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Issue 10 - A man to die and cry for

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003

 

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A man to die and cry for

DAVID STEWART WAS AN UNLIKELY HERO – BUT HIS BRAVERY EARNED HIM THE DEVOTION OF HIS MEN, AND HE HELPED DEFINE THE STRONG IMAGE OF HIGHLANDERS ACROSS THE WORLD, BY JAMES IRVINE-ROBERTSON

Short, mild in manner with thick spectacles, David Stewart made an unlikely hero. The younger son of Perthshire laird, he was born in 1772.

Both his grandfathers fought at the Battle of Culloden – one was killed – and the young man joined the family regiment, the Black Watch.

His fighting career was concentrated in the early phase of the Napoleonic Wars before allied armies regularly faced the French in continental Europe.

The nation needed heroes, particularly land-based heroes, and David was one of a handful that fitted the bill.

He first distinguished himself in 1794 in ruthless irregular combat as part of British expeditionary force, island hopping in the Caribbean to crush French and Spanish garrisons.

Shortly after returning to Britain, the regiment joined in an invasion against French-held Egypt. On 8th March 1801, 5,000 men were rowed to the beaches under withering enemy fire.

David wanted to be first ashore. To his chagrin he was second, and led his men in a bayonet charge up the dunes clearing the entrenched French.

David “by his gallant bearing and knowledge of the capabilities of his countrymen when properly commanded contributed essentially to the brilliant success which almost immediately crowned this daring operation.”

The French retreated to Alexandria but sallied forth a fortnight later. In a desperate battle the French were beaten. The Black Watch won one of its greatest battle honours and David was severely wounded but his reputation was made.

“He had made himself the brother and confidant of the men under him; and could, with an art approaching that of a poet, awaken those associations in their bosoms which was calculated to elevate and nerve their minds for the perilous tasks imposed upon them,” it was
written about him.

“Captain Stewart appears to have possessed not only the affections of his men, but of all connected with them in their own country.”

He was promoted to major in the newly formed 2nd Battalion of the Ross-shire Highlanders which was posted to Hythe in Kent.

In June 1805 David and four lieutenants were ordered to India to join the 1st Battalion. He was the protagonist in the events which followed.

“The day before the field-officer left the regiment, the soldiers held conferences with each other in the barracks, and several deputations were sent to him, entreating him to make application either to be allowed to remain with them, or obtain permission for them to accompany him.

“He stated that while their services were at present confined to this country, they must separate for some time.

“The next evening, when he went to take his seat in the coach for London, two-thirds of the soldiers, and officers in the same proportion, accompanied him, all of them complaining of being left behind.

“They so crowded round the coach as to impede its progress for a considerable length of time, till at last the guard was obliged to desire the coachman to force his way through them.

“Upon this the soldiers, who hung by the wheels, horses, harness, and coach doors, gave way and allowed a passage. There was not a dry eye amongst the younger part of them.”

The upshot of this extraordinary incident was a petition to the Commander-in-Chief from General Moore.

The Duke of York cancelled the transfer and ordered David to return to the battalion “in which he had so many friends ready to follow him to the cannon’s mouth.”

In 1806 the British mounted a small force in support of King Ferdinand of Naples who had declared war against Napoleon.

The invaders landed unopposed in southern Italy but soon met a French army.

In the confusion of battle, David took it upon himself to visit a neighbouring regiment and advise a redeployment to its commander. On returning to his own men, he found his commanding officer had misunderstood his orders and was preparing to retreat.

This was the critical moment of the battle. The colonel refused to listen to David’s protests, so the latter shot him, took over command of the regiment, launched an attack and drove the enemy from the field.

The battle was the first British victory against Napoleon in continental Europe and was trumpeted throughout the world. David was severely wounded again and although his right arm was permanently crippled, he was promoted. By the end of the war he was in command of the Royal West India Rangers.

In 1817 David was asked to write a history of the Highland regiments. Highland soldiers had been exceptional troops, the cream of their society as opposed to the English regiments whose recruits customarily came from its very dregs.

But the character of the Scots soldiers had changed. David investigated this and in 1822 produced Sketches of the Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland with details of the Military Service of the Highland Regiments.

The book described the old Gaelic culture and contrasted it with the plight of the people brought on by the Clearances and he did not mince
his words.

“The system of modern Highland improvement is marked by an aversion...to the ancient inhabitants, their customs, language, and garb,” he wrote.

“[It] will probably root out the language of the country, together with a great proportion of the people who speak it.” Such trenchant opinions made him a hero again to the Highlanders but created powerful enemies.

The ‘Sketches’ remains the most influential depiction of the old Highland way of life.

In spite of its politics the book catapulted David to the position of supreme authority on Highland matters. When George IV came to Edinburgh in 1822, Sir Walter Scott decided to turn the visit into a Highland pageant and asked David to organise it.

The Lowland spectators were dazzled and decided to claim this romantic version of Gaeldom as their own heritage, a appropriation further cultivated by the Victorians.

It had little to do with reality but served as a powerful focus for national pride which assisted the Scottish identity to survive the overwhelming proximity of its larger neighbour.

David was second only to Scott in creating this Highland self-image for their countrymen.

In the historian John Prebble’s opinion, “More than any other man, even Scott, he [Stewart] was responsible for the conventional and enduring picture of the Highland clansman and soldier.”

The image which David played so large a part in creating still largely identifies his nation to itself as well as to the world.