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


Fencible Regiments

Grant, or Strathspey, 1793

I am perfectly aware, that an objection may be made to the opinions which I have, with too much presumption, urged as to the value and importance of preserving undisturbed an ancient, faithful, and attached tenantry, and of that personal influence possessed by many former Highland noblemen and landed proprietors, by which they could, at any time, command the personal service in the field of their tenants and kinsmen. It has been alleged, that these services were not unbought, as the sons of tacksmen and tenants were sent by their parents to fill up the ranks of Highland regiments, on a direct or implied stipulation of abatement of rent, or some pecuniary or other advantage to be received, for the services of the youths who came forward to take up arms at the call of their chiefs and landlords. Circumstances do not confirm this view of the subject. As tenants, occupying land on feudal tenure, the Highlanders paid rents, according to the value of the land, in full proportion to the best lands in the Carse of Gowrie, the properties of Lords Gray and Kinnaird, and others, which, as I have already noticed, did not yield, seventy years ago, more than six or eight shillings the acre. Lord Kinnoul's, and that part of the Duke of Atholl's estates in the Lowlands, were still lower. The lands of Lords Gray and Kinnaird now average L.6 Sterling per acre. Yet neither these noblemen, nor the Duke of Atholl from his Lowland estates, ever could call on the personal service of their tenants on account of these low rents, which, indeed, if we consider the disproportion in climate and soil, were lower than those of the Highlands, where the sentiments of the landlords and their tenants, and their mutual confidence and dependence on each other, were so remarkably different. Of this difference several instances occurred in 1745. The Duke of Perth engaged in the Rebellion of that year; yet, though possessed of a valuable, extensive, and populous estate, he had not influence enough to carry along with him 150 men from the Lowland portion of his property to support the cause he warmly espoused. Lord Strathallan, who lost his title, his estate, and his life, in the same cause, did not bring so many men to the field as did two young gentlemen, the one a son of the Laird of Ballechin, the other a son of the Laird of Glenlyon, whose fathers' estates were not equal to one-third of the value of his. Lord Nairne also, whose estate lay at the foot of the Grampians, close to the Highland boundary, was followed by very few of his people when he joined the Prince, (so different were the dispositions and feelings of the inhabitants of those adjoining districts,) and entailed ruin on himself and family, without strengthening the cause to which he was so ardently devoted, by any great addition of men. So much was this the case, that, as he had few followers of his own, Lord George Murray, the Commander-in-Chief of the rebel army, gave to his Lordship the command of one of the Athole regiments. These facts can only admit of one interpretation, namely, that the Highland chiefs and landlords were not followed from mercenary motives, but from a patriarchal, hereditary, and chivalrous attachment to their persons and families. While thus, in feudal times, chiefs and landed proprietors did not suffer any material diminution of rent by the personal service of their followers, we find that, in later times, the promptitude with which the Highland tenantry engaged in the service of their country, contributed to raise the celebrity of their landlords, and this without any sacrifice of rent or pecuniary loss, nothing being asked or expected by the soldiers, except a preference to their families in retaining their farms on paying an equal rent with any that might be offered. Of this we have many instances, and particularly on Lord Breadalbane's estates, from which great numbers engaged on similar conditions; and that a preference of occupancy was the only favour expected by the soldiers, is proved by the circumstance of a considerable augmentation of rent having taken place during the time the regiments were embodied, the rents paid by the fathers and brothers of the soldiers having been increased in the same ratio with those paid by the other tenants.

I deemed it necessary to notice briefly the foregoing facts, which clearly prove that the mind of the Highlander, who obeyed the call of his chief or landlord, and came forward in a season of difficulty or danger, was not actuated by those sordid and mercenary motives which some would ascribe to him, and that Highland proprietors did not submit to any loss of rents, when they acquired political consideration and importance by bringing forward their brave and hardy mountaineers.

I have had frequent occasion to mention the family of Grant, and particularly the late excellent chief Sir James Grant, to whom may justly be applied the character given an unfortunate monarch by a celebrated Judge and historian: "He was the worthiest gentleman, the best master, the best friend, the best husband, the best father, and the best Christian," [Clarendon's Charles I.] of the district to which he was an honour and a blessing.

This good man, and patriarchal chief, lived at Castle Grant, respected and beloved by all around him.

[A recent instance has shown that this feeling still exists, and extends to Sir James Grant's family.

At the late general election, there was a keen contest for some of the northern burghs; and in Elgin particularly, some political intrigues and squibs were played off by the agents of the candidates, of whom one was supported by the Chief of the Grants, now Earl of Seafield, by his succession to that estate and Earldom, The agents of the other candidates, not satisfied with some political squibs within the burgh, contrived to inveigle a Bailie of Elgin, a voter for the opposite interest, on board a vessel, and landed him safely on one of the Orkney Isles, to amuse himself there till the election was over. This exploit, with some other ingenious expedients to secure victory, made some noise, and an exaggerated account of the transactions, with several groundless additions, reached Strathspey, the " Grant's Country." Among other things, it was said that Lord Seafield's sisters were besieged, and kept as state prisoners in Grant Lodge, a house belonging to the family in Elgin, The spirit of the clansmen caught fire, and believing that the rights of the Chief were invaded, and his sisters in jeopardy, upwards of 900 men assembled in a few hours, as if under the guidance of one feeling; and without the least communication with, or knowledge of the country gentlemen, they put themselves under the guidance of two or three of their own number, and marched off in a body to Elgin to support the cause and interest of their Chief. Had this contest been carried on by the sword, as in old times, so numerous a body might have secured success; but when the Highlanders reached the scene of action, they had none to combat ; for, although it was true that the unfortunate Bailie was stolen away, the ladies at Grant lodge were respected and unmolested; and on a proper explanation, the clansmen returned home with the same order, regularity, and quietness, with which they had commenced and carried through their expedition.

Sir James Grant has been dead more than twenty years, but his memory lives, and is preserved by the remembrance of his character.

How far the remembrance of the character and kindness of other proprietors will descend, and serve as a shield to protect their family, time only can show; but much cannot be expected, where, it is said, that the appearance of their superiors is hailed with cries imitating the bleating of sheep, instead of the joyous acclamations of better times for clansmen, and where the accounts of any accident or misfortune are received with silent, but deep congratulation, as a judgment from above.]

Few men therefore could, with more confidence of success, step forward with an offer to his King of a regiment of loyal men to support the Crown, the Constitution, and the Independence of the country. The offer was early made and accepted, and two months after the declaration of war, the Grant Fencibles were assembled at Forres in the end of April 1793, being so complete in numbers, that seventy men were discharged as supernumeraries in May; but it was not till the 5th of June that the regiment was finally inspected and embodied by Lieutenant-General Leslie.

Of the men, forty-one were from the Lowlands of Scotland, three from England, and two from Ireland. The regiment was marched to Aberdeen in August, and from thence to the south of Scotland, and stationed in Linlithgow, Glasgow, Dumfries, Musselburgh, and almost every town of any note south of the Forth.

The correctness of the observation, that a Highlander will be led, but not driven, was unfortunately verified in the case of this regiment at Linlithgow in 1794. At that time it was proposed to extend the service of the Scotch Fencible regiments, which was confined to Scotland. With this view directions were given to sound the men of the Grant Fencibles on the subject, and ascertain if they would agree to a proposal of this nature. Measures were accordingly taken, but unfortunately not with that care, precaution, and ample explanation, so necessary when men's feelings and prejudices are to be consulted, and any previous agreement or understanding to be altered or renewed on another and different basis. In this case, when the commanding officer issued the orders on the subject, some officers thought it unnecessary to offer any explanation to their men; others entirely mistook the meaning and import of the proposals. The consequence was a degree of jealousy and distrust; and, as busy and meddling advisers are not wanting on such occasions, the soldiers became alarmed ; they knew not what to believe, or what was intended; and even the explanations of those officers who understood the nature of the proposed measure lost much of their effect. The result of the whole was a division and difference of opinion among the men; some were for volunteering, others opposed it; the proposal was therefore abandoned, and no volunteering took place. But it was not the mere volunteering, and the consequent loss of more general and extended duty that was so much to be regretted, as the want of confidence which this misunderstanding caused, and the effect it had on the conduct of the men for a considerable time afterwards. And here was exemplified another of the marked characteristics of the Highlander which I have had frequent occasion to notice. Reposing a confidence almost unlimited in those whom he regards with respect, if that confidence be not reciprocal, and if he discover any approximation to disingenuousness, no man is more suspicious. However, this unpleasant arid unexpected circumstance passed away; and, by the presence of Sir James Grant, who hurried up to join his regiment when he heard of the affair, it was in some measure forgotten, and confidence re-established. But when quartered in Dumfries in 1795, it was unfortunately again broken, and unpleasant feelings renewed, by a cause somewhat peculiar to this singular race of people; or which, if not peculiar, has always had a powerful influence on their character and habits.

I fear it will be thought that I recur too frequently to the more marked traits of character peculiar to this people; but without a knowledge of those peculiarities which I have attempted to bring under the view of the reader, in the introductory sketch of character, &c. the motives which guided many of their actions could not be generally known. And farther, not to explain it would be unjust towards officers whose conduct, discipline, and treatment of the soldiers would, in many cases, be quite proper. In instances where the usual discipline of the army was applied to the High-land soldier, the officers acted agreeably to the usual instructions in so doing, and particularly those officers who were ignorant of their language and dispositions. And when they have been blamed for an apparent harshness which occasioned much irritation, their conduct, in general, proceeded more from ignorance than from unnecessary severity. Soldiers are often like children, and require to be treated as such. The wholesome and severe coercion which is highly necessary for some children would destroy others. Thus it is with soldiers. The beating with canes, and the blows so liberally applied by their officers, to correct the Austrian, French, and other continental soldiers, would totally ruin a British soldier, and either render him desperate, or so break his spirit that he would never face his enemy. In the same manner, the corporal punishments which are indispensable in restraining the unprincipled and shameless-. ly depraved, who sometimes stand in the ranks of the British army, would have struck a Highland soldier of the old school with a horror that would have rendered him despicable in his own eyes, and a disgrace to his family and name. The want of a due regard to, and discrimination of, men's dispositions, has often led to very serious consequences,

I know not how this matter stood in the Strathspey Fencibles, whether any unnecessary severity had been exercised, whether the men believed that they were teased with long drills and fatiguing discipline, not required for soldiers who were never to meet an enemy, or perhaps not very necessary for any service, whether the individuals themselves were of a character different from, and inferior to, that of many others whom I have had occasion to mention ; or whether, as is most probable, some unpleasant recollections of the affair at Linlithgow still existed:óBe these things as they may, at Dumfries a circumstance, very trifling in itself, originating in a remark by a soldier in the ranks, which might pass for a joke, or a piece of wit, according as the thing was taken, led to a series of misunderstandings, of violence on the part of the soldiers, and of threats and punishments on the part of the officers, which ended in the trial, condemnation, and execution of several of the men. [See a few particulars of this affair in the article on the Mutinies of the Highland Regiments.]

On the first appearance of this improper spirit among the soldiers, Sir James Grant was sent for, but unfortunately he arrived too late; such acts of turbulence, and disobedience of orders had taken place, that an example was considered necessary. The regiment was marched to Musselburgh, where corporal James Macdonald, and privates Alexander Fraser, Charles Mackintosh, Duncan Macdougall, and A. Mackintosh, were tried and found guilty of mutinous conduct. The corporal was sentenced to a corporal punishment, and the four soldiers to be shot. The corporal was pardoned. On the 16th of July 1795, the Scotch Brigade, (afterwards the 94th regiment,) and the Sutherland, Breadalbane, and Grant Fencibles, were ordered to assemble on Gullane Links, in East Lothian, to witness the execution of the four soldiers. When they arrived on the ground, they were told that only two were to suffer, and that two were to draw lots: (Alexander Fraser, who was the most violent, was not permitted to draw.) That for execution fell on Charles Mackintosh, who with Fraser suffered accordingly. The other two prisoners were ordered to join regiments abroad. After this unfortunate affair, which cast such a slur on the character of a body of men who, in every other respect, conducted themselves in an exemplary manner, the regiment was quartered in Dundee, Ayr, Musselburgh, &c. The soldiers were afterwards quiet, orderly, and attentive to all duties. In spring 1799, it was resolved to discharge all Fencible regiments whose service did not extend beyond Scotland, and in consequence the Grant, Gordon, Breadalbane, (two battalions), Sutherland, Rothsay and Caithness, (1st battalion), Argyle, and Hopetoun regiments, were disbanded.


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