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Deeside Tales
Chapter VIII

“The diolm’ drums alarm our ears.
The seijeant screechs fu' loud,
A' gentlemen and volunteers
That wish your country gude,
Come here to me, and I sail gie
Twa guineas and a crown,
A bowl o' punch, that like the sea
Will soum a lang dragoon
Wi' ease this day.”—Fergussan.

IT is necessary to follow the history of these regiments for a little, as the most erroneous notions were and still are entertained on Deeside regarding the conduct of the officers towards the men.

It is firmly believed that, towards the close of their period of service, an attempt was made to sell them to the East India Company; that the officers were to receive a large sum should they be able to implement their part of the agreement, and ship the men from England The value of the transaction to one officer was said to be a firlot of gold— we forget if it was specified whether it was to be heaped or not Just as the men arrived at Portsmouth, the matter got wind, and they refused to embark in the ships prepared to transport them. A mutiny took place—the old story of the Black Watch would have to be told again. The impression made on the minds of the soldiers was deep—so deep, that they had sworn if they could get their hands on their betrayers, they would hang them incontinently, for they believed that, once in India, they were to be treated like slaves, were to be at the mercy of those who bought them, and to be subjected to all manner of bad treatment, and to be kept till the last man of them had perished; or perhaps sold to Indian chiefs, to be put to death by every species of torture.

When the news of this transaction reached Deeside on the return of some of the men, the deepest horror was felt at the baseness of the officers. People talked about nothing else, and the most exaggerated pictures were drawn of the treachery and villainy that had been practised towards the too confiding soldiers. It was natural to expect such an account would receive full credence among the peasantry. It was a vindication of their order for the mutiny their fellow-countrymen had taken part in, it was in accord with the belief they entertained regarding the unfaithfulness of those in power to the engagements to soldiers; and when, as at that time, there was no means of enlightening them as to the actual circumstances of the case, it is no wonder that the dark suspicions they entertained grew and deepened as each returned soldier added his story of treachery to what had already been told. There is no greater mistake that politicians or others can commit than to attempt to draw upon the simplicity of an ignorant primitive people; for, let but the smallest suspicion of unfair dealing enter their minds, and it not only assumes wide proportions, but holds its ground against all reason to the contrary. It was so in the case of the soldiers of the 77th and 81st regiments, the simple facts of whose history are these :—

In the year 1778, the young Duke of Atholl received from the Government authority to raise a regiment of a thousand men for the service of the state, with power to appoint officers. This was the usual practice of the time, and such letters of authority were much sought after by the heads of great houses, as they were thereby enabled to find commissions for a large number of their poorer relatives. Most of the Highland regiments were raised in this manner. The command of the 77th, or Atholl Highlanders, was accordingly given to James Murray, son of Lord George Murray. Invercauld, being brother-in-law to the Colonel of the corps, naturally interested himself in the enlistments; and thus it happened that Deeside was called upon for a contingent of the men. But the recruiting operations extended far beyond the Invercauld estates. In order to secure the requisite number in the shortest possible time, commissions were offered to members of other families than those connected with the house of Atholl.

Charles Gordon, of Shilagreen, brother of the laird of Abergeldie, had been appointed to a lieutenancy in the Gordon Highlanders, or 89th Regiment, raised in 1759. Though then only a very young man, he was now a soldier of twenty years’ experience, and had seen some service in India, where he attracted the notice of Major Hector Munro, under whom he probably served at the battle of Buxar, in 1764. Returning home with his regiment in the following year, he resided generally with his brother at Abergeldie Castle; and while held in the highest repute as a soldier and a gentleman by the neighbouring gentry, his generous disposition and affable manners in a short time rendered him the idol of the peasantry. He attended their balls and merry-makings, and was invited to their weddings and feasts, in all of which he mingled with the common people with an ease and grace that won their hearts. “ He was the life of every company, an’ for a dancer there was never the like o’ him on Deeside, except maybe roch Sawnie Davidson,” is the tradition now received regarding him.

Captain Gordon, being unattached at the time, was offered the high position of Lieutenant-Colonel in the 77 th, and his acceptance at once secured unbounded popularity for the corps, so that in the space of six weeks the number of men was complete.

In the month of June they assembled in Perth, where they were formally embodied, and thence marched to Port-Patrick and embarked for Ireland Their service here was by no means of a pleasant character, the country being then as now in a state of chronic rebellion, but their conduct was most exemplary.

Peace being concluded, they probably expected to return home, in terms of their enlistment; but in 1783 they were transported to England with the view of being sent to India. There can be no doubt that the Government intended to disregard the conditions on which the men had taken service, but there is not the least ground for the belief that the officers were at all to blame for this breach of faith; nor were they as yet distrusted, for while the regiment was on its inarch through England, it was announced to the soldiers that they were intended for service in the East Indies, and, so far from showing dissatisfaction, they pulled off their bonnets and gave three ringing cheers for a “brush with Hyder Ali.” There can be little question, however, that they were at this time under the impression that they were either to be re-enlisted on more favourable terms, or were to receive a bounty. But on their arrival at Portsmouth, finding that the order for embarkation was not accompanied with the offer of any bounty, or the promise of any reward whatever, suspicion of unfair dealing at once entered their minds. They were also tampered with, it was said, by emissaries from London, who intimated “ that they had been sold to the East India Company, at a certain sum per man, and that the officers were to divide the money amongst themselves.” These representations received a colour of plausibility from the exertions made by the officers to induce the men to embark, though they sprang from far less unworthy motives than those ascribed to them. It was their duty to endeavour to secure compliance with the order of the Government; but besides this, it was very much against their own interests that the regiment should be disbanded, as thereby they would be thrown out of employment To Colonel Gordon especially the Indian campaign offered great temptations. He had already seen service there, and as a subaltern had secured the favourable notice of Sir Hector Munro, now almost at the head of the military affairs of the Company. To appear again upon the scene, this time as second in command of a brave Highland regiment, whose action in the field he had no doubt would be the salvation of the Company, opened a prospect of distinction to which no officer could be indifferent He was therefore particularly anxious that the orders of the Government should be complied with, and on him and his superior officer accordingly fell the weight of the men’s suspicions of treachery.

For several days the utmost confusion and excitement prevailed; the officers were hooted, and their authority despised, and mutinous ballads were composed and circulated through the ranks. A fragment of one of these, in the shape of a parody on the Jacobite song of “Johnnie Cope,” will serve to show the excited state of feeling that prevailed—

"To the East Indies we were sold
By Murray, for a bag o' gold.
But, hold! for we will a tale unfold,
And it will rust his glory.

Chorus—Oh, Charlie !* are ye wakan' yet,
Or are your drums a beaten’ yet,
The Highland drums to arms do beat,
Will ye go on board this morning?

If it were to fight with France or Spain,
With pleasure we would cross the main;
But for like bullocks to be slain,
Our Highland blood abhors it.

Chorus—Oh, Charlie &c.

To the East Indies we winna go,
To serve Eyre Coote or Hec. Munro;
Our time is oot, and hame well go
In spite o' a’ their noses.

Chorus—Oh, Charlie! &c.

Another writer gives the following account in a letter to a friend—“ You may be sure I have had my perplexities since the mutiny commenced in the 77th Regiment, but I must do the men the justice to confess that, except three or four drunken fellows, whose impudence to their officers could only be equalled by their brutality, the whole regiment have conducted themselves with a regularity that is surprising; for what might have been expected from upwards of one thousand men let loose from all restraint? Matters would never have been carried to the point they have, but for the interference of some busy people who love to be fishing in troubled waters. 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 then given, which you may depend on it they are now well acquainted with.*

In the debates in Parliament on this unfortunate affair, the Secretary for Ireland bore the most honourable testimony to the good conduct of the regiment when in Ireland. He said, “I had the 77th Regiment immediately under my observation during sixteen months of their garrison duty in Dublin, and though it was not the most agreeable duty in the service, I must do the men the justice to say that their conduct was most exemplary. Their officers were not only men of gentlemanly character, but peculiarly attentive to regimental discipline. Having once, upon the sudden alarm of invasion, been under the necessity of sending an order for the immediate march of the regiment to Cork, they showed their alacrity by marching at an hour’s notice, and completed their march with a despatch beyond any instance in modem times, and this too without leaving a single soldier behind.”

As the blame lay entirely with the Government, none of the men were brought to trial The order for the embarkation was countermanded, and the regiment was immediately marched to Berwick, where it was disbanded in April, 1783. The Aberdeenshire Highlanders, whose terms of engagement were the same as those of the Atholl Highlanders, were also intended to be sent to India, but on hearing of the refusal of the latter regiment, they also declined to march from their quarters, and were accordingly sent to Scotland and disbanded at the same time.

The news of this unfair and unworthy attempt on the part of the Government spread like wildfire in the Highlands, and had the most pernicious effect on all subsequent endeavours to raise soldiers there. If a Highlander enlisted, his relatives gave him up for lost; he had put himself into the hands of an unscrupulous master who might sell him to the highest bidder—Indian chief or Turkish Pacha—as if he were a horse or a bullock. Add to this feeling the bitter indignation now rankling in the minds of the common people on account of the clearances which about this time had reached their culminating point of severity in the northern shires, and were practised more or less over most of the Highlands, and it is no wonder that the days of volunteering into the army were at an end. The army, indeed, was looked upon as the instrument by which landlords were enabled to carry out their cruel evictions. So far from there being now any emulation among the people to find posts, as they termed it, for their sons in the army, the prevailing sentiment was that of Rory Gunn—“ Son of mine in a red coat, to be sold as a slave, or forced to pull his countrymen out of house and hauld at the bidding of the laird! I’d rather see him in his grave-clothes—there would be no degradation there.”

It is true that it was only in Ross and Sutherland, where the Macraes had risen in a body to oppose by force the wholesale clearances of their native glens, and had been dispersed by the military, that this sentiment had attained so high a degree of intensity. But if the evictions were fewer on Deeside than in the north, its connection with the soldiers of the 77th was more intimate, and the unpopularity of the army was scarcely less strong. And even on Deeside more than a sufficient number had been compelled to give up their fields to the deer of the forest, to kindle in the breasts of those that remained a spirit of hatred against the offending proprietor, and of opposition to the authority that gave him power to oppress. The spectacle of a band of evicted families from the upper glens of Braemar, passing through the long Strath, with sorrow and sadness depicted in every face, and headed by a piper playing “ Lochaber no more,” was not likely soon to be forgotten, or to awaken the most friendly feelings towards those who, by the strong arm of the law, had been the cause of the melancholy procession.

When, therefore, in 1793 Britain was entering upon a war that boded to be more protracted than any she had yet engaged in, and to demand of her more soldiers than she had ever yet had on her military establishment, it is little wonder that the Highlanders kept back. At first letters were issued as on former occasions, empowering chiefs to raise soldiers for the service of the state, and so blinded were the statesmen of that time to the change that had taken place in the sentiments of the people that they deemed it needless to offer the small bounty previously given to those who enlisted. Not a single soldier left Deeside; nor, with the exception of the Cameron and Strathspey Highlanders, was there a single regiment raised north of the Grampians. Finding no success from the economical method adopted, the Government restored the bounties, but now even this failed in bringing in the necessary number of men.

At this time (1794) the Marquis of Huntly undertook to raise a regiment, and letters of service were granted him for that purpose. The Marquis was the most powerful and popular nobleman in the north, and though the success of his undertaking could not be doubted, the regiment which he raised could scarcely be called a Highland regiment, more than half the men belonging to the lowlands of Aberdeen and Banff. The letters of service under which he acted authorised him to enlist, by compulsion if necessary, idle and unemployed men, who had no industrial occupation, or it was popularly believed that he had such authority and could delegate it to the recruiting officers under him, who, if not so invested by the State, certainly availed themselves of the general belief that they were, and in this way secured several recruits on Deeside, while they put many others to no small shifts to invent occupations for the time being, or otherwise to find grounds of exemption. Two cases are still on the traditionary records of the district

John Shewan, a very powerful but a very indolent man, who would neither work nor want, inhabited a small tenement on the very brink of the bum of Greystone. Lieutenant Alexander Stewart wss stationed with a recruiting party at Inverey in Biaemar, with the view of raising men in the upper district, and Peter Gordon of Abergeldie, a brother lieutenant, was instructed to cooperate with him, and endeavour to obtain some recruits in his own neighbourhood. Now John Shewan, living quite opposite to Abergeldie, was well known to Gordon as a very handsome man, but one that the district could very well spare, and he became anxious to secure him. But John could never be found at home when a party from the Castle waited upon him to do him this honour. For months he did nothing all day long but keep watch on a commanding knoll, and at the first appearance of Gordon tartan he was off to hiding.

He had only one confederate, his wife, but she was a faithful ally; and with her assistance he managed to foil all attempts to ensnare him, or catch him napping. At first Shewan, having nothing else to amuse him, rather enjoyed the sport of leading the soldiers a wild-goose chase. But it became wearisome, and he was heard to express his intention of giving one or two of his tormentors a striking proof of his presence if they did not speedily put a stop to their visits. This had the effect of increasing the number of the hunting party, and it was said that they never afterwards attempted to beat up John’s quarters unless they were fifteen strong.

On one occasion, when Lieutenant Stewart was at Aber-geldie, it was proposed that he should undertake the capture of the fugitive, and scouts were accordingly sent out These bringing in information that for once Shewan was off his guard, Stewart mustered a party of horse and foot, hastily crossed the Dee at Aanfuile, and advancing rapidly up the hillside, was soon at the door of John’s dwelling. Here he was met by the gude-wife, who, with a smiling countenance, invited him to come in.

“Is John at home?” inquired the lieutenant, assuming the same lively, indifferent air that the wife manifested.

“Awyte he’s nae that,” replied she, “an’ I hardly expect him hame the nicht; for he’s awa’ wi’ our neibbor’s stirk to the glen. Fa’ll I say was speeran for him?”

“I would just like to see him myself,” replied he, “and we will take a turn about the braeside here; perhaps he may appear before long.”

He then directed his party to beat up the neighbouring coverts, certain from the information he had received from his scouts that he must be hiding at no great distance.

They had no sooner left the door than the wife rushed to her watch-tower on the top of the knoll, whence she observed their movements with much keenness, though with seeming indifference. AH at once she shouted at the pitch of her stentorian voice—“ Rin, Jock, rin; they're makan’ straight for ye.” Away went Shewan from his concealment at the back of an old stone dyke, and away went Stewart galloping after him, followed by a dozen others at various distances behind. By directing his course over the most rugged and rocky tracts, the pursued for some time kept well ahead ; but it was evident that this could not last long, and that sooner or later his strength must give way to the horse power at the service of the military. He was rapidly coming to this conclusion himself; and seeing no hope of finally making good his escape, was about to surrender, when the indignant notes of his wife’s trumpet tongue from the watch-tower made the hills ring with—“Tak’ to the wud, ye gype.” Immediately Shewan doubled round a rock, to deceive his pursuers, and then rushed full speed towards a birch wood at some distance off. A foot soldier, who happened to be in his path, gave him a broad stare as he passed like a deer, blowing and snorting, but took care also to give him a wide berth. Having gained the thicket, Shewan for that time eluded his pursuers.

Talk of fox-hunting ! It is but tame sport compared to what recruiting for the Gordon Highlanders on Deeside was in the year of grace 1794; but what a change has come over the spirit of the people when the service, which ten years before had been an object of ambition to the youth of the district, now required such measures as those to fill its ranks.

The other case to which allusion has been made was somewhat different in character. There lived in a small hut near Lebhal “an idle lounger” of the name of John Coutts, on whom the recruiting party stationed at Abergeldie Castle had set their eyes as one coming within the sphere of their jurisdiction. Coutts had no military proclivities, but he disdained to evade the claim upon him by adopting the fugitive tactics of his neighbour Shewan. He preferred rather to have a Scriptural warrant for his proceedings, and took his cue from the conduct of David during his first visit to Gath—he feigned himself mad; and following the example of another king, whenever the soldiers paid him a visit, pretended to be vigorously eating grass and looked savage. Nothing could be made of him. His wife declared that he was “oot o’ his senses;” and his conduct before the soldiers bore her out in her statement Gordon, however, knowing that John was three parts rogue for one part fool, continued to make inquiries by the hands of the red-coats regarding his state of mind; but, at their appearance, he would be found either on all fours on the field, or chewing a bush of heather or broom, a bundle of which he always carried under his arm to be ready when occasion might require. Instead of avoiding the soldiers, he generally advanced to meet them, bo-o-ing like an ox, and often rather seriously terrifying them.

During one of Lieutenant Stewart’s visits to Gordon, the latter mentioned to him how completely Coutts had fooled the recruiting sergeant. Stewart, always keen for an encounter with refractory characters, desired to be conducted to the house of this man. “The Inverey man,” as Stewart was called, had by his vigorous measures inspired no little dread of his name, and when his approach was signified, Coutts felt it was necessary for him to be more than usually circumspect On nearing the house, the Lieutenant heard a noise proceeding from within, as if some one were breaking the furniture to pieces. Giving his horse in charge to the soldier that accompanied him, he fearlessly stepped in at the low narrow doorway, and found John’s wife, apparently in great trepidation, holding fast the lids of the box-bed, while the prisoner within kept knocking with his hands and feet all round, as if he were making frantic efforts to escape.

“Mercy! sir,” said the wife, “I’m glad ye’ve come, sir. He’s Dae mows, sir. If he brak lowse, he’ll devoor the house, sir; an’ I’m hardly able tae haud tee the lids, sir; uve, uve!”

Instead of assisting the woman to “haud tee the bed lids,” as she seemed to wish him, Stewart looked on calmly for a minute or two to make sure of how matters stood; but so perfect was the acting on the part of both man and wife, that he was deceived into the belief that Coutts really wanted to escape; and, losing temper at what he conceived to be the violence of the man, exclaimed, “ Let out the scoundrel, perhaps I’ll cure his madness.”

“Uve, uve! Oich, marooai! ” ejaculated the wife, and held the lids more firmly than before.

“Let him out, woman; I’ve a cure for him, or perhaps I can give it him in his bed.” Saying which, Stewart went out for his horse-whip. While he was doing so, the prisoner, who had got a hint of what the next act was likely to be, immediately burst from the bed and house, and boo-ing like an infuriated bull, set off wildly over the adjacent haugh, with no covering but a rag of an old ham shirt The Lieutenant instantly mounted his war-horse, and the ground being favourable for riding, was soon alongside of John, to whose bare limbs and back he applied the whip cord without stint But although in this manner he whipped him back to his house again, he did not succeed in making the sufferer betray himself. As soon as he entered the house, his wife pretended to push him into bed by sheer force, and then held to the lids as before; and, as before, John kept up the same pretended efforts to escape. Upon discovering this, Stewart rode off, saying as he left—

“I give him up, wife, he’s undoubtedly mad.”

Though Coutts was not likely after this adventure to be much molested by the recruiting gang, he was determined to have his revenge for the horsewhipping he had received. Accordingly, some time after, observing two soldiers passing along the road, he armed himself with a pitchfork, stuck some hay into his mouth, and rushed at them like a bull at a red cloth. The fellows took to their heels, and John pursued. After a heat of more than two miles, he relinquished the chase, chuckling at the fright he had given the red-coats.

Soon after this the party was withdrawn from the district, and John Coutts returned to his right mind. “I’m nae feel noo,” was his exclamation, when he was told that they were gone for good.

Thus ended recruiting on Deeside in the Olden Time.


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