The Scottish Highland Regiments

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The Scottish Highland Regiments are renowned for being some of the bravest regiments in the British army. One man once said "The limbs of the Highlander are strong and sinewy, the frame hardy, and of great physical power, in proportion to size. He endures cold, hunger, and fatigue with patience." The Highland Regiments have been known for their fierceness in battle, using shock to scare their enemy, and for their unique kilts. Throughout their history, they have been known to engage in melee combat overzealously. During World War I, they still used fierce bayonet charges commonly. This caused the Germans to refer to the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) as the “Ladies from Hell”[1]. The Black Watch wears the term today as a badge of honor. Even recently, in a 2005 battle in Iraq, where one hundred insurgents ambushed a group of thirty Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Highlanders fought the ambush. Without any ammunition, these men bayonet charged into the insurgents, surprising the insurgents so much that they retreated. The Highlanders took only three casualties (all wounded), while the insurgents had an estimated thirty dead.

Basic History

The history of the Scottish Highlands begins in 843 when the Gaelic tribe the Scotti successfully invaded Scotland from Ulster. The tribe gave their name to Scotland. The important contribution they made to Scotland was the Gaelic clan system, which would affect the emergence of the Kingdom of Great Britain. During the Middle Ages, many Anglo-Norman nobles came to power in Lowland Scotland[2], causing such things as Lowland dress to be much more similar to the English, as the Highlanders were much more similar to the Irish. The Lowlanders became socially, racially, and later religiously different. The Lowland and Highland divide was one reason for why there were specific Scottish Highland regiments formed. After the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland and England officially became part of a United Kingdom of Great Britain. However, many Highlanders were against the monarchy because the monarch, George I of Hanover, usurped the throne from the Stuart king Charles II. The Second Jacobite Rebellion, also called “The ‘45” ended the Highland clan system’s power. During the decisive battle of the rebellion, the Battle of Culloden, two-thirds of the British Government’s Army was made up of Lowland Scots. After the rebellion, more Highland regiments were formed because the British government feared another rebellion, and they thought the best way to prevent such a rebellion was to use the Highlanders in wars across the globe. This was deemed the “Final Solution to the Highland Problem”. Though this may sound eerily similar to Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution”, it did not result in a massive genocide to slaughter the peoples of the Highlands[3], but rather, to prevent another such disastrous rebellion against the British monarchy. One reason for so many Highlanders coming into the British army was because the British government banned weapons and tartans(kilts) in the Highlands, so the only way to be able to have both would be to join the army. There are many examples of the Highland regiments being used across the globe, including the storming of Fort Ticonderoga in the French and Indian War, the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution, and at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.

Highland Weapons and Uniforms

The Scottish Highlands are known for having unique weapons. Of these, the men usually used the basket-hilted claymore, the Highland Pistol, and the dirk. The basket-hilted claymore is a traditional Scottish broadsword that was originally two-handed in the Middle Ages. Its name comes from the Gaelic phrase “claidheamh mor”, which translates to “great, big sword”. The name of the two-handed claymore was applied to the single-handed one. The Highland pistol is also a unique weapon. The Highland Pistol was originally made in the armories of Doune and Stirlingshire of all steel for the Black Watch. The Highland Regiments abandoned the pistol by the mid-1790s. The dirk was a short dagger that was used by the Highlanders as a last resort weapon. The name for the weapon comes from the Gaelic phrase “sgian dearg”, which means “red knife”.

The Highland weapons are not the only things that made these regiments unique. They also commonly wore Scottish military hats and different clan tartans on their kilts. When they were not allowed to wear kilts for a while after the Second Jacobite Rebellion, they were allowed to wear trews, similar to modern trousers, with their regiment’s former tartan pattern on them. Some of the Highland Regiments did not wear any form of tartans on campaign. Some Highland Regiments did not even wear tartans because in 1809, the Scottish Highlands were deemed unfit to provide soldiers for a whole Highland corps, so units from the English militia had to join the Highland Regiments. The Highland regiments that had their dress taken away from them were the 72nd, 73rd, 74th, 75th and 94th regiments.

War of Austrian Succession

The first Highland Regiment formed after the Union of 1707 was the 42nd (Black Watch) Regiment of Foot. These men would be sent to fight in the War of Austrian Succession in 1745. They served at the Battle of Fontenoy. Though it was a tragic loss for the British Army, the Black Watch served with distinction. Using what was called the “Highland Way of Fighting”, they would wait until the enemy was about to fire, and then duck. After the enemy’s nearly ineffective volley was fired, they would get back up and fire back. They used this many times throughout the battle, but in the end, under heavy volleys and artillery fire, they gave up their position and retreated. Ironically, the very man whom would practically destroy the Highland clan system at the Battle of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland, was very impressed with the Black Watch.

Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War had two theaters, the theater in Europe, and the theater in the Americas. In both places the Highland Regiments served. In the European Theater, the 87th and 88th Highland Regiments served in almost every decisive battle. At the Battle of Kloster Kamp, these two regiments were used as an advance party with light infantry and cavalry. At the Battle of Warburg, these two regiments were used with a column of British Grenadiers and two battalions of Hanoverian Grenadiers and took the French left flank. These two Highland Regiments, the 87th and 88th were disbanded after the war.

In the American theater of the war, there were four occurrences of the Highland Regiments at the Battles of Fort Duquesne, Fort Carillon (later renamed Fort Ticonderoga), Quebec, Bushy Run, and. In the first appearance of the Highlanders, at the Battle of Fort Duquesne, the 77th Highland Regiment charged out to entice the French and their Native American allies to a fight. The Highlanders were not accustomed to North American warfare (their enemy using trees as cover to reload) and though they fought ferociously, they were surrounded and their leader, Major Grant, surrendered. They lost three hundred men, and the rest were allowed to retreat and later appeared at the Battle of Bushy Run. The Highlanders lost the battle, but the French would later retreat from the fort due to the large British force being led by General Forbes. At the Battle of Quebec, Fraser’s Highlanders, who were disbanded after the war, played an important part. At night, a British flotilla was sailing down river to land and position its troops on cliffs to the west. A French sentry saw the ships, and when questioned the ships if they were French; a Highland officer answered him in French. If this Highlander had not answered the French sentry, there could have been many consequences in the upcoming battle. In 1759, at the Battle of Fort Carillon, the Black Watch played a pivotal role in the British attack. Out of all the British regiments, it is said that the Black Watch were “the first at the front, the last to retreat”. The Highlanders were enraged whenever they were held in reserve while their fellow Brits were shot at from a distance while climbing through a path of cut down trees. Nevertheless, for their courage, they suffered greatly. Half of the regiment was killed or wounded, and the regiment did not fight for the rest of the war[4]. The last occurrence of the Highland Regiments in the American theater of the war was at the Battle of Bushy Run in 1763. The Black Watch and the 77th Highlanders[5] made up almost all of the force.[6]The regiments split up into two groups, one attacked from the front, while the other attacked from the rear. In the end, the British won the battle. The 77th Highlanders would afterwards be disbanded, and so few returned back home to Scotland after the war.

"The Charge of the Highlanders at the Battle of Bushy Run"
"The Charge of the Highlanders at the Battle of Bushy Run"

Colonial Wars

The Highland Regiments have also taken part in the many colonial wars of the British. These would be the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Second Anglo-Maratha War. The Black Watch served in the American Revolution at the Battle of Harlem Heights. The Black Watch, working with the British Light Infantry attacked and pursued a small group of New England Rangers. The Rangers were bait for an American flanking party, and the Americans inflicted about seventy casualties until the British retreated. The battle was indecisive. The 71st Regiment of Foot, Fraser’s Highlanders, served at many battles during the Southern Campaign serving as a reserve. At the Battle of Cowpens, they even outflanked the American militia’s position, but the Americans retreated in good order. Besides Fraser’s Highlanders, Black Watch took a small part in the Battle of Paoli by being one of the last regiments to charge at the battle. This was the only involvement of the Highland Regiments in the American Revolution. After the war, Fraser’s Highlanders were disbanded. During the Second Anglo-Maratha War in 1805, the Highland Regiments also served. In Wellington’s first victory, the Battle of Assaye, the 74th (Royal Highland Fusiliers) and the 78th Highland Regiments led the final charge that broke the Indian lines. In the War of 1812, the 93rd Highlanders took part in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. They were among the British regiments that had just defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. When the Scots got within one hundred yards of Jackson’s entrenchments, their commanding officer was killed. His lieutenant did not have them advance or retreat. In an act of pure bravery, the Highlanders stood in their column and took all of the concentrated fire of the American riflemen. An American observer wrote, “It was an act of cool, determined bravery.” The shooting continued until a surviving British general ordered them to withdraw. Three-fourths of the 93rd were left behind, and the wounded were treated in American field hospitals after the battle. The men who survived were returned to Britain after the war. Unfortunately for both sides, the battle was “after the war” since the Treaty of Ghent was signed two weeks earlier. Poor communications of that time delayed the news of the war’s end to the participants in the Battle of New Orleans, and many men died in a battle that never should have been.

Napoleonic Wars

The Highland regiments were used in the Napoleonic Wars, but almost all of their appearances were when they were under Wellington’s command. The first theater that the Highland Regiments served in was the Peninsular War. At the Battle of Vimiero, the 71st Highland Light Infantry Regiment was used to guard the artillery peaces with the 82nd Lancashire Regiment. The French made a surprising attack and both regiments were forced back. However, their leader, Major General Ferguson, charged these two regiments back at the guns, and the French brigade retreated. Major General Ferguson pursued the French brigade until he was ordered to stop by Wellington. Had he pursued, the French army may have surrendered. At the Battle of La Coruna, the Black Watch and the 50th Foot were sent in to take the village named Elvina. The first attack was a success, but they used up almost all of their ammunition. Short of ammunition, the two regiments retreated from the village, but a bayonet charge again took the village for the British. Even when their commander was fatally injured, the two regiments held the village, and the French attack gave way. The next day the British evacuated the area. The next battle that the Highland regiments played a large part in was the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro. The 74th and 79th Highland Regiments, with the support 88th Connaght Rangers, engaged a French Cuirassier regiment and though they were pushed back, the 88th Regiment came in support and drove the French cavalry, whom were low on ammunition, away. The Highlanders also participated in the Battle of Waterloo. Many Highland Regiments served in squares against the famous French cavalry charge, including the 42nd, 71st, 73rd, and 92nd. A legend says that when the Royal Scots Greys had to ride through the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, that the 92nd actually held on to their stirrups and assisted them in the charge. There is no real proof confirming this. Unlike in most other wars, the Highland regiments that fought at Waterloo were not disbanded afterwards.

"The Thin Red Line"
"The Thin Red Line"

Crimean War

In the Crimean War, the three Highland Regiments, the 42nd, 79th, and 93rd were combined into the Highland Brigade, led by Colin Campbell. This brigade is famous for storming the heights at Alma. The 42nd was the most overzealous, and it charged towards the center while the other two regiments took the flanks and outflanked the enemy. At the Battle of Balaclava, the 93rd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders made their famous stand called the “Thin Red Line”. Also with the 93rd were two Turkish battalions, but they fled upon seeing the Russian cavalry. The Russian Cavalry, it is said, numbered 2,000, and the Highlanders, forming a “thin red line tipped with steel” fired a volley at extreme range, and for some reason[7] the Russian cavalry retreated. This has been glorified in the painting “The Thin Red Line.” These two are the most famous occurrences of the Highland Regiments in the Crimean War.


The Highland Regiments have been very famous throughout the years for serving with bravery and distinction. They still exist today in the British army, some serving as part of the newly formed Scottish Division in Iraq. One reason the Highlanders are so popular is that they had unique uniforms. They often had a kilt, and usually either a Glengarry or a tam o’ shanter. Surprisingly, at times, the Highlanders made up nearly a fifth of the British standing army. For an area with such a small population in a country with such a small population, this is pretty incredible. The Highlanders were very similar to the Irish in the proportion at which they served in the British military. The Highland Regiments also made up a majority of the Scottish regiments. It has been said "the British Empire was won by the Irish, administered by the Scots and Welsh and the profits went to the English". However, if we examine the make-up of the British Army in 1881, which was made up of sixty-nine regiments, of which there were forty-eight English regiments, ten Scottish regiments, eight Irish regiments, and three Welsh regiments. There were around six-to-seven Highland regiments in 1881. If one considers the proportion, the Scottish Highlands had proportionately more regiments per population than the Irish. There are many  modern occurrences of the Highlanders charging with bayonets, even in the Boer War, but this essay is about the Highlanders when they could charge into the enemy in the single-shot age of warfare, since this is when they were in their prime. In conclusion, the Highland fighting tradition is one that has lasted a long through many struggles, and it is one that will never end.


The Crimean War: A Reappraisal by Philip Warner

Highlanders: A History of the Scottish Clans
by Fitzroy Maclean

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[1] The term “Ladies” was a reference to their kilts.

[2] All of the main leaders of the First War of Scottish Independence had Norman ancestry.

[3] Though there was the slaughtering of prisoners, and the takeover of power called the “Highland Clearances”.

[4] Though they did appear in reserve at the final storming and taking over of the fort the next year.

[5] Whom were about to be disbanded, but were called back to Western Pennsylvania to participate in the battle.

[6] A small detachment of the 60th Regiment of Foot also appeared at the battle.

[7] Possible causes could be low morale, or the Highland reputation for fighting.