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The Real History of Scottish Regiments. A response to Historic Environment Scotland

Scottish Regiments of the British Army, 1895
Saul David
Written by Saul David

A new report commissioned by Historic Environment Scotland which will inform the way Scottish castles, cathedrals and monuments are presented to the public, criticises Scottish regiments for obeying orders and doing their duty. Here, the well-known military historian Saul David, defends the role and the honour of Scottish soldiers.

Just over 20 years ago, I appeared as a talking head on a 3-part BBC series called ‘Scotland’s Empire’, a by no means uncritical look at Scotland’s enormous impact on the global development of the British Empire as emigrants, soldiers, merchants and colonial administrators, and based on the superb bestselling book of the same name by T. M. (Sir Tom) Devine.

My contribution, as a military historian, was chiefly to discuss the role played by Scotland’s soldiers – from generals to privates – in imperial conflicts over the last three centuries. Among other points, I explained that Scottish regiments – particularly those formed from hardy, raw-boned Highlanders, natural soldiers, in the wake of first Jacobite rising of 1715 – were typically given the toughest assignments because their commanders trusted them to get the job done. Their high casualty rates reflected that sacrifice.

Such an even-handed documentary series on empire is unlikely to be commissioned today. Instead we have new research into links between publicly-owned buildings and imperial atrocities by three Glasgow University academics for Historic Environment Scotland, the government-funded heritage agency. Many of these buildings, the report concludes, are connected to Scotland’s ‘heavy and sometimes disproportionate’ involvement in colonialism in the Caribbean, Africa, the Americas and Asia, as well as in the ‘north of Ireland’. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/british-empire-atrocities-to-be-spotlighted-at-scottish-castles-and-cathedrals-rqqxmklcl

More specifically the report notes a link between the buildings and Scottish regiments ‘involved in acts of acts of violence against a wide range of peoples and geographies’. It adds: ‘Racialised judicial repression and military violence remained an underlying feature of the Empire well into the age of decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s.’ It’s an absurdly generalised charge that if left unchallenged would blacken the memory of more than 300 years of Scottish regimental history. It has little basis in fact, as I will explain.

The stated intention of the report is to ‘inform decision making’ in the updating of visitor information signs at places like Edinburgh and Glasgow Castles, and Glasgow Cathedral. Scottish public bodies have form in this regard. In 2021 the National Galleries of Scotland began amending wall panels to include references to racist or exploitative behaviour by artists or their subjects. Many have been contested by historians, but the revised panels remain. The Melville Monument in the heart of Edinburgh to the memory of Henry Dundas, the late 18th century politician, now has a plaque that claims Dundas worked to delay the abolition of slavery. The monument, it says, is now dedicated to the memory of the ‘Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Dundas’s actions’. Yet those who know best, including Sir Tom Devine, insist that Dundas was an abolitionist all along. ‘I believe,’ said Devine, ‘these words are bad history.’

So too is the new report. Let’s take a few examples. The report notes that the 74th (Cameronians), 78th (Seaforths), 92nd (Gordons) and 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders were involved in suppressing uprisings in India in the mid 19th century, adding: ‘The overall British campaign in this period claimed the lives of at least 150,000.’

The is a tendentious statement that is utterly devoid of context. It fails to mention, for example, that these regiments were responding to a brutal uprising by Indian sepoys and civilian rebels against British rule in India in 1857 that in its first few months was responsible for the systematic murder of thousands of European civilians. On 15 July 1857, at the Bibigarh in Cawnpore, 194 European women and children were butchered with swords by their rebel captors and thrown down a well – some still alive – as Sir Henry Havelock’s relieving army closed in on the city. Having visited the site of the massacre – which was, one officer noted in his diary, ‘literally running ankle deep in blood, ladies’ hair torn from their heads was lying about the place’ – many British soldiers, Scots included, swore vengeance.

Highland Soldiers Leave for France in World War Two

Highland Soldiers Leave for France in World War Two

The 93rd Highlanders played a key role in the famous Relief of the Lucknow Residency in November 1857 when Sir Colin Campbell’s apparently hopelessly outnumbered army of 4,500 men fought their way into the rebel-held city. They were welcomed with open arms by many of the 1,100 European women and children whose lives they helped to save. There is no mention of this in the report because it doesn’t suit the authors’ agenda of portraying the Scottish soldier as an imperial oppressor. Were they – and other British soldiers – capable of, and responsible for, committing atrocities in this and other conflicts? Undoubtedly, and I did not shy away from saying as much in my book The Indian Mutiny. But they were also capable of acts of mercy, tenderness and self-sacrifice – and, in the interests of balance, this needs to be acknowledged.

On hearing the news of the relief, Queen Victoria wrote on 25 December 1857: ‘Thank God! Lucknow is safe! I cannot tell you how truly thankful we all are – & how rejoicing it should have been known just before Christmas’. A month earlier, she had learnt of Lucknow’s first relief when Havelock’s army had bolstered the garrison, but was not strong enough to fight its way out again with the non-combatants. ‘They did not arrive a moment too soon,’ Lady Canning, the wife of the Governor-General of India, wrote to her, ‘for besides scarcity of provisions, one shudders to hear that mines were found, stretching far within the works, ready to be loaded, and another day might have been too late to save that garrison.’

The Queen appreciated all too well the sacrifices made by her soldiers in saving the women and children. She felt, moreover, that for the perpetrators of atrocities like those committed at the Bibigarh, ‘no punishment can be severe enough, &, sad as it is, stern justice must be dealt out to all the guilty ones’. But to the Indian population in general, particularly those who had sheltered fleeing Europeans, ‘these should be shown the greatest kindness’. They should know, she added, ‘there is no hatred of brown skin’.

Another Scottish regiment mentioned in the report is the 25th, later the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. It’s been singled out because its formation in 1689 is commemorated on a monument in Edinburgh Castle. However, notes the report, ‘the 25th Regiment also had a protracted imperial past, undertaking garrisoning and campaigning duties in Egypt, Afghanistan, South Africa, Palestine, Malaya, Aden and Belize. As part of this wider pattern of service, the KSOB served in Ireland in 1914 and again with several tours in Northern Ireland from 1970 to 1989.’

Well, yes, all regiments in the British Army took their turns garrisoning far flung parts of the empire, and fighting in imperial wars. That’s what an army does. But it also – and this goes for all the Scottish regiments mentioned in the report – fights in defence of its nation. So the 25th Regiment, to take one example, fought in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars, all existential fights for Britain’s survival against a power that sought to dominate Europe and, in the case of Napoleon and Hitler, invade Britain. There is no mention of this in the report, and I doubt there will be in the updated information panels, because it does not fit the woke agenda of damning the British military as a racist instrument of imperial repression.

In reality, British regiments have always had a dual purpose: to save lives as well as take them. They were deployed in Palestine and Northern Ireland, in 1946 and 1969, to keep the peace and ended up losing more soldiers to terrorist action than they took in the course of their duties. Do individual soldiers sometimes overstep the mark? Without question. ‘Bloody Sunday’, the killing of unarmed civilians in Londonderry by members of the 1st Parachute Battalion in 1972 is an obvious example. Another is the shooting into a ‘hostile but unarmed’ crowd in Dublin in July 1914 by soldiers of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, killing three. (This incident is mentioned in the report but – surprise, surprise – the word ‘hostile’ is omitted.)  But most British soldiers, if officered well, do not fire their weapons without good cause. They follow extant rules of engagement, and always have done.

Two of the three authors of the report are members of Glasgow University’s well-regarded history department where I studied for my PhD. Previous members of that department include the military historians Hew Strachan and Phillips O’Brien, both now teaching at St. Andrews, who understand military forces and how they operate. None of the authors of this report is a dedicated military historian. Whether it is the role of a heritage organisation to judge the past actions of Scottish regiments is clearly open to question. But if it is to be done, it surely requires expertise in their history and a willingness to engage carefully with the historical and military contexts in which they operated.

About the author

Saul David

Saul David

Saul David is professor of Military History at the University of Buckingham, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His thirteen books include The Indian Mutiny (2002), Victoria’s Wars (2006), Operation Thunderbolt (2015) and Crucible of Hell (2020). Website: www.sauldavid.co.uk