Scots and the Australian armed forces

For more on Scottish regiments in Australia, see ‘Warriors of empire: popular imperialism and the Victorian Scottish Regiment, 1898-1938’, Victorian Historical Journal, June 2014 (link here), or chapter five of The Scots in Australia.

Military prowess formed a central pillar of Scottish national identity in the nineteenth century. Although Scottish Highland regiments had been prominent in the British military forces from the early eighteenth-century, their fame and public profile increased in the Victorian era and they become even more celebrated as Scotland’s national icons. As a core ideological focus for British imperial identity, militarism took on distinctive national characteristics in Scotland during the nineteenth century. The regiments attracted extensive publicity in British imperial artworks, advertising, and in the press; they were the most celebrated of imperial soldiers.

The growing ‘Victorian cult of the Highlander’ in the nineteenth century was also result of the royal patronage and Scotophilia of Queen Victoria, who took a special interest in the Scottish Highlands and ‘her’ Highland regiments. Scottish military activity became increasingly ‘Highlandised’, and in 1881 even Lowland regiments were outfitted with Highland dress – although some had adopted pipe bands and Highland regalia in previous decades. Despite the visibility and vibrancy of Scotland’s martial traditions throughout the British Empire, however, military Scottishness is an often neglected aspect of the experience of Scots abroad and the ways in which they connected with and imagined home.

The cult of the Highlander spread into the global Scottish diaspora towards the end of the nineteenth century. Numerous Scottish regiments formed part of voluntary and part-time defence forces in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia from the 1860s.

In the colonial period, Scottish units that served in Australia included Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s 73rd Regiment (also known as the ‘Perthshires’), the Royal North British Fusiliers (21st Regiment), and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (25th Regiment). A number of officers and around ten per cent of the men in the New South Wales Corps were Scots, as were numerous other army and naval officers from Britain who formed the bulk of military and naval personnel in colonial Australia.

British military forces had withdrawn from Australia by 1870, and were replaced by the colonies’ own small armies and navies, which were supported in times of crisis by militia units. Many militia units were based around Scottish martial traditions. Earlier examples of these included the Scottish Company of the Adelaide Regiment of Volunteer Rifles from 1866 to 1869. When an assassination attempt was made on the Duke of Edinburgh at Clontarf in Sydney, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Highlanders were raised and lasted ten years. The crisis in Sudan in 1885 led to the formation of the Sydney Reserve Corps of Scottish Rifles, although it was not until 1889 that the unit appeared in full Scottish dress uniform and kilts.

Members of the Victorian Scottish Regiment in 1907.

The Scottish Volunteer Rifle Corps of Queensland existed from 1886 to 1896, while the Victorian Scottish Regiment (VSR) was raised in 1898 and the South Australian Scottish Company a year later in 1899. The NSW Scottish Rifles became affiliated with the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment (the famous Black Watch) and the VSR was affiliated with the Gordon Highlanders in Scotland.

Throughout the Boer War between 1899 and 1902, the rates of enlistment for Scots and Presbyterians were disproportionally high, and historians estimate that approximately 20 per cent of Victorian recruits were Presbyterians. Raised in 1897, the First Australian Horse Regiment was commanded by a Scot, Colonel James Alexander Kenneth Mackay. Numerous Scots from the militia regiments joined the Australian forces in South Africa, including a large number of nurses.

While Australia had no ‘ethnic units’ in the Great War – battalions of the Australian Imperial force (AIF) were numbered, and governments suaght to emphasise the national unity of the newly-federated Commonwealth’s military forces – several battalions recruited from specific militia units and continued their traditions. The Victorian Scottish Regiment, for instance, provided recruits to the 5th Battalion. The New South Wales Scottish Regiment informally affiliated with the 30th Battalion, and the South Australian Scottish Regiment gave men to the 27th Battalion. Many recruits from these units could be seen wearing their distinctive Glengarry caps in service with the AIF, and some maintained pipe bands.

The South Australian Scottish Regiment on parade in full uniform.

In addition to the nearly 10,000 Scottish-born recruits to the First AIF, and the roughly fifteen per cent of soldiers who were Presbyterians, numerous Scots were to be found serving as officers in the Australian forces. Major-General E.G. Sinclair commanded the 4th Division between 1917 and 1919. Major-General Sir Thomas Glasgow commanded the 1st Division in 1918, while Lieutenant-General Sir James W. McKay was the first commander of the 5th Division. Overall, at least nine battalion commanders were born in Scotland and around sixteen more were of Scottish descent.

Soldiers of the Victorian Scottish Regiment in training, c.1935-1939.

In the 1930s, militia units in Australia experienced a revival, and Scottish units flourished again with the support of Caledonian societies and wealthy benefactors within the Australian Scottish community. The Cameron Highlanders of Western Australia (16th Regiment) was raised in 1936. In Queensland, the Cameron Highlanders (61st Battalion) was raised in 1938, and in the same year in South Australia the 27th Battalion was revived as the South Australian Scottish Regiment and became affiliated with the Seaforth Highlanders. Scottish militia units were well-known in Australia, and in 1939 the RSL award for most efficient militia unit was given to the South Australian Scottish Regiment, while the VSR and the NSW Scottish Regiment placed second and third respectively.

The Second World War prompted the establishment of the Second Australian Imperial Force, and once again there were no explicitly Scottish units, although the tradition of funnelling recruits from militia units into specific battalions continued. For instance, many members of the Victorian Scottish Regiment served with the 2/5th battalion in Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria and New Guinea. Those who remained in service with the militias, and had not signed up to the Second AIF, remained at home and performed important garrison duties around the nation. Again, numerous Scots could be found commanding Australian forces throughout the war, and Australian troops could be sometimes seen wearing their Scottish military wear.

The author’s grandparents on their wedding day in Ararat, April 1940.

From the end of the Second World War until today, various reorganisations within the Australian military forces caused explicitly Scottish regiments to all but disappear. There continue to be units within the armed forces of Australia that maintain the Scottish tradition, including the Alpha Company of the 2/17th Battalion RNSWR, and many of these traditions now seem Australian as they are Scottish. Pipe bands, for instance, remain a distinctive reminder of the Scottish contribution to Australian martial tradition, and no Anzac Day march would be complete without them.


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