Soldiers of Empire

Screen-Shot-2015-05-28-at-14.28.44As soldiers of the British imperial armies Scots were visible on many African battlegrounds, including in West Africa, Egypt and, most notably, in South Africa. Scottish regiments were conspicuous, earning ‘accolades as empirebuilders’. Or, as Richard Finlay has observed, ‘[u]ndoubtedly, the military contribution of the Scottish regiments was the most important factor in the propagation of a distinctive Scottish input into British imperial activity.’ This input, though relatively small in numerical terms given that the number of Scottish soldiers in the British army was low relative to Scotland’s population, was perceived as enduring and powerful. This was the case too because the Scots were very visible: clad in highland kilts and with tartan trews becoming a mainstay even for lowland regiments, an iconography emerged around the Scottish soldier that was as recognisable as it was powerful in cementing the image of the Scottish soldier. In the visual record was reflected one of the central ways in which Scots could play out their national identity on an imperial stage – and one in which Africa played a key role. Royal patronage from Queen Victoria, dispensed in recognition of the Scottish soldiers’ service and valour, further consolidated this image.

In southern Africa, where there were intermittent frontier wars over the course of a century, from about 1770 to 1870, Scottish soldiers were among the earliest arrivals, providing security for the Cape Colony. Thus was established the foundation of what became not only a long, but also a complex relationship between South Africa and Scottish military culture. While these foundations in South Africa were important, however, it was only with the Asante War of 1873–4, that a Scottish regiment was engaged in frontline fighting in Africa. The war had been triggered by the Asante invading the Gold Coast in West Africa, a British protectorate, and it came down to the 42nd Highlanders (1st Battalion, the Black Watch) to do much of the fighting on the ground – valiantly for crown and Empire. Other engagements, for instance in Egypt and the Sudan, were of significance in the late nineteenth century.

The most notable war on African soil, however, undoubtedly was the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). A result of the ongoing disputes between
the two independent Boer republics and the British government over the settlement and status of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, the war broke out in October 1899 when Britain failed, after an ultimatum had been issued, to withdraw its troops from the borders of the two states. Boer forces were much better prepared and had better equipment compared to other African forces. They were also well versed in making use of modern tactics. The new conditions of warfare in South Africa, combined with the fact that many of the Scottish soldiers fighting in that particular war were relatively new to combat, took its toll, with losses increasing signifi cantly. Of particular note is the Battle of Magersfontein in December 1899, where the Highland Brigade eventually had to retreat – though even this retreat could not undermine the ‘legend of martial invincibility’, as this had, by that stage, become deeply engrained in Scottish popular perception. What makes the Anglo-Boer War so important is that it involved every Scottish infantry regiment, as well as Scottish auxiliary forces, with around 5,000 Scottish volunteers serving during the Boer Wars. The contribution of these citizen soldiers provided an immediate connection between Scotland and South Africa.

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