Special Scottish Insignia From 1881 to 1902
By 1883 the uniforms and insignia of the Scottish Regiments in the British Army had evolved to become uniquely and distinctly different to all others. However, things had not always been that way and the outcome had been reached via a number of influences.
Even before the Parliamentary Acts unifying Scotland with England in 1707, Scotsmen had provided soldiers for regiments on the English establishment, albeit initially in some cases serving with, and paid for by, nations such as France and Sweden and thus strictly speaking mercenaries. The four most senior Scots regiments; the Royal Scots, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the King's Own Scottish Borderers, and the Cameronian's were thus at first all a part of the English establishment and had initially worn the same uniform as the other line regiments, albeit with features such as a few pipers, and insignia with a recognizably Scottish aspect such as the thistle, to mark their origins. Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes these regiments, all of which were associated with the lowlands of Scotland, looked little different to any other regiment of the Army when the two, Acts of Union first created Great Britain.
The creation of Great Britain had not come without controversy and whilst the lower regions of Scotland were relatively settled, the more barren highlands had little order and soon required garrisons to ensure adherence to direction from London. As well as regular units of the standing army, it was eventually found convenient to make use of local manpower and, in 1725, six companies of highlanders were raised and dispersed in small detachments to act as a Watch and ensure the rule of law. The uniform was described by a contemporary figure as “a scarlet jacket and waistcoat, with buff facings and white lace, tartan plaid of twelve yards plaited round the middle of the body, the upper part being fixed on the left shoulder, ready to be thrown loose and wrapped over both shoulders and fire-lock in rainy weather. At night, the plaid served the purpose of a blanket, and was a sufficient covering for the Highlander.” This mixture of a British red coat with traditional highland dress began a style of dress that was to become synonymous with at first the highland soldier, and later the Scottish soldier as a whole. The dark colour of the tartan and the original role of the Regiment to “watch” the Highlands led to the regiment's title as the Black Watch. Further regiments associated with places, or family names such as Cameron, Seaforth, Argyll and Sutherland, as well as a Light Infantry regiment, were gradually added to the Army's standing establishment over the succeeding centuries.
The highland soldier was found to take readily to military service and even during the clan rebellions of 1715 and 1745 some highlanders remained loyal to the crown, and quite a number formed regiments to fight for the crown in both Europe and the Americas. By the time of the American War of Independence even the dissenting highlanders had largely made their peace and provided numerous, but often short lived regiments, to support the King and those loyalist elements that existed. The appearance of highland dress on the world stage led to it becoming iconic and began a romantic mystique that reached its height under the influence of Sir Walter Scott, who propagated a legend of colourful plaids and national headdress that greatly affected the dress of the growing numbers of highland regiments. In the period leading up to 1881, and the Cardwell/Childers Reforms, these regiments adopted a wide variety of idiosyncratic dress whose minutiae was the despair of the financiers responsible for funding it, and the variations of kilt, or trews, shoulder plaid, baldric, hose, bonnets and side arms became indelibly embedded in regimental identity. To these items were added unique insignia, such as sporran cantles, plaid brooches, shoulder belt, dirk belt, and bonnet badges, that in most cases were significantly different to the insignia worn by the lowland Scots and various English, Welsh and Irish line regiments. Not even the Foot Guards of the Royal Household had such a wide panoply of dress and insignia.
Unlike the lowland Scots the highland regiments had just one battalion and, as the 1881 reforms required the regiments to pair up, this led to some uneasy mergers, as well as the reunification of old friends. As part of this reorganization some highland regiments that had worn trews merged with regiments that had worn kilts, and regiments with diced (chequered) headdress merged in some cases with regiments that had plain headdress. The biggest change of all was imposed on the lowland regiments, who for the first time were to wear the recognizably Scottish dress hitherto associated with the significantly more junior highlanders. As well as doublets, dirk belts and shoulder belts for broadswords, each with newly arranged iconography, they were to wear tartan nether garments, although kilts were a step too far and trews were agreed as a marked differential, albeit that the long standing existence of their regimental piper's kilts and insignia had played a part in design. Undoubtedly, agreeing the merger of dress and insignia was a significant challenge, but by 1883 and the promulgation of the first Dress Regulations for the new regiments, a reasonable compromise had been reached. What follows then is a depiction of those aspects of dress that are special to the Scottish regiments alone, and so confined to the officers' shoulder belt plates, dirk belt plates and plaid brooches that emerged from the deliberations forming the new regiments.