In fact, there is much the British Regiment has to thank the shooting community in Scotland for. Not least of all, for the indispensable contribution made to the Lovat Scouts, a special corps largely made up of Scottish stalkers, gamekeepers and shepherds, who fought with distinction in the Second Boer, First World and Second World Wars.
The Lovat Scouts were formed at the end of the 19th century. The second Boer War had only just started but the Boers were clearly defeating the British and within 2 months, the British had suffered 3,000 casualties and a series of humiliatiting defeats. Changes had to be made and quickly – reinforcements, a change in outlook, method and tactics and no one knew this better than army trained Simon Joseph Fraser, 16th Lord Lovat.
Having grown up in the Highlands at Beaufort, Lord Lovat had a vision and was confident that with their natural ability at spying, stalking and shooting, the countrymen of the Highlands could be trained and led to help defeat the Boers at their own game. In his biography “Lord Lovat”, Lindley writes, “stories were constantly coming home of the impossibility of seeing the Boers. Lovat had no more belief in the invisibility of Boers in open country than he had in that of his own native deer; and he knew by experience that a man trained to the use of a good telescope could detect the details of distant objects, the very presence of which would be unsuspected by officers with ordinary field glasses”. Lord Lovat himself adored hunting and shooting but was also a gifted leader and was prepared to raise this body of men himself.
In December 1899, he approached the War Office with his proposal and within a fortnight was granted permission to raise two Companies “primarily for scouting purposes” to be attached to the Black Watch. Recruiting centres were set up all over Scotland and within a few weeks, over 1,500 men had applied for 236 places. Rory Chishoim, head stalker at Glendoe, was so excited and determined by the invitation, he sent a telegram to arrive on the first day of Lord Lovat’s appeal, simple in its terms: “ARRIVE BEAU FORT TOMORROW WITH HORSE”!
The shortage of khaki in 1900 meant Lord Lovat initially had to clothe his force in the grey-green tweed known as “Lovat mixture, or Tweed”. The stalkers and keepers provided their own rifles and telescopes. Many more telescopes were generously given by deer forest landowners, as were ponies and other donations, including 30 cases of whiskey from Fraser of Glenburgie Distillery, the latter said to have been deeply appreciated by the 1st Contingent on its return from South Africa the following year!
After seven weeks of concentrated training at Beaufort, followed by an inspector’s visit for readiness, who said he had “never inspected a finer body of men”, they set off to war. But this was just the start of the compliments to come: once in South Africa, General Hunter who desperately needed information on the whereabouts of the Boers, wrote of the Lovat Scouts in his despatches:
“AS SCOUTS, SPIES, GUIDES, ON FOOT OR ON PONY, AS INDIVIDUAL MARKSMEN OR AS A COLLECTIVE BODY IN THE FIGHTING LINE, THEY ARE A SPLENDID BAND OF SCOTSMEN, WHICH IS THE HIGHEST COMPLIMENT I CAN PAY THEM”.
Following the Boer war, where the Lovat Scouts (see badge, above) had excelled, Lord Lovat again was granted permission from the War Office, this time to form two, permanent 500-strong regiments, the 1st and 2nd Lovat Scouts. Back in Scotland, stalkers, ghillies and gamekeepers were all encouraged to sign up, and on the back of the huge popularity gained during the Boer war years recruitment was swift. From here, annual training took place at Fearn, Tain and Brodie.
By 1914, there were two regiments of 1200 men who served in WW1 in Gallipoli, Eygpt and Macedonia and acted as elite scouts on the Western Front. On 17 August 1914, the troops were all on their way by train to Huntington in England. When the hardened Scottish stalkers and keepers from the Highlands in their ghillie suits, speaking in a foreign language and accompanied by hundreds of mismatch shaggy ponies arrived in England, there were terrible rumours that the Russians had successfully invaded. It only served to fuel the fire when a lady serving them tea at York station asked where they came from, and got the reply ‘Ross-shire’!
The ghillie suit (also known as the ‘wookie’ suit, ‘yowie’ suit or ‘camo’ tent) is a type of camouflage designed to resemble heavy foliage which was developed by Scottish gamekeepers, stalkers and fishermen as a portable hunting blind. The name derives from “gille”, the Scottish gaellic for servant or lad, and was often used to refer to deer hunters, stalkers or fly fishers in the Scottish Highlands.
By November 1916, their reputation for scouting and observing was so entrenched that an elite group of snipers was formed, known as the Lovat Scouts (Sharpshooters). They went onto become the British Army’s first sniper unit. Other Highland regiments were combed by Lord Lovat for stalkers and ghillies to swell the ranks and an advertisement appeared in all Scottish newspapers:
WANTED – 100 stalkers and Glassmen
Between the ages of 41 and 45,
For stalking – Bosches!
Despite this specification, Lord Lovat succeeded in extending the age limit to ensure that a certain 2nd Lieut. C. B MacPherson of Balavail, a “true expert with a telescope and a map, who came out at the age of 62 with this splendidly trained Group of Lovat Scouts” could come to France with them.
Many gamekeepers were decorated for bravery during WW1. In fact, of the men who formed the original first ten Groups of the Lovat Scouts (Sharpshooters), one out of every five was awarded with military decoration. One such man was Duncan Macrae, a keeper-stalker at Eishken on the Isle of Lewis (see below) who received the Military Medal for ‘Great Gallantry and coolness under shell fire’ whilst in France. Sadly, 481 Lovat Scouts lost their lives in this war. Their names are recorded at the Edinburgh Castle and their supreme sacrifice has been well remembered in the Highlands.
On the home front during this time, gamekeepers served alongside poachers and other countrymen in the Local Defence Volunteers, to help defend the country from invasion. Interestingly, during WW1, game rearing was prevented and penalties were imposed on those for feeding pheasants and the like!
Gamekeepers continued to serve with distinction in the army, navy and airforce throughout WW11 and again, many were decorated for their bravery. Donald MacKenzie, who died only 5 years ago (see article publication date, below), was a gamekeepers and soldier with the Lovat Scouts during a critical phase of the campaign in Italy and his bravery made him a near legendary figure.
Donald parachuted into nomansland as the Germans were retreating and did the long distance patrols to let the rest of his squadron know whether it was safe to proceed. This was a very high risk role and his high standards of fitness and bravery were testament to that. He returned to settle as gamekeeper at Applecross estate and was regarded the best rifle shot for miles, undoubtedly honed during his time with the Lovat Scouts.
Sgt. Jock Urquhart has been head stalker at Lochluichart since WW11. A good athlete and fine shot, he was Troop Sgt. of a fighting patrol in Italy in 1944. He wrote of a particularly bloody day for the Lovat Scouts in Italy: “I can mind thinking, ‘Well, it’s not grouse today – it’s Germans!’”.
Needless to say, the shooting community in Scotland has served over and above the call of duty in the British regiment, and the Lovat Scouts in all it guises benefited enormously from their contribution. It was often said that officers of any regiment would be thrilled to discover a gamkeeper, stalker or ghilliie among their ranks. David Jones puts it nicely in his book ‘Gamekeeping: past and present’ when he speculates what might happen if Great Britain was to be threatened with invasion in the future: “There is little doubt that keepers would be amongst the first men to come forward to defend the country”. Given their track record, it would be difficult to argue otherwise!