Military history pages..

Athole Highlanders



1778 - 1783.

Raising of the Regiment - Ireland - Mutiny - Disbanded.

On the application of the young Duke of Athole, government granted him authority to raise a regiment of 1000 men for the service of the State, with power to appoint officers. The command of this corps was given to Colonel James Murray, son of Lord George Murray.

The Athole Highlanders were embodied at Perth, and in June 1778 were marched to Port-Patrick, and embarked for Ireland, where they remained during the war. They were thus deprived of an opportunity of distinguishing themselves in the field; but their presence in Ireland was attended with this advantage, that they supplied the place of other troops, who would probably have been less exemplary in their conduct amongst a people whose passions were excited by misgovernment.

The terms on which the men had enlisted were to serve for three years, or during the war. On the conclusion of hostilities, they, of course, expected to be disbanded; but instead of this they were transported to England, and marched to Portsmouth for embarkation to the East Indies. On the march they were acquainted with the intention of the Government; and so far from objecting to a continuance of their service, they showed no disinclination to embark, and when they first saw the fleet at Sptihead, as they crossed the Portsdown-hill, they pulled off their bonnets, and gave three cheers for a brush with Hyder Ali. They had scarcely, however, taken up their quarters at Portsmouth, when the face of matters changed. The minds of the men, it is said, were wrought upon by emissaries from London, who represented the unfaithfulness of the Government in sending them abroad after the term of their service had expired. It was even insinuated that they had been sold to the East India Company at a certain sum per man, and that the officers were to divide the money amongst themselves. These base misrepresentations had their intended effect, and the result was that the soldiers resolved not to embark. The authority of the officers was despised; and after a scene of uproar and confusion, which lasted several days, during which the Highlanders attempted to obtain possession of the main-guard and garrison parade, the order to embark was countermanded by Government.

One account of this affair, dated at Portsmouth, and published in February 1783, contains the following details: - "The Duke of Athole, his uncle, Major-General Murray, and Lord George Lennox, have been down here, but the Athole Highlanders are still determined not to go to the East Indies. They have put up their arms and ammunition into one of the magazines, and placed a strong guard over them, whilst the rest of the regiment sleep and refresh themselves. They come regularly and quietly to the grand parade, very cleanly dressed, twice a-day, their adjutant and other officers parading with them. One day it was proposed to turn the great guns of the rampart on the Highlanders; but this scheme was soon overruled. Another time it was suggested to send for some marching regiments quartered near the place, upon which the Highlanders drew up the draw-bridges, and placed sentinels at them."

"You may be assured," says another account," I have had my perplexities since the mutiny commenced in the 77th Regiment; but I must do the men the justice to confess, that excepting three or four drunken fellows, whose impudence to their officers could only be equalled by their brutality, the whole regiment have conducted themselves with a regularity that is surprising; for what might not have been expected from upwards of one thousand men let loose from all restraint? Matters would never have been carried to the point they have, but for the interference of some busy people, who love to be fishing in troubled waters. The men have opened a subscription for the relief of the widow of the poor invalid, (he was killed when the Highlanders made the attempt to take possession of the main-guard and garrison parade.) for whose death they express the greatest regret. On their being informed that two or three regiments were coming to force them to embark, they flew to their arms, and followed their comrade leaders through the town, with a fixed determination to give them battle; but on finding the report to be false, they returned in the same order to their quarters. The regiment is not to go to the East Indies contrary to their instructions, which has satisfied them, but will be attended with disagreeable consequences to the service; and since the debates in the House of Commons on the subject, I should not wonder if every man intended for foreign service refused going, for the reasons then given, which you may depend on it they are now well acquainted with."

Mr Eden, afterwards Lord Auckland, secretary for Ireland, in the Parliamentary debates on the mutiny, bore honourable testimony to the exemplary conduct of the regiment in Ireland: - "He had happened," he said, "to have the 77th regiment immediately under his observation during sixteen months of their garrison duty in Dublin, and though it was not the most agreeable duty in the service, he must say that their conduct was most exemplary. Their officers were not only men of gentlemanly character, but peculiarly attentive to regimental discipline. He having once, upon the sudden alarm of invasion, sent an order for the immediate march of this regiment to Cork, they showed their alacrity by marching at an hour's notice, and completed their march with a despatch beyond any instance in modern times, and this too without leaving a single soldier behind."

This unfair and unworthy attempt on the part of Government created a just distrust of its integrity, and had a most pernicious effect on its subsequent endeavours to raise men in the Highlands. Alluding to this unfortunate affair, General Stewart observes, that "if Government had offered a small bounty when the Athole Highlanders were required to embark, there can be little doubt they would have obeyed their orders, and embarked as cheerfully as they marched into Portsmouth."

The fault resting entirely with Government, it wisely abstained from pushing matters further by bringing any of the men to trial. The regiment was immediately marched to Berwick, where it was disbanded in April 1783, in terms of the original agreement.