A Highland Regiment has History, with Added Badger

highland dancing as practised by regimentsIf asked to name a Highland Regiment, many people would think of The Black Watch, though it’s by no means the oldest; that title belongs to The Royal Scots.  But Sophie’s recent post about the reel of the 51st (Highland) Division reminded me of two other famous regiments that we have come to know by the amalgamated title of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

There were originally two separate regiments: the 91st (Argyllshire) Regiment, raised in 1794 by the Duke of Argyll; and the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment raised by the Countess of Sutherland in 1799.

Raised? What did that entail? How much choice did recruits have?

Raising a Regiment in the Scottish Highlands

The Scottish aristocracy was powerful not only because they were clan leaders who expected loyalty but also because they owned the land that was farmed by their tenants.

5th Duke of Argyll who raised the 91st Regiment

The 5th Duke of Argyll raised the 91st (Argyllshire) Regiment

In 1793, King George III asked the Duke of Argyll to raise a kilted regiment of 1,100 men. The Duke did so in less than 12 months. It became the 91st Regiment of Foot. Half the officers were Campbells (like the Duke) or married to Campbells. But Argyll couldn’t find enough local men to fill the rest of the slots, so they were mainly recruited from further south, in the central belt of Scotland. It looks as if Argyll men were not pressurised into joining their Duke’s regiment. Or perhaps it was simply that the numbers required were too large for Argyllshire?


You will join my regiment, because I say you will!

Countess of Sutherland who raised the 93rd regiment

The 19th Countess of Sutherland raised the 93rd Regiment (Sutherland Highlanders)

It was different with the 93rd Regiment of Foot, raised in remote Sutherland, though the numbers were smaller, just over 400 men. Elizabeth Gordon was 19th Countess of Sutherland in her own right. She was, by many accounts, a domineering woman who could be cruel.

She delegated the raising to a kinsman, General Wemyss, and what he did was akin to the old military trick of hiding the King’s shilling in the bottom of a tankard of ale that potential recruits were invited to drink.

raising regiments with ramshorn snuff mull and whisky

Ramshorn snuff mull with whisky

Wemyss brought together the young men of each parish and walked among them with a snuff mull and a bottle of whisky.

Each man in turn was invited to take snuff with Wemyss. After that, and a dram of the General’s whisky, the man was effectively enlisted. It seems that none of the young men dared to object. Some of their parents did, apparently, and were later bought off by the formidable Countess.

The 19th Countess was no friend to her tenants, either. She was responsible for clearing about 3,000 families from her Sutherland lands in order to replace them with large sheep farms during the early 19th century. Having seen the starving tenants on her estate, she wrote to an English friend: “Scotch [sic] people are of happier constitution and do not fatten like the larger breed of animals.”
Sensitive? Caring? Possibly not.

Highland Regiments and Courage under Fire

The Argylls served in the Peninsular War, including the retreat to Corunna under Sir John Moore. They were also part of the Allied force under Wellington that expelled the French from Spain. And they played a decisive role at Toulouse where they saved their Brigade at a critical point in that final battle. The 91st ended that war, in 1814, with 9 Battle Honours on their Regimental Colour, an astonishing number.

regiments of soldiers doing highland dancing

The Sutherland Highlanders were a Bible-reading set of men, but also known for their fondness for highland dancing so they were clearly far from dour. They spent the Napoleonic War years out of Europe, in South Africa and later in the United States where, at the Battle of New Orleans, in 1815, three-quarters of their men were either killed or wounded. It was a desperate irony that the Battle need never have been fought, as a peace treaty had been signed two weeks earlier. But the regiment earned a reputation there for amazing courage and steadfastness under fire.

The Thin Red Line

93rd regiments famous stand against cavalry at Balaklava

The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb (1881)

The Sutherland Highlanders’ reputation for courage under fire turned into a legend at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854. There a double line of the regiment stood against the charging Russian cavalry. The normal infantry defence against a cavalry charge was to form square (as at Waterloo). It was believed that a regiment drawn up in line could never withstand a charge.
But the 93rd did.

Russell, correspondent of The Times, reported that nothing stood between the British forces and defeat but a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel of the 93rd”. Asked later why he had not formed square, the 93rd’s commander, Sir Colin Campbell, said: “I knew the 93rd, and I did not think it worth the trouble of forming a square.”
(He had told them, before the charge: “There is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand.” He was clearly confident that they would stand. And they did.)

Where does the Badger come in for a Regiment?

badger traditionally associated with Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

The 91st and the 93rd were amalgamated in 1881 to become Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and their home became Stirling Castle. They continued to serve with bravery and distinction for more than a century.

Thin Red Line silver centrepiece of Argyll and Sutherland regiment

In 2006, to commemorate 125 years of service to the crown, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders commissioned this silver centrepiece from Edward Fraser, based on the Robert Gibb painting of The Thin Red Line shown above. It has one unusual detail not in the original painting: a badger (arrowed below). The badger was important for the regiment as its pelt was traditionally used for sporrans for senior NCOs and officers.

silver centrepiece with badger arrowed

The centrepiece feels like a farewell as, also in 2006, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were amalgamated with other Scottish regiments to become the new Royal Regiment of Scotland and ceased to be a regiment in their own right. This YouTube video shows their last march past in Falkirk in 2003 in full highland dress, with pipes and drums. The loss of the regiment was, for many ex-soldiers, families and supporters, a very sad day.

8 thoughts on “A Highland Regiment has History, with Added Badger

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Interesting, though I can’t say I’m drawn to the Countess! Love the thin red line story, but what a terrible waste. That, of course, is war, unfortunately.

    1. Joanna Post author

      No, can’t say I fancied her either, Liz. She seems to have been obsessed with making money — and I imagine she was pretty well off to start with. And if that entailed chucking 15000 people off the land their families had farmed for centuries… Too bad. Canning thought she was charming but I doubt many of her tenants did.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Elizabeth. I didn’t know about the badger pelts either, but it was part of the explanation for the added badger in the silver centrepiece in the Argylls’ museum in Stirling Castle so I’m sure it’s correct. I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else, though.
      The silver is on display in the museum in the castle, along with a replica of the painting of the Thin Red Line and the preliminary sketch for it. All fascinating stuff. I’ll try to show the preliminary sketch after my comment. Fingers crossed!
      Sketch for Gibb's painting The Thin Red Line

  2. Sue McCormick

    A Fascinating look at history. I saw two different highland regiments guarding royal buildings during my tour in 1997. The Black Watch were at St. James palace. Another group were guarding Edinburgh Castle. (I’m not sure we ever learned their name.) Both were impressive to see.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Could have been one of a number, back in 1997, Sue. Unless you got a close-up view of badges etc it would be difficult to tell which regiment it was at Edinburgh Castle. Agree they’re impressive, though. I thought that march past in Falkirk on the video was impressive too. And sad.

  3. christinahollis

    My father used to sing a song (probably Bowdlerised!) he’d learned in the army during WW2 which had the refrain “The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, The Thin Red Line.” It was full of references to their bravery against Hitler, so it must have drifted over from the nearby barracks where Scottish soldiers were staying. For what it’s worth, the Scottish men drove my father and co mad by continually playing their bagpipes. In retaliation, the English kicked leather footballs against their huts in the middle of the night 😀

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