AFTER last week’s interruption to mark the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Queen Elizabeth, today I am resuming my series on the Scottish regiments with, as promised, the Gordon Highlanders, now part of 4SCOTS, the 4th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

First of all, however, I pause to pay tribute to Professor Edward Cowan, formerly professor of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow and director of the university’s Dumfries Campus, who has died at the age of 77. His passing and that of Bill Bryden last week has seen 2022 off to a bad start for Scottish history and culture.

The many tributes to Ted Cowan included this from Professor Dauvit Broun, professor of Scottish History at Glasgow University, who said: “Professor Ted Cowan was a towering presence in the field of Scottish studies for nearly half a century. His command of history and literature spanned a millennium, from Vikings to WW1 poets, and ranged across the globe, following the fortunes of Scots from the Arctic to the Antipodes.”

Everyone with an interest in Scottish history and the Scots language owes a debt of gratitude to Ted Cowan, who had the gift of making history an approachable subject. Over the course of his long academic career he promoted Scottish history in a way that only Professor Sir Tom Devine has emulated, and I know how much Ted was appreciated for his work in saving and developing the Crichton campus, as it then was, in Dumfries.

Yet I did not know until recently what a huge influence he was in Canada, where he was professor of History and Chair of Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph, Ontario, for 14 years.

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He practically invented studies of the Scottish diaspora, and his visiting professorships over the years took him to Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. He was the very embodiment of the international Scot, and this humble history writer can only ask that his legacy be acknowledged and preserved, perhaps with an award or a scholarship in his name.

Now to the Gordons, once described by no less a personage than Winston Spencer Churchill during the Boer War as “the finest regiment in the world.”

They certainly have one of the best regimental museums anywhere, rightly rated by VisitScotland as a five star attraction, and I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the museum in Aberdeen. In writing this brief account of the Gordons I have drawn on the museum’s resources and on the many sources of information about the regiment. Where I have found discrepancies I have gone with the official history as published on the museum website.

Regular readers will know that in this series I have concentrated on the early history of each regiment, and it is necessary to do that with the Gordons as the regiment has quite fascinating origins.

Though always associated with the north east, the regiment’s antecedents were actually found further south with the raising in Stirling in 1787 by professional soldier Colonel Robert Abercromby of the 75th (Stirlingshire) Regiment, which was raised for service in India. In the tradition of the time they were known as Abercromby’s Highlanders, and they first saw action in the Third Anglo-Mysore War, including the famous Siege of Seringapatam in February 1792. The 75th would go on to fight in several major battles in India, including another Siege of Seringapatam in 1799 which ended with the death of Tipu Sultan.

The 75th saw gallant service in many other wars in the 19th century, notably during the Sixth Xhosa War in 1834 and the Indian Mutiny in 1857. It was in that year that the regiment won its first Victoria Cross. An Irish-born Colour Sergeant Cornelius Coughlan was in the thick of the fighting at Delhi when he performed with gallantry under enemy fire, the original reason for the winning of a Victoria Cross.

The National: Sergeant Major Cornelius Coughlan’s headstone in Aghavale CemeterySergeant Major Cornelius Coughlan’s headstone in Aghavale Cemetery

HIS citation read: “For gallantly venturing, under a heavy fire, with three others, into a Serai occupied by the Enemy in great numbers, and removing Private Corbett, 75th Regiment, who lay severely wounded. Also for cheering and encouraging a party which hesitated to charge down a lane in Subzee Mundee, at Delhi, lined on each side with huts, and raked by a cross fire; then entering with the said party into an enclosure filled with the Enemy, and destroying every man.

“For having also, on the same occasion, returned under a cross fire to collect dhoolies, and carry off the wounded; a service which was successfully performed, and for which this man obtained great praise from the Officers of his Regiment.”

Coughlan VC also had the honour of receiving a personal letter of thanks from Queen Victoria herself.

The 75th won two more VCs in India and served in Hong Kong and Singapore before it was amalgamated with the 92nd (Gordon Highlanders) Regiment of Foot to become the Gordon Highlanders during the Childers reforms of 1881. The history of the Gordon Highlanders as a regiment really dates from that 1881 amalgamation, but I think the history of the two predecessor regiments is most instructive.

The 92nd had originally been numbered as the 100th Regiment of Foot and was raised in remarkable fashion which has passed into legend. Like several other Scottish nobles, Alexander Gordon, the 4th Duke of Gordon raised a regiment to take part in the French Revolutionary War.

The story goes that his wife, Jane Gordon, a society beauty, had bet the then Prince of Wales, later George IV (below), that she could recruit more men than he could, and she did so by offering a kiss to every man who signed up for the king’s shilling. She must have had strong lips as nearly 1000 men signed up for service with what soon became known as the Gordon Highlanders.

The National: King George IV

The 100th saw service as a garrison regiment in Gibraltar and Corsica before it was renumbered as the 92nd Regiment of Foot in 1798, though it was still informally known as the Gordon Highlanders. The following year the 92nd under Colonel, later General George Gordon, then the Marquess of Huntly, the son of the 4th Duke and himself later the 5th Duke of Gordon, saw action in what is now The Netherlands in which the Colonel was badly wounded.

The 92nd would rise to great fame during the Napoleonic Wars, and the name of the Gordons became renowned among the military and British public alike.

Having previously fought in Egypt where they were merited the inclusion of a sphinx in their emblem, the 92nd took part in the Copenhagen Expedition of 1807 to capture the Danish Fleet, and then played a long and distinguished part in the Peninsular War, participating in such famous battles as Corunna in 1809, Fuentes d’Onoro and Oroyo Dos Molinos in 1811, Almaraz in 1812, Vitoria, the Pyrenees, Nive and St Pierre in 1813. It was in this latter battle in December that year that a famous incident took place.

The official history recounts: “During the battle, one of the pipers at the head of the Regiment was killed as he played ‘Cogadh na Sith’. Another quickly took his place and when he too was killed a third stepped forward before the village was finally taken. The tale of the three pipers of St Pierre spread back to the Highlands, where their courage was widely celebrated, and the story entered into the lore of The Gordon Highlanders.”

At the Battle of Quatre Bras just before Waterloo, the Gordons lost their commander Colonel John Cameron of Fassiefern, mortally wounded as the regiment was mauled by the French. At Waterloo, with the regiment now numbered less than 300 men, the Gordons played a vital part in the famous charge by the Royal Scots Greys, some of the troops hanging onto the stirrups of the charging Greys, before following up with a charge of their own that destroyed a 3000-strong French column, a feat that earned the regiment undying fame.

Service in the Crimean War and in India and Afghanistan followed before the 1881 amalgamation of the 75th and 92 to form the Gordon Highlanders. The regiment already had a distinguished history but it was only just getting going.

The Gordons were immediately into action in Egypt and the Sudan, before being sent to the North West Frontier where the regiment and one piper in particular performed almost superhuman feats at the Battle of Dargai Heights on October 20, 1897. Other regiments tried and failed to dislodge the 8000 Afridi warriors on top of this strategically important promontory before the Gordons were sent for.

Their Lieutenant Colonel H H Mathias spoke to the men: “The General says this hill must be taken at all costs – the Gordon Highlanders will take it.” The soldiers were urged on by piper George Findlater, who despite wounds to his legs and a broken ankle, propped himself up and played the Haughs o’ Cromdale as the Gordon rushed up and routed the enemy, an action for which he was awarded the VC, with Private Edward Lawson also winning that award on the same day for rescuing under heavy fire an officer, Lieutenant Dingwall, and a Private McMillan who had both been badly wounded, as was Lawson himself.

In the Second Boer War the Gordons were a contingent of the army besieged in Ladysmith and then took part in several battles that eventually ended a very bloody war.

The First World War saw the Gordon Highlanders at their most numerous. The regiment raised 21 battalions during the conflict, serving on the Western Front and in Italy. An estimated 50,000 men served over the course of the war with 9000 killed and 20,000 wounded or reported missing. The Gordons received 57 battle honours and four Victoria Crosses in that war alone. The Second World War did not start well for the Gordons, the 1st battalion being captured with the rest of the 51st Highland Division at St Valery-en-Caux, though others from the regiment were evacuated at Dunkirk. The 2nd battalion in Singapore was also captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war in prison camps.

Meanwhile battalions were re-formed at home, and territorial battalions were called up so that the Gordons were able to fight again. This they did at the Battle of El-Alamein, when they went into the conflict wearing Saltires on their back to identify one other.

The Gordons were in action across North Africa and then Sicily and Italy while two battalions converted to an armoured regiment and took part in the Burma Campaign. Other battalions took part in the D-Day landings and many battles before the Nazis surrendered in May, 1945.

In the post-war period the Gordons served in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya and Northern Ireland before the merger with the Queen’s Own Highlanders to form the Highlanders (Seaforths, Gordons and Camerons) in 1994, 12 years before the Royal Regiment of Scotland came into being.

So famous were the Gordons they even had a song written about them:

I’m Geordie MacKay of the H. L. I.

I’m fond of the lassies and a drappie forbye,

One day when out walking I chanced to see,

A bonnie wee lass wi’ a glint in her ee’

Says I to the lassie “Will you walk foe a while?

I’ll buy you a bonnet and we’ll do it in style,

My kilt is Mackenzie o’ the H. L.I.”

She look’d at me shyly and said wi’ a sigh.

A Gordon for me, a Gordon for me,

If ye’re no a Gordon ye’re no use to me.

The Black Watch are braw, the Seaforths and a’

But the cocky wee Gordon’s the pride o’ them a’.