regiments to stir the men to greater aggression comparable to the battle cry of numerous nations when launching an attack. As such then pipes could be and were described as weapons of war but not actually banned by the Proscription Act 8. The main source of pipers in Scottish regiments came from the Mackay Reay area of Caithness and from Skye.
Pipe bands as such did not then exist. Pipers were solo players until around the middle of the 19th century when the first combination of pipes with drums took place. In 1781 a piping competition was arranged by the Highland Society of London and another followed at the Falkirk cattle fair, the Falkirk tryst, which included men from the Highland Fencibles.
It was the penetrating sound of the fife which carried across battlegrounds and made them essential for signals to carry over the noise of artillery fire so making them popular with many European armies. Accompanied by drummers, fifers kept the beat on regiments’ long marches and from 1769 each Grenadier company featured two fifers.
Drums, too, were vital to the efficiency of military units. Before clocks and watches were commonplace they beat the hours and signalled times for special duties and alarms. In addition to his drumming duties the senior drummer was also responsible for carrying out corporal punishment when victims were flogged before the assembled ranks, to set an example to them. We’ll come back to this later when we look at discipline.
In addition there were military bands featuring a range of instruments such as oboes, clarinets, serpents, trumpets, horns and ‘clash pans’ (cymbals) – it became something of a trend among military bodies during the 18th and early 19th centuries for this role to be taken by an elaborately attired black man.
Regiments were provided with allowances to cover the costs of dressing officers and men. All Highland regiments wore full Highland dress: the woollen Breacan an Fhèileadh or Fèileadh Mòr (great plaid) which draped around the body and was belted at the waist. For ordinary duties the féile–beag – the lower half of the Breacan an Fhèileadh, was worn, with permanently stitched pleats. Officers and sergeants were provided with a belted Fèileadh Mòr, kilt and plaid in one, some 12 yards in length (two lengths of six yards of material joined edgeways) – a lesser amount of material was supplied for plaids for the ranks.
The larger men of the Grenadiers’ were allocated 3 ½ yards of tartan for making up their little kilts while others were restricted to 3 yards.
The Fèileadh Mòr was stitched to make it into a more functional garment and this also aided those unfamiliar with arranging the plaid since its abandonment following the Diskilting Act of 1746 .
It was a neat trick of the British government on one hand to ban Scots from wearing tartan following the Jacobite rising under the Act of Proscription which used penalties such as imprisonment or transportation while retaining its use for government troops. With staggering arrogance the British state appropriated the emblematic clothing of the Highlands thereby flaunting its domination over them.
Cox, Mair & Cox, Craig’s Court, London was the main source of regimental tartan for the plaid although outlets closer to where men were raised sometimes supplied the finished articles. In the case of the Gordons Forsyths of Huntly provided plaids from material made at Bannockburn while others were purchased from Forsyths of Elgin, Umphray of Fochabers, MacVeagh of Huntly. Ross of Fochabers made up the féile–beag – little kilts- charging 6d per kilt for ranks and one shilling for officers. This was more expensive than usual charges of 3d and 6d usually paid for stitching and pleating. Some additions to uniforms came from London.
The Highland plaid, the Breacan an Fhèileadh, was traditionally both a garment and a blanket when required but the adapted and stitched military version was strictly a dress uniform so that when men were patrolling in Dunbar during 1780 they were explicitly prevented from wrapping their plaids around them in the old style to fend off the cold. The functionality of the plaid diminished to what is more familiar to us today, a short kilt, a bastardisation of Highland dress.
The tartan chosen for the Gordon Fencibles was similar to the official military plaid worn by the Black Watch but with a yellow stripe. As became customary, military tartans were adopted by clans and so it was that the Gordons retained this design as their own.
Hose worn with the kilt was made up of the usual scarlet and white striped cloth with scarlet tape garters and yellow threads running through. These were not stockings but pieces of cloth cut and shaped to the leg then sewn along the back and when not properly fitted they were liable to cause blisters on the feet especially when on marches between assignments.
Officers’ and sergeants’ jackets were scarlet with broad yellow facings at the collar, down the front and on the broad cuffs. These were worn over buttoned white waistcoats. While officers wore silver bar lace sergeants had plain white braid. The ranks also wore white waistcoats but over jackets of brick red cloth faced with yellow lapels and gathered lace. In contrast drummers were dressed in yellow jackets faced and lapelled in red with elaborate lace on the sleeves and down the back. A piper’s uniform was as the rank and file but of superior quality. Battalion company officers wore epaulettes and flank company officers wore wings or red cloth edged and fringed with silver. Those under field rank wore only one epaulette, on the right shoulder. Corporals and sergeants wore small worsted epaulettes or knots…corporals one, sergeants two. The chevron was a later introduction from 1802. Sashes, worn from the left shoulder to right hip by officers, were of crimson netted silk while sergeants’ sashes were made from worsted and carried a distinctive yellow stripe along their length.
Officers wore black velvet stocks buttoned behind with false collars around their necks and the ranks black leather ones.
Gorgets worn as duty badges around the neck were relics of solid metal collars worn in full body armour. Officers wore these silver badges engraved with the royal arms and inscribed GB on either side of a crown, North Fencible at the lower edge and the Scottish thistle in each top corner.
Jacket buttons for ranks were rounded pewter while those on officers’ uniforms were silver pressed with crowned thistles or a thistle star encircled by North Fencible. Buttons were paired and arranged equidistantly.
Great coats were only supplied to men on watch duty and restricted to use between 6 pm and 6 am. The men were themselves responsible for any damage and all repairs to their coats.
The high diced blue bonnet with plumed feathers was common to all ranks. Following full deliberation it was determined that feathers used to decorate bonnets belonging to officers and sergeants should be of ‘Ostridge’. The Duke of Gordon had taken advice from army agents over their suitability and whether cocks’ feathers or worsted would be ‘most proper’ but it appears the expense was foremost in his mind. Feathers cost around 7d each.
In May 1780 men’s bonnets were finished with ‘yaller’ (yellow) worsted feathers and red naps (nap meaning a tuft or tourie on the bonnet) but when the 2nd battalion of the 78th was raised in 1794 their bonnets were dressed with imitation worsted feathers as a cheaper option ‘much superior in richness and appearance to real feathers’ was the justification. (Some corps wore a piece of bearskin.) On the bonnets of the Grenadiers and Light Infantry the naps were white in place of red. Grenadier caps were elaborate with silver plate on the fronts and scarlet tassels, cockades with buttons and loops and a touch of yellow at the cockade. The Light Infantry’s caps came with sword proof crowns and were circled in fur. There were bonnets for different occasions – undress or foraging bonnets on which the feathers dropped over the ‘hatt’ – giving rise to the description feathered bonnet. All battalion companies were supplied with plainer undress bonnets topped with red touries while flank companies had white touries fastened to the bonnet on the left side over the ear by a black cockade and regimental button. The description of the ‘cocky wee Gordon ‘comes from their plaid bonnets dressed with cock feathers. Hackles on bonnet were a later addition.
It is not known what the Fencibles’ sporrans were made from but commonly it was badger skin for officers with a flap top trimmed with silver and decorated with eight or more short tassels, red leather bells and edged in yellow on knotted cords. The ranks’ purses were generally white or grey goatskin with a plain flap top and a narrow brass rim. These were only worn with full dress.
Goatskin or calfskin knapsacks were supplied to the men at their own expense: 5/- and 4/6 respectively. It was expressly ordered they should be carried and not put on baggage carts.
Everyday shoes were tied with string (laces) for ordinary duties and with buckles for full dress while hessian or half boots were worn with white breeches.
By 1854 responsibility for regimental clothing had been transferred from regimental colonels to government suppliers. Back in 1778 the cost of clothes and equipment for the Gordon Fencibles came to £4,712 and recruitment £1,300. The annual cost of the regiment amounted to some £21,000.
Swords were broadswords not the old two-handed claymore. The broadsword was a single-edged blade, 32 inches long and 1 ¼ inches at the wrought iron basket hilt. These were issued to sergeants and rank and file alike. There were still misgivings about arming Highlanders within military and government circles and in March 1780 bearing swords within the Northern Fencibles was restricted to men of flank companies.
Ammunition was carried in a pouch over the left shoulder, suspended on a black belt by both rank and file (non-Highland corps wore white). Previously the ammunition pouch or cartouche box had been attached to a waist belt and the change to carrying it on the shoulder was strongly resisted by Highland corps.
Over the opposing right shoulder a buckle, tip and slide held the broadsword and bayonet in black leather scabbards with brass mounts or silver in the case of officers. Above the tip was often an ornament featuring a crown and the initials GR … Mackintosh tells us these were greatly sought after by American collectors from battle sites.
Shoulder brooches were unknown at the time of the Northern Fencibles and plaids were secured to the shoulder strap by a loop of ribbon.
Sergeants were armed with a halberd (a two-handed pole) until these were replaced by pikes in 1792. In other Highland corps the battalion company officers carried espontoons, half pikes.
Men were also armed with a pair of steel claw-butted flint lock Highland pistols. Fusils – the short light musket were issued to Grenadier officers and sergeants during the 1760s and introduced to Light companies in 1771. The Duke of Gordon’s fusil and bayonet had a silver trigger guard and butt plate and was 54 inches long. His 11 inch long bayonet was engraved with his name.
The rank and file standard firearm was the Brown Bess, a flintlock musket, with a long triangular bayonet. It weighed around 12lbs and discharged a spherical ball with a range of 200 yards but accurate to under half that distance. One of the men’s duties was to make its ball cartridges.
Sgiandubhs or stocking knives were then unknown.
The company of Grenadiers included two pioneers who carried axes, saws and wore leather aprons to prevent injury or damage to their uniforms and themselves as they cleared paths and removed obstacles which might hinder an approach or assault.
Hair dressing was taken seriously within the British military. It might be greased, combed out, powdered and styled. Battalion companies usually wore hair long or tied back in a queue (plait) with black ribbon or else clubbed (a folded ponytail) fixed with rosettes on the club – this was a style popular with Highland corps. At Prestonpans in March 1781 the men were ordered to have their hair cut in the same style as a certain Corporal MacDonald but I cannot say what style he favoured. Hair powder was some kind of flour – wheat, potato or rice blended with pigment and perhaps scented oils. Special occasions called for the powdering of hair and when proper hair powder was unavailable men might use flour. When flour was in short supply then powdering was abandoned.
Gordon’s recruits were quickly put to work training: marching, manual exercises, firing practice, standing, advancing, retreating, forming columns, changing front to right and front to left, forming Indian files, forming solid columns, charging with bayonets, general salute etc.
Recent battleground experiences in America led to regiments practising different tactics such as skirmishing drills to cope with new methods of attack and defence in densely forested landscape rather than charges over exposed battlefields which had been the Scots’ tactic.
The 78th, later 1st Seaforths, were quartered in Aberdeen before moving to Edinburgh where the admirable ‘Affair of the Wild Macraas’ took place. This incident involved 600 Macraes mutinying against officer duplicity. Mutinies were not unusual given the army’s casual observance of agreements on pay and conditions but it was a risky strategy and the men were often severely punished as a consequence.
In Aberdeen, too, men mutinied during the summer of 1781. There was a great deal of tension in the air. Danish and Greenland ships docking in the city reported French privateers active offshore.
It was not only the French causing apprehension. The people of Aberdeen had much to talk about concerning the behaviour of the Gordons. Major Mercer defended his men against criticism describing them as ‘persons of men and the faces of angels’ 9. His optimistic mood soon changed when attempting to increase recruitment he reported, ‘two or three of my recruits who arrived yesterday (from Aberdeen) very miserable wretches.’ 10
As we have seen carrying out the king’s levy was proving no easy task for the Northern Fencibles’ officers. There were rules governing recruitment but the pressure to fulfil their quota of men were considerable and success called for a combination of carrots and sticks. Carrots came in the form of frequent marching displays to raise a unit’s profile and by encouraging local men with some spare cash to put up special bounties to attract volunteers. Officers were reluctant to boost recruitment with bonuses from their own resources as they were ‘liable for the amount of each rejected man’s bounty or levy money, and also his subsistence money from date of enlistment.’11Sticks came by way of the sheer determination of recruitment agents to catch their targets, physically chasing the reluctant across muirs and glens to persuade them accept ‘the king’s shilling’.
As well as having a defensive role the Northern Fencibles were sometimes used for civil duties such as rounding up criminal gangs – activities which were unpopular with the ranks. As the bulk of Gordon men were mainly from the rural north it was doubtless assumed they would have little sympathy for urban workers engaged in popular revolts and certainly it would have perfectly suited the civic and military authorities that the majority of the Fencibles spoke and understood only Gaelic.
During 1793 several serious episodes of rebellion and sedition erupted in Scotland’s manufacturing towns and Fencible militias were sent in to quell unrest in the likes of Aberdeen, Dundee and Glasgow.
Civilian control was not what the men had been led to expect their duties would be on signing up with the Fencibles and they showed their reluctance to act against ordinary people clear so small incentives were offered to encourage their co-operation. Sometimes they were required to deal with smugglers by capturing them and their contraband. This did not always work out the way it was meant to as smuggled goods could prove an attractive source of income for the rank and file as much as they had for the smugglers.
Smuggling was a way of life for many who lived in Scotland’s coastal communities. Import taxes made goods such as tea, spirits, salt, soap, tobacco and leather prohibitive. Indeed revenue imposed on Scotland following the Union with England pushed up the tax on some goods as much as seven times what it had been previously and naturally this created hardship and resentment pricing them beyond the pockets of the many.
At the same time the Union proved anything but equitable as the government in London applied high taxes on exports of Scottish spirits into England through the Scotch Distilleries Act of 1786 with disastrous results for the industry in Scotland.
All kinds of items were seen as fair game for smuggling and necessity being the mother of invention a hearse loaded with contraband was intercepted leaving Aberdeen, as reported in an Edinburgh newspaper.
Skirmishes between the military and armed smugglers were commonplace and required careful handling. When a company of Northern Fencibles were stationed at Dunbar they were instructed to keep away from the water, not to enter it or board boats to engage in quarrels with sailors or fishermen. Troops on duty in the town were also denied seats in their sentry boxes, for obvious reasons, and for still more obvious reasons there was an absolute ban on liquor in the Guard House. They were precautions taken by the officers against fraternisation between troops and townspeople: ‘No native to be admitted, not any person whatever except the soldiers’ and a special instruction went out that men on late duty at the harbour were to march back to barracks instead of displaying their usual ‘scandalous appearances’.
Scotland’s long and meandering coastline offered ample opportunities for smugglers and targets for foreign privateers so the Northern Fencibles were split up and moved around to guard as many spots as possible from Stranraer to Greenock and Kirkcudbright to Fort Augustus and along the east coast. Lord North, the prime minister, was happy to have fine, strong and healthy Highlanders hold the tartan line of defence in protection of the Union state but he and his government were uneasy about arming them. His view of these men of the north was less than gracious: “the highlanders have remained in their ancient state, prolific, bold, idle, & consequently hives of rebellion”. So when stationed in Glasgow during the winter of 1779 the Northern Fencibles were ordered to surrender their weapons. They improvised and soon locals were complaining that soldiers were taking to the streets armed with large sticks. So the sticks too had to go, outlawed under penalty of a Disobedience Order (given in Gaelic as this was the only language the majority of men spoke and understood). During one riot in the town it was reported that the men were abandoned by their fleeing officers to cope as best they could.
On a miserable wet and windy day in Glasgow in June 1780 a company of 1000 Fencibles were reviewed by General Skene who appeared happy with their turn out but not all was well. During this posting smallpox spread through the town. As a precaution only sentries who had had the disease were put on guard duty at the regimental hospital. That month 76 men reported sick and 22 men and officers died from the infection.
Illness took its toll too in Aberdeen early in 1782 when half the company was unfit for duty following an outbreak of influenza and in Montrose 57 of them fell ill on one day of the same complaint.
Desertions were common occurrences throughout the tenure of the Fencibles. Eleven absconded during their time in Glasgow while a further one hundred and eleven were discharged without pensions. In August 1781 two of the company were put on trial in Aberdeen for mutiny on 15th July.
Descriptions of deserters were sent out to kirk ministers so they could be posted up on their church doors, a practice which continued into the 1850s and was a source of shame for absconders’ families in Highland communities.
The Northern Fencibles travelled by foot or boat between garrisons. Four or more divisions would set off marching at intervals of a day or so billeting in towns or villages along the way at night. These billets were around ten to sixteen miles apart and the Fencible Highlanders covered the area around Glasgow, Whitburn, Calder, Musselburgh, Haddington and Dunbar by this manner.
Privates received a subsistence allowance and ‘gross off-reckonings’. Northern Fencible men were paid 6d a day with an allowance of 2 ½ d per diem (each day) for essentials: clothing, stockings, washing, medicine, shaving, repairs to his weapons and 1d contribution towards the pay of the surgeon and paymaster as well as deductions for messing (food) – a daily ration of ¾ lb butcher’s meat and 1lb of bread cost up to 5d a day or 3 shillings a week. What was given with one hand was taken away by another resulting in men being out of pocket with virtually nothing remaining for their families. Unsurprisingly several went AWOL and for those caught the fine for a first offence was 6d thereafter escalating on an increasing scale. Given their conditions of service it is hardly surprising there were desertions. In 1792 the numbers of runaways were such that a new pay warrant was brought in and the iniquitous deduction known as poundage was removed. Each day the 2 ½ d paid on top of the basic 6d poundage was applied at a rate of 1 shilling in the pound. As well as poundage other charges were applied as and when. The complexities and system of deductions relating to military pay were so contrived that a commission looking into them in 1780 abandoned the task as hopeless.
In order to increase their paltry incomes enlisted Fencibles looked for work at farms in districts where they were stationed, especially during busy periods such as spring sowing and harvesting.
Colonels received a considerably higher allowance – a per diem payment of 14 shillings, 2 shillings of which were in lieu of his servants. A lieutenant colonel was paid 7 shillings, majors 5 shillings, surgeons 4 shillings, sergeants 1/6 and drummers 1 shilling.
To cover the loss of clothing from desertions colonels were compensated 1s 2d for each missing enlisted man. The fund compensating colonels for their losses was a creative device by which ‘pay’ was allowed to accumulate for a handful of fictitious troops and used to cover incidentals such as widows allowances or indeed clothing gone missing on the backs of absconders. The widow of a Grenadier could expect an allowance of 4 shillings or 2s 4d if her husband was with the Light Infantry.
The total daily costs for the Northern Fencibles was to £57. 13s during the year 1779-1780 which amounted to £21,099. 18s for the year.
Each regiment’s colours were supplied by its colonel until 1854 when the government took over responsibility. Traditionally colours would be embroidered rather than painted, often by lady friends of the colonel.
The Fencible’s king’s colours had the words First Union stitched in silk thread on a flag 4 feet 8 inches by 3 feet 4 inches. At its centre was a circle with a cross and figure of St Andrew surmounted by the crown of Scotland along with a scroll with Northern Fencible Highlanders written across it and the Gaelic motto, Cleu le Cruadal (renown with hardihood) surrounded by a Union wreath of roses and thistles.
The Regimental colour was yellow silk printed with First Union Canton and a similar plaque and decoration at its centre.
Viscous sentences passed down from civilian courts on the poor of this country were reflected in Britain’s military infamous for its discipline regarded as the worst of any European army except perhaps Russia’s.
Floggings were common practice but other punishments bordered on depravity and spoke volumes about the low regard the British establishment had for the men on whom it relied on for its protection – troops commonly referred to as ‘scum’. Volunteers and pressed men were often treated contemptuously – they were cheap and for as long as young men grew up to replace those lost in its imperialist wars, the government would continue their exploitation. The Duke of Wellington, one of Britain’s most illustrious military commanders and prime minister, remarked that the British army was made up of ‘the scum of the earth’ which goes some way to explain why they were treated so despicably.
British military authorities were inventive in devising punishments for this ‘scum’.
Piquet or picket involved a recalcitrant being suspended from a wrist tethered to a hook on a wall so that his bare foot scarcely touched a pointed stake or picket. Excruciatingly painful and disabling, this punishment was the equivalent of shooting the company in the foot for it prevented the victim from being able to march and was for this reason discontinued.
Another punishment for minor misdemeanours long used in the English army before Union was the whirlgig which involved the offender being placed in a cage which was revolved at speed to induce distress and nausea
A penalty for drinking, rioting or stealing food was being forced to ride the wooden horse – it being a pole or angled board (for greater cruelty) over which the man would sit, his hands tied behind him. Sometimes, too, weights (50 pounds) were attached to each foot to keep him in position over the cutting edge of the board which dug into the genitals. Riding the wooden horse might last for days at a time.
Flogging, however, was the most common chastisement and administered for both minor and serious offences. Anyone straying more than 1 ½ miles from camp could expect anything from 800 to 1000 lashes of the whip on his bare back. Floggings of 500 lashes were very common with the miscreant tied to a tree or post to receive the strokes. Floggings were carried out using the cat o’ nine tails which the drum major carried around in a silk bag.
Deserters could expect to be shot or hanged.
Fortunately corporal punishment was seldom used within Highland regiments, presumably because of the complex relationships within clans but when men of the Northern Fencibles were found to be carrying their loaf dough on boards, ‘taken out of the bottom of their bed-steads, to the oven’ officers warned that, ‘whoever is found guilty of the same in time coming shall be tried by Court Martial.’ (Fort George September 1781) Further it was stipulated that no soldier could slaughter sheep or cattle nor sell ale and spirits in the barracks.
Some misdemeanors likely to attract punishment were directly related to the British state’s outlawing of the Highland way of life such as using the plaid as a blanket in cold weather and playing the Highlander game of shinty – both banned. The former is interesting in that it seems clear the government was determined to reinvent the plaid as military attire and with the latter presumably shinty clubs or sticks were regarded as potential offensive weapons.
Gambling was not tolerated and card playing severely punished. When Major Chissholm discovered men were raffling items in barracks he had this stopped. Building fires to alert the ferryman at Fort George was also prohibited and men instructed to raise a flag instead as a signal that he was required.
Wives of service men were also subject discipline. The spouse of a George Munro of Mackay’s company was ordered out of Fort George for doing washing in the barracks contrary to regulations – although this order was rescinded with a warning that ‘if she or any other person be found guilty of the same crime after this date, they may depend on being turned immediately out of the garrison.’
In addition to able companies there were also independent companies of invalids: officers and men too infirm, old or wounded for active service but well able to perform garrison duties. Early in the 19th century these were merged into veteran battalions. There were 103 such men at Fort George in 1781 with a similar number at Dunbar, Fort Augustus and Fort William.
Hogmanay or Oidche Challuinn, as it was known in the Highlands, was celebrated with first footing, drinking plotty – hot spiced wine or mountain dew (Atholl Brose) offered to first footers. With the ending of the war with America Hogmanay 1782 would have been particularly well celebrated although it was not until 20th March 1783 the order for disbandment of the Northern Fencibles was made by which time some of the men were anxious to get home to their glens. The six companies quartered on the east coast were disbanded at Aberdeen on 12 April but the casual approach of the military towards pay forced two officers to wait until 1798 for arrears to their stipend.
The commander of the Northern Fencibles, the Duke of Gordon, received letters of appreciation from towns protected by his men during those eventful years of 1778 to 1782.
Following the brutal repression of the Highlands in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising its way of life was systematically dismantled and the character of its people denigrated by the pitiless British establishment.
A generation on from the post-Culloden cleansing the Highlands became valued as a source of capable fighters dressed up in faux Highland garb to defend the instrument of its oppression.
There were four regiments of Fencible men in ‘ North Britain’ – Scotland: the Argyll or Western (February 1778), the South (April 1778), the Northern (May 1778), the Sutherland (January 1779).
1 Deeside Tales by John Grant Michie (1908)
2 ibid p71
3 ibid p76
4 ibid p 74
5 Awakening of Scotland 1747-1797 by Wm Mathieson p 31
6 ibid p 43 Shaw was likely to have been a former Jacobite soldier who fought at Preston, Falkirk and Culloden. He left the Northern Fencibles in 1782 after a disagreement with his superior officers. Shaw was the subject of a poem by Kenneth Mackenzie ( Lord Fortrose) for his heroism at the Battle of Falkirk where he carried the royal standard. His story also appears in Grant’s Legends of the Braes of Mar. Shaw was the grandfather of Sir John Macdonald who went on to become a Prime Minister of Canada and Shaw’s daughter was grandmother of John Brown, attendant of Queen Victoria).
7. ibid note 3 p 43
8 The Disarming Act 1716 was reinforced by the drawn up after the Act of Proscription following the Jacobite rebellion The penalties for wearing “highland clothing” as stated in the Act were “imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer; and being convicted for a second offence before a court of justiciary or at the circuits, shall be liable to be transported. . .” ‘No lesser penalties were allowed for.’
“A new section, which became known as the Dress Act, banned wearing of “the Highland Dress”. Provision was also included to protect those involved in putting down the rebellion from lawsuits. Measures to prevent children from being “educated in disaffected or rebellious principles” included a requirement for school prayers for the King and Royal family.
The most severe penalties, at a minimum six months incarceration and transportation to a penal colony for a second offense (sic), made these the most severe portion of this act.”
“The Act of Proscription was followed by the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746 which removed the feudal authority the Clan Chieftains had enjoyed. Scottish heritable sheriffdoms reverted to the Crown, and other heritable jurisdictions, including regalities, came under the power of the British courts.
Traditionally, Scottish lords had inherited regalities and had been able to judge in civil and criminal cases among their dependants. The Act put an end to this by extending universal royal jurisdiction throughout Scotland. The powers previously possessed by Scottish lords were transferred to sheriffs appointed by the King and the hereditary justiciarship of Scotland, held by the family of Argyll, was to be purchased and transferred to the High Court and Circuit-courts of Justiciary. Parliament granted £152,000 for the purchase of heritable jurisdictions. The Prime Minister Henry Pelham considered this the most important measure in dealing with Jacobitism in Scotland.”
9 Mackintosh p39
10 ibid P40
11 ibid p40
Watch The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil which reveals the British government’s attitude to Highlanders as cannon fodder.