The Highlander's Mutiny of 1779

This little-known episode in Burntisland's history took place in March 1779, and involved the 76th Regiment, Lord Macdonald's Highlanders. Very little has ever been officially admitted about mutinies within the British Army, in particular those connected with Scottish Regiments. The only source I have found for this particular story is in John Prebble's 1975 opus, "Mutiny - Highland Regiments in Revolt 1743-1804", published by Pimlico 2001, ISBN 0-7126-6718-0, and from which this short precis has been written. You are strongly advised to read this excellent book, a small part of the very many sections of Scottish history which have been utterly neglected in favour of so-called 'British' history.

The chinless wonders who comprised Clan Chieftains following the abortive Rising of 1745 are well illustrated by Alexander, Lord Macdonald of Macdonald and Sleat. The ninth baronet of the name had been educated at Eton, was married to an Englishwoman, and lived primarily in London and Edinburgh. Samuel Johnson famously remarked to this tartan-bedecked ninny that "Were I in your place, sir, in seven years I would make this place an independent island. I would roast an oxen whole and hang out a flag as a signal to the Macdonalds to come and get beef and whisky." Johnson was disgusted at the abuse of the clansmen by their chiefs, a precursor to the impending Clearances. And this from a man whose distaste for Scotchmen was well documented! He also commented that "He has no more the soul of a chief than an attorney who has twenty houses in a street, and considers how much he can make by them." This, then, was the calibre of the man who raised a regiment of 750 of his Highlanders throughout 1778, in order to embark them for America in March 1779. The rest of the regiment of a thousand comprised Lowlanders and Irish.

Billetted in Fort George, the regiment marched south towards the embarkation point of the port of Leith. There had been a few problems both with the men and the officers prior to this, specifically with arrears of pay, but by early March they came down from the mountain passes above Perth, collecting Lord Macdonald himself there, and marched through Fife to Burntisland. Macdonald took the ferry to Leith leaving the troops and their officers behind. An earlier revolt among the Seaforths had been started by a rumour that the troops were to be sold into the use of the East India Company, and the 76th was now swept by the same story. The men protested, and presented petitions to their officers. Having been given no assurances by their commanders, at morning parade the regiment turned about and marched to the top of the Binn. The pleas and threats of their officers were ignored.

This was no disorderly rabble. In common with all the revolts in Highland regiments, the men maintained discipline, set up camp with sentries, and behaved completely civilly. They just wouldn't embark for Leith. Armed parties visited the town for supplies, and paid cash for all that they took. A form of Mexican stand-off took place over three days. Lord Macdonald was summoned back from Edinburgh, and forced to climb the Binn to listen to the men's petitions. He was forced to cough up the monies due, as even following his exhortations about their Highland pride the men stood firm. He also quashed the rumour about the East Indies. The men, honour satisfied, broke camp the following morning and marched back down to Burntisland, where they embarked on boats to Leith. A correspondent of the time noted "it is but justice to say the behaviour, sobriety and good conduct of the regiment since they were raised reflects the highest honour on the... men."

Apparently no report of this mutiny was ever made officially, and the men all escaped punishment - unlike the sacrificial few from almost every other revolt. Macdonald's pride and purse appear to have, happily, been the only casualties. The 76th served in the Americas until their eventual surrender to American forces.