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


Part III

Military Annals of the Highland Regiments

Preliminary Observations

Military Character—National Corps advantageous, especially in the Case of Highlanders—Character of Officers fitted to command a Highland Corps.

In the preceding pages, I have attempted to delineate a sketch of the general character of the Scottish Highlanders, and to assign some of the causes which may have contributed to its formation.

It was a saying of Marshal Turenne, that "Providence for the most part declares in favour of the most numerous battalions." The success of the British arms has often refuted this observation, and proved that moral force, unyielding fortitude, and regular discipline, frequently make up for inferiority of numbers.
Military character depends both on moral and on physical causes, arising from the various circumstances and situations in which men are placed. Every change in these circumstances tends either to improve or deteriorate that character; and hence we find, that nations which were once distinguished as the bravest in Europe, have sunk into weakness and insignificance, while others have been advancing to power and pre-eminence. The importance of preserving this character is evident. Unless a people be brave, high-spirited, and independent in mind and in principles, they must, in time, yield to their more powerful neighbours. To show how the Highlanders supported their character, both in their native country and when acting abroad, is the principal object which I have now in view.

In forming his military character, the Highlander was not more favoured by nature than by the social system under which he lived. Nursed in poverty, he acquired a hardihood which enabled him to sustain severe privations. As the simplicity of his life gave vigour to his body, so it fortified his mind. Possessing a frame and constitution thus hardened, he was taught to consider courage as the most honourable virtue, cowardice the most disgraceful failing; to venerate and obey his chief, and to devote himself for his native country and clan; and thus prepared to be a soldier, he was ready to follow wherever honour and duty called him. With such principles, and regarding any disgrace he might bring on his clan and district as the most cruel misfortune, the Highland private soldier had a peculiar motive to exertion. The common soldier of many other countries has scarcely any other stimulus to the performance of his duty than the fear of chastisement, or the habit of mechanical obedience to command, produced by the discipline in which he has been trained. With a Highland soldier it is otherwise. When in a national or district corps, he is surrounded by the companions of his youth, and the rivals of his early achievements; he feels the impulse of emulation strengthened by the consciousness that every proof which he displays, either of bravery or cowardice, will find its way to his native home. He thus learns to appreciate the value of a good name; and it is thus, that in a Highland regiment, consisting of men from the same country, whose kindred and connexions are mutually known, every individual feels that his conduct is the subject of observation, and that, independently of his duty, as a member of a systematic whole, he has to sustain a separate and individual reputation, which will be reflected on his family and district or glen. Hence he requires no artificial excitements. He acts from motives within himself; his point is fixed, and his aim must terminate either in victory or death. The German soldier considers himself as a part of the military machine and duty marked out in the orders of the day. He moves onward to his destination with a well-trained pace, and with as phlegmatic indifference to the result, as a labourer who works for his daily hire. The courage of the French soldier is supported in the hour of trial, by his high notions of the point of honour; but this display of spirit is not always steady: neither French nor German is confident in himself, if an enemy gain his flank or rear. A Highland soldier faces his enemy, whether in front, rear, or flank; and if he has confidence in his commander, it may be predicted with certainty that he will be victorious, or die on the ground which he maintains. He goes into the field resolved not to disgrace his name. A striking characteristic of the Highlander is, that all his actions seem to flow from sentiment. His endurance of privation and fatigue, his resistance of hostile opposition, his solicitude for the good opinion of his superiors, all originate in this source, whence also proceeds his obedience, which is always most conspicuous when exhibited wider kind treatment. Hence arises the difference observable between the conduct of one regiment of Highlanders and that of another, and frequently even of the same regiment at different times, and under different management. A Highland regiment, to be orderly and well-disciplined, ought to be commanded by men who are capable of appreciating their character, directing their passions and prejudices, and acquiring their entire confidence and affection. The officer to whom the command of Highlanders is entrusted, must endeavour to acquire their confidence and good opinion. With this view, he must watch over the propriety of his own conduct. [In some instances, when the misconduct of officers, particularly in the field, was not publicly censured, the soldiers who served under them made regular representations that they could not and would not remain longer under their command, and that, if they were not relieved from the disgrace of being so commanded, they would lay their complaints before the highest authority. In like manner, when any of the soldiers showed a backwardness in facing an enemy, their comrades brought them forward, calling for punishment on the poltroons, who were a disgrace to their country, their name, and their kindred. With such checks to disgraceful, and such incitements to an honourable line of conduct, the best results might be anticipated, as indeed experience has proved.] He must observe the strictest justice and fidelity in his promises to his men, conciliate them by an attention to their dispositions and prejudices, and, at the same time, by preserving a firm and steady authority, without which, he will not be respected.

Officers who are accustomed to command Highland soldiers, find it easy to guide and control them when their full confidence has been obtained; but when distrust prevails, severity ensues, with a consequent neglect of duty, and, by a continuance of this unhappy misunderstanding, the men become stubborn, disobedient, and, in the end, mutinous. [See Appendix GG.] The spirit of a Highland soldier revolts at any unnecessary severity; though he may be led to the mouth of a cannon if properly directed, and will rather die than be unfaithful to his trust. But if, instead of leading, his officers attempt to drive him, he may fail in the discharge of the most common duties. A learned and ingenious author, who, though himself a Lowlander, had ample opportunity, while serving in many campaigns with Highland regiments, of becoming intimately acquainted with their character, thus develops their conduct in the field: "The character of ardour belongs to the Highlander; he acts from an internal sentiment, and possesses a pride of honour, which does not permit him to retire from danger with a confession of inferiority. This is a property of his nature, and as it is so, it becomes the business of officers who command Highland troops to estimate the national character correctly, that they may not, through ignorance, misapply their means, and thereby concert their own ruin.

"If ardour be the characteristic of Highlanders, it is evident that they are not calculated for mechanical manoeuvres, nor for demonstrations and encounters with a view to diversion; for unless the purpose be previously explained and understood in its full extent, the Highlander darts on the enemy with impetuosity, rushing into close action, where it was only intended to amuse. He does not brook disappointment, sustain a galling distant fire with coolness, or retire from an enterprise with temper. He may be trusted to cover the most dangerous retreat assigned to him as a duty; a retreat in consequence of his own failure is likely to degenerate into a rout. In action, the Highlander requires to see his object fully: he then feels the impression of his duty, and acts animately and consistently, more from impression and sentiment than from external impulse of command; for, when an enemy is before the Highlander, the authority of the officer may be said to cease. Different nations have different excellencies or defects in war. Some excel in the use of missile weapons: the power of the Highlander lies in close combat. Close charge was his ancient mode of attack; and it is probably from impression, ingrafted in his nature in consequence of the national mode of war, that he still sustains the approaching point of a naked weapon with a steadier eye than any other man in Europe. Some nations turn with fear from the countenance of an enraged enemy: the Highlander rushes towards it with ardour; and if he can grasp his foe, as man with man, his courage is secure."

I shall subjoin one other quotation from the same author. After describing their social meetings, at which the enterprises of war were the frequent and usual themes of conversation, he proceeds:—"The Highlanders, in this manner, looking daily on war, and the enterprise of war, with interest and animation, acquire radical ideas of the military art. Without design, or formal intention, this germ of military education, planted in the first years of life, assumes a fair growth among these northern Scots; for, as objects of war, and warlike enterprise, command more than other objects the exertions of the thinking faculty, the Highlanders, formed with sound minds, and susceptible of good impressions, discover more natural sagacity than any other class of people in the kingdom, perhaps than any other people in Europe. The Highlanders, in relation with their southern neighbours, were considered as freebooters, barbarians, given to spoil and plunder. In former times, the charge had some appearance of truth; for the Lowlanders were considered as a hostile or strange people. But though they drove the cattle of a hostile tribe, or ravaged a Lowland district, with which they had no connexion or bond of amity, their conduct in the year 1745 proves that they are neither a ferocious nor a cruel people; for no troops probably ever traversed a country which might be esteemed hostile with fewer traces of outrage. They are now better known: their character is conspicuous for honesty and fidelity. They possess the most exalted notions of honour, the warmest friendships, and the highest portion of mental pride, of any people perhaps in Europe. Their ideas are few, but their sentiments are strong; their virtues, principles in their nature." [Jackson's Systematic View of the Formation, Discipline, and Economy of European Armies]

Having thus briefly described the military character of the Highlander, and his disposition and aptitude for war, [See Appendix HH.] and noticed the line of conduct necessary on the part of his superior officer to render his courage and capacity effective, I now proceed to give an account of the first corps of Highlanders embodied for the service of Government, and afterwards formed into a regiment of the regular army.


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