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Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


Fencible Regiments

Rothsay and Caithness
Two Battalions
1794

Although the county of Caithness is within the Highland boundary, yet, in its natural appearance, being in general low, and destitute of mountains, it has more of a Lowland than a Highland character; and, as if the Highland garb were to be worn, and the Gaelic language to be spoken only by mountaineers, there has always been more of the Lowland costume, and of the Saxon or Scotch language, in that than in any other Highland county. It is rather remarkable that, apparently for the same reason, the Highland dress has been always little worn (even when it was not illegal) in the low and flat peninsula of Kintyre, in Argyleshire.

But, though Caithness differed so much in dress and language from more mountainous districts, there was little or none in the general principles which guided the Highland ers; and as fidelity and attachment to their chiefs and lairds were preserved, it was to be expected, that, when the country had occasion for the services of the men of Caithness, they would be found ready; and, having a chief-tain so patriotic as Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, the head of an ancient and respectable family, to lead them, there could be no difficulty in raising a sufficient number of men to constitute a regiment. Nor was there any, as was shown in the year 1794, when Sir John Sinclair received Letters of Service to raise a regiment of Fencible Highlanders, whose duty should extend to England. As both officers and men were principally natives of Caithness, no name could be more appropriate than the "Caithness Fencibles." But the counties of Bute and Caithness being united in sending alternately a Member to represent them in Parliament, and the Prince of Wales having been pleased to grant permission that Rothsay, his chief title in Scotland, should be added, the battalion was called the Rothsay and Caithness Fencibles.

Though this regiment was not completed with the same expedition that the ranks of the Breadalbane, Sutherland, and other regiments had been filled up, an excellent efficient battalion was assembled at Inverness in October 1794, and embodied by Lieutenant-General Sir Hector Munro. Among the circumstances connected with this corps which attracted notice, was the appearance of the officers, nineteen of whom averaged six feet in height.

The uniform of this regiment was different from that worn by other Highland corps. It was a bonnet and feathers, with a plaid thrown across the shoulders, and tartan pantaloons, in imitation of the truis,

[The following anecdote tends to show that the truis or breeches were worn in Caithness in the reign of Charles II. at a time when the kilt and plaid were the universal garb of the rest of the Highlands; consequently, there is the greater reason for the Caithness regiment having assumed the truis for their uniform.

About the period of the Restoration, the Karl of Caithness had been reduc-d to great straits and pecuniary difficulties. His debts were so heavy, that he was obliged to execute a disposition of his estate in favour of Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy, who purchased the greatest part of his debts, and thus became the principal creditor; and in consequence of the disposition, a charter was passed in 1673 investing Glenorchy with the estate of Caithness. The Earl died in 1676, and in 1678 his widow, a daughter of the Marquis of Argyll, married Sir John Campbell, who took possession of the estate, and assumed the title of the Earl of Caithness, as being territorial, and attached to, and unalienable from, the possession of the land. He accordingly got a patent of the earldom from the Crown, and was created Earl of Caithness. This, however, was an assumption of right to which the Sinclairs would not submit, and, in the true spirit of clansmen, determined to support the distressed, to preserve the sinking family of their Chief, and to assert the claims of his legitimate heir. These were not mere words; and the arm of the law being neither so long nor so strong in those days as in latter times (when, according to the old Highlanders, it has reached Ross-shire), the new Earl of Caithness was obliged to to take to the sword to gain possession of his acquisitions; and, instead of repairing to Edinburgh to employ lawyers (mercenary and hired troops, as they, no doubt, would he called by our modern revolutionists), to fight for and maintain his claims, he followed the Highland fashion; and collecting 1100 Breadalbane men, including the followers of the immediate descendants of his family, Glenlyon, Glenfalloch, Lochdochart, Achallader, &c, and those of his neighbour and brother-in-law, the Laird of Macnab, marched with this array to Caithness, and, in a pitched battle with the Sinclairs (who rose to oppose him), fought for his title, and, having gained the victory, quartered his men in the country for three years, levying rents and taxes, as if in a conquered country. But though the Sinclairs were forced to yield in the first instance, they so harrassed the invaders, and showed such hostility and determined resolution in opposition to the claims of Glenorchy, that he at last yielded; and, after a long negotiation, and a reference to the King in Council, by whom it was found that the title was unalienable from the male-heirs, the Sinclairs got possession of their Chief's estate. The King created Sir John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane on a new patent, and the ancient earldom of Caithness went to the legitimate heir, George Sinclair of Keiss.

I have now come to the reason for telling this long story, namely, to show that in the reign of Charles II. breeches were worn in Caithness.—In the heat of the battle, and when the Caithness men were beginning to give way, Glen-erthy's piper struck up a voluntary, the inspiration of the moment, when the sounds of the instrument seemed to express in a very remarkable manner the words, "bodach na brigan,"&c; (Although Bodach literally means an Old Man, it conveys to a Highlander a great deal more. It is quite an untranslatable word. A Lowland vulgar clown comes nearest to the Highlander's meaning of the word. When the Breadalbane men saw men with breeches, they were in their eyes Lowlanders or Goths—Bodach Gauld—the Goth or Stranger. Bodach is a term expressive of great contempt,) "the breeches men are retreating—the men with the breeches are flying. " The tune has ever since been called Lord Breadalbane's March to Battle, and, when well played, appears, to a person conversant with the Gaelic language and pipe music, to articulate the words just mentioned. There is another reason for believing that the Saxon, the breeches, and the truis, have been long the language and dress of Caithness. The Highlanders call the country Gaullu,—the country of the strangers, or of the Saxons or Goths. Lord Caithness is called Morar Gaullu—Caithness being a word unknown in the Gaelic. Morar is the Gaelic for Lord; but Morar, or Lord, is not, as in English, applied to Almighty God: the Great Lord of All is Teorn.]

(which is said by some to be the garb of the ancient Gael and Celts), surmounted with a tripe of yellow along the seams, a fringe of tartan on the outside of the thigh, and the same round the ankle.

This battalion was in the usual manner stationed in different quarters, and reduced in the year 1799.

In the year 1795 Sir John Sinclair again received Letters of Service for raising a second battalion of Rothsay and Caithness Fencibles, which was inspected and embodied by Lieutenant-General Hamilton at Forfar in May. The establishment was the same as that of the first battalion, but the service was extended to Ireland. In this battalion there were only about 350 men from Caithness and Sutherland; and, consequently, a greater proportion from the southern counties than in the other battalion. The uniform of both was the same. Immediately after the inspection they were marched to the south of Scotland, and from thence crossed over to Ireland, where the regiment did duty in camp and barracks throughout all the troubles; and in the year 1799, Sir John Sinclair obtained a warrant to augment the regiment to 1000 effective men, under the designation of Caithness Highlanders, with field officers, captains, and subalterns in proportion. Captain Benjamin Williamson was appointed second Lieutenant-Colonel.

Lieutenant Colonel Williamson was ordered to Scotland to conduct the recruiting of this new force, and, in the month of December 1799, he joined the regiment in the county of Cork, with 526 recruits. They had been previously inspected in Dublin by Major-General Sir James Henry Craig, and, having received marked approbation from that strict disciplinarian, and accurate judge of the physical capability necessary for a soldier, it may be believed that these recruits formed very good subjects for the necessary duties of the profession.

I have had frequent occasion to mention, that want of space, and the nature of my plan, oblige me to suppress many circumstances and anecdotes which tend to illustrate character, and show the spirit, turn of mind, and principles of action of the people of the North, both in their military and civil capacity. I am, therefore, in each article, under the necessity of confining myself to one or two instances out of a very great number which various circumstances enable me to give. In the present case, I take the following extract from an address presented to Lieutenant-Colonel Fra-ser of Culduthill, who commanded the regiment for several years in Ireland, by a meeting of the magistrates of the county of Armagh, in the year 1798, the Lord Viscount Gosford the Governor in the Chair: "We beg leave to testify our highest approbation of the conduct of the Rothsay and Caithness Fencibles during a period of fourteen months, and under circumstances of peculiar difficulty. Divided, from the unfortunate necessity of the times, into various cantonments, and many of them stationed in a manner most unfavourable to military discipline, they yet preserved the fidelity of soldiers, and the manly rectitude of their national character. It is with pleasure and satisfaction we declare, that the tranquillity which this county is now happily beginning to enjoy must, in many respects, be ascribed to the ready obedience and proper deportment of the officers and men under your command.

"For reasons thus honourable to them, and grateful to ourselves, we return you our most sincere thanks, and request you will communicate to the officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers, this testimony of our esteem and acknowledgment of their exemplary conduct."

The regiment continued to maintain the character and conduct which called forth this tribute of approbation; and although, "from the nature of the service, and state of the country, they were much detached, often removed from the control of their officers, and thus left in a manner to themselves, yet there was no difference, nothing that could be called a crime ever occurred." This was the opinion (founded on a knowledge of facts) of a respectable officer who commanded the corps for several years. The soldiers were fortunate in being placed under the charge of Colonel Williamson, whose judgment and knowledge of the habits and dispositions of his men, enabled him to make the necessary distinction between unintentional or slight breaches of discipline, and those proceeding from depraved habits, or hardened guilt. Of the latter, indeed, he had none, consequently courts-martial were not frequent, and punishments slight. For neglects, trifling offences, &c. he generally called on the soldiers of their respective companies to bring the offenders to account; to award some slight punishment, and to keep a sharp eye over them afterwards. This mode has prevailed in many Highland regiments, and with the happiest effects, but no small caution is required in the selection of proper men for this moral superintendence. They must be correct in their own conduct, for punishments or advice from men who require both themselves, and show an example of the very conduct they reprobate, cannot be expected to be received even with common patience, far less with respect, and a resolution to benefit by them. Precaution is also required in another point of view, namely, in what manner the men exercise their authority, and that they do not punish too severely, to which, remarkable as the circumstance may appear, they often show no small propensity.

This regiment enjoyed a remarkably good state of health. During seven years, part of which time they were 900 and 1000 strong, the number of deaths were only 2 officers and 37 non-commissioned officers and soldiers, not being three-fourths of a man out of every hundred in each year.

In 1797, the regiment, with the exception of about SO men, (all the 50 were from the North,) volunteered their services to any part of Europe. The offer being accepted, it entitled the soldiers to pensions when disabled, in the same manner as if in regiments of the line. Neither at that period, nor for many years afterwards, were there any pensions to officers, however severe their wounds, or however much disabled.

In the summer of 1800, Government directed that a proportion of men from the Scotch Fencible regiments should be allowed to volunteer into regiments of the line, an ensign to be appointed to every fifty men who volunteered. In consequence of this order, the 79th and 92d regiments got 200 men and 4 officers from the Caithness Highlanders.

In 1809, the regiment returned to Scotland, and was reduced in that year.


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