Scotland Magazine Issue 91
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The Atholl Regiment
James Irvine Robertson traces the history of Europe's only private army
After heading north from Perth the traveller enters the Highlands at Dunkeld. This is the beginning of Atholl, once one of the ancient Pictish kingdoms of Scotland. The route follows the course of the Rivers Tay, Tummel and Garry with straths and glens branching to the west and passing Blair Castle, which once controlled passage.
The boundary lies at Drumochter Pass where a hill called the Sow of Atholl confronts another known as the Boar of Badenoch. Armies have come this way for centuries and the country is amongst the most fertile in
the Highlands. Thus, it's well worth defending. The old Celtic earldom ended with an heiress, who married David of Hastings, but most of the land descended in the male line and these heirs were the founders of the Clan Donnachaidh, the Robertsons.
The king re-granted the earldom of Atholl 10 separate times, usually to his Stewart kinsmen, before it finally ended up with the Murrays in 1629. They are now the Dukes of Atholl. Of the first Stewart earl, a local historian wrote: ‘His revenue and estates were not very great, but he had a great many allies and pretty numerous company of gentlemen of his own surname to surround his motehill and fight under his own banner. Some of these Stewarts were cadets of his own house; many were collaterals that had been called in from Lorne. A few were descended from the Walter of Atholl line, and more than a few from the Wolf of Badenoch. To these were added Stewarts who boasted ancient or illegitimate descent from kings and princes who, when hunting the deer, wooed Highland maids in sequestered glens.'
In 1515, the 3rd Earl of the 8th creation managed to wrest ownership of the best bits of the old Clan Donnachaidh territory. When the young chief (the earl's own nephew) objected he was executed. Many of the small Robertson chieftains now found themselves vassals to the earl, although a few had their charters from the crown. They were joined by these incoming Stewarts. In 1723 the Duke of Atholl had 31 Stewart vassals and no less than 29 from Clan Donnachaidh. The Clan chief could still field 700 swords from his lands, but the earls and dukes of Atholl had more than 3,000.
However, the Murray earls and dukes had a problem. In theory they commanded all on their territory, but many of the Robertsons retained their old clan loyalties and the Stewarts had no links to the incoming family. Despite this, all who lived in Atholl had a common interest in defending their own lands and they almost always fought together and formed one of the most formidable forces in Scotland.
The first time they popped into history was 1391 when the Stewart sons of the Wolf of Badenoch joined with Clan Donnachaidh in a raid on neighbouring Angus. They were caught by a posse of armoured horsemen led by the Sheriff of Angus and Sir David Lindsay and successfully routed it.
In 1644, the Highlands were being ravaged by the Irish Macdonalds under Alasdair MacColla in the name of the King against Parliament. MacColla was using the opportunity to lay waste to Campbell lands, but his treatment of other clans' territories to supply his men was not much more gentle. The Athollmen put themselves under the command of the Clan Donnachaidh chief's uncle, Donald, who had been the chief’s guardian during his minority, and marshalled in the hills above Blair castle to repel this wild army. Conflict was prevented by the arrival of of command from the king. He brokered an alliance between Donald and MacColla. The Athollmen joined him and fought with him in his winning string of six battles over the following year.
In 1685 the 9th Earl of Argyll was in rebellion against James II. The Athollmen were led by Patrick Stewart of Ballechin, steward and warlord to the Marquess of Atholl, and marched to Inveraray where they hanged 17 Campbell lairds from the town walls. They returned with 1700 fruit tree sapling and much else from the parks of Inveraray for the gardens at Blair.
In 1689 the Marquess was for the government, but Patrick of Ballechin took Blair Castle for the king and the rest of the Athollmen; although many were too late for the battle of Killiecrankie, they enthusiastically joined in this abortive rebellion. Again in 1715, with the first Duke supporting the government, the Athollmen mustered for the Stewarts. Many were part of the army, under Brigadier MacIntosh of Borlum, that was dispatched across the Forth by the Earl of Mar to march south and link with the English Jacobites, but they were captured at Preston.
Atholl was split in 1745. The Duke and half his lairds were for the government; the other half, including both the Duke's disinherited elder brother and his younger sibling Lord George Murray, raised the Athollmen for Prince Charles. Lord George was the best of Charles' generals and he drilled and nursed the Athollmen into becoming probably the best troops in the rebel army. They were split into four battalions: one from the Robertson chief's own lands, another under Lord George himself, a third under his elder brother, and the last was commanded by Lord Nairne, the duke's cousin. Well over a 100 gentlemen of Atholl were listed as officers. Alone they held their discipline at the battle of Falkirk and ensured the government defeat.
Under Lord George, the 1st battalion launched a raid into their home country a few weeks before Culloden and captured 700 Campbell militiamen. At Culloden the Athollmen were on the right wing and charged along a wall from which they were enfiladed by fire from the Argyll Regiment and then by cannon firing grapeshot from their front and flank. One history states that 32 officers were lost and the Regiment was destroyed without even making contact with their enemy. The casualties to the ordinary soldiers can only be guessed at, but it has been estimated that more men of Atholl were lost in that couple of hours on the battlefield than during the entire First World War.
This was not quite the swansong of the Atholl Regiment. Twice the duke's tenants turned out to parade and escort Queen Victoria on visits to Perthshire. In 1845 the Queen granted them colours, giving the regiment official status. Under the command of the Duke, the 80-strong regiment still parades at least twice year. Many of its soldiers had ancestors who fought and often died in defence of their own country of Atholl. Today, they are known as the Atholl Highlanders.