Fighting Scots

For centuries, Scots have gone into battle fortified by their reputation as wild, impulsive, fanatically brave warriors. 
But does this image have any basis in truth? Edward Spiers, Jeremy Crang and Matthew Strickland investigate

The charge of the Scots Greys at the battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815, was immortalised in this famous painting of 1881 by Lady Elizabeth Butler (1846-1933). (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

George Macdonald Fraser wrote in Quartered Safe Out Here (1992), the memoir of his experiences as a young infantryman in the Border Regiment during the Burma campaign in 1945, that:

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“Nothing put more heart into me, young and unsure as I was – most of all, fearful of being seen to be fearful – than the fact that, being a Scot, it was half expected of me that I would be a wild man, a head case. This age-old belief among the English, that their northern neighbours are desperate fellows, hangs on, and whether it’s true or not it’s one hell of an encouragement when you’re 19 and wondering how you’ll be when the whistle blows and you take a deep breath and push your safety catch forward.”

The reputation of the ‘fighting Scot’ has been forged over many centuries. Even before the birth of Scotland itself, the two defensive walls built by the Romans, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, testify to the warlike nature of the peoples to the north.

Thereafter the Scots emerge as ferocious warriors from the evidence of warfare in the Middle Ages, including a long history of fighting English adversaries.

This martial reputation spread as Scots served as mercenaries in European armies for centuries and, then, as part of a British army fighting in Europe and across the empire.

In medieval and early modern Scotland, such bellicosity had an internal dimension, too: in family and clan feuds; in raiding across the Anglo-Scottish border; in the distinctive warfare practised in the Highlands and Western Isles, and forays into Ireland; and in the long struggle of the House of Stewart to exert its remit across Scotland as a whole.

As MacDonald Fraser hinted, myths and misconceptions characterise much of this reputation. Popular legends that focus upon doughty Scottish resistance to English invasions, including notable victories against the odds at Stirling Bridge (1297) and Bannockburn (1314), divert attention from the ravaging of the northern counties of England by Scottish invaders both before and after this era, and from the shrewd battle-avoidance and castle-destruction strategies pursued by Robert Bruce. The reluctance of Bruce to engage the English knights and archers, except on very favourable terms, was not well remembered by many of his successors.

The tactics used by Edward III to destroy the chivalry of France at Crécy in 1346 had already been tested with devastating effect against the brave but rash Scottish assaults at Dupplin Moor (1332) and Halidon Hill (1333). There were to be further resounding Scottish defeats by English armies at Flodden (1513), Solway Moss (1542) and Pinkie Cleugh (1547).

Until Cromwell’s occupation of Scotland, its independence owed less to inherent fighting qualities than to a resilience in the face of adversity, a readiness to lay waste to much of the Borders and Lothian as invaders approached, and to distractions south of the border.

Ferocity and spirit

The ‘wild man’ imagery of the fighting Scot is more associated with a later period, not least with the Highland charge, a distinctive attempt to exploit the ferocity of the Highlander in brief, short-range assaults – so avoiding the need for large, expensively equipped armies able to engage in major wars.

Success would follow where such charges exploited favourable terrain, as at Killiecrankie (1689), or sprung a surprise, as at Prestonpans (1745). But they foundered over ill-chosen ground against well-disciplined forces, including some Lowland and Highland units, as at Culloden (1746).

After the crushing of the Jabobite rising in the mid-18th century, the British army recruited extensively from the Highlands for the campaigns in North America and the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

French cartoons dating from the allied occupation of Paris after Napoleon had been exiled to St Helena show Parisian ladies swooning as kilted Highlanders, practising their drills, show far too much leg and, no doubt, other things besides.

These Highland regiments, adorned in their ‘picturesque’ uniforms and accompanied by the skirl of bagpipes, added to their laurels in the many small wars of empire, with their soldiers becoming focal points of battle painting, popular music, poetry, Romantic literature, juvenile fiction and all manner of imperial iconography.

The Highlander became so identified with Victorian Scotland that he blurred or marginalised the martial traditions of the Lowland regiments, and the redoubtable exploits of the Royal Scots, Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Cameronians and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

English recognition of Scots’ martial qualities was a key element in the enduring imagery. Despite the decline of voluntary recruiting in Scotland during the 19th and 20th centuries – arrested only by the spectacular mobilisations during the two world wars – the War Office retained a phalanx of Highland regiments that far exceeded their capacity to recruit within designated districts, or even within Scotland itself.

Indeed, in the important army reforms of 1881, which saw the amalgamation of many infantry regiments, the military authorities bowed to pressure from special interests in Scotland, as well as from Queen Victoria (a vigorous champion of her martial Highlanders), and established five kilted regiments: the Black Watch, Seaforth Highlanders, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, Gordon Highlanders and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, as well as the non-kilted Highland Light Infantry.

Meanwhile, the Lowland regiments (unlike the Scots Guards) were required to adopt modified Highland dress of doublet and tartan trews. The Highland image thus became largely synonymous with the Scottish soldier.

This readiness to sustain the fighting Scots’ distinctive contributions, soon to be demonstrated again by the charge of the Highland Brigade at Tel-el-Kebir (1882) and the storming of the Dargai Heights (1897) by the Gordon Highlanders, simplified perceptions of the Scottish martial tradition.

Complementing the role of Scottish infantry as shock troops, ideally suited to offensive operations, were iconic displays of defensive discipline in the squares at Waterloo (1815) and the ‘Thin Red Line’ at Balaclava (1854), resolute service in sieges at Lucknow (1857–58) and Ladysmith (1899–1900), and recovery from serious defeats at Loos (1915) and St Valéry (1940).

The Scots also showed their adaptability to new forms of warfare during the 20th century, with prominent contributions to the development of special forces and covert operations. And quite apart from their role on the battlefield was the conspicuous contribution of Scots as guards of honour, bearer parties and pipers at state funerals – there were nine Black Watch pipers at the funeral of John F Kennedy in 1963 – as well as many ceremonial duties, including the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

Yet notions of the wild, impulsive fighting Scot endured. In 1914 the residents of Bedford were reported to have been alarmed when they learnt that kilted soldiers were to be billeted in the town, fearing that claymore-wielding savages would descend upon them. One local girl apparently asked a private from Banff if he suffered from cold when he slept on the Scottish hills with only the plaid to cover him. As General Sir Alistair Irwin, recent colonel of the Black Watch, recalls:

“Even in contemporary times an officer announcing that he serves in a Scottish regiment will often attract a response of profound respect, even envy, but respect and envy strongly flavoured with a misdirected mixture of pity and awe: awe that anyone could possibly control these wild men from a distant world; pity that anyone should even have to try.”

Edward Spiers is professor of strategic studies at the University of Leeds; Jeremy Crang is senior lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh; and Matthew Strickland is professor of medieval history at the University of Glasgow.

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This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine