Recruitment in 1793

From a manuscript by (as far as I can make out) Rev Col AJ Mackenzie, son of Roderick Mackenzie, gamekeeper at Luachair and Uig Lodge.  According to tradition, men were compelled to join the army when Seaforth was raising the 78th Seaforth Highlanders in 1793.  When he arrived in Lewis, the men of Uig took to the hills and established themselves at Cnoc a’Champ, near the site of Uig Lodge, and a boat rowed by women was sent to meet Seaforth at Callanish.  Seaforth was not best pleased and set off with the minister, Rev Hugh Munro, to speak to the men.  Rev Munro persuaded them to be more patriotic, and an assurance was given that only one son would be taken from a family, or two where the family was large.   The minister’s own son, Ensign John Munro, was enlisted in 1804 and subsequently killed at Java.  AJ Mackenzie here looks at the traditions surrounding the giving of the King’s shilling, particularly in light of the assertion by Chamberlain John Munro Mackenzie (grandson to Rev Munro and author of the published Diary of 1851) to the Napier Commission that enlisting was voluntary.

The primary object of Munro Mackenzie’s examination by Lord Napier’s Commission was apparently to discover what were the means employed by Seaforth and his officers in procuring recruits for his regiment – whether recruiting was by compulsion backed by threats of eviction, or by voluntary enlistment backed by promises of future reward.

This is a point on which I have never been able to find definite information. Mackenzie in his evidence was emphatic on the point that there was no compulsion of an sort, and so far as I know there was no recognised authority that could compel a man to join the army. Yet in the traditions of the people themselves there is the definite impression, whether mistaken or not, of a time when men were compelled to send their sons into the army. Again and again I have heard reference to a time when men were compelled by some authority to join the army – “an uair a bha iad ‘gan toirt air falbh do’n arm“. Four incidents bearing on this point occur to me.

There used to be pointed out on Fidean Eristeadh a remarkably wide ditch which was alleged to have been jumped by a young man of the village when pursued by soldiers who were seeking to apprehend him for military service. In this case, however, it is just possible that the man was a deserter, and that his pursuit by soldiers was in accordance with military law.

Another young man, belonging to the same village I believe, although physically fit in every way, and marked out time and again for military service, used to secure rejection by the singular ruse of dislocating his shoulder, a device which he could exercise at will.

The next incident is more interesting. A high official in the service of Lord Seaforth had, as the story goes, for personal reasons taken a violent dislike to a stalwart youth in Valtos, and had determined to exercise all his authority in forcing him into the army. The young man evaded all attempts to capture him, and finally sought escape by going to sea as a sailor. Some years passed, and the ship on which he served returned to Stornoway.

On coming ashore he discovered that his enemy had just died and that preparations were being made to carry the remains to the mainland for burial. There being no other ship available at the time, his ship was, by a strange vicissitude of fortune, chartered to transport the body across the Minch. On arrival at their destination the Valtos man, along with the rest of the crew, attended the funeral, and when the coffin was lowered into the grave, he seized a spade and hastily began to fill in the earth, saying:

Cuiribh air, cuiribh air, is e chuireadh oirnn e
‘S ma dh’eireas e rithist cuireadh e an coir oirnn.

Bury him, bury him, for he would surely attack us
And if he rises again, he will get us.      (…roughly!)

This grave, with the date 1797 on its headstone, is still pointed out in an old cemetery in the Gairloch district. The date is of interest in that the first battalions of the 78th Highlanders were raised in 1793-94.

The last story with the underlying impression of enforced enlistment was told me by the late Roderick Macleod (Ruairidh Saighdear) of esteemed memory, himself a great lover of the Saga, and possessing a memory richly stored with its numerous tales. Mr Macleod’s father was one of the old soldiers, though not of Uig, and this is how he came to join the army.

According to Mr Macleod’s information the rule was that every family except those which had only one son had to give a son to the army. In the case of the Macleod family there were two sons, or perhaps only two of mature age, John and Malcolm. Both were summoned by the recruiting officers. Malcolm was rejected on account of his youth, and John, although a married man and by no means disposed to leave his wife and young family to the chances of fortune, was accordingly attested and presented with the King’s shilling.

Realising there was no escape from his fate, he sorrowfully commanded his family to the care of his younger brother. Malcolm, although slightly under the age eligible for military service, determined to make an effort to reverse the cruel fate that was about to separate his brother from his family. “Show me your shilling,” he said. “Nach e tha breagha.” And receiving it, he immediately put it in his pocket. “Now,” he said, “the shilling is mine. You will go back and look after your wife and family; and I shall go away in your stead.” “Not so,” replied John. “The shilling is mine and I must go.”

Thus began an amazing scene: the two brothers contending for the possession of the King’s shilling. The victory ended with Malcolm amidst the applause of the onlooking officers. The attestation paper was immediately altered; the name of the younger brother was substituted for that of the older. John went back to his family and Malcolm went forth on the great adventure from which he did not return till after the lapse of twenty years.

It can hardly be maintained that any of these stories contains conclusive evidence that coercive methods were employed in procuring recruits for the army. On the whole, there is reason to believe that the impression was an erroneous one. There was certainly nothing analogous to the methods employed by the press-gangs at an earlier time in procuring recruits for the Navy, and in the stories of the majority of the old soldiers who returned from the wars, I have never been able to discover any reference to coercion.