January 27th 1793
The revolt of the 77th battalionThe fifty years after Culloden were not happy times in the Highlands. The wearing of Highland dress was forbidden, the carrying of arms was proscribed and the Gaelic language was denigrated. At the same time the population increased and this created new problems. One solution, and it was a popular one, was to enlist into the army.
In the last decade of the 18th Century nearly 40% of the British battalions of fencibles were raised in the Highlands. This from an area with no more than 3% of the United Kingdom population. In the beginning recruiting proved easy enough, but as time went on it became progressively more difficult to persuade young men to enlist.
However, in 1788 the Duke of Atholl did manage to raise a thousand men to form the 77th Duke of Atholl Highlanders, with his kinsman James Murray of Strowan as their colonel. Unfortunately, for his lieutenant-colonel the Duke chose Charles Gordon of Sheelagreen in Aberdeenshire, a hard arrogant man who spoke no Gaelic. He was deeply unpopular with the men.
The 77th , like most regiments raised at the time, enlisted for three years or the duration of the war with France. They spent their service in Ireland, returning to England at the end of 1792. Although peace had not yet been signed with France and Spain it was expected to be declared any day.
Notwithstanding this, the battalion was marched to Portsmouth preparatory to sailing to India. Perhaps if the declaration of peace had been delayed a little longer all might have been well, for the men were not opposed to sailing to India until the news filtered through that a peace treaty had been signed.
There was an immediate reaction from the men and a call to abandon the embarkation order. But no such response came from the officers. The Highlanders were in fact addressed by Sheelagreen that day and told that they were to parade at nine o’clock the next morning to go aboard the ships at Portsmouth harbour.
The attitude of the officers and particularly that of Sheelagreen provoked furious reactions from the men and the embarkation was postponed for a day in the hope that the Highlander’s anger would subside with the passage of time. No such thing happened.
At the parade next day one soldier stepped forward from the ranks shouting, “By God, I’ll shoot you,” and fired at Sheelagreen. Fortunately his musket misfired. The incident precipitated an attack on all the officers present. They were pursued through the streets of Portsmouth, in some cases clubbed to the ground and lucky to escape with their lives. Sheelagreen managed to reach the main guard room closely followed by the mutineers. The door would have been broken down by the enraged soldiers but that a message was conveyed to them that Sheelagreen was already dying. This was not true but was enough to draw them off in search of new quarries.
James Murray of Strowan wrote in his report of the affair, “The soldiers now grew perfectly outrageous, searching every public house for their officers, to put them to death, and parading by hundreds in the streets, beating to arms and carrying the Colonel’s bonnet upon a bayonet as a trophy of their victory.” This was to be the high point of the spontaneous and furious anger directed by the men against their officers.
After the initial burst of violence a new spirit emerged among the Highlanders. There was no more drunkenness, they paraded each day and accepted all orders given to them by their officers. Even those who had been attacked on the Monday were now treated with proper deference. But there was no yielding on the cause of the mutiny. The men made it quite plain that they believed that the terms of enlistment now entitled them to be discharged from service.
News of the mutiny spread to other regiments and was received with great enthusiasm, but most remarkable of all the Government, frightened of the possible consequences of punitive action against the mutineers, agreed to their demands. “No person inlisted under the conditions above listed (ratification of a definitive treaty of peace) shall be sent on any foreign service, unless he shall be reinlisted into his Majesty’s service.”
The news was received by the men with elation and by their officers with fury. “Something decisive ought to be done with this mutinous company to strike terror into the rest, and if the resolution of the Government be what they may, are not speedily put into execution the very worst consequences are to be dreaded.” But the Government had had enough and rather than risk further disorders, capitulated utterly and agreed to send the men back to Scotland.
They were marched to Berwick, company by company, and there discharged to make their several ways home to Perthshire.
In a final petty act of spite the authorities insisted on making deductions from the soldier’s pay for the new clothing with which they had been recently issued.