Highland Warriors -- a Rich Heritage

The “Highland Warriors” exhibition currently running at the Canadian War Museum provides a fascinating overview of how the the traditions of a very small and remote corner of Europe have influenced military culture around the world for hundreds of years. Canada certainly shares in this history. At the beginning of the Second World War, my father served in the Calgary Highlanders, and I took the opportunity to visit the exhibit with a friend, Peter Webber, who had served with the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (Duke of Edinburgh’s Own.)


We learned that, while the medieval Highland warrior had distinctive weaponry. A sword with a tilted guard was called a “cleadheamh.” The basket hilted “claymore” would come later), …


To my eye, though, the Highland warriors portrayed on Medieval tombs did not look much different from their sassenach contemporaries.


But by the 13th century, a distinctive culture was indeed evolving in the Highlands, where clan chiefs would confer lands upon warriors in exchange for their services. By the 17th century the stronger clans had overwhelmed the weaker and were able to defy efforts by the monarchs in the Lowlands (who had become monarchs of England as well) to assert control. At this time, the plaid had emerged as Highland garb.


Highland warriors had become renowned for expertise using sword, shield, and a shorter sword known as a dirk.


The wars of continental Europe and in Ireland provided ample opportunity for warriors to sell their services as mercenaries. Perhaps one of the most famous was Donald McBane. After a long and distinguished career (52 sieges, 16 battles, 15 skirmishes, countless duels), he retired to Scotland to write a book on swordsmanship. The museum has an interactive game where you can apply his lessons against a digital opponent.


By the 18th century, Highland chiefs had found a lucrative business in raising regiments and hiring them out to the British Crown.


The dynastic rivalries of Scottish and English monarchs did eventually find their way into the Highlands — in a big way. Montrose led a Highland army against Charles I. Some Highland clans supported the Jacobite cause and many were crushed along with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army at Culloden in 1746. From the ashes of that defeat, however, the myth of the intrepid and steadfast Highland warrior emerged stronger than ever. The emerging British Empire both embraced the myth and recruited the warriors.


The reputation of the Highland warrior was further burnished with the rise of Romanticism as an artistic and philosophical movement at the end of the 18th century and in the decades to come. “The image of the heroic warrior, untainted by modernity, chimed perfectly with contemporary ideas of romanticism,” reads one of the exhibition’s panels. “Writers, artists and composers had already discovered the landscape and history of the Highlands — the Highland soldier supplied the living embodiment.”


Meanwhile, the toughness, resilience, and skill of Highland soldiers in the British army contributed enormously to the Empire’s military successes. Out of the many famous battles in which Highland regiments figured prominently, the exhibition focuses on two in particular with interactive displays that enable the view to study closely iconic paintings.


The first is the Battle of Alma (1854) in the Crimean War. Edinburgh artist Robert Gibb painted “Forward the 42nd,” the 1889, and prints of it were widely circulated until the title “The Thin Red Line.” Museum viewers are able to analyze the painting through biographical sketches of many of the individual soldiers whom Gibb included in this testament to the courage of the Black Watch.


Later in the exhibition, viewers are given a similarly evocative analysis of a work by the English artist, Joseph Gray, in which the 6th Battalion of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders prepares to renew its attack on the German lines at Loos in 1915. Once again, the exhibition enables the viewers to focus on the individuals depicted in the painting, and envision the experience of Highland soldiers in combat.


In the 61 years between Alma and Loos, an enormous transformation had taken place both within the Empire and the influence of the Highland warrior tradition. Not only had Dominions such as Canada emerged as nations with their own nascent military traditions, much of that tradition harkened back to the Highland heritage. Whether or not they claimed Scottish ancestry, would-be soldiers were eager to enlist in Highland militia regiments.


For many, the pipes, kilts and tartans of the Highland regiments came to symbolize not only Scotland, but Canada’s proud place within the Empire — and a proud tradition that continues.


The exhibition provides fascinating details and personal stories of soldiers who have served in Highland regiments to the present,


…including war medals and mementos from those who served in Afghanistan.


“Highland Warriors” provides a wide overview of a broad and complex topic. It leaves the viewer curious to know more, and in some places perhaps a little confused about where to delineate the “Highland” cultural experience from the “Canadian” contribution. There’s not much about the manner in which Highland traditions were taken up elsewhere. But that is to quibble at the end of a thought-provoking museum experience.

The exhibition continues at the Canadian War Museum until January 12, 2020.