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Issue 17 - Soldiers made of Stirling stuff

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004


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Soldiers made of Stirling stuff

The Scottish army regiments have a long and distinguished history. Mark Nicholls looks at the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the diverse attractions that lie in the regiment's traditional recruiting heartland

It is hardly surprising that Stirling is home to one of Scotland’s most decorated army regiments. The name signifies ‘land of strife’ and history shows that it has been thus at the critical moments in Anglo-Scottish history over the last millennium.

Two of Scotland’s bravest warriors left an indelible imprint on the area’s folklore. It was here, in and around Stirling, that William Wallace – immortalised in Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart – and Robert the Bruce, won independence for Scotland.

Wallace is iconified in a fitting memorial at Abbey Craig, overlooking the site of his victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.

Bruce’s historic victory over the English, at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, is honoured at the Bannockburn Heritage Centre two miles south of Stirling where a magnificent equestrian statue of King Robert stands.

Today, Stirling is the home of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, an active and much travelled regiment, and one that has recently seen action in Iraq. It has a proud, long and colourful history stretching right back to its formation in the final years of the 18th century.

The 91st Argyllshire Highlanders were raised in 1794 in the shadows of Stirling Castle and saw service in South Africa, Waterloo and India, while the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders – established in 1799 – served in New Orleans, the Crimea and Balaklava.

The two forces were amalgamated in 1881 to form the Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and soon to serve in Zululand, the Boer War, India and the Far East. The Princess took a keen interest in the regiment, even designing the new regimental badge combining
the Argyll boar’s head and the Sutherland wild cat.

The regiment had 26 battalions in World War I and nine in World War II and has since served in many other locations across the globe.

Its soldiers have been awarded 16 Victoria Crosses – the highest award for bravery in the British Army – over the years.

Today the regiment consists of a regular infantry battalion 550-strong, a Territorial Army battalion and an army cadet force Battalion. With the Queen as Colonel-in-Chief, its troops carry out a range of duties, often employed on humanitarian, peacekeeping and other tasks.

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, with a string of battle honours and still affiliated to the Campbell clan and the Duke of Argyll and Duke of Sutherland, recruit across a broad swathe of central Scotland, selecting the finest soldiers from Argyll, Stirling, Clackmannanshire, The Trossachs and Dumbartonshire.

It is into this heartland that the visitor must be immersed to fully absorb the spirit and heritage of this fine military force.

Stirling is Scotland’s newest city, awarded the status in 2002 as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.

An ideal base from which to explore Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, it has a fascinating old town and a vibrant centre.

The castle, one of Scotland’s finest, was originally built during the reign of James IV (King of Scots 1488-1513) and was the favourite residence of Scotland’s monarchs prior to the union with England in 1603.

A number of decisive battles were fought within sight of its walls and it now houses the regimental museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, recounting the 200-year history of the famous regiments.

The Museum is arranged in eight rooms and tells the story of the regiment from the first muster of the 91st under Stirling Castle’s walls in 1794, to the 1881 reorganisation and on to the present day.

Major Alastair Campbell, museum curator and regimental secretary, said from the early history the museum looks at the regiment’s role in two world wars and other subsequent deployments across the world, such as Borneo, Aden, Korea and Northern Ireland.

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders have been in the Basra area for the first part of 2004 helping to maintain security and train Iraqi defence forces.

In May, soldiers from the 1st Battalion mounted what were described as ‘classic infantry assaults’ on positions held by more than 100 fighters loyal to the outlawed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. During the engagement, the Argyll and Sutherlands fixed bayonets – the first time British troops had done so in combat since the Falklands war of 1982 – and fought hand to hand with a Shi’ite militia.

The regimental museum also has memorabilia, displays, silverware and a medal room with nine of the 16 Victoria Crosses on show.

There is also an archive facility for visitors who want to trace former soldiers,

Major Campbell added: “We are really Stirling and Stirlingshire’s regiment, although the recruitment area is from Kinross in the east to Argyll in the west.”

Stirling Castle is still very much the home of the regiment, despite the 1st Battalion currently being based in Canterbury as part of the 16 Air Assault Brigade. It is home to the museum and is the Regimental headquarters.

The regiment is inextricably linked with the whole region. Numerous churches across this great central swathe of Scotland have regimental windows and war memorials are engraved with the names of hundreds of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Clackmannanshire, another strong recruiting ground for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, is pierced by the Firth of Forth as it nestles between the sea and Stirling.

Called the ‘wee county’ (it is Scotland’s smallest) and centred on Alloa, it spreads out to the Ochil Hills and the unique hillfoot villages.

These are small communities, such as Blairlogie, Menstrie, Alva and Tillicoultry, set at the foot of the Ochil Hills, each with their own distinct identity.

Among them is the delightful village of Dollar, overlooked by Castle Campbell, which was the 15th century home of the earls of Argyll.

Argyll, another regular beat for the Argyll and Sutherland’s recruiting sergeant, is steeped in early Scottish history and also an area of outstanding natural beauty.

In the landscape around Lochs Caolisport and Gaimeanhach lie many ancient landmarks, which give Argyll its magical lure. Loch Fyne has also established a reputation for wonderful seafood and is the source that supply chain of restaurants across the United Kingdom called Loch Fyne.

Near the head of Loch Fyne is the estate village of Inverary, still the seat of the dukes of Argyll. Berthed at the village’s pier is the Arctic Penguin Maritime Heritage Museum, an old lightship, depicting life at sea on the west coast of Scotland and around the world.

At Dunadd, near Lochgilpead, are the remains of a hill fort and evidence of the first Scots settlers from Ireland.South of Lochgilpead, in Knapdale, on the upper reaches of Loch Caolisport, is St Columba’s Cave, a refuge traditionally thought to have been used by the saint in the sixth century on his crusade from Ireland.

For those who seek the history of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, this beautiful and varied reach of central Scotland – from one coast to another – is an irresistible lure.

The regimental museum is, of course, the starting point.

But to truly absorb the spirit of the men who fought with this famous regiment, it’s necessary to spend a few days amid the crisp atmosphere and air of Stirling, Clackmannanshire and Argyll.

It truly enhances the sense of what it meant to be a Scottish soldier with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.