Sunday, 26 December 2010

Who's Who in Scottish Military History - David Niven

It seemed to come as a surprise to some lately that the quintessential English gentleman, Hugh Grant, should have a connection to a Highland regiment but his name should have been a clue. Hugh Grant is not an uncommon name around the Moray Firth. Grant has take on a role within Holywood which was once occupied by another Englishman with Scottish roots, David Niven.

I’ll not go into detail about Niven's Holywood life here; you can find plenty about that in books and articles elsewhere but I’ll mention his time in a Scottish regiment in the 1930s. Niven wasn’t born in Kirriemuir as he liked to claim but his father’s family did hail from Perthshire and after a troubled childhood he had decided he wanted to serve as an officer in a Highland regiment.

At Sandhurst he put down as his first choice of regiment the Argylls, second was Black Watch and for his third choice he was too smart for his own good and wrote “Anything but the Highland Light Infantry”. The army took a dim view of this and packed him off to the 2nd Battalion HLI in Malta. The HLI were aware of his comment and he found the HLI Officers Mess unwelcoming. He did make friends with a couple of other officers - Roy Urquhart, who later commanded 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem; and Michael Trubshawe who became a character actor in British films in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

Inter Platoon Cup, 1930. David Niven sitting front row, third from the left. Michael Trubshawe is sitting front row third from the right.

He didn’t enjoy his time with the HLI and after two years he ran away to Holywood and the rest as they say is history. In 1939 he returned to the UK to sign up. He didn’t even try the HLI. At first he tried the RAF but they wouldn’t have him but a friend got him a commission in the Rifle Brigade. He later served in the Commandos and Phantom Force.

When he was in Malta I’m sure Niven rued writing “Anything but the Highland Light Infantry” but would he have found the fame he did if he had been posted to the Argylls? Perhaps if fate had placed him in a welcoming regiment he would have settled into the life of a regular army officer and never gone near acting. What if, eh?

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