'The Fatal Land, War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in British America', by Matthew P Dziennik (published by Yale University Press)
This American academic study contains a range of surprises. Matthew Dziennik turns out to have been born and bred in the Highlands of Scotland and has enough knowledge to be able to quote and translate from Gaelic poetry and song. His book focuses on two 18th-century wars: the Seven Years War, 1756-1763, between the UK and France (also known as the French and Indians War) and the American Revolution, 1775-1783.
However, readers like me, who expected to hear of the exploits in these wars of, say, the Gordon Highlanders, the Cameron Highlanders, the Seaforth Highlanders, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, will be disappointed on two counts: these titles did not exist in the 18th century, and in
any event all we learn of the 42nd Foot (the Black Watch) and all the other numbered Highland regiments raised to fight in these wars is that their casualty rate was a very high one. Then again, given that the book is aimed at a purely academic audience, Dziennik has the right to assume that his readers are familiar with the details of these two wars and so has no need to trace their course and wider significance. As a result, a general reader may well find him or herself struggling with the historical detail.
What then is the book's primary subject? The 'Fatal Land' title derives from a mock heroic satirical poem by the patriotic American poet, John Trumbull, called MacFingal
, published in Philadelphia at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The mock-hero bemoans the fact that British America is doomed to be lost from the British Empire, and so has become the 'Fatal Land'. Dziennik's book is about how the fighting of this war, just like that of the earlier Seven Years War, required a huge expansion of the British Army, and that in turn led to the decision to raise new regiments of Scottish Highlanders. His argument is that no other single factor proved to be more important than this decision in transforming the society and culture of the Highlands in the post-Culloden period.
Thus the early chapters of the book look in detail at what was involved in the process of recruitment into the new regiments – who the recruiters were, the role of former clan chiefs, and more importantly of the new Highland elite created by the rise of smaller landowners in what had formally been the chiefs' estates, and then the impact on the young Highland men who found themselves with a new role in the British Army.
Later chapters analyse the behaviour of these men once they are sent overseas to defend the empire and their attitude towards the native Americans whom they were either called upon to fight alongside or suppress and destroy. Finally, Dziennik examines the behaviour of demobilised Highlanders over such issues as the offer of land to those willing to remain in British America, the more general boost to Highland emigration provided by the knowledge and experience of former servicemen, and how attitudes towards Gaeldom across the UK as a whole were transformed by recognition of the contribution to the imperial cause made by the romantic figure of the Highland soldier.
What I have written so far does less than justice to what is new and striking – not to say challenging and controversial – in this book. Dziennik's Highlands finally emerges as one that few – perhaps no – Scottish historian would recognise. In his Introduction
, Dziennik insists that 'A metanarrative of conquest and defeatism has long occupied interpretations of the region'. As a result, most accounts are predicated on the notion that post-1745 the Highlands suffered only 'conquest, pacification and subordination'. Thus: 'The assumption of cultural colonisation and suppression has blinded historians to the confidence and agency that were at the centre of Highland interactions with the British state and that form the subject of this book'.
Insistence on the idea that the Highlands were never simply a kind of British colony, to be exploited and pacified like any other, remains a constant theme of the book, while Dziennik's vision of a Highlands marked by 'confidence and agency' arises, he believes, above all from the existence and influence of the new Highland regiments in the British Army.
How persuasive is this remarkably upbeat account of the state of the Highlands in the second half of the 18th century and beyond? To my mind, it goes too far, making it sound as though happy Highlanders everywhere accepted the complete assimilation of their world into the British state, and that they, like those of their young men assimilated into the British Army, came to share the values and attitudes of British imperialism alongside its economic benefits.
In his Conclusion
, Dziennik says he has arrived at such a position, by analysing 'the values and expressions of Highland soldiers and how they saw the world. Viewed through a regional lens, we do not see an unsophisticated rural man exploited by an imperial system and sent to die as cannon-fodder in the wilds of America. Instead, we see a rational and often sophisticated man, capable of choices based on a relatively coherent understanding of his rights and obligations. This book has been about this sophistication and the agency of Highlanders in using the imperial system to their own ends'.
Much earlier he had said that: 'To begin, it is necessary to understand how soldiers thought about themselves'. But is this possible? Can one so confidently recover the thoughts of Highland soldiers – particularly given that Dziennik agrees the vast majority were illiterate and spoke only Gaelic? Again, one wonders about his wholly positive account of what he sees as the new post-Culloden Highland elite, and the kind of land ownership that arose in the Highlands after the dissolution of the traditional clan system.
Some readers may recall my account of Nigel Leask's book, Stepping Westward
, in which it emerges that the new forms of Highland landlordism in the later 18th century and subsequently, were seen by Samuel Johnson and many others at the time and subsequently, as having a purely negative impact on the lives of ordinary Highlanders. No doubt there were ex-soldiers who settled back in Scotland after the American wars with pensions and economic security, but what about the Highlanders who eventually found themselves driven off their land to make way for more profitable sheep-rearing?
Only in one area is the evidence Dziennik provides totally convincing. His account of the behaviour and attitude of Highland soldiers towards native Americans makes distressing reading. As he puts it: 'In positions of power, Gaels could be as oppressive as any group of 18th-century British soldiers'. Let one episode illustrate the point. A Scottish Highland regiment played a crucial role in the Anglo-Cherokee War of 1759-61 in South Carolina. Between April and August in 1760, and again in 1761, a battalion of the 77th Foot, under Scottish command, ruthlessly devastated Cherokee towns, crops, and people.
Subsequently James Grant of Ballindarroch, second-in-command of the operation, provided a horrifying account of the action in the Scots Magazine
in the mid-1760s. He begins by saying: 'I could not help pitying them a little; their villages were agreeably situated, their houses neatly built, and well provided, for they were in the greatest abundance of everything'. But proceeds to describe a burning and killing that matches or even exceeds anything perpetrated by Butcher Cumberland in the days after Culloden.
Equally appalling was the behaviour of Hugh Montgomerie, 1st Earl of Eglington, who headed the 77th Foot in the Anglo-Cherokee War and matched his second-in-command in the wantonness of the slaughter and destruction he led. Montgomerie went on to have a highly successful military and political career. His 1780 portrait by J S Copley shows him in full Highland army dress against the background of a burning Cherokee village which he had destroyed 20 years before.
Perhaps it is unfair of me to praise the one section of his book in which Dziennik portrays the 18th-century Highland soldier in a wholly negative light. But, overall, I have to say I found his book's central thesis that young Highland men recruited into the British Army came to share the values and attitudes of colonial and imperial Great Britain – and that they in turn persuaded mainstream Highland culture and society to do likewise – not proven. Other reviewers of this book constantly deploy a vocabulary of words such as 'refreshing', 'engaging', 'provocative', 'challenging', 'groundbreaking'. I certainly see what they mean. But reservations remain.