John Munro and the Saighdeirean Mac a’ Mhinisteir

A series of articles on the Old Soldiers of Uig appeared in the Comann Eachdraidh Uig publication, Sanais, in the 1980s, from which this is an extract.

John Munro, Iain Mac a’ Mhinisteir, was the only son of the Rev Hugh Munro, minister at Bailenacille for fifty years; a son of the manse with a taste for adventure, he obtained a commission in the new battalion of the 78th (Seaforth Highlanders) raised from the Seaforth estates in 1804.  He was an ensign and his commission depended on his bringing a recognised quota of twenty men with him and from the stories extant, it is still very evident that these recruits went willingly and with confidence in his leadership.  His family had an excellent relationship with the people of the parish: Hugh Munro is still remembered for liberality to the poor and his son was to prove a good and caring officer to his men.  He had a strong bond of shared experience with them, he spoke their language and could intercede on their behalf and on one occasion he saved one of their number, Murdo Buchanan of Carnish, from execution.  Murdo was caught at inspection with his bayonet unpolished.  John Munro put forth a strong defence on his behalf, pleading his valour in the previous battle, and saved him from death.  He was also their only link with home’ he gave the battalion’s news in his letters to his father and this was passed on to the Bailenacille congregation from the pulpit.

He was promoted Lieutenant just a year after joining the regiment.  By this time the initial training at Fort George was over and the battalion was at Hythe, where they were trained in a new system of drill invented by General Sir John Moore of Corunna fame, who inspected them before they were posted for foreign service and expressed himself as highly pleased with their appearance.

They spent the best part of a year at Gibraltar and in May 1806 they were part of the expedition to Sicily and Calabria, commanded by Sir John Stuart. The Battle of Maida was fought in hot, sultry July weather and the British army were ordered to drop their equipment to fight unhampered.  It was a hand to hand fight with crossed bayonets with very little gunfire on either side.  French losses were colossal, the British buried 700 enemy dead on the battlefield, but themselves lost 44, seven of which were from the 78th.

Among those were Donald Mackenzie, Dòmhnall Alain Ruaidh, a married man with a family of four daughters whose home was on the island of Pabbay.  He was a native of Lochs but of mainland stock, a relation of Cailean Dearg, who was one of Seaforth’s officials.  His demise in foreign fields left his widow Anne Macleod on Pabbay in dire straits, lacking menfolk to man the boat.  Her army pension allowed her to acquire a holding in the old village of Gisla [her uncle Murdo Macleod, Murchadh mac Iain mhic Thorcuil, was tacksman there] and their descendents in Uig, Bernera and Canada are numerous.  Another soldier in John Munro’s battalion, Malcolm Macarthur from Bernera, was wounded but there seems to be no further mention of his service.  Malcolm Smith, Calum Gobha of Enaclete, and Murdo Macleod, Murchadh Chaluim Rhuaidh, later of Crowlista and a renowned bard, were also both at Maida.

John Munro survived the Battle of Maida unscathed and also two minor actions in the capture of two Calabrian fortresses, Scylla and Colrone.  The battalion wintered in Sicily before the Egyptian campaign of 1807, the Cogadh na Tuirc of hideous memory, one of the most disastrous ever undertaken by a British army. John Munro, this time unlike many of his fellow-islanders, came unharmed and uncaptured through the Battles of Rossetta and El-Hammed, actions in which a thousand British soldiers were killed, wounded and taken prisoner.  He was with his men during the siege of Alexandria, where they were well protected from the ferocious besieging Turks, by 0 he strong fortifications and where they had plenty of provisions of all kinds but where they suffered tremendously from illness.  It was at this point that many soldiers caught an infectious opthalmic illness and became blind, though local tradition attributes the affliction to the effect of the burning desert sand in their eyes.

When the Cogadh na Tuirc ended, 400 fit men, Lieutenant John Munro and other Uig men among them, were sent to join the first battalion of the 78th in India.  The voyage took ten months and the addition of the fresh draft brought the strength of the battalion to 1027 men, of whom 835 were Highlanders.

It was at this point in its history that the 78th embarked on a fantastic adventure in a most exotic and eastern setting.  They sailed from Madras through the Straits of Malacca to Java.  The French were the aggressors:  they had annexed the former Dutch colony of Java and the Governor-General of India determined to win it back.  On 5 August 1811 the British force landed in Java and two days later they captured the capital, Batavia, without opposition.  But three miles on, a French army of 3000 held the cantonment of Weltevreeden and on 10 August, an advance force, consisting of the 78th and the 89th, attacked.  They took Weltevreeden at the point of the bayonet in the face of desperate resistance by its French defenders, and the 78th lost 33 men.

After the action, disaster struck the Uig soldiers.  While on the battlefield, supervising the removal of the wounded, John Munro was attacked and killed by an enemy soldier who, minutes earlier, had been lying prone on the ground.  Tradition supplies us with the sequel to his death in grisly detail:

Cha do dh’fhàg sin pìos dheth (an leòontach) uiread’s gum b’fhiach a chuir air dubhan lìon mhòir.
(We didn’t leave one bit of him (the assailant) big enough to be worth using as bait for a longline.)