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

Fencible Regiments


The history of the wars of Gustavus Adolphus and the Imperialists gave celebrity and distinction to the regiments raised at different periods by the family of Mackay, Lords Reay, in consequence of the estimation in which these corps were held by the greatest Captain of his age. For many centuries an intimate connexion and correspondence had subsisted between Scotland and several of the Continental nations. The long and friendly intercourse with France, first established by the Ancient League,

[In the Introduction to Beague's History of the Campaigns in Scotland in the years 1548 and 1519, printed in Paris in 1556, the author states, that, in consequence of the alliance between France and Scotland, unlimited confidence was placed in the Scots by the kings of France, who had always a strong body guard of that nation. He adds, " This guard alone continued to attend the French kings till the reign of Charles the Seventh, who joined some French companies with them in the honourable employment; yet, so as to give the Scots the place and pre-eminence in all things;—for example, the Captain of the Scots Guards, so called to this day, (1556,) is always designed the first Captain of His Majesty's Guards. He begins to attend the first day of the year, and, when others are on duty, he may take the first rank, and officiate accordingly. When the king is anointed, the Captain of the Scots Guards stands by him, and when the ceremony is over, he takes his robes as his due. When the keys of any town or fortress were presented to his Majesty, he returned them that minute to the Captain of the Scots Guards. Twenty-five of this guard wear always, in testimony of unspotted fidelity, white coats, overlaid with silver lace, and six of them in their turns stand next to the Royal Person at all times, and all seasons,—in the church, at the reception of ambassadors, in the courts of justice, and generally on all public and solemn occasions whatever. It is the privilege of twenty-five of these gentlemen to carry the corpse of the French kings from Paris to their burial-place at St Dennis. In a word, that guard has ever been in possession of all the honour and confidence the King of France can bestow upon his nearest and dearest friends. "

The above was written by a French author, consequently there can be no doubt either of its authenticity or impartiality.

The recollection of this friendly alliance is not lost in France, particularly in the southern provinces, where ancient manners and feelings have been less changed by the Revolution. The appearance of the Highland regiments revived these recollections, and when travelling through Gascony, Languedoc, and Provence, in 1814, I generally found the mention of my name met with a desire to know if I was descended of the Royal Family of Scotland, accompanied by a number of observations on the friendly connexion which had so long subsisted between France and Scotland, and with more knowledge of circumstances and more of anecdotes on the part of the people, than could have been expected; concluding always with an expression of regret on account of the interruption of the ancient intimacy and long-continued friendship and alliance.]

as it was called in the days of Robert the First of the Stewarts, nearly five hundred years ago, was so well preserved, that, in the year 1629, when English officers travelled through France, they "found it very convenient to call themselves Scotch instead of English ; for nothing was so much caressed as the Scotch-and a man had no more to do in France, if he would be well received there, than to say he was a Scotchman. " [Memoirs of an English Cavalier.—It may perhaps be proper to mention, that this English Cavalier was a fictitious person. The real author was Daniel De Foe; and although he was not present at what he describes, his authority is no more to be doubted than that of other historians, who relate what they never saw.] In the North of Europe the case was nearly the same. The Highlanders had their share of the beneficial consequences of this friendly feeling. After the year 1624, and early in the Thirty Years' War, Lord Reay, the Laird of Fowlis, and other gentlemen of the Highlands, passed over to Germany with 3000 followers, of whom one regiment of 1000 men-consisted of Lord Reay's own immediate clansmen. [An eve-witness of the conduct, and a sharer in the campaigns of this regiment, speaks in the following terms: "And thus exercised they were, that their enemies in all rencounters could not but duly praise them, calling them the invincible old regiment, which always rencountered with them on all occasions, so that Mackay's name was most frequent through the glorious fame of their never-dying fame and regiment, never wronged by fortune in their fame, though divers times by their enemies' valour they sustained great loss ; but would to God they had always met man to man, or that our army consisted of such men, and such officers, of which I was the most unworthiest!"—Colonel Munro's Expedition. London, printed 1641.] These served in Count Mansfeldt's army, and were so frequently opposed to the enemy, that, in two years, more than half their number had fallen in battle. Reinforced, however, to their original strength, they joined the army of Gustavus Adolphus in 1629. "They were his right hand in battle, brought forward in all dangerous enterprises; and they may, like himself, be said to have fallen in the field, and to have been buried with the honours of war." [Jackson's Characteristics of the Highland Soldiers.] In confirmation of these allegations, the author of the Military History of Gustavus Adolphus gives several instances. At the battle of Leipzig, on the 7th September 1631, between the Swedes, under Gustavus, and the Imperialists, commanded by the celebrated General Count Tilly, when the battle had continued for some time, the Saxon troops, auxiliaries of the Swedes, had been driven from the field, and other corps much pressed; "in short, all that wing was shattered, and in an ill condition. At this juncture came the King, and, having seen what havock the enemy had made of Cullenbach's troops, he came riding along the front of our three brigades, and himself led us on to the charge; when the Scots advanced, seconded by some regiments of horse, which the King had also sent to the charge, the bloodiest fight began that ever man beheld; for the Scots brigade, giving fire, three ranks at a time, over one another's heads, poured in their shot so thick, that the enemy were cut down like grass before a scythe; and, following into the thickest of their foot, made a most dreadful slaughter, and yet there was no flying. Tilly's men might be killed, but no man turned his back, nor would give an inch of ground, but as they were wheeled, or marched, or retreated, by their officers; and, though they knew all was lost, would take no quarter, but fought it out to the last; the men being found dead, next day, in rank and file as they were drawn up." [Memoirs of an English Cavalier.] There is honour in overcoming an enemy, but it must be enhanced, beyond all comparison, when the victory is gained over such a steel-hearted enemy as these brave Germans. The same author states, that, "when the King was before the strong castle of Marienburgh, which was thought impregnable, the enemy, defying the Swedes to do their worst, it was well provided with all things necessary, and a strong garrison in it. The castle stood on a high rock, and on the steep of the rock was a bastion, which defended the only passage up the hill into the castle. The Scots were chosen to make this attack, and the King was an eye-witness of their gallantry. I observed that most of the Scots officers, who were not called upon this duty, prepared to serve as volunteers, for the honour of their country. I was determined to see this piece of service, and join myself to the volunteers. It was a piece of service that seemed perfectly desperate,— the advantage of the hill,—the precipice we were to mount,— the height of the bastion,—the resolute courage and number of the garrison, who, from a complete covert, made a terrible fire upon us,—all joined to make the action hopeless ; but the fury of the Scots was not to be abated by any difficulties. They mounted the hill, scaled the works like madmen, running upon the enemy's pikes; and, after two hours' desperate fight, took it by storm, and put all the garrison to the sword. The volunteer officers also had their share, and of the loss too. Fourteen officers were killed out of thirty, and almost all were wounded. The King received us as we drew off at the bottom of the hill, calling the soldiers his brave Scots, and commending the officers by name."  [Memoirs of an English Cavalier.]

By repetition of such services as these, the King quickly diminished the number of "his brave Scots;" and, at the battle of Lutzen, on the 16th of November 1633, where this great and true soldier, "the saviour of Germany, the soul of the war," was killed, the brigade was reduced to a perfect skeleton, nine-tenths of the men having preceded or accompanied the King in his honourable death. The destruction of the Mackays in particular was accelerated by a separate piece of service, the storming of New Brandenburg. On this occasion, although successful, "half of Lord Reay's regiment was here cut to pieces, almost without a single exception." Such, immediately before and after the year 1630, was the military service of the clan Mackay. To be the favourite troops of such a consummate judge of military merit as Gustavus Adolphus, and in an army composed of veteran troops, who had fought and gained so many battles,—to maintain a character of such pre-eminence as to be employed on occasions of the greatest difficulty, was certainly an honourable distinction.

[In 1629, Colonel Munro of Fowlis raised 700 men on his own and the neighbouring estates, as a reinforcement to those sent to Germany in 1626. They embarked at Cromarty, but meeting with very bad weather, were shipwrecked near Rugenwall, between Staten and Dantzic. All their stores and arms were lost, with the exception of their swords, and a few muskets which were thrown into one of the boats. No ammunition was saved. In this state, Colonel Munro determined to attempt Rugenwall by assault, although defended by a strong garrison of Imperialists. The enemy had troops quartered all round the country; therefore no time was to be lost. He pushed forward after it was dark, scaled the walls at midnight, and, entering the place sword in hand, killed all that resisted, and made the rest prisoners. He immediately supplied his men with arms and ammunition from the garrison stores, in which was included an ample stock of provisions. He fortified and obstructed all the passages into the place, and maintained this post for nine weeks, repulsing every attempt to retake it, till he was relieved by a Scotch regiment under Colonel Hepburn, and a body of Swedish troops. Although this instance of courage and military talent is foreign to the service of the Reay Fencibles, it is given here as an example to the countrymen and descendants of those men, and as an incentive to maintain the honour of their hereditary name. Such a stimulus as this would have been more appropriate to, and effective on, the Highlanders of other times, than of the present, seeing that in those districts where Colonel Munro raised his men, examples of heroism and loyalty are unnecessary, as few of the descendants of these brave men are left to benefit by them.]

This being the character of the Mackays of the seventeenth century, it is to be regretted that their descendants, of the eighteenth, had not a more enlarged field than the limited service of a Fencible regiment, to show how far the character of their ancestors had descended with their blood.

At the commencement of the late war with France, the then Lord Reay being incapable, through mental weakness, of managing his own affairs, and Government wishing to form a regiment from those districts which had formerly sent forth so many brave soldiers, directed that a Fencible corps should be raised in "Lord Reay's country," (as that district is called), and gave instructions to select as officers a few respectable gentlemen of this clan, whose influence might, in the absence of their Chief, be effectual, and whom, it was supposed, the men would readily follow. For this purpose no man was better qualified, by respectability of character and personal influence, than the late George Mac-kay of Bighouse, who was appointed lieutenant-colonel; and Mackay Hugh Baillie of Rosehall, colonel.

The expectations formed of the dispositions of the people were quickly realized, and a few weeks only were necessary for assembling 800 Highlanders, of whom more than 700 men had the word Mac prefixed to their names. But these men had a better claim to notice than their names. They were brave, moral, and humane. Happily the opportunities they had of evincing their courage and humanity were few, but sufficient to show what might have been expected from • a severer trial. Their moral conduct was coexistent with their military career, and, as it was excellent at the beginning, so it continued praiseworthy to the last.

The regiment was inspected by Sir Hector Munro, embodied at Fort George in March 1795, and immediately removed to Ireland, where it remained till the end of the war. During the Rebellion, this corps acquired the confidence of the Generals commanding, in a very remarkable manner; and, as Gustavus Adolphus employed Lord Reay's regiment in all dangerous enterprises, so did Generals Lake and Nugent place a firm dependence on the service of the Reay Fencibles. General Lake had always his own guard formed of these men, to whom he became so much attached, that he seldom passed any guard or post when they were on duty, without alighting from his horse, going among them, and holding conversation with them. At the defeat of Cas-tlebar he frequently exclaimed, "If I had my brave and honest Reays here, this would not have happened." The unfortunate service in which they were engaged affordedl little opportunity of showing their firmness. At Tarra Hill, on the 26th of May 1798, three companies of the Reays, under a spirited and judicious veteran, Captain Hector Maclean, who had served nearly thirty years in the 42d regiment, supported by two troops of Lord Fingal's and the Tower Hill Yeomanry, drove back and scattered a body of rebels who were "in great force on this strong and elevated position." But it was not in driving back an unfortunate and misguided multitude that General Lake, and other officers of judgment, formed their opinion of this corps; it was on their uniform, well-regulated, and well-principled conduct.

I have already stated, that in every case where I have had occasion to state facts and circumstances, from the necessity of abridgment I have seldom given more than one or two of a great number of instances. On the present occasion, I shall mention only one of the many traits of character which impressed the commanders of that time in Ireland with a favourable opinion of these men. When quartered in Belfast, a regiment of militia, 1100 strong, were in the same barracks. Several soldiers of this corps had been tried and executed as united Irishmen, and strong suspicions were entertained of the whole regiment. The Reay Fencibles had the duty of the main guard on the night previous to the execution. A report had gone abroad that the militia regiment was to rush out at midnight, overpower and murder the guard, which was under the command of Captain Maclean, and set their condemned comrades at liberty. At 10 o'clock that night, a party of the Reays, sufficient to fill the guardhouse, slipped silently out of their barracks, with their arms under their plaids, and sat up with the guard, while those who remained in the barracks put out all lights, and continued in arms on the watch till day-light, ready to start out on the smallest alarm. All this was done without any order or hint from their officers, and with such prudent caution, that the circumstance was not known to the other corps, and no ill will or jealousy existed, in consequence, between the soldiers of either regiment. But this was not always the case, for a dispute which took place between them and another militia regiment, might have ended very seriously, had it not been checked by the prompt interference of Generals Lake and Mackay Baillie. But here, instead of taking their arms, as on the occasion just mentioned, they laid them aside, and supplied themselves with sticks and cudgels. Notwithstanding this instance of improper feeling, and bad blood between this and one of the Native corps, with the people they were so conciliating, and on such a friendly footing, that it was remarked in those parts of the country where they were cantoned, that "the inhabitants were quiet, apparently less disaffected, and more regular in their habits," than elsewhere. Thus, while their manners and habits were such as to render the exertion of strict military discipline unnecessary, so far as regarded any coercive measure, other traits of character attracted particular notice. For instance, a practice prevailed, as in other corps of the same country and character, of remitting to their relations at home sums of money, small in themselves, but large in proportion to the means of supply, from the savings of a soldier's daily subsistence, (at that period only sixpence per day.) But, while these soldiers indulged their naturally affectionate disposition in assisting their relatives by acts of liberality, they retained enough of money to enable them to pursue their social amusements; and it was a frequent practice to subscribe among themselves, and give dances to their acquaintances, not only in the barracks, but frequently in public rooms and places allotted for the purpose, which they hired. On these occasions the officers attended, as also many respectable inhabitants of the different towns in which they were at the time quartered, attracted by curiosity, and a feeling of satisfaction from seeing men conduct themselves in such a manner as to reflect credit on the profession to which they belonged. Among these men crimes which require severe punishments had no existence. "Indeed, the men would have considered it a banishment for ever from their native country, where they could not show themselves in day-light, if degraded by disgraceful punishments." Several men however deserted, and several received corporal punishment, during the seven years the regiment was stationed in Ireland, but these were individuals not originally enlisted in the corps; they were a party by themselves, and the "standard and original men of the regiment would not associate with them." Perhaps many military men will be of opinion, that in such cases the addition of numbers is attained at the expense of too great a sacrifice, and that, whether a regiment be one hundred men, more or less, is an object of secondary importance, compared with the disgrace which even a few bad men bring on a corps, and the baneful influence of their example. Six or eight men, by their crimes, tarnished the good name, and brought a slur on the character of this most respectable regiment. Was the value of their service equal to the sacrifice?

It is said, that men of bad character will fight as well as men of good; but will their courage be uniform and steady? Will it not fail perhaps in the day of the greatest need; or will a man of dissolute and depraved habits be able to withstand continued fatigue? Or, can a man, without the fear of God, and without religion, be intrusted with a duty beyond the observation and unremitting control of superiors?

[On this subject I have had much personal experience while serving with, and commanding, men of the best character in the 42d and 78th regiments; and in the Royal West India Rangers, where I had charge of men who exhibited a perfect contrast to the well regulated habits of the ether corps. The difference in the principles which guided the men of these regiments was striking, and afforded many remarkable traits of character, a detail of which might be both interesting and instructive., Three-fourths of the Rangers were men of reprobate habits, who had served in other regiments, and whom it was impossible to reclaim; they were in consequence sent to the West Indies, and banished there as incurables, or to avoid severer punishments.

I intended to have put together some notices on this interesting subject, (for no subject can be more interesting than comparing the conduct of men in a primitive unadulterated state, with that of men debased and void of principle,) and also on the different modes of discipline I found necessary to adopt in carrying on military duty with men of such opposite characters; but I gave up the idea, for the same reason that made me suppress many anecdotes and incidents which occurred in the course of my military duties, because I was myself often a party concerned, and unwilling to introduce my name, I found that, by stating facts in the third person, much of the stamp of authenticity was lost.]

It has been said by very able officers, that if they had men, they would soon model them to good soldiers, supposing the machine to be fit for work; or, in other words, the physical constitution and capability to be equal to the necessary duties. Certainly the discipline of zealous judicious officers has done much; but while men of proper habits and good feelings can be recruited in the Highlands, let not the character and goad name of 800 or 1000 men be injured by the misconduct of a few strangers, as in the case of the Reays; who, but for such an intrusion, would have had the satisfaction of returning to their native glens without a man of their number having been disgraced. But, as it was, those degraded men were not of their country or of their kindred.

The Reay Fencibles were removed to Scotland, and reduced in 1802.

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