A Loyal Scotland fights for Britain, 1707-1918

A Loyal Scotland fights for Britain, 1707-1918

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 28, September, 2020

SCOTTISH REGIMENTS acquired a reputation for exceptional fierceness early on. The skirl of the bagpipes induced fear in the enemy before battle and during the First World War the Germans called kilted Highland troops ‘the ladies from Hell’. In fact the first Scottish regiments were recruited in the Lowlands – the Royal Scots (1633), the Royal Scots Fusiliers (1678) and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (1689). These did not wear specifically Scottish costumes and were more or less indistinguishable from most other British line regiments. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century they served widely and with distinction. 

There were some early Highland regiments too – the Argyllshire Highlanders (1689), the Black Watch (1739) and Loudon’s Highlanders (1745) yet given the various Jacobite revolts, there was a great reluctance to use Highland troops throughout the first half of the eighteenth century.

With the renewal of war with France in 1756, however, the Elder Pitt persuaded king and cabinet of the great advantage of sending the fierce Highlanders abroad to fight the French. This would also remove them from Scotland. And so a storehouse was opened of willing, aggressive, loyal and first-rate troops for the wars of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thousands of Highlanders enlisted in new Highland regiments, indeed as many as 100,000 between 1793 and 1815, a figure much out of proportion to the population of the region in the eighteenth century.  

Indeed the Highlands soon suffered on account of this and other reasons from depopulation. The region of heaviest recruitment was the North West Highlands, traditionally the most conservative and traditional one and the one most removed from modernising Lowland influences. These Highland regiments played a large part in winning Canada and India, defeating Napoleon (their part in the battle of Waterloo is well remembered in paintings such as the one shown) as well as in the Crimean War and the suppression of the Indian Mutiny.   

The introduction of the Cardwell reforms in 1881 introduced a modified Scottish dress for Lowland regiments. Comprising of doublets and tartan trews, this gave Lowlanders a distinctive identity separate from their English, Welsh, Irish and Highland counterparts. At the same time the replacement of feathered bonnets with Kilmarnock bonnets prevented confusion between Lowland and Highland troops.   

Highland regiments were later raised in different Empire and Commonwealth countries. The bagpipes were also exported. Today the Canadians, Australians and South Africans still have ‘kilted regiments’ among their military reserves. Even the USA maintained two ‘Scottish regiments’ between 1858 and 1876. Today these Commonwealth ‘Scottish regiments’ still maintain honorary affiliations with Scottish regiments of the British army. Scotland’s fighting reputation was second to none and was exploited across the globe.  

Scotland’s greatest military contribution to Britain’s defence, however, was to take place during the First World War when over 557,000 Scots enlisted to fight for King and country (estimates vary. Visit Scotland claims 688,000 enlisted). Some hold that a quarter of these died. This is certainly false but there has been a great debate over the exact figures, which have become politicised.   

Professor Tout wrote: ‘It is still not known how many Scots died in the war. One well-argued estimate puts the figure at 110,000, equivalent to about 10 per cent of the Scottish male population aged between sixteen and fifty and probably about 15 per cent of the total British war dead – the sacrifice was higher in proportionate terms than for any other country in the Empire’ 

Scotland’s contribution to victory was indeed disproportionate and surely therefore a matter of great pride. But let us examine the debate for a moment.  

The debate started with Duncan Duff’s study ‘Scotland’s War Losses’ of 1947. Probably this is the work Tout was referring to. His figure of 110,000 war dead was quickly accepted. Then in 1987 Stephen Wood, Keeper of the Scottish United Services Museum in Edinburgh Castle, calculated that ‘147,000 soldiers with a claim to be Scottish were killed during the war’. He also claimed that this represented 26.4% of Scottish troops. Academic research emphasised the tricky methodological and statistical challenges involved. For example, Wood counted the highest number of casualties from all services and then made them a proportion of the 557,618 Scots who entered only the army during the war (according to the official 1922 War Office report). He excluded not only those who fought in the Navy and Air Force but the 74,026 Scots already serving before war broke out (some 10.85% of total British manpower and thus 0.38% above Scotland’s share of the UK population).  

The latest, most forensic research into the topic was published in 2019 by Patrick Watt in the ‘Journal of Scottish Historical Studies’. His conclusion was:  

‘The combined total of war dead for all three services—102,500 soldiers, sailors and airmen—means that 13.78% of the Commonwealth Graves Commission total were born in Scotland. Therefore, it can be said with certainty that men born in Scotland did suffer disproportionately more deaths during the war than other nations of the United Kingdom.’

This is important because the heroism of Scotland’s sacrifice has been questioned by Scotland’s nationalists. 

‘Duff’s book of 1947, for example, had been published by the ‘Scottish Secretariat’, a nationalist organisation and had a foreword written by wartime SNP Chairman Douglas Young who had been imprisoned for refusing to fight for the British state.  Only an independent Scotland, he had claimed, could conscript him and in 1940 he had written: ‘...of the self-evident truth that it is a prior moral obligation to secure the independence of one’s own country before embarking on a war for that of other nations...’ The idea that Scotland should refuse to fight Hitler for arcane constitutional reasons was totally bizarre. Duff, however, clearly felt something the same about Scottish boys fighting the Kaiser: ‘Scottish soldiers with their supposedly innate militarism were viewed as an efficient but expendable commodity by the ruling classes of the United Kingdom.’ In short, the British Establishment had used Scottish soldiers during the First World War merely as cannon fodder.  

This demented idea that loyal Scottish troops are merely stupid, suicidal puppets of the British ruling class would become a regular trope of SNP activists. During the debate of 27 June 2013 in the Holyrood Parliament, SNP members debated a motion designed to show what an outrageous cost had been exacted from Scotland during the First World War. The motion being debated noted that ‘10% of the Scottish population...gave their lives’ in the Great War. This implied that 485,000 Scots died in the conflict or 65% of the British total. The debate then demonstrated the further abuse of statistics. SNP member Richard Lyle suggested that 557,000 Scots had become casualties (100% of those who enlisted?) while another SNP member, Kenneth Gibson, posited that Scots had suffered an 81% casualty rate. These claims were nonsensical, but the debate took place against the background of both forthcoming First World War commemorations and the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. The idea of honouring the heroism and sacrifice of the Scottish troops in wartime was not the priority. Joan McAlpine, another SNP MSP, sniffed that the decision to hold a remembrance service for Commonwealth troops at Glasgow Cathedral on 4 August 2014 was merely a ‘cynical attempt to boost Britishness ahead of the referendum’. She had totally missed the point. She herself was the cynic.  

Nationalist ideas about exploited Scottish cannon-fodder also missed the point. The Scots who had enlisted between 1914 and 1916 were all volunteers. Nobody had forced them to enlist. Nobody controlled them. And proportionally more Scots volunteered than others in the UK. Scottish miners in fact volunteered in large numbers. By August 1915 26.8% of them had ‘joined the colours’ causing their enlistment to be banned in June 1916 and many to be returned home to the mines to secure the future of the Scottish economy.   

Perhaps the last word should be given to Watt: ‘If there is a “unique” nature of the Scottish experience of enlistment in the British army in the Great War, it is that voluntary recruitment represented 57.49.% of all enlistment in Scotland during the war, compared to 48.89% of total enlistments in England and Wales.’ Scots proved more eager than any others in the UK to defend Britain. There could be no greater proof of their commitment to the Union. 

The Scots were proud of their war record and had every reason to be so. They had volunteered in greater numbers than others to defeat the Kaiser and German imperialism. They had helped liberate France, Belgium and other countries and save British democracy. It was a huge, historic achievement. And certainly not one to be despised by present day nationalists and pacifists. 

When ‘the coupon election’ was held in December 1918, only seven Labour MPs were elected in Scotland on account of the party’s equivocal war record. (Ramsay MacDonald was defeated in England.) As for the non-coalition Liberals, Asquith was defeated in East Fife and only six of his followers were elected. Hardly a repudiation by Scots of their war record.  

This is the fourth part of a series, If you missed it Part one – Mythology in the history of Anglo-Scots relations – can be found here 

and Part two – From Auld Alliance to creating the Union  – here ; 

and Part three – Scotland 1707-1914: The Union adjusts and consolidates – here.

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.

Painting of ‘Gordons and Greys to the front: An incident at Waterloo’ by Stanley Berkeley (1855-1909) from a private collection via Art Renewal Centre. 

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