Tough, loyal and proud
In the second in our series looking at Scotland's army regiments, we focus on The Highlanders, the proud descendants of five famous Scottish fighting units. As Mark Nicholls discovered, they recruit over large tracts of some of Scotland's most beautiful and challenging terrain
The image is irresistible: a lone piper stepping into the fray bravely playing on to stir his comrades into action in the face of withering enemy fire.
There are such tales within the annals of Scottish military history.
Piper Kenneth Mackay famously stepped outside the relative safety of the regimental square to inspire fellow soldiers to repel continuous French cavalry charges at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. And with similar bravery Piper Findlater, on the North West Frontier of India in 1897, urged the men on with a rousing battle tune and continued to play despite being shot in both ankles.
These were men as tough and rugged as the terrain they came from. They fought with regiments that were forebears of the modern day Highlanders and then, as now, a good number came from these northern parts of Scotland.
The bagpipes, the tartan and the history are still vivid for today’s Scottish soldier and those who wear the regimental badge of The Highlanders have a clear and strong link with their ancestry.
They are the modern day representatives of Scotland’s more illustrious regiments, with names that bring to life a long military history with origins in the latter part of the 18th Century: The Gordon Highlanders; The Cameron Highlanders; the Stirlingshire Regiment; and the 72nd and 78th Highlanders who were formed in 1881 into the Seaforth Highlanders.
By 1961 they had become the Queen’s Own Highlanders and from 1994 The Highlanders, the regiment as it is today which has recently served in Bosnia and Sierra Leone.
With the motto ‘Cuidich 'n Righ’, translating from the Gaelic as ‘Save the King’, the historic clan affiliations are retained and clearly demonstrated by the tartans (Gordon, Mackenzie and Cameron).
These historic regiments, and the modern day combat infantry battalion of some 550 currently based in Fallingbostel, Germany, traditionally recruit from the northernmost parts of Scotland.
They select their men from the Highlands, Invernesshire, the north east and Aberdeen, and right up to Sutherland and Caithness. Though now formed into one regiment, they still retain die-hard links to these parts of the country.
This is a Scotland that stands in stark contrast to the south, sparsely populated, remote, yet stunningly beautiful, inviting and welcoming. Glorious lochs, mountains, a magnificent coastline, castles, whisky, wildlife, tradition and heart-warming hospitality are the signposts.
It may be too vast to absorb in one visit and to try to see too much at once can mean merely scratching the surface.
Aberdeen, as Scotland’s third city, is often a good starting point.
For those keen to learn more about the military history this is where the Gordon Highlanders Museum is based. As Ian Hainey from the Aberdeen and Grampian Tourist Board points out: “The Gordon Highlanders museum is a five star attraction and one of the most popular visitor attractions in the Aberdeen area.”
This museum, which attracts 17,000 visitors a year, has recently undergone a large scale restoration and has increased in size. It is now able to show off in style the traditions, activities and courage of The Gordon Highlanders. It also celebrates the activities of forebear regiments right back to the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, formed in 1794, through to the current regiment.
“The Gordon Highlanders is the regiment of the north east of Scotland and has a history spanning 200 years,” says museum curator Sarah MacKay. “People often do not realise just how far reaching the Gordon Highlanders were, serving in places such as India, South Africa and New Zealand. There is certainly something of interest to everybody to see with our collection.”
Aberdeen, so often referred to as the Granite City from the hue of the stone used in its buildings, has a modern cosmopolitan feel. It is the capital of the United Kingdom’s oil industry and also has a strong fishing heritage.
Along the Grampian coast there are open beaches and villages tucked into small inlets, such as Pennan, the location for the film Local Hero with its famous red phone box used by Bert Lancaster. From there it’s not far to Speyside, known as Whisky County and home to more than half of Scotland’s distilleries. There’s plenty of opportunity to sample a dram or two.
Inland from Aberdeen is the royal residence of Balmoral, where the Queen takes a summer break, and Braemar, famed for the Highland Games and an eastern gateway to the Cairngorm Mountains.
The Cairngorms National Park takes in some of the most spectacular landscapes in Britain from the wild tundra of the mountains to the seclusion of ancient pinewoods.
A second useful stepping off point for those with a military interest is Inverness-shire and the Regimental Museum of the Highlanders at Fort George, Ardesier.
Housed in Europe’s best-preserved 18th century fort, the museum offers a fascinating insight into the regiment and its history and offers access to archive material. It is open for over 300 days a year and over the past decade the average number of visitors has been around 50,000 a year.
But beyond the regiment and its history, there are any other attractions that should not be missed.
Inverness sits at the top of the Great Glen, with a variety of landscapes within easy reach. Loch Ness, of course famed for the legend of its monster, is close by while to the south and the west lie the big hills in the heart of the Highlands.
A short journey from Inverness is the National Trust for Scotland’s visitor centre at Culloden, which tells the story of the defeat of the Jacobite forces led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746.
Further north, the Northern Highlands offer such variety. There are sublime landscapes to walk through, lochs to fish in, boat trips to see seals and dolphin and golf, cycling, riding and watersports all widely available.
Caithness and the north coast of Sutherland take you to the very top of Scotland. The coast between Wick and Thurso is spectacular and includes John O’ Groats, the Duncansby Stacks and Dunnet Head, while inland the key feature is the Flow Country with miles of interlaced pools and lochs. Meanwhile north west Sutherland is a bare and rugged part of the country, home to some of the most ancient rock on earth.
This whole Highland landscape is a wonderful aspect of Scotland. Expect to see a terrain as tough and varied as the soldiers it produces.
Aberdeen and Grampian Tourist Board:
Highlands of Scotland: www.visithighlands.com
Cairngorms National Park: www.cairngorms.co.uk
The Gordon Highlanders
Museum: St Lukes, Viewfield
Road, Aberdeen, AB15 7XH
Tel: +44 (0)1224 311 200
Regimental Museum of
The Queen's Own
Ardersier, IV2 7TD
Tel: +44 (0)1667 462 800 ext 8701