IN this series on Scotland’s famous regiments we have now reached one of the most renowned regiments in Scottish military history, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Formed from the merger of two proud Scottish regiments of foot, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders existed as a regiment from 1881 to 2006, when they were amalgamated into the Royal Regiment of Scotland. They live on as 5SCOTS, Balaklava Company, the 5th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and perform ceremonial and state duties in Scotland.

As I have done throughout this series, I will be concentrating on the early history of the regiment – and for anyone wishing to know about the early days of Scottish regiments and how they developed, there is no better source than one of our finest military historians, Trevor Royle.

For anyone studying the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Royle’s Concise History is a must-read, and another must is a visit to the Regimental Museum at Stirling Castle, which I did before its redevelopment from 2018. I have relied on both Royle and the museum for the vast majority of this column, and thank them both.

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After I told how various Highland regiments were founded by aristocrats and/or professional soldiers, a reader emailed to ask if I could explain the process. I have found no better description than that given by Trevor Royle in his Concise History of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He is writing of the late 18th century when Highland regiments were raised to serve in the British army.

Royle wrote: “From the very outset of the process the territorial links of the regiments were vital, not just for recruiting but also for maintaining group cohesion and loyalty. The system had other benefits.

“Landowners who had supported the Jacobites were able to demonstrate their loyalty by raising regiments as a quid pro quo. Most considered themselves to be Highland gentlemen and if estates had been forfeited the raising of a regiment was a useful means of retrieving family honour and making good lost ground.

“That was an important consideration, as the creation of a regiment depended on social status and financial capacity, the going rate for raising and equipping a regiment being £15,000, an enormous sum which is worth nearly £1.5 million today. A landowner wishing to raise a regiment had to have contacts at the highest social level, as it was the king who gave authority for the regiment to be raised in his name. Once the order and warrant had been issued, the regiment came into being and the commanding officer set about recruiting. For the senior officers, a regimental commander would look to his closest family and friends and they in turn helped to recruit the soldiers from the tenants on their estates.

“It worked, too. Between 1714 and 1763, a quarter of the officers serving in the British Army were Scots, proportionally more than the English. Of 208 officers who were also members of parliament from 1750 to 1794, 56 were Scots. At the same time, one in four regimental officers were Scots, and Scots were used to receiving high command while fighting in the European and colonial wars waged by Britain throughout the 18th century.

“Between 1725 and 1800 no fewer than 37 Highland regiments were raised to serve in the British Army and by the end of the period the numbers involved are estimated at 70,000 men. To put those figures into a local perspective, the records of the Adjutant-General in 1837 show that in the first four decades of the 19th century the Isle of Skye produced 21 lieutenant-generals and major-generals, 45 lieutenant-colonels and 600 majors, captains and subalterns in addition to 10,000 private soldiers.”

By any standards it was a massive mobilisation across the Highlands, though as the various regiments developed, they often ran out of recruits from their own areas and drafted in soldiers from elsewhere in Scotland and from England and Ireland.

The 1881 creation of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the Childers reforms the army brought together two regiments that were already famous in their own right, the 91st (Argyllshire) Highlanders and the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders.

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Confusingly, the 91st began life as the 98th (Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of Foot and was raised by a professional soldier and later a politician, General Duncan Campbell of Lochnell, on behalf of his Campbell clan chief, John Campbell, the 5th Duke of Argyll. The duke, like so many Scottish nobles, feared the French Revolution and paid for the regiment’s establishment, just as he had done in 1787 with the 74th Highland Regiment of Foot, forerunner of the Highland Light Infantry. The 98th recruited in Argyll and in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and did much of its training in Wiltshire before it saw its first action in South Africa after the Dutch colonists there joined the French in the war against Britain. Returning to Britain and renumbered as the 91st, the Argylls were soon involved in the Peninsular War against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. They became renowned for their discipline and hardiness especially in the retreat to Corunna in January 1809.

The 91st regrouped in England and temporarily lost its designation as a Highland regiment. In 1812 it joined the Highland Brigade fighting under Viscount Wellington and played its part in the many battles and conflicts leading up to Waterloo in which it was held in reserve, which is why it does not feature on the Argylls’ extensive list of battle honours.

Meanwhile the 93rd (Sutherland) Highland Regiment of Foot was winning its own fame. It was founded in 1799 from the existing Sutherland Fencibles, a volunteer militia renowned, as Trevor Royle recalled: “For the height of its men and their soldierly bearing. The historian Major-General Sir David Stewart of Garth described them as an ‘excellent, orderly regiment of well-behaved serviceable men, fit for any duty’ and the novelist Sir Walter Scott used his journal to call them a ‘regiment of Sutherland giants’.”

The 93rd was raised by General William Wemyss on behalf of his cousin, the 16-year-old Countess of Sutherland. Wemyss would remain regimental colonel until his death in 1822.

One of the first to transfer from the Fencibles to the new regiment was Big Sam MacDonald, variously reported at between 6ft 9ins and 7ft 4ins tall, and built to match. The Countess of Sutherland authorised double pay for Big Sam, reasoning that he would need twice the amount of food as any ordinary soldier.

First deployed to Guernsey to deter a rumoured French invasion, the 93rd was deployed to South Africa and won its first battle honours against the Dutch colonists in 1806.

It was in America in the war of 1812 that the 93rd came of age and renown. In the Battle of New Orleans, the 93rd refused to retreat even after the loss of their commanding officer and they stood firm in the face of overwhelming fire from the American forces.

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An American eyewitness, Paul Wellman, wrote: “Unable to go forward, too proud to retreat, although the regiment behind them had all fallen back. At length a mere handful of what had been the magnificent regiment slowly retired, still in unbroken order, still turning to face the foe. From the ramparts the Americans cheered them wildly. All rifle fire ceased.”

It was in the Crimean War, however, that the 93rd won undying fame. On October 25, 1854, the 93rd was part of the Highland Brigade under Brigadier General Colin Campbell defending Balaklava against the Russian forces.

Russian cavalry and infantry headed straight for the 93rd who fixed bayonets and unleashed a hail of volley fire at the enemy.

The famous Times war correspondent WR Russell reported: “The Russians dash at the Highlanders. The ground flies beneath their horses’ feet; gathering speed at every stride, they dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel.”

The National: The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb, 1881The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb, 1881

The Russian advance broke and the legend of the Thin Red Line was born. The regiment went on to gain more battle honours at the Siege of Sevastopol, and the artist Robert Gibb later immortalised their feats in his painting of the Thin Red Line.

The 93rd next saw action in Indian during the suppression of the Mutiny. On one single day, no fewer than six men of the regiment won Victoria Crosses in the siege of Lucknow, including Sgt John Paton who was known as The Hero of Lucknow for finding the way through a breach in the defences.

Another VC was won by Lieutenant William McBean on March 11, 1858. His citation read: “For distinguished personal bravery in killing 11 of the enemy with his own hand in the main breach of the Begum Bagh at Lucknow.”

A swordfighter of fame, McBean is one of the few men to have held every rank in the army from private to major general. He never left the Regiment and became the Commanding Officer of the 93rd. He died in London on June 22, 1878, but is buried in Edinburgh’s Grange Cemetery alongside his wife and infant son who both died in 1871.

Having also seen service in India and South Africa, the 91st was renamed the Princess Louise’s Argyllshire Highlanders Regiment of Foot in August 1872 after it formed the guard of honour for the marriage of Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise and the Marquess of Lorne, heir to the Duke of Argyll.

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The Childers Reforms of 1881 amalgamated the 91st and 93rd and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise’s) was born.

More usually known as the Argylls, the regiment fought in the Boer War and then reached its greatest numbers during the First World War. No fewer than 16 Battalions were raised and the regiment was awarded 68 Battle Honours and six Victoria Crosses. Some 6900 men were lost during the war in which the Argylls fought at Gallipoli and Egypt and for almost the whole duration of the war on the Western Front. Most of the wartime recruits were demobbed but the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders stayed in existence and at the start of the Second World War, the regiment expanded to nine battalions which saw service in the Far East, North Africa and Western Europe. Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart’s tough preparation of his men of the 2nd battalion in the jungle of Malaya led to them being called the “jungle beasts” but the regiment lost many men in action there and in Japanese POW camps.

After the war with the regiment’s numbers very diminished, the Argylls saw service in Palestine and then Korea where Major Kenneth Muir won its final VC, awarded posthumously for his bravery during the battle for Hill 282 in which the Argylls suffered heavy casualties from North Korean forces and a US friendly fire bombing.

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The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders won global fame in the 1960s when they played a vital part in the Aden insurgency. Trevor Royle takes up the story: “Matters came to a head in June 1967 when the police mutinied and the Crater district fell into the hands of armed dissidents. A number of British soldiers were killed in the incident but the position was restored when 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders retook Crater under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Mitchell. Like the thin red line at Balaklava, the incident received widespread press coverage (more so given the advent of radio and television) and the regiment became headline news across the world, not least because Mitchell had a knack for securing publicity. Once again a high-profile action had made the Argylls one of the best-known regiments in the British Army.”

Mad Mitch, as he became known, also played a role in the successful Save The Argylls campaign in the early 1970s. The regiment survived due to public pressure, but only until the pen pushers got their way in 2006.