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


Mutinies of the Highland Regiments

Athol Highlanders
or
Seventy-Seventh Regiment

At the peace of 1783, this regiment was marched to Portsmouth, to be embarked for the East Indies, although the terms on which they had enlisted were to serve for three years, or during the war. They showed, however, no reluctance to embark, nor any desire to claim their discharge, to which their Letters of Service entitled them. On the contrary, when they came in sight of the fleet at Spithead, as they marched across Portsdown Hill, they pulled off their bonnets, and gave three cheers for a brush with Hyder Ali. But no sooner were they quartered in Portsmouth, to wait till the transports should be ready, than distrust and discord appeared. Emissaries from London, it is affirmed, expatiated on the faithlessness of sending them to such a distance, when their term of service had expired, and inflamed them by reports of their being sold, for a certain sum per man, to the East India Company. Some of the officers, it was added, were to divide the money among themselves. Had their confidence in their officers not been thus undermined, they would not have been so easily stirred up to disobedience and disregard of their authority, and disbelief of the explanation given by those to whom they had hitherto shown the greatest attachment. But the influence of these motives having been destroyed by false insinuations against their officers, there was the less restraint on their indignation at what was but too true—that no regard was paid to the engagement by which they had bound themselves. The consequence was, a determination on the part of the soldiers to adhere to their terms of service, and not to embark for India. After some days of disorganization and misrule, [A soldier of the garrison invalids was killed, and several others wounded, in an attempt to prevent the Highlanders from obtaining possession of the main-guard and garrison parade.] in which the officers lost all command, Government acquiesced, and countermanded the order to embark.

The following account of this affair, dated at Portsmouth, was published in February 1783: "The Duke of Atholl, his uncle, Major-General Murray, and Lord George Lennox, have been down here, but the Athole Highlanders are still determined not to go to the East Indies. They have put up their arms and ammunition into one of the magazines, and placed a very strong guard over them, whilst the rest of the regiment sleep and refresh themselves. They come regularly and quietly to the grand parade, very cleanly dressed, twice a day, their adjutant and other officers pa-fading with them. One day it was proposed to turn the great guns, on the rampart, on the Highlanders, but this scheme was soon overruled. Another time it was suggest-ed to send for some marching regiments quartered near the place, upon which the Highlanders drew up the draw bridges, and placed sentinels at them."

Another account states,—"You may be assured I have had my perplexities since the mutiny commenced in the 77th regiment; but I must do the men the justice to confess, that, excepting three or four drunken fellows, whose impudence to their officers could only be equalled by their brutalsty, the whole regiment have conducted themselves with a regularity that is surprising; for what might not have been expected from upwards of one thousand men let loose from all restraint? Matters would never have been carried to the pitch they have, but for the interference of some busy people, who love to be fishing in troubled waters. The men have opened a subscription for the relief of the widow of the poor invalid, for whose death they express the greatest regret. On their being informed, that two or three regiments were coming to force them to embark, they flew to their arms, and followed their comrade leaders through the town, with a fixed determination to give them battle; but on finding the report to be false, they returned in the same order to their quarters. The regiment is not to go to the East Indies contrary to their instructions, which has satisfied them, but will be attended with disagreeable consequences to the service; and since the debates in the House of Commons on the subject, I should not wonder if every man intended for foreign service refused going for the reasons there given, which, you may depend on it, they are now well acquainted with."

In the course of the Parliamentary debates on this subject, Lord Auckland, then Mr Eden, and Secretary of State for Ireland, said, "He had happened to have the 77th regiment immediately under his observation during sixteen months of their garrison duty in Dublin, and though it was not the most agreeable duty in the service, he must say that their conduct was most exemplary. Their officers were not only men of gentlemanly character, but peculiarly attentive to regimental discipline. He having once, upon the sudden alarm of invasion, sent an order for the immediate march of this regiment to Cork, they showed their alacrity by marching, at an hour's notice, and completed their march with a dispatch beyond any instance in modern times; and this, too, without leaving a single soldier behind."

It is difficult for those who are not in the habit of mixing with the Highlanders, to believe the extent of the mischief which this unhappy misunderstanding has occasioned, and the deep and lasting impression it has left behind it. In the course of my recruiting, many years afterwards, I was often reminded of this attempt on the Athole Highlanders, which was always alleged as a confirmation of what happened, at an earlier period, to the Black Watch. This transaction, and others of a similar description, have created great distrust in the intentions of Government, and in the integrity of its agents.

If Government had offered a small bounty, when the Athole Highlanders were required to embark, there can be little doubt they would have obeyed their orders, and embarked as cheerfully as they marched into Portsmouth. The regiment as marched to Berwick, and disbanded conformably to the original agreement. No man was tried or punished. An inference in consequence has been drawn, and never forgotten, in the Highlands, that however unjustifiable in the mode of redress, the men had just cause of complaint.


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