The Origins – Formation of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) – Between the Wars – World War II –
The Disbandment – The Cameronians Badge
The Cameronians were a unique part of Scottish history for over three hundred years. Their origins lie in the turbulent period of religious and political strife of the 1680’s. Their end came with the defence cuts of the 1960’s; their name finally erased from the Army List in 1995.The original Cameronians were zealous Covenanters. Their devotion to the National Covenant (1638) and the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) meant that they would even do battle to defend their freedom to worship as they chose. Their heartland was in south west Scotland, in Galloway, Ayrshire, and in Clydesdale in particular.
When the crown ejected ministers from their parishes for refusing to submit to the rule of bishops, the Covenanters followed them to the hills and worshiped at open air services which came to be called conventicles. As the threat from government forces increased the Covenanters began to carry weapons to their conventicles and to post armed pickets to keep a lookout. This tradition was carried on through war and in peace until the day the Cameronians were eventually disbanded
The Regiment was formed in one day, 14 May 1689, ‘without beat of drum’. They mustered on the holm, on the banks of the Douglas Water in South Lanarkshire. Their first Commanding Officer was William Cleland whilst their Colonel was the 19 year old Earl of Angus, son of the Marquis of Douglas. The Earl’s magnificent statue overlooks the spot in Douglas to this day.
The Regiment took its name from Richard Cameron, ‘The Lion of The Covenant’. Originally a field preacher he was killed, a bounty on his head, at the battle of Airds Moss in 1680. Cleland had led the Covenanters in battle at Drumclog and Bothwell Brig. His sword, one of the treasures of the Regiment, can still be seen today in the Regimental Museum in Hamilton. There too is the ‘Bloody Banner’ carried by the Covenanters at both battles.
Within weeks of their formation The Cameronians saw action as regular soldiers at the Battle of Dunkeld*. There they showed their mettle with a staunch defence against a hugely superior number of rebel Highland troops, though it cost the life of the 28 year old Cleland. This fighting spirit was carried on in campaigns all over the world for the next 300 years. From 1750 they, like all of the regiments of the line, were given a number and were thereafter known as the 26th Regiment of Foot, The Cameronians.
Link to sermon by The Reverend James Harkness OBE QHC MA, Chaplain General to the Forces on the occasion of a Service to Commemorate the 300th Anniversary of the Battle of Dunkeld. >>>
The Battle of Dunkeld – Asssessment by Historic Scotland:
Click for detailed account on the Historic Scotland web site >>
Formation of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)
As the 18th century drew to a close Britain faced the threat of war with the French. To counter this the government authorised the raising of a number of new regiments. Amongst them were the 90th (Perthshire Light Infantry) as well as the 91st (The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders) and the 92nd (The Gordon Highlanders). Our story concerns the first of these, the 90th, and how, in 1881 they were brought together with the 26th of Foot to form what was to become The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).
The man who raised the 90th was a Perthshire laird, Thomas Graham of Balgowan. He was born in 1746 and in 1774 he married the Hon. Mary Cathcart. So great was her beauty, and legendary charm, that the famous and fashionable artist Thomas Gainsborough painted her portrait no fewer than four times.
Sadly her health was delicate and a constant concern. They spent much of their time travelling, not least to try to find weather more congenial to her health. They were sailing in the Mediterranean in 1792 when she died.
While her coffin was being brought home by Graham through revolutionary France it was desecrated by an unruly mob of half-drunken men, who searched the corpse for gold in her teeth or rings on her hands. This incident profoundly shocked Graham and filled him with an unrelenting hatred of the French. Whilst he was in Britain burying his beloved wife, France declared war on Great Britain. He therefore set off to check first whether, in his mid-forties, he still had the mettle to be a soldier, and then to raise a regiment against them.The 90th Perthshire Volunteers were raised in 1794 and by the following year had seen action in France. They acquitted themselves so well throughout the Napoleonic Wars that, on their return from Canada in 1815, they were redesignated as Light Infantry. The 90th Perthshire Light Infantry (or the ‘Perthshire Greybreeks’, as they were known) served in the Crimean War 1854 – 1856 and Private Alexander became the first man in the regiment to win the recently instituted Victoria Cross.
In 1857 they were in India where at the relief of Lucknow, one of the most famous operations in the Indian Mutiny, the regiment won a further six Victoria Crosses. After service in 1879 in South Africa during the Zulu War they were sent again to India and it was whilst there, in 1881, that they received news that they were to become part of a new regiment.
The army had long been in need of radical reform. One of these, known as the Cardwell Reforms, was the formation of larger, two battalion regiments. At the same time it was decided that a new, elite, regiment of Rifles be established in Scotland. Being the senior Scottish regiment with only one battalion The 26th Cameronians were selected for this promotion. The fact that they also had an incomparable record as rifle shots may have made their case even stronger. The 90th, with their long Light Infantry tradition were to be joined with them. Together they became the 1st and 2nd Battalions, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).
Undoubtedly a part of the 90th’s high reputation came from the fact that it had produced some very distinguished senior officers. Thomas Graham rose to the rank of General. He was the Duke of Wellington’s ablest commander and later made Lord Lynedoch.
The creation of the new regiment, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), was as a result of reforms to the whole structure of the army. It was decided that all line regiments should consist of two regular battalions, one to serve at home whilst the other served abroad, usually in India. Both battalions gave up their standard red coats and adopted the rifle green with black buttons traditional for elite rifle regiments.
Both battalions then served in South Africa and in India as well as at home. In World War I there were 27 battalions. Over 7,000 Cameronians lost their lives and a magnificent memorial in Kelvingrove, Glasgow, commemorates this.
The history of the various militia, volunteer and territorial battalions is to be found elsewhere. Their contribution to their country as well as to their regiment was enormous, especially in the two World Wars.