The Cameronians - Scottish Rifles
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The Cameronians - Scottish Rifles


The Story of the Regiments - The Cameronian Regiment


As the poet says, “The whirligig of time brings in its revenges.” Richard Cameron fell in 1680, at the early age of 32. But eight years afterwards came the “great and glorious Revolution.” The country, sick of the tyranny and folly of the Stewarts, drove them into exile. William of Orange came over from the Netherlands to occupy the British throne. William had a difficult task before him, especially in Scotland. But he was a man of great sagacity, and he proved equal to the emergency.

A Convention was appointed to sit in Edinburgh, and (to make a long story short), it abolished prelacy in Scotland, and fixed Presbyterianism as the national form of church government. This was not all that the Covenanters desired, and the extreme men among them were bitterly dissatisfied. But at any rate it paved the way to something like peace. Meantime Graham of Claverhouse (the “Bonnie Dundee” of Scottish song) had hurried to the Highlands and raised the standard of the exiled Stewarts. And it was at this juncture that a proposal was made to enlist the Covenanters under the standard of King William.

The Covenanters were divided in opinion about this proposal. Some of them felt that they could not conscientiously take up arms under William; others felt that by doing so they might help the cause of the Covenanters and the Reformed religion. A great meeting was held in the Parish Church of Douglas. The majority are said to have been against enlistment; but there was a strong party in favour of it, and it was out of this party that the Cameronian Regiment was formed, in 1689, at Douglas Dale, Lanarkshire. Their first Colonel was the young Earl of Angus, of the great house of Douglas. He was a lad of 18, and a great part of the regiment was composed of his father’s (the Marquis of Douglas) tenantry. The actual commander, however, was the Lieut.- Colonel William Cleland. This Cleland was a remarkable character. When little more than a boy, he had led the Covenanters to victory at Drumclog. He also fought at Bothwell Brig, and the sword that he wielded there has been preserved. He was a scholar, a good linguist, and mathematician. He was also a poet, gifted both with spiritual fervour and with a vein of humour. When he took command of the Cameronians he was under 30 years of age.

Naturally enough, the Cameronian Regiment was peculiar in its Constitution. The men were Puritans in faith and life. They insisted that the most rigorous discipline should be maintained among them, and that their officers should be men “whom in conscience they could submit to.” The original idea was that the regiment should be organised in some degree on the model of a Presbyterian congregation; that each Company should provide an elder; and that each man should carry a Bible. A famous field-preacher was appointed Regimental Chaplain.

The new regiment had very soon to show its mettle. “Bonnie Dundee” had managed to raise an Army for the Stewarts from among the Highland clans. The Royalist forces, under General Mackay, marched north to give him battle. Dundee caught them in the Pass of Killiecrankie, and with one wild charge swept them into utter rout, he himself falling in the moment of victory. The news of Killiecrankie at once spread alarm through the Lowlands, and the Cameronians were ordered north to occupy Dunkeld. This was a dangerous move, for Dunkeld was an open town, in the midst of a disaffected population, and far away from any base from which supplies or support might be drawn. Indeed, it was the opinion of many that the new regiment was doomed to destruction.

The Cameronians were about 1200 strong. Within a few days they were assailed by a heterogeneous Highland army of about 5000. They fought with prodigious valour, taking cover with great skill, stripping lead from the roof of a house and Casting bullets on the spot. Cleland and his leading officers soon fell. But by and by the fury of the attack began to slacken, and at last the Highlanders broke and drew off from the field. They are said to have declared that they could fight with men but not with devils. Anyhow, Dunkeld gave a fine proof of the “dour” fighting qualities of the Lowland Scot. The defence of Dunkeld made a glorious beginning to the annals of the Cameronian Regiment. Not only was it a magnificent feat of arms, but, as Lord Macaulay says, “It finished the war.” The fear of a Stewart rising in the Highlands disappeared; and for the time being, peace descended upon the long distracted Lowlands of Scotland.

It may be worth our while to quote a description of the Cameronians which seemed to belong to the early days:

“The Cameronians are strictly religious, and ever act upon that principle, making the war a part of their religion and converting state policy into points of conscience. They fight as they pray, and pray as they fight, making every battle a new exercise of their faith: and believe that, in such a case, they are, as it were, under the banner of Christ. If they fall in battle they die in the their calling, as martyrs to the good cause, and believe that in thus shedding their blood they finish the work of their salvation. From such maxims and articles of faith, the Cameronians may be slain, never conquered. Great numbers of them have lost their lives, but few or none of them ever yielded.”

Since their historic defence of Dunkeld, the Cameronians have had their full share of war. Shortly after, they fought in the Low Countries, and displayed a stern valour. Their young Colonel, the Earl of Angus, fell at the head of the Regiment at Steinkirk in 1692. They also took part in the campaigns under the Duke of Marlborough, and won special renown at Blenheim. In 1727 the regiment was engaged in one of the successful defences of Gibraltar, which had then been a British possession for some twenty years, and which the utmost efforts of France and Spain failed to wrest from our grasp.

In the American War of Independence, the Cameronians were called upon to face much hardship and privation, and bore it with a spirit and steadiness that, notwithstanding the issue of the conflict, added much to their already great reputation. In 1809 the Cameronians were with Sir John Moore in his mastery retreat to Corunna, under the command of Sir William Maxwell of Monreith. In 1840 the regiment took part in the campaign in China, and distinguished itself on many occasions, particularly at the capture of Amoy, where it was the first to mount the walls. In 1868 the war with King Theodore of Abyssinia again called the Cameronians into the field, and they greatly helped to the complete success of the expedition.

Almost every regiment has its own customs and traditions, which are jealously preserved. And rightly, for every one of them has a significance and recalls something memorable. For example, it is the custom of the Cameronians to go on Church Parade armed. This is a memento of the days when the persecuted Covenanters gathered for worship among the moors and mosses, and set watchers on the ridges and knolls to give warning of the approach of the enemy.


Source: '300 Years of Service' published by the Regimental Trustees