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Digital Subscriptions > History Scotland > July - Aug 2018 > LOVAT’S SCOUTS – BIRTH OF A LEGEND?

LOVAT’S SCOUTS – BIRTH OF A LEGEND?

Iona Bruce explores the creation and deployment of Lovat’s Scouts, the famous yeomanry regiment raised by Simon Fraser, 16th lord Lovat during the Boer War, and asks how far the reality matches the legend of the Lovat ‘ghillie corps’
Simon Fraser and officers of the original contingent of Lovat Scouts

The first contingent of Lovat’s Scouts was raised by Simon Fraser, 16th lord Lovat and 22nd chief of the clan Fraser, on 26 January 1900. At the time, the scouts were said to be made up of ghillies, stalkers, shepherds and hillmen, experienced with both guns and telescopes. This impression of the scouts remains to this day, reflecting supposedly innate qualities of the Highlander – loyalty, stoicism and martial prowess, attributes purportedly forged amid an unspoiled, rugged landscape. This article investigates how valid this perceived legend is through focusing on the scouts’ first contingent, which saw action during the second Boer War (1899-1902).

Described by Michael Melville as ‘a Chief among his own people and leader of a thousand warriors’, did Lovat intentionally replicate his forefathers’ power, assembling his clansmen using the ‘fiery cross’? Whether there were parallels to historic clan allegiances will also be explored, as will the timing of Lovat’s proposal to recruit a body of men, details of the recruitment process, who the recruits were and where they came from. Consideration will be given to whether they were used in the manner initially envisaged.

A war to be over by Christmas

Lovat’s Scouts were formed during the second Anglo-Boer War, a war between the British empire and the Boer settlers of the two independent republics in southern Africa, the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State, which Britain wanted to annex, and which lasted from 11 October 1899 to 31 May 1902. Control of South Africa was important to Britain as part of the European imperial race to expand, as well as to protect the trade routes to its existing Indian colonies. In addition, the discovery of diamonds and gold in Kimberley added to the importance to Britain of South Africa, and contributed to the former’s decision to commit British and colonial troops.

The war began after extended negotiations between the Boers and British government failed. One view was that Sir Alfred Milner, the British high commissioner to South Africa, planned to create a fight. The president of Transvaal, Paulus Kruger, offered concessions, but Milner thought more could be achieved and the British government mobilised 10,000 reinforcements to those already on the ground. Diplomatic relations deteriorated and war broke out.

Britain thought the war would be over by Christmas, believing that they had the more sophisticated and better-resourced army. However, it was quickly outmanoeuvred by the Boers, who were much more fleet of foot, and British forces suffered badly in early encounters, culminating in what became known as ‘black week’, 10 to 17 December 1899, which resulted in 2,000 British casualties; the planning of the commander-in-chief, Radvers Buller, proved disastrous and resulted in British defeats at Stromberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. At Magersfontein alone, 700 Highlanders and their general, Andrew Wauchope, were killed.

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About History Scotland

History Scotland launches a ground-breaking new series - The Stewart Queens of Scotland, providing a window in the lives of the little-known Stewart queens. Enjoy a range of news, expert articles and commentary, covering centuries of Scottish history and archaeology. Highlights include: * Queen Victoria's trip to the Clyde * New history of art with National Galleries Scotland * The legend of Lovat's Scouts * Discovery of a rare antler t-axe