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Glengarry Fencibles
An Account taken from the Transactions of the Gaelic Society


Many, if not all, of the British regiments have most interesting histories, especially in their beginnings. We have Pontius Pilate's Bodyguard and Kirk’s Lambs, but the Glengarry Fencibles have the unique distinction of being raised by a priest, who never had occasion to regret the somewhat unusual step taken by him.

It is just a little more than one hundred years since the Glengarry Fencible Infantry Regiment was disbanded, and I trust it may be of interest to members of the Gaelic Society of Inverness if I detain them to-night for a short time in giving a brief sketch of that regiment.

It will be well, in order to understand the causes which led to the embodiment of the Glengarry Fencibles, to remind you of some of the changes wrought in the Highlands by the result of the Battle of Culloden. After that fight, the Highland chiefs lost their hold on their clansmen. They could no longer bring into the field bodies of armed men to support a favourite cause, or to quench personal enmities in the blood of their retainers.

Having lost this power, and its consequent influence and importance, they soon realised that their hills could be more profitable as sheep walks than let as they were, at very small rents, to the people. They accordingly took advantage of the new powers conferred on them by Government, which, whilst breaking their power as feudal superiors, recognised them as proprietors of the land, as we now understand the term.

The result was that those unable to pay increased rent— when they received that option—had to leave the country. Others were simply warned to quit. Thus began the emigrations to America. These emigrations increased in volume each succeeding year, until the landlords, fearing that the country would be entirely depopulated, induced the Government of the day to pass an Act forbidding the people to leave the country. They were turned out of their homes and holdings, and at the same time forbidden to emigrate—consequently, for most, there was left starvation or the army. Notwithstanding this Emigration Act, however, many continued to emigrate.

In the year 1792 an emigrant ship sailed from the island of Barra for America. She encountered a severe gale on her way towards the Irish Channel, and had to put in at Greenock. The ship was found to be disabled, and utterly unfit to continue her voyage. Her Gaelic-speaking passengers, therefore, were forced to land in what was to them a foreign country.    .

At this time there was a young priest, a Father MacDonell, stationed in Badenoch. He deserves a few words in the passing. He was born probably about the year 1760 or 1762, at Inshlaggan, in Glengarry. Some writers have maintained that he was born in Glen-Urquhart, others that he had some connection with Strathglass, but the Glengarry tradition is the one that has most authority to commend it. His father died whilst he was still a boy, leaving as his last wish that the .mother should endeavour to get their only son educated for the priesthood. This wish the mother, who was a Protestant, exactly fulfilled.

The young student was first sent to Paris, and subsequently to Valladolid, where he finished his studies. On his return to his native country he was, as above stated, appointed by Bishop A. Macdonald to minister to the Catholics of Badenoch.

Some few years ago I was in correspondence on the matter in hand with Mr John A. MacDonell, of Greenfield, Toronto, Canada. I cannot perhaps do better than give you an extract from one of his letters. He writes:—“I do not think that Bishop MacDonell (the priest became bishop in Canada later) belonged to any of the cadet families of the clan. He was a man of the people, who, however, did more to make their name honoured and respected, both in the old and this new country, than any other who ever bore it—bar, perhaps, Sir James. Some doubt exists as to the place of his birth, but members of his own family place it at Inchlaggan. His mother, as probably you are aware, was a Cameron, and a Protestant, who, I always understood, made great sacrifices to have her son properly educated. I understand that she was of very respectable parentage, related, perhaps more or less remotely, to Sir Allan Cameron of Erracht, who was so well-known a Highlander and soldier, one of the fine old Peninsular lot. He and the Bishop, besides being ‘cousins,’ had been friends in their younger days—young men in the army together— both ‘big’ men, in heart, physique, stature, and character, ability and broadmindedness. After the Bishop came to Canada they had lost sight of each other to a great extent. On one of the Bishop’s visits home, he was in Edinburgh, and walking down the street he met Sir Allan walking up on the other side, who shouted at him in Gaelic, *Hello, Alastair Mhor, is that you? I thought the Devil had you long ago.’ 'Ah, no, Allan,’ said the Bishop; ‘Hell is too full of my mother’s relatives—there is no room for me down there.’

“I do not think that Bishop MacDonell has had his proper place in Canadian history. I have been a careful student of it myself, and I believe that, apart from his services to the Church, he did more for Canada and more for British connection than any other man up to the time he died. He was a great statesman, and laboured unceasingly to make and to keep this a British country. His loyalty was known to, and recognised by, the leading men in Britain, who were greatly guided by him in Canadian affairs. There never was any doubt as to where he stood—and he preached loyalty, and encouraged it by precept and example, quite as much as he did religion.”

Such, then, was the man who conceived, and to a great extent carried out, the idea of embodying the Regiment of Glengarry Fencibles.

When he heard of the misfortune of the Barra emigrants, mentioned above, he repaired to Glasgow, to be of service to them. These people were all Catholics, and spoke not a word of English—they were helpless and utterly destitute. Father MacDonell secured introductions to the Professors of Glasgow University, and through them to some of the principal manufacturers of the city. To the latter, who were greatly in need of workmen, he proposed that they should receive into their works some of the Highlanders lately dispossessed of their holdings, as well as the shipwrecked Barra people. He promised to induce the people to enter, did the manufacturers encourage them. This they engaged to do, but there were two serious obstacles—the one, that the Highlanders could not understand the English language; the other, that a great proportion were Catholics. This last was a serious objection, because of the excitement occasioned about 12 years before by the Gordon riots, and the fear of any similar outbreak should there be an influx of Catholics. However, Father MacDonell was not to be daunted by fear of the mob, and the first objection—that of the language—he settled by volunteering to act as interpreter between the masters .and the men.

In the course of a few months he procured employment for over 600 Highlanders.

But this did not last, for in 1794 war broke out between Great Britain and France. Manufactured goods could not be exported. Works were closed, and a general dismissal of labouring hands took place. Among the sufferers were the Highlanders.

It was at this period that Father MacDonell conceived the idea of getting some Highlanders embodied as a Catholic corps in the King’s service, with his own chief, Mac Mhic Alastair of Glengarry, as colonel.

This scheme was at first opposed by Bishop Hay, who refused to allow Father MacDonell to leave his mission at Glasgow, even temporarily, that he might proceed to Fort-Augustus, where he had arranged to meet and confer with several Highland Catholic gentlemen. The good Bishop, who was Father MacDonell’s ecclesiastical superior, rarely encouraged measures in which he had not a prominent share. But having travelled from Edinburgh to Glasgow “to know the matter to the bottom,” as he expressed it, he met Father MacDonell and Glengarry, and learned from them the exact state of affairs, and that the matter was too far advanced to be opposed. The Fort-Augustus meeting was successful, and Glengarry and Mr Fletcher of Dunans, with Father MacDonell, were introduced as a deputation to the Lord Advocate by the Bishop. Bishop Hay tells us that he was much edified by young Glengarry. “He is an amiable young gentleman, and I hope will one day be an honour and support to his country and to religion.”

Glengarry and Mr Fletcher went to London, and their address and petition were presented to the King by the Lord Advocate and his uncle, Henry Dundas, the Home Secretary. His Majesty, whilst approving the loyalty of these Highlanders, felt it necessary to decline their offer of a regiment. Unknown to them, opposition was raised to their scheme by the fascinating Duchess of Gordon, who was then engaged in raising the “Gay Gordons” for her son, the Marquis of Huntly. The great majority of the dependents of the Dukes of Gordon being Catholics, it was feared that an exclusively Catholic regiment would so attract them that the recruiting for the Gordons would suffer.

That the Gordon Highlanders did not so suffer, we may gather from an allusion to them made by Napier in his History of the Peninsular War. He tells us that nine-tenths of the men of the regiment were Irishmen. Their religion was that which misled him. They were Catholics, therefore Irishmen. Non sequitur.

Glengarry ultimately got his regiment, notwithstanding all opposition, and, despite the existing law, Father MacDonell was appointed chaplain.

The Regiment was known as the Glengarry Fencible Infantry. The term Fencible is one that has been dropped in the British Army, to the regret of many. It implied that the particular regiment so named was destined for local or home defence, and not for general service. The designation was kept up until the year 1889, when the Royal Malta. Fencible Artillery also dropped the term Fencible.

In a Gazette published June, 1795, we read: —

“Glengarry Fencible Infantry—Alexander MacDonell,. Esq., to be Colonel; Captain Charles MacLean, from Argyle-Fencibles, to be L.-Col.; Mat. Macalister, Esq., to be Major.” The Regiment was recruited from all over the Glengarry property, and there were many to join from the Moidart portion of the Clan. Of the 32 officers, 22 were MacDonells or MacDonalds. General Stewart of Garth, no mean judge, described the Glengarry Fencibles “as a handsome body of men.”

It was no small recommendation to the Glengarries that they volunteered to serve in any part of Great Britain or Ireland, or the Channel Islands. This offer was very acceptable to the Government, as it formed a precedent for all fencible regiments that might afterwards be raised. Several Scottish Fencibles had refused to march into England, and had mutinied rather than submit to what they considered unjustifiable orders.    .

The first service of the Glengarries was in the Isle of Guernsey, which in 1795 was threatened with invasion by the French. Nearly every war with France had been marked by an attack on these our last Norman possessions, and on the present occasion there were ominous rumours of another such attempt.

The Regiment, before it was many months old—not more than 2 or 3 months—was thus given the post of honour in home defence—that of danger—that nearest the enemy. But even that was not quite enough for them—they volunteered to garrison a small island at the entrance to the harbour of Cherbourg. This island had lately been captured by Sir Sidney Smith, but before the offer of the Highlanders could be accepted, the French retook the island from the British sailors, making Sir Sidney Smith and Captain Wright prisoners.

The Glengarries remained in Guernsey until the summer of 1798. They had begun to tire of the monotony of garrison duty, when a call to arms came, in the shape of orders to embark for Ireland. The Irish Rebellion of ’98 had broken out. This outbreak was fomented and nourished by the French Directory, under whose instructions there worked an Irish Directory—an organisation utterly irreligious and revolutionary.

The malcontents wished to sever their connection with Great Britain, and to set up a Republic. Their aspirations and hopes were buoyed up by several invasions of Ireland by French Troops. These invasions were, however, in every case utterly inadequate for their ostensible purpose, but were fruitful, on the other hand, in causing among a certain section of the Irish, hare-brained risings, which always resulted in subsequent killings of rebels. The most serious of these insurrections broke out in Wexford and the neighbouring counties, and thither the Glengarries were now ordered. They were shipped from Guernsey and disembarked at Ballenack, in Waterford Haven. Thence they marched to Waterford. At this town occurred an incident which afforded surprise to some, and was a matter of no small ridicule to others. It afforded, however, a proof of the simplicity and straightforward honesty of the Highlanders. It was intended that they should pass that night at Waterford, where they received billet money to pay for their lodgings. Later they had orders to march the same evening to New Ross, and every man repaired to the quartermaster and returned his billet money. They marched that night into New Ross, 20 miles away, to reinforce General Johnson, who was surrounded, and in a manner besieged there by the rebels.

Next morning the General gave the Glengarries their first taste of blood. The rebels, commanded by Roche, were surprised and dislodged from Lacken Hill, and forced to retreat to Vinegar Hill. The battle of Vinegar Hill was fought shortly after. The Glengarries were probably not present at this fight: their Colonel had been made Governor of New Ross when General Johnson left to take part in this none too creditable action.

At this early stage began the work in which the Glengarries, to their honour, were specially engaged throughout the war.

The Chaplain found the jail and court-house of New Ross crowded with wounded rebels, whose lives had been spared, but whose wounds had been allowed to fester, and who had been left to starve. Surgeon Alexander Macdonell dressed their wounds, and every possible relief was given to the sufferers.

From New Ross the Regiment was marched to Kilkenny, and thence to Hackett’s Town in the county of Wicklow, to reduce a body of rebels that had taken possession of the Wicklow mountains, under Holt and Dwyer. These were the remnants of the different bands of the Wexford insurgents— desperate men, many of them deserters from the army and militia.

The Yeomanry and Regulars, being better armed and disciplined, defeated them when they appeared in the open field, yet continually fell into ambushes laid for them, as was notoriously the case with that yeomanry regiment named the Ancient Britons. They were Welsh, and had made themselves particularly obnoxious by their indiscriminate cruelty and licentiousness. If a set of scoundrels ever really deserved to be exterminated, they most certainly did. Of the Yeomanry in Ireland at this time, Lord Cornwallis, the Commander-in-Chief and Lord Lieutenant, writes to Major-General Ross. (July 24, 1798):—“The Yeomanry are in the style of the loyalists in America, only much more numerous and powerful, and a thousand times more ferocious. These men have saved the country, but they now take the lead in rapine and murder. The Irish Militia .... follows closely on the heels of the Yeomanry in murder and every kind of atrocity.”

The Ancient Britons, the Welsh Regiment of Yeomanry, were easily first in the committing of the atrocities mentioned by the Commander-in-Chief, so that when entrapped they received no quarter from the insurgents.

To hunt down these insurgents—the ablest and most desperate of the rebels, was now the work of the Chief of Glengarry. He was Brigadier, according to Bishop MacDonell, and had under his command, besides his own men, 2 companies of the 89th Regiment of Foot, 2 companies of Lord Darlington’s Fencible Cavalry, and several companies of the Yeomanry. He had his headquarters at the village of Hackett’s Town, which had been burnt, partly by the insurgents, partly by the military. His troops were therefore compelled to live under canvas the greater part of the winter.

Night marches and attacks were the rule, as in more recent times. The rebels used to leave the hills at night-time to plunder the houses and villages in the valleys below. Glengarry then would get his men under arms at midnight, sending a division—the cavalry and regulars—to search the lowlands, his Highlanders would gain the summits, meet the rebels on their retreat, get them between two fires—Brown Bess had but a short range—and make it hot for them generally. The Glengarries were known to the rebels as the “Devil’s Bloodhounds,” both on account of their dress and their agility in climbing, and their unfailing success in scouting. They did not—all the time they were in Ireland—suffer a reverse, and it is doubtful if any other body of troops there could make the same boast. The result was that after hunting through the Wicklow hills for a short time they reduced the number of the rebels skulking there, from a thousand to a few scores.

I remember reading some years ago, in a Life of Michael Dwyer, one of the insurgent chiefs, an attempt, an unsuccessful one, made by the Glengarries to capture him. An informer —Ireland was never without one—came to the Chief and promised to lead him to the hiding place of Michael Dwyer.

'Glengarry came into the hills with a body of his men, to the edge of a little mountain loch, and their guide pointed out on the opposite side a rock rising out of the water, and towards its summit there could be seen the mouth of a cave. In that cave, he told them, Michael Dwyer generally lay hid. The guide was just in the act of pointing out the cavern, when from its depths a shot rang out, and he spun round and fell dead—a ragged heap at the feet of the Highlanders.

That shot was the signal for two of the Glengarries to strip off their jackets and kilts, and with their dirks in their teeth they swam across the loch to the rock. The rock jutted out into the loch, and the Highlanders, when they arrived, began climbing up, one on each side. When they were nearing the top, their comrades on the opposite side saw a figure move, and a long arm, armed with a glittering blade, struck viciously, first at one side, then at the other, and both Highlanders fell back into the loch and were drowned. The fierce yell of rage and the volley of musketry from the Glengarries were answered by a defiant, mocking laugh from the cave.

In a short time, however, the Fencibles collected sufficient wood to improvise a raft, and a number ferried across. Glengarry himself, the foremost, tumbled headlong, dirk in hand, into the cave, but their quarry had fled. A passage led away from the back of the cave, and Michael Dwyer escaped that time, but his day was soon to come. He was surprised in a house with his few remaining followers by a party of the Glengarries. He defended himself, and killed some of his pursuers, till, the house being set on fire, he was shot while endeavouring to make his escape, stark naked, through the flames.

But all this time the Glengarries were doing another work, one which redounded even more to their honour, in my opinion, than their fighting feats. Their chaplain, Father MacDonell, always accompanied them. At every combat, every skirmish, he was present. At this time, when they worked in concert with the Yeomanry, he had his hands full in rescuing and preserving for fair trial prisoners whom the Yeomanry wished and intended to put to death.

Again, by the aid of the Chief, he was enabled to have those chapels which had been used as stables by the Yeomanry cleaned out and restox-ed to their proper use. The people were invited to resume their accustomed worship; in fact, they saw with amazement that these semi-nude warriors were their co-religionists, and the Highlanders could often be seen gathering in from the mountain sides the women and children who had fled from the Yeomanry, and even carrying down the little ones in their arms and restoring them to their homes.

Thus, then, by the trust they put in the advice and counsel of Father MacDonell, by the strict discipline enforced by Colonel MacDonell, as well as by the orderly self-restraint of his men, and, lastly, by the Chief’s stern repression of the licentiousness of the Yeomanry, confidence was restored to the minds of the people, and there was always a true and lasting peace wherever the Glengarry Fencibles served.

Later, the Fencibles were marched to the wilds of Connemara, where they had to perform the same duties as in the Wicklow mountains, and with equal success. They stayed in that part of the country until peace with France was signed in 1802, and at once all the Scottish Fencible Regiments were disbanded, and the Glengarries among them.

It may here be pointed out that the work given to those Highlanders to do in Ireland, just a century ago, was very similar indeed to that in which Highlanders have lately distinguished themselves in South Africa, where they have given the British Army an object lesson in serviceable scouting.

We hear that there are no men left in the Highlands—that there are no recruits for the Highland regiments. This last may be quite true, in a sense; but may I be permitted to give what I consider to be some of the reasons therefor? There were in the Highlands but comparatively few voluntary recruits for the regular army, as we now understand it. This at first sounds paradoxical, but I think, on examination, it will be found to contain a certain amount of truth. When the Highland Regiments were first embodied, military life in them was to the Highland recruit something in the nature of an experiment—a new life—and in addition to the necessity which compelled him to seek a livelihood, there was also born with him a love of adventure. Furthermore, these regiments were raised by letters of service granted to gentlemen well known to the recruit, and were almost exclusively officered by Highland gentlemen, and we have but to read the sketches of these Highland regiments by General Stewart of Garth to realise that their spirit, discipline, and the relations of officers and men were of quite a different character to that of, say, English or German modern regular troops.

If, then, the country is to get the benefit of the fighting material in the Highlands, care must be taken to approach it in a manner befitting the genius of the people. If I may be allowed to make the distinction, Highlanders are warriors rather than soldiers—a warlike rather than a military people, or to put it in another way, they are capable of fighting, and of fighting well, when there is need for it, but barrack life and routine and discipline, and mere parade ground drill, are distasteful and irksome to them; but get them loosely embodied and drilled, trained to the use of the rifle, to more exact scouting, to riding in rough country, and you have the material at hand for efficient scouting and hill fighting corps. Among the Glengarries it answered, and I need not call to your mind the services of Highland scouts in our day.

In the present demand for fighting men, if the Government want to utilise and turn to account the Highland martial spirit, it would do well, it would seem to me, to recruit after the manner in which the Lovat Scouts were so speedily and so successfully raised, and, further, to officer such corps by gentlemen native to the Highlands, or known to the men. This consideration is no small item in assuring the success of any such undertaking.   


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