Friday, 1 July 2011

The Childers Reforms - On this day on Scottish military history - 1881

1st July 1881 was the date when the Childers Reforms of the British Army were implemented. On that date the old numbered regiments of the army officially disappeared, and many new paired regiments first appeared on the Army List.

The first twenty five regiments of foot already had two battalions so there was very little change for them. For the 26th Foot and the regiments numbered above that then a new name was needed and old traditions and uniform distinctions had to be agreed on. For Highland regiments there was an added twist to this amalgamation because the uniform for each regiment was so distinctive and in many ways so different.

In some cases the pairing led to one battalion completely taking over the identity of the other. The 92nd Highlanders were the junior partner in the amalgamation with the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment but it was the 75th who took on the uniform and name of the Gordon Highlanders. In fact in all cases where kilted regiment amalgamated with a trewed regiment, the new regiment ended up wearing the kilt.

In 1881 there were ten Highland regiments on the army establishment but only five wore kilts. The rest wore trews. The 71st, 72nd, 73rd, 74th and 91st Highlanders had originally been raised as highland regiments in kilts, but in 1809 they had been clothed as line infantry. They had only been allowed to assume a highland identity after hard battles with Horse Guards in London but it was in kilts not trews in which they were clothed.

The 1st Royal Scots, 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers, 26th Cameronians, and 90th Perthshire Light Infantry were all Scottish regiments too, but until 1881 wore the standard line infantry uniform used by English, Welsh and Irish regiments. In 1881 that all changed. Scottish regiments from Lowland to Highland adopted diced bands, tartan and doublets.

Over the years stories have surfaced of the unhappy unions, and the fights over traditions and uniforms. In the Highland Light Infantry the 1st Battalion continued to call itself the 71st, and the 2nd Bn continued to call itself the 74th and each continued to use traditions and uniform distinctions peculiar to their old regiments.

This is understandable given the forced union between many regiments. However that shouldn't have been the case. Since 1873 the infantry regiments of Scotland had been operating a linked depot scheme introduced by the Cardwell Reforms. Each pair of regiments shared a depot in one location which had counties assigned to it for recruiting. Then while one regiment was abroad on overseas imperial duties its linked regiment at home in the UK (including Ireland) would train the new recruits and send drafts of reinforcements when needed. The system worked well and the pairings seemed to suit both parties.

Here are the links and the depots used Between 1873 and 1881 by the Scottish regiments

1st Royal Scots - (2 battalion regiment) at Glencorse
21st Royal Scots Fusiliers - (2 battalion regiment) at Ayr
26th Cameronians and 74th Highlanders at Hamilton
42nd Black Watch and 79th Cameron Highlanders at Perth
71st Highland Light Infantry and 78th Ross-shire Buffs at Inverness
72nd and 91st Argyllshire Highlanders at Stirling
73rd Highlanders and 90th Perthshire Light Infantry at Hamilton
92nd Gordon Highlanders and 93rd Sutherland Highlanders at Aberdeen

The 25th Foot and 75th Foot were not considered Scottish regiments at this point. The 25th was a two battalion regiment at York, and the 75th was linked with the 39th Foot at Dorchester in Dorset.

When Hugh Childers came to reform the regiments it should just have been a case of forming these already linked and similar regiments together into new regiments. That was a sound plan until the proposals were laid before Queen Victoria for her royal assent.

The problem was the proposed amalgamation between the 42nd Black Watch and the 79th Highlanders. The 79th were actually the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. They were her own highland regiment and she was certainly not amused at the prospect of them becoming 2nd Battalion Black Watch.

At the eleventh hour the proposed amalgamations were thrown into disarray and hurriedly redrawn to accommodate the wishes of the Queen-Empress.

The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders were not to be amalgamated, and for the next sixteen years were to be the only one battalion regiment in the British Army. That meant a new second battalion was needed for the Black Watch, and a reshuffle akin to musical chairs took place to find suitable pairings.

The first change was that the 73rd Highlanders would now move from Hamilton to Perth to become the 2nd Bn Black Watch. This was a sensible move since the 73rd had originally been formed as a second battalion of the Black Watch way back in 1780, before becoming a regiment in its own right in 1786.

The 90th Perthshire Light Infantry had missed the chance to go back home to Perth and stayed in Hamilton. It would now merge with another Hamilton based regiment, the 26th Foot Cameronians, to form Scotland's only green-jacketed rifle regiment as the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). The 1st Battalion as the Cameronians and the 2nd Battalion as the Scottish Rifles.

The 26th's old partner, the 74th Highlanders was to stay at Hamilton too; and it would now be paired with another trews wearing highland regiment, the 71st Highland Light Infantry. This was probably the most controversial of all the moves. The HLI had been very happy being paired with the 78th at Inverness. They had always considered themselves as a proper highland regiment and had petitioned for the return of the kilt on several occasions over the previous seventy years. The Childers reforms had finally promised that chance as they would have adopted the Mackenzie kilt of the 78th instead of their Mackenzie trews. Their amalgamation at Hamilton with another Lowland regiment robbed them of that chance. As a sop to the senior partner the new regiment adopted the 71st's name and tartan but it was not a happy union on either side.

With the 78th now needing a new pairing the 72nd Highlanders at Stirling was chosen. This suited both parties as both had been raised by Mackenzies, and in this case the 72nd were happy to ditch their garish Royal Stewart tartan trews and adopted the Mackenzie kilt of their junior partner. They happily merged as the Seaforth Highlanders using the 72nd's Stag's head badge.

This left another gap at Stirling, and the 91st now paired with the 93rd Highlanders. In this case too the junior partner was given 'top billing' and it was originally called the Sutherland and Argyll Highlanders. It was another few months before it took on the more familiar name of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Finally the 92nd at Aberdeen needed another regiment. There were no more regiments available in Scottish depots so an old Scottish regiment now depoted outside Scotland was needed. The 94th Scotch Brigade at Armagh, or the 99th Lanarkshire regiment at Devizes could have been chosen; but it was the 75th Foot, the old Stirlingshire regiment which was poached from Dorset and sent north to Aberdeen. The West Countrymen were to become Highlanders overnight. The 75th's place in Dorchester was taken by the 54th regiment, which had been paired with the 95th at Derby, and in turn was replaced by the 45th which had been at Leicester with the 17th Foot. Luckily the 17th Foot was a two battalion regiment so no more reshuffling was needed.

Well not quite. The 25th Foot was at York in 1881, but in 1887 the King's Own Borderers became the King's Own Scottish Borderers. The old Edinburgh Regiment was given the whole of the Scottish Borders from Berwick to Galloway as a recruiting area from the Royal Scots, and Royal Scots Fusiliers; and a depot at Berwick-upon-Tweed from the Northumberland Fusiliers.

By then the process of adapting new names, uniforms and badges had been adopted by the other Scottish Regiments. The KOSB finally came into the fold six years after the others but it was on this day one hundred and thirty years ago that the paired regiments (Cameronians, Black Watch, Highland Light Infantry, Seaforths, Gordons and Argylls) which became famed throughout the world for their service in two world wars, came into being.

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