Mutineers on Trial

On this day in 1779, a court martial sat in Edinburgh Castle to try three soldiers for mutiny. The soldiers were additionally charged with having “instigated and incited others to be guilty of the same, in which mutiny several of his Majesty’s subjects were killed, and others wounded”.[1]

The charges against these soldiers stemmed from an incident in April, which historian Max Hastings summarises as follows: “Highland soldiers of the 42nd and 71st regiments, abruptly drafted to serve with a detested Glasgow Lowland regiment, refused the order and fought a brief, bloody battle with men of the South Fencibles.”[2] Several people died and many were taken prisoner, but these three alone faced a death sentence.

Among the men who made up the court was Captain Angus M’Alister of the West Fencibles. This M’Alister’s identity is unclear to me, but the fact that he was a captain in the Western (or Argyll) Fencible Regiment provides some clues. Fencible regiments “were different in constitution from the militia, afterwards substituted, as the men were regularly enlisted, and the commissions of the officers signed by the King.”[3] Although raised at time of war, the fencibles did not serve outside of Scotland itself; rather, “[t]hey formed a splendid army of reserve”.[4] The Western Fencible Regiment in which M’Alister served was raised in 1778 by members of the (Campbell of) Argyll family. The majority of its men were recruited from Argyll and the surrounding Highland areas, and leadership of the regiment was overwhelmingly Campbell. Although it is possible that M’Alister might be one of the minority recruited from the southwest Lowlands, the fact that he was an officer, in a regiment whose officers were almost entirely Argyllsmen, suggests that he belonged to one of the West Highland Macalister families who were tenants of the Duke of Argyll.

The soldiers on trial pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. Their defence makes clear how much still separated Highlanders from Lowlanders in the late 18th century. Two of the men, a native of Argyllshire and another of western Invernesshire, spoke no English; the third, from Caithness, could get by in broken English but was certainly not fluent. Furthermore, all three were accustomed to wearing the fillibeg and uncomfortable in Lowland garb. They had enlisted willingly, but each had specifically chosen a Highland regiment, where their own language was spoken and they were allowed to wear the clothes they had always worn.

Upon arriving at Leith in April, however, they were told that they were now to serve under English-speaking officers in regiments that required Lowland dress. This was more than an inconvenience. A “great number of the detachment” protested that they were “incapable of wearing breeches as part of their dress”[5], and for some of them it would have been impossible to understand orders given in English, let alone follow them adequately. It was certainly not what they had signed up for.

It is hard to imagine that M’Alister and his colleagues (more than half of whom belonged to regiments that drew men from the Gaidhealtachd and wore Highland dress) were unsympathetic. Until the sudden change of regiment, all of the accused had behaved impeccably, and they all indicated that they were happy to serve in any other Highland unit. The change of orders had not been clearly explained to them, nor were they told that they could appeal. Furthermore, several witnesses testified that they did not know whether the first shot in the altercation had been fired by the rebels or by the South Fencibles who had been sent to deal with them.[6] Nonetheless, the behaviour of these soldiers and their comrades violated several of the articles of war, and the court had no choice but to declare them guilty and sentence them to death.

Probably to everyone’s relief, this story ended happily. Right before the condemned were to be shot, a message arrived from the king; in light of their previous good behaviour, a full pardon was granted and the prisoners were released to return to their units.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]Scots Magazine, vol. 41 (May, 1779), p. 271.

[2] Hastings, The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 176.

[3] Peter Handyside MacKerlie, An Account of the Scottish Regiments with Statistics of Each, from 1808 to March 1861, Compiled from the old regimental record books, and monthly returns of each regiment, now rendered to the war department (Edinburgh, 1862), p. 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Scots Magazine, vol. 41 (May, 1779), p. 272.

[6]Scots Magazine, vol. 41 (June, 1779), pp. 305-6.

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