The Oft Misunderstood Highlanders

The header Illustration is by George Cruikshank (Wikipedia Commons, “Results of the Northern Excursion”, 8 Sept, 1822). The main characters are (from L to R) King George IV, Sir Walter Scott, and “John Bull”. It is a mordant commentary on the kings visit to Scotland in 1822 which is so entertainingly detailed in John Pebble’s account in The King’s Jaunt, (HarperCollins, 1988). For centuries Highlanders, like Hillbillies in this country, have been figures of fun for the respective dominant cultures which garishly misrepresent them to the extent the caricature becomes the reality in the popular mind. 

Let me narrow the scope . When I say Highlanders are oft misunderstood I am speaking specifically in wargaming the 17th century and the confusion may likely be on my part. Stuart Reid’s books are central to my wargaming and probably most wargamers doing Scottish Armies in this period. Reid has a basic rule of thumb which roughly states that ALL Scottish (including highland) infantry units, unless historically demonstrated otherwise, should be constructed as musket and pike armed. This now seems to be uncritically accepted as the “proper” way to implement them on the table top.

There is, Indeed, a very strong reason to support this view. The de facto Covenanting Government of Scotland from 1638 forward was very capably organized and Scotland rapidly became the kingdom best prepared to fight in the coming wars. Each shire and burgh had committees organized down to the parish level to levy men, obtain weapons, and form one or more regiments of foot. These ended up being the regulars who fought in England, Ireland and, later, Scotland, and were undoubtedly conventionally armed.

The “Fencibles” (militia) might be a different matter. The aristocracy, clergy and government worked hand-in-hand to see that the regulars were trained and armed and that the militia was organized along the same lines. In the more populous Lowland settings, where the Covenant was near unanimously supported, this is undoubtedly what happened, the militia looked a lot like the regulars. Even areas that only tacitly supported the Covenant were pragmatic enough to at least give the appearance of forming the required musket and pike militias.

Scotland, however, had two coexisting cultures and the first, that of the Highlands, was not yet fully dominated by that of the second, the Lowlands. Most clan chiefs moved between the two cultures with some facility and the Kirk was exerting a stronger presence, but the clan system was still deeply imbedded and would be for another hundred years. The goals, concerns, ways and means of the clan might easily diverge from those of the government.

I remain somewhat confused by the fencible troops turned out from the deep Highlands in the west and possibly the north (either Royalist or Covenanter). The Marquis of Argyll (who assumed his father’s title in 1638), an increasingly powerful Covenanter leader, certainly raised musket and pike regiments. At Inverlochy. However, he turned out the clan levy in defense of his lands and they seem to be more traditionally armed. It seems likely that those chiefs, less inclined to the Covenant or those simply lacking the where-with-all, may have maintained their more traditional arms because that was sufficient to most purposes in their local setting.

It is important to stress that I don’t think that the romantic caricature of the wild, invincible Highlander is correct either. The very small warrior class (and it had to be small to be supported by the general population) was adept at individual combat, the sort of thing required for cattle raids and revenge raids, the usual form of Highland warfare. They knew how to hit hard and with stealth, achieve their local objective and then melt away just as rapidly. While the warrior was celebrated in songs and legends and prehaps presented the beau-ideal for the general populace, most clansmen did not grow up trained in the skills of a warrior nor were they heavily armed.

I suggested when I set up Tippermuir the last time that the Badenoch and Atholl Units could probably be constructed either as raw musket and pike units or as highland levy. As I am now looking at Auldearn, I am reasonable sure that the Gordon foot ( Strathbogie and Moneymore’s) should be musket and pike. The four (or five) regular regiments of Covenanter foot were most certainly musket and pike but I am not sure about the Northern clan regiments and the levies.

In future I will likely do my OoBs with options for both configurations if the units are from the west or the north. From a purely fun standpoint, selecting to type them as FK&P Highlanders, however, provides more gaming entertainment. When using the For King and Parliament rules, while the tactics are different for Highlanders and M&P units, their relative strengths (as militia) are likely very similar. I plan now to run several experiments to see how well things are balanced to be more comfortable using the either/or in scenarios.


2 thoughts on “The Oft Misunderstood Highlanders

  1. Interesting comparison with hillbillies, and great post. The irony is that hillbillies were Ulster Scots – the ‘billy’ monicker coming from their allegiance to William III, while the Jacobites were followers of his uncle James II. Ahhh the irony of Irish/ Scottish history.


  2. Thanks, Le Duc. I don’t think I had ever made the association between “Hillbillies” ( I R one, BTW 😀) and King “Billy”. Now that you mention it however, it does seem logical. Irony indeed, since a goodly number of West Highland Jacobites settled in Southern Appalachia and ended up as loyalists in the War of Independence – go figure!


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