NQ Scottish History

Snapshot: Scotland's military

Military legacy


  • Photograph of a long line of soldiers from a Highland Regiment marching along a road.

There were many reasons why there were so many Scots keen to fight:

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  • Scots were good soldiers: legacy from fighting abroad and the Jacobite rebellion. The British Government recognised Highlanders’ abilities as fighters with endurance and fierce loyalty to their commanders.
  • Highland Clan structure lent itself to military structure: distinct kilted uniforms meant Highlanders were both feared and instantly recognisable. Mixture of reactions to them during the First World War, ranging from admiration to complaints of arrogance.

  • Soldiering was a respectable way of bettering yourself in the 19th century.

  • Higher percentage of young Scots volunteered compared to England.

  • Military matters widely reported in Scotland.

  • Scotland comparatively poor so soldiering was a way of escaping poverty.

  • Enthusiasm for war seen in formation of ‘pals battalions’. In Glasgow the corporation units represented different parts of the city: the 15th HLI represented the tram workers, the 16th the Boys Brigade, the 17th the Chamber of Commerce. In Edinburgh similar units were formed and became the 11th, 12th and 13th Royal Scots. The 15th and 16th Royal Scots were also known as Cranston’s Battalion and McCrae’s Battalion owing to the commanding officers who brought them into being.

Military reality in 1914


  • Photograph of horse show behind the lines where a marching band wearing kilts and playing

Scots contributed to the make-up of the British Army as follows:

  • Ten infantry regiments, each with two regular line battalions and a reserve battalion.

  • Two battalions of Scots Guards in the Household Regiment.

  • Battalion system meant that British units were associated with geographical areas. The Cameronians recruited largely from Glasgow and industrial Lanarkshire, for example. The Gordon Highlanders recruited from the north-east.

  • One cavalry regiment: the Scots Greys.

  • Three battalions were based in Scotland; eight regular battalions were based in England or Ireland, helping form the six infantry divisions that made up the BEF. Another ten battalions were abroad; seven were in India.

  • Of the 247,000 officers and men of the BEF it is likely that at least 20,000 were Scottish.

  • By the end of the war 584,098 Scots had served in the army.

  • By end of 1915 2,466,719 men had volunteered: 320,589 or 13% were Scottish, forming what became known as the New Army.

  • Formation of distinctly Scottish divisions such as the 15th (Scottish) Division in light of this.

  • Important Scottish contribution to leadership: Douglas Haig, corps commander under John French in the BEF, became commander-in-chief.

  • Many Scots joined the Territorials: volunteering was a part of Scottish life in certain social classes. Four of the 14 Territorial Divisions formed were Scottish: 51st Highland, 52nd Lowland, 64th Highland and 65th Lowland. Joining was as much a social thing as about warfare. Many Territorial units represented workplaces and even the old boys of schools.