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Tornado F3 and Crew at RAF Leuchars, Fife
Tornado F3 and Crew at RAF Leuchars, Fife

Scotland has a long military tradition. So much so that the very mention of the kilt or the bagpipe tends to evoke images of Scottish soldiers engaged in conflict somewhere far from home: whether at Waterloo; in the Crimea; in the service of Victoria's empire; on the Somme; in the deserts of North Africa; in Aden; or in Basrah or Helmand. And before the Scots became involved in conflicts abroad they were, in various factions and alignments, party to many centuries of near continuous conflict within what we now called Scotland.

Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Regimental Mascot, Stirling Castle
Regimental Mascot, Stirling Castle
Fort George Near Inverness
Fort George Near Inverness
Cannons at Stirling Castle
Cannons at Stirling Castle
Military Re-enactment, Fort George
Military Re-enactment, Fort George
Memorial Cairn, Culloden Battlefield
Memorial Cairn, Culloden Battlefield
Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge
Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge
Scottish War Museum
Scottish War Museum
Aircraft Carrier, Loch Long
Aircraft Carrier, Loch Long

This page looks at the background to Scotland's military tradition, how it evolved, and what it has become today. This may seem an odd subject for a page on a web site primarily aimed at visitors to the country, but some understanding of our military tradition helps give an insight into Scotland's history; helps give an insight into Scots; and helps give an insight into why the peaceful glen you are walking through is suddenly filled by the roar of a low-flying jet.

This story has no clear starting point, so let's begin with the Romans' victory (according to Roman accounts) over the Caledonian tribes at the Battle of Mons Graupius, probably in Aberdeenshire, in AD 84. Three hundred years later, in AD 367, it was the descendents of these Caledonians, by now called Picti or Picts by the Romans, who pushed the Romans south from Hadrian's Wall and helped bring in the Dark Ages.

Another three hundred years on, and Scotland must have seemed a crowded place to the Picts. By AD 700, although they still held much of the north of what we now call Scotland, they were being pressed from the west by the arrival from Ireland by the Scots of the Kingdom of Dalriada; from the south west by the Britons of the Kingdom of Strathclyde; and from the south east by the Angles of the Kingdom of Northumbria.

Move forward 300 more years to 1000, and the Scots of Dalriada had taken control of (or had merged with) Pictland, were in effective control of Strathclyde, and had fought the Angles/English back to a line close to today's border. Meanwhile, however, Viking/Norse raiders and settlers had taken control of much of the north and west of Scotland and most of the islands.

By 1300 the picture had changed yet again. The Norse had been beaten back from all of mainland Scotland and the Western Isles. Meanwhile, Scotland was increasingly dominated by England, and about to embark on the first Wars of Independence, the precursor to a series of conflicts that would last, on and off, through most of the next three centuries. At the same time, a series of clan feuds were being conducted across the Highlands which did much to help establish the warlike image of the Highlanders, and added considerably to the huge number of castles whose ruins or remains are spread across the landscape today.

1603 marks the end of the period in which Scottish military history can be neatly described in 300 year chunks. This was the moment the traditional alignments changed dramatically when James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne and also became James I of England.

Not that warfare stopped: it was simply the reasons for it that changed. Before long, James VI's son, Charles I was promoting religious policies that deeply offended many radically Presbyterian Scots. This led to a very brief war, the First Bishop's War, which then snowballed uncontrollably into the English Civil War, fought with as much ferocity north of the border as south of it, though here it was between Royalists on the one hand and Presbyterian "Covenanters" on the other. In the Second Civil War the Scots ill-advisedly changed sides to support Charles, which led to his beheading and to Scotland's military occupation by Cromwell.

It is fair to think of everything that has gone before as background, for in many senses the real story only kicks off on 1 January 1660, the day on which General George Monck led an army south from Coldstream to London, bringing about the restoration of Charles II. One of the units Monck led south was Monck's Regiment of Foot, which subsequently adopted the title of the Coldstream Guards and survives today as one of the world's oldest military formations.

In many ways the Restoration was the starting point for what was to become the British Army, though technically the Scottish and English Armies remained separate until the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. By then, however, the alignments had changed again. In 1689 the English Parliament engineered the Glorious Revolution, in which the Catholic James VII/II was displaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. This exposed a fault line that cut right across Scotland. On the one side tended to be Protestants and Lowlanders who supported the Hanoverian dynasty of William and Mary: while on the other tended to be Catholics and Highlanders supporting the Jacobite cause of the deposed Stuarts.

The result was three major Jacobite uprisings, in 1689, 1715 and 1745. Each time there were Scots fighting on both sides, and it seems likely that at the final defeat of Jacobitism, at the Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746, there were over 2,500 Scots fighting on the side of the Hanoverian Government.

The aftermath of Culloden saw fundamental changes in the way of life across much of Scotland. Jacobite sympathisers were brutally suppressed and both the kilt and tartan were banned. Meanwhile clan chiefs were becoming landlords and increasing numbers of people were being forced off their traditional lands; emigration was increasing dramatically; and Britain suddenly found itself the owner of an increasingly large Empire that needed policing.

One result was large numbers of Scots joining the British Army, and the start of their involvement in the long series of overseas military conflicts that have carried on more or less continuously ever since. The population of Scotland, which since 1800 has increased from about 1.6 million to just over 5 million, tends to remain at about 10% of the population of England. Yet at all times except during the universal conscription of the latter part of the two world wars, far more than 10% of the members of the British Armed forces have been Scots. This was true throughout the Napoleonic Wars and the wars of the Victorian era, and the large number of Scots serving as Army regulars in 1914 was an important factor in Scots accounting for around a fifth of the UK's war dead during the conflict. As recently as 2001, official statistics showed that 13% of the manpower of the British Army was Scottish; while newspaper reports in July 2007 suggested that 25% of the British infantry serving in Iraq and Afganistan in Autumn 2007 would be Scottish.

This long military tradition has had its effect on the presence of military bases in Scotland. Since the Coldstream Guards, many Scottish units have been formed here and a number of them still remain in service. Most of the Scottish infantry units in the British Army were combined into the Royal Regiment of Scotland in 2006, but there are also two guards regiments, two artillery regiments and a tank regiment with strong Scottish links. Perhaps more surprisingly, there continue to be a number of Canadian Army units, especially amongst the reserves, with strong Scottish connections and titles. And the South African Army still has reserve units with the titles of the Pretoria Highlanders and the Transvaal Scottish Regiment. In terms of units based here, four battalions of the British Army are normally stationed in Scotland, two of which are currently also raised in Scotland. Three battalions are based at barracks around Edinburgh, while the fourth is stationed at Fort George near Inverness. Others are due to move into what had previously been RAF bases at Leuchars and Kinloss.

Scotland has always been a seafaring nation, so it is no surprise to find that Scots have played a significant role in the Royal Navy since (and even before) the Act of Union in 1707. Less well known is that until then the Royal Scots Navy had a separate existence. Initially founded to help counter the Norse, it reached a peak strength of 38 warships in the early 1500s, before to declining to the three which became part of the Royal Navy in 1707.

Scotland has also always been home to important Naval Bases. During the two World Wars these included the vast base at Scapa Flow in Orkney. More recently, Scotland has been home to a large part of NATO's nuclear deterrent, first with US and UK Polaris missile-equipped nuclear submarines at bases in the Clyde, and now with the UK's four Trident-missile equipped submarines being based there. Meanwhile Rosyth is home to one of the Royal Navy's most important dockyards, and one of the two bases used by the Royal Marines in the UK is at Arbroath.

Military aviation was, arguably, invented in 1910 by a Scot, Captain Bertram Dickson. Until not so long ago, Scotland was home to a significant proportion of the strength of the RAF, with three large RAF bases: Kinloss, near Forres; RAF Lossiemouth; and RAF Leuchars, near St Andrews. Now only Lossiemouth remains active, providing air defence for the northern approaches to the UK.

Being large, mountainous and fairly sparsely populated, Scotland is also home to a number of the low flying training areas used by RAF squadrons from bases across the UK, and by other NATO airforces. Which is why your quiet day in a tranquil glen can sometimes turn a little noisy.

And, finally, two other Scottish military units that are not part of the British Army also deserve a mention. The Atholl Highlanders is raised and paid for by the Duke of Atholl, making it the only legal private army in Europe. Today it is purely ceremonial in nature, with about 100 members including pipes and drums. The second unit is The Royal Company of Archers, an Edinburgh-based unit that provides the Sovereign's ceremonial bodyguard in Scotland, a role it has performed since the visit of George IV in 1822.


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