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Regimental History

Regimental History from 1793 until 1815


One can only imagine Napoleon’s troops as they faced regiments of  kilted Highlanders advancing  towards them across the battlefield, marching to the unique sound of their pipes. Napoleon is  supposed to have called  the Highlanders "The devils in skirt's" at the battle of Waterloo.

The Cameron's are well known as one of the bravest and most chivalrous of the Highland clans; they  were one of the last clans to support the Stuart's  claim to the British throne. The 79th Cameron Highlanders, whose origin started back on the 17th August 1793 when Alan Cameron of Erracht  was given  authority to raise the 79th Regiment of Foot. His intention was for the 79th to be the Clan Cameron regiment with recruits from Lochaber and the Western Islands but he was forced by competition from other regiments to recruit from all over the Highlands and also from the major cites and towns. In late January 1794 at Stirling Scotland the regiment was inspected at it had 1000 men, and Alan  Cameron  was  appointed  lieutenant  Colonel  Commandant 1, the  unit  was first  called  the  "Camerionian Volunteers"  but was later changed to the Cameron Highlanders. The most distinctive feature of  this new  regiment was its tartan, for  it was  the only tartan not  to be based  on the Government pattern. Tradition states that it was designed by Alan Cameron’s mother who based it  upon a local pattern from Lochaber.


After being sent to Ireland and the  south  of  England in early 1794, then sent to Flanders in August 1794; where they lost 200 men due to the severe weather conditions and the camp environment. Later in the  summer of 1795 the Cameron's were sent to the West Indies where Yellow Fever and other tropical diseases decimated them and the remaining survivors were drafted into other regiments. As a result of this Alan Cameron  returned to Scotland in 1798 to start recruitment all over again. 

The newly constructed regiment soon  saw action, distinguishing  itself  in the  Netherlands  at  Bergen-op-Zoom in 1799.  This was followed by postings to Malta, Egypt, Minorca, Ireland once again  and  Copenhagen. Whilst in Egypt in 1801, they saw action at  both Aboukir and Alexandria for which they were granted the  famous  Sphinx  badge  and the  word  "Egypt"  on it's colours and appointments; with thanks from the king and parliament. 

It was in 1806 that the title Cameron Highlanders was confirmed on the 79th Regiment of Foot. 

In 1808 they joined the British army in Portugal fighting at Corunna in 1809.  Following taking   part in the Walcheren Expedition they  returned  again to  the  Spanish Peninsula  in 1810. Action was seen at  Busaco, Fuentes d’Onor where their  commanding  officer was killed  together with 287 other casualties, Salamanca, Burgos, Pyrenees, Neville, the Nive and Toulouse campaigns. Having returned home they were soon  back to Ireland but in January 1815 they set sail for North America but their ships were driven back by extreme gales and hence this regiment of Peninsular  veterans were  soon dispatched   for  service  in Belgium fighting Napoleon's army, they fought bravely at Quartet Bras and Waterloo, during which time out of  the  original  675   men they sustained 456 casualties with 103 of these brave men being killed. Piper Kenneth McKay  exemplified this bravery by playing outside the relative security of  a  "square" to  rally and encourage  his hard-pressed regiment, a  feat  captured  in  a  famous  painting of  the action.  The regiment then remained for a further three years in France as part of the allied occupation of  Paris were they arrived  there on 08th July. 

It was in Paris whereon the 17th of August, at the special request of the Emperor of Russia, Sergeant Thomas Campbell of the grenadiers, a man of gigantic stature, with Private John Fraser and Piper Kenneth McKay, all of the 79th, accompanied by a like number of each rank from the  42nd and 92nd Highlanders, proceeded to the Palais Ely see in Paris, to gratify the Emperor’s desire of   examining the dress and equipment's of the Highland regiments. Sergeant Campbell especially was   most minutely inspected by the Emperor, who, says Campbell, " examined my hose, gaiters, legs, and pinched my skin, thinking I wore something under my kilt, and had the curiosity to lift my kilt to my navel, so that he might not be deceived"  .After asking Campbell many questions, the   Emperor "requested  Lord Cathcart to order me to put John Fraser through the ‘manual and platoon’ exercise, at which performance he was highly pleased. He then requested the pipers to play up, and Lord Cathcart desired them to play the Highland tune ‘ Cògaidh nà Sith’ (‘war or peace’),  which he explained to the Emperor, who seemed highly delighted with the music. After the  Emperor had done with me, the veteran  Count Plutoff came up to me, and, taking me by the hand, told me in broken English that I was a good and brave soldier, and all my countrymen were also. He then pressed my hand to his breast, and gave me his to press to mine.

The regiment still survives today, known only as the Highlanders, having been amalgamated with the  Seaforth Highlanders in 1961, and again with the Gordon's in 1993.

It is to the memory of these brave men that the 79th Cameron Highlanders was formed a number of years ago.

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