Even the meanest Sassenach like me cannot fail to be stirred by the heroic military annals of the Scots. The phrase “The Thin Red Line” dramatically evokes British soldiers facing overwhelming odds, and the originals were Scottish Redcoats, the 93rd Foot (later the Sutherland Highlanders), who repulsed a major Russian attack in the Crimea in 1854.
Their commander, Sir Colin Campbell, shouted out to them, “There is no retreat from here, men…you must die where you stand.” One of the soldiers shouted back “Aye, Sir Colin. An needs be, we’ll do that.” During the First World War, Scots were more engaged than any other part of the Empire. More recently there was the kilted piper of D-Day, Private Bill Millin, playing Lord Lovat’s commandos ashore on Sword Beach – against War Office regulations, but as Lovat said, “That’s the English War Office: you and I are both Scottish”. Scottish and British.
“Redcoats”, of course, were the British infantry of the line, who wore scarlet tunics. The colour originated in Cromwell’s time, and it lasted in battle until accurate rifles and smokeless powder made it less necessary to be recognisable through the smoke to one’s own side and far more important not to be visible to the enemy.
Redcoats have not been universally popular. The American rebels in the 1770s hated them. Many of the Redcoats in that war were Scottish Highlanders, who took the King’s Shilling to escape poverty, but who also had no sympathy for the American cause. Radicals in Britain did not like Redcoats either, as until Sir Robert Peel created a civilian constabulary the army was the last resort in case of disorder.
Under Queen Victoria, while Redcoats policed much of the world, they were not much respected at home, as Rudyard Kipling stingingly emphasised in his poem, Tommy: “I went into a public ’ouse to get a pint o’ beer / The publican ‘e up an’ sez ‘We serve no red-coats here’”. Only when danger threatened did they suddenly become the “Thin red line of ’eroes.”
This long and dishonourable British tradition of undervaluing “uniforms that guard you while you sleep” (Kipling again) sadly persists. And now some Scottish nationalists – including some SNP politicians – are joining in. In their resentment of all that is British, they are willing to rubbish their own patriotic heritage. That’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Nationalism is discontented with its own country and wants to make it something else.
The latest triviality – nothing is too small to be grist to the resentment mill – is insisting that the Redcoat Café, in Edinburgh Castle, should be renamed.
Campaigners claim that “the Redcoats … played a significant role in subjugating Scotland and suppressing its people during periods of history marked by conflict and strife”. “Subjugation” by other Scots, in this case, who garrisoned the castle, and who served and still serve the Crown. It is not clear which periods of “conflict and strife” the petitioners have in mind, or which “Scots who fought and died for their freedom and independence” their petition praises.
Could it be the Jacobites of 1745, the unlucky highlanders whose lairds made them fight for the Stuarts? The 1745 rebellion was a mixture of Bonny Prince Charlie’s dynastic ambition, French geopolitical calculation, and internal Scottish religious and social conflicts. It had nothing to do with “freedom and independence for Scotland”, and the Scottish establishment in the Lowlands heaped honours on the victorious Duke of Cumberland.
The Scots were much keener on Union than the English, and many of the greatest Scottish names were vocal unionists. I suppose that’s hard for today’s nationalists to swallow.