The thread about the 18th Century Highlander mutiny in Leith, its sad outcome and a remarkable last-minute reprieve

This thread was originally written and published in August 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

Reading this morning of the sad tale of a mutiny in Leith that ended up with 50-odd men dead for no good reason at all.

It is April 1779 and Britain is fighting the Revolutionary War in America, is fighting wars in India and is soon to be at war with France and Spain. And what wars need most of all is recruits.

In Edinburgh castle are 70 highland men who have (one imagines reluctantly) taken the “King’s shilling” and signed themselves up for the British army, which in all likelihood will be a death sentence for many.

Edinburgh Castle in the late 18th century, by John Slezer
Edinburgh Castle in the late 18th century, by John Slezer

In those days, you didn’t sign up for a specific regiment, you signed up for “general service” and were allocated to a regiment based on requirements. This was universally unpopular as generally soldiers wanted to stick with their kin.

But these men are “fortunate” in that they’re destined for the 42nd Regiment of Foot (The Black Watch) and an offshoot, the 71st (Fraser of Lovat’s Highlanders), this accords them the privilege of wearing the kilt. Both regiments wore what we now call the Black Watch tartan

"An officer and serjeant of a Highland regiment", Francise Grose, 1801.
“An officer and serjeant of a Highland regiment”, Francise Grose, 1801.

The men are marched from their temporary home at Edinburgh Castle to Leith, where they are due to embark ships for America to reinforce their regiments at war there. But there is trouble brewing.

A wild rumour has gone round the men that they are not for the Highland regiments at all but are instead to be drafted in to a Lowland regiment. This will deprive them of the kilt and a shred of home identity; they might even have to take orders in English.

In the evening, a dragoon (a sort of budget cavalryman) arrives unexpectedly back at Edinburgh castle with an urgent letter to John Wemyss, the Lieutenant Governor.

SIR – the draughts of the 71st having refused to embark, you will order 200 of the South Fencibles* to march immediately to Leith to seize these mutineers and march them prisoners to the castle to be detained there until further orders“.
James Adolphus Oughton

Sir James Adolphus Oughton, 1719 - 1780. Commander-in-Chief in Scotland
Sir James Adolphus Oughton, possibly by John Downman, 1778

Sir James is commander in chief of the British Army in “North Britain”. An illegitimate son of the soldier and politician Sir Adolphus Oughton of Tachbrook. He is a career soldier who has done well for himself and is a big wheel in the Masons

Private of the South Fencibles, from the Buccleuch Collection
Private of the South Fencibles, from the Bucclech Collection

The “South Fencibles” are a local regiment raised by the Duke of Buccleuch. Fencibles were raised around this time for home service only and although they were not regular soldiers, in Scotland they were recruited as such. They freed up the regular army units from garrison, patrol and internal security duties for wartime deployment. They were not highly thought of as fighting men and their presence was generally unwelcome by the public

So, 200 men under Sir James Johnstone of Westerhall, 4th Baronet , are sent with all haste under arms to Leith, where they find the 70 Highlanders drawn up in a line on the Shore, with muskets loaded and bayonets fixed.

Johnstone has his men block the exits, so to speak, and reads them his orders from Adolphus Oughton. One Sergeant Ross, who has the Gaelic, translates for the benefit of the Highlanders.

Sergeant Ross confers with the mutineers, but returns to Johnstone with the news that they will neither lay down their arms or follow orders. Johnstone orders the Fencibles to prepare for firing but also to “Recover Arms”, that is not to aim them.

Recover Arms from the Shoulder drill from modern Canadian drill manual
Recover Arms from the Shoulder drill from modern Canadian drill manual

And then it all goes horribly wrong. A Highlander attempts to flee and is stopped by a sergeant of the Fencibles whom he runs through with his bayonet. A second sergeant coming to his aid is shot by another Highlander.

Both sides now start firing on eachother, but with a 3:1 advantage in numbers the Fencibles have a clear advantage. The Highlanders also only have a couple of shots each (they should have had none, but had been supplied by a sympathetic shore porter of Leith).

Twelve Highlanders and 2 Fencibles are instantly shot dead. Many more are wounded, most mortally. Captain James Mansfield of the Fencibles is bayoneted trying to retrieve a wounded man, a Corporal shoots his assailant in the head for his trouble.

Muskets are impractical weapons for much firing, so the Fencibles advance with bayonets fixed to finish their dirty work. All the time, a large crowd of locals who had gathered to watch what they imagined would be a spectacle watch on appalled.

When the smoke clears, only 25 of the 70 Highlanders are left, disarmed and to be marched back to the Castle as prisoners by the Fencibles. They also take with them the body of Captain Mansfield, who left behind a wife and 6 children and is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

A court-martial is held and 3 of the believed ringleaders are sentenced to be shot on May 29th. 18th century military discipline is incredibly harsh, and order is (just about) maintained purely by liberal use of corporal and capital punishment.

The garrison of Edinburgh castle is paraded out onto the Castle Hill, and the condemned – Privates Williamson and Macivor of the Black Watch and Budge of Fraser’s Highlanders – are marched out and made to kneel infront of coffins as their sentence is read out to them

Their sentences are re-read to them in a manner they could understand by an officer who had the Gaelic. Private Budge is reportedly suffering badly from wounds and is emaciated and jaundiced. The men stand and are blindfolded.

The firing squad go through their drill and take aim. The prisoners are said to have been “praying intently”.

Then remarkably, Adolphus Oughton orders “Recover Arms” and steps forward.
Soldiers. In consequence of the distinguished valour of the royal Highlanders [The Black Watch] to which 2 of these unfortunates belong, his Majesty has been graciously pleased to forgive them all

Now I’ve no idea what really transpired. Nearly 50 men were dead and there would have been little reason for brutal military justice not to have been carried through. The deaths of another 3 lowly Highland soldiers would have been nothing to the Army.

Perhaps just as it suited the Army to take mens’ lives away, it also suited them on occasion to give them back – even if only to find a more convenient time to take them away again.

Adolphus Oughton died the next year. One imagines a man as sick as Private Budge was not long for this world. His 24 remaining comrades were probably were sent to America to meet their makers. Their 40-odd dead kin were buried in a mass grave in South Leith Kirkyard.

“A huge grassy mound long marked the place of their last repose”

St. Mary's or South Leith Parish Kirk, in Leith. From an illustration by Daniel Wilson, prior to 1836
St. Mary’s or South Leith Parish Kirk, in Leith. From an illustration by Daniel Wilson, prior to 1836

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