The Highland Company of the 95th Rifles

By Ben Townsend

Was there a Highland Company?

A close reading of the memoirs left by the men of the 95th Rifle Regiment reveals several cryptic references to “the highland company”, an apparently informal designation for one of the companies of the 1st battalion. In 1812 Captain Kincaid, before the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo, says, “When we arrived on the ground, I was sent to take command of the highland company, which we had at that time in the regiment, and which was with the left wing, under Colonel (actually then a Major) Cameron.”1

Quarter-master Surtees, when describing the execution of deserters from the Light Division captured subsequent to the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo, mentions that, “One of the poor wretches was the little shoemaker of our Highland company, by name McGuiniss, whom I had known for many years, and who formerly bore an excellent character; but he had most likely been seduced by some of his companions to commit this heinous crime.”2

So who were these men of the highland company, who led them, and what features distinguished them from their comrades of the Rifles?

Who raised the Highland Company?

The story of the highland company begins in March 1800 with Ensign Alexander Cameron, later to become Major-General Sir Alexander Cameron, of Inverailort, K.C.B. In 1797 this officer was appointed to an Ensigncy in the Breadalbane Fencibles and served with them for two years. The Rifle Brigade Chronicle biography tells us that, “In 1799 he joined the Expedition to Holland under the Command of the Duke of York as a volunteer, and soon after received an Ensigncy in the 92nd Regiment and served the whole of that campaign. In March, 1800, he volunteered to serve in the Rifle Corps then forming under the superintendence of Colonel Manningham, and in the following August succeeded to a Lieutenancy. In the course of that year he accompanied the Expedition to Ferrol, and was engaged with a detachment of the Rifle Corps under Colonel the Hon. William Stewart. Immediately after, he volunteered to accompany the 92nd Regiment to Egypt, and was severely wounded in the arm and side on 13th March at the Battle of Alexandria, after which he returned to England and rejoined the Rifle Corps.”3

How many Scottish Riflemen?

Cameron’s early service in the 95th mirrors the development of the regiment. When the experimental Rifle Corps was formed early in 1800 from detachments of 14 infantry regiments, the Regimental Orders of the 92nd Highlanders for 24th February notes that, “The detachment of rifflemen (sic) will march tomorrow under the command of Ensign Cameron”4

Four of the regiments supplying detachments were Highland Corps, the 71st, 72nd, 79th and 92nd. These detachments kept the dress of their regiments, in the case of the Highlanders in 1800, all four wore the kilt. In The History of the Gordon Highlanders, a regimental order of 22 Feb, 1800 states, “The men who have been fixed upon to be detached as Rifflemen will take with them their new clothing and will immediately be set to cocking and making up their new bonnets.”5

Willoughby Verner, in his History and Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade, has speculated that the kilt would have been discarded as unsuitable for Light Infantry duties, citing the example of the 71st who lost their kilts in 1808 upon being made Light Infantry.6

There was another source of supply for recruits to the Rifle Corps. These were not detachments, but volunteers from Fencible regiments serving in Ireland and they received a bounty on becoming regulars. Verner notes that, “some 230 of the 396 Fencibles came from Scottish and Highland Corps.”7

Added to the 128 from Highland detachments this meant that 358 of the 844 men of the ECR were from Scottish-raised regiments, some 42%. Of the original ECR Officers to be gazetted to the Regiment in the gazettes dated 11 October 1800, 14 out of 26 were Scots.

In October 1800 the detachments at home, and those sent to Ferrol were returned to their regiments, the detachment from the 92nd, with Cameron, doing so at Malta, from where Cameron proceeded to Egypt. Most of the Officers and NCOs returned to their regiments subsequently elected to return to the Rifle Corps as it was now officially called (Experimental being dropped succeeding its formation on 25th August 1800).8

Upon his return to England after being wounded in Egypt on 13th March 1801 (at Mandora or Alexandria according to differing accounts), Mrs Cameron-Head, our Alexander Cameron’s grandmother reminisces that Lt. Cameron was encouraged by Colonel the Hon. William Stewart, his commanding Officer, of the Galloway family, to recruit in the Highlands around Lochaber, from whence the Camerons had raised draughts of men for the 79th since its creation in 1793.9

In 1799 Donald Cameron of Lochiel had raised young men for the Lochaber Fencibles by the time-honoured fashion of threatening to evict their parents, and the despicable Highland Clearances of the time meant there was no shortage of recruits.10

In 1801 Alexander Cameron brought 150-200 men south with him, marching all the way to Horsham to the music of bagpipes, Mrs Cameron-Head tells us that it is a matter of record that Colonel Cameron’s men took the bagpipes into action.11

Did the 95th have Pipers?

Letter to Colonel Verner from Mrs Cameron-Head, 27th June, 1919, 

"..In your last letter to me, dated 26th December 1914, you said that you could not get to the bottom of the Highland Company. There is no doubt that my Grandfather took a big batch of men from the Fort William District in 1801, and that they marched all the way to Horsham, where they joined the old 95th. There is also no doubt that these men had bagpipes. I remember three very old sets of bagpipes at Inverailort, which were kept in a horsehair ottoman there when I was quite a small child, and I was always told that these had belonged to my Grandfather's Highland Company. Whether they were returned to him when the Regiment gave up using pipes or how they came to be there I do not know; most unfortunately, after my Father's death in 1874, when I was quite a child, these pipes disappeared, and I can now find no trace of them [one set now in Rifles museum]. I do not know whether you are aware that my Grandfather had a special addition to his coat of arms assigned to him in perpetuity for his descendants, such addition being the bugle of the Rifle Brigade with Peninsula and Waterloo medals on either side of it, which I am permitted to use in my quarterings. This was to show that he helped to raise the Regiment and commanded it in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, and that he also adopted a demi-Rifleman, fully accoutred, as his crest, instead of his Cameron crest".12

Bagpipes of the Highland Company, RGJ Museum.

Mrs Cameron–Head’s memories of her grandfather’s pipers are supported by corroborating evidence of several eyewitnesses who recalled seeing pipers accompanying the 95th. Rifleman Benjamin Harris recalls the siren lure of a recruiting party for the 95th in Dublin, August 1806. The mainly Irish recruiters were joined with, “a sergeant of the 92nd Highlanders, and a Highland piper of the same regiment.. The piper struck up, the sergeants flourished their decanters, the whole route commenced a terrific yell, and we all began to dance through the town, stopping now and then for another pull at the whisky decanters We kept this up ‘til we had danced, drunk, shouted, and piped, thirteen Irish miles from Cashel to Clonmel.”13

In 1811, Captain Jonathan Leach of the 95th records, “We took with us our servants.... and the Irish piper belonging to the band. In the evening we danced boleros, fandangos, and Irish jigs.”14

The 95th enjoyed battalion bands in the Peninsula, and possibly this piper was not a bagpiper, however there is one more piece of evidence from Captain Cooke of the 43rd Light Infantry, who saw the 95th in 1805 at Shorncliffe. Cooke, who commenced his military career in the 1st West York Militia, gives a description of the uniform of the three regiments of the Light Division, as seen by him in the summer of 1805. Of the 95th he writes, “The Rifle Corps wore dark green with black lace and helmets and long green feathers.  The pelisse was subsequently introduced, and a soldier clad in (green tartan) the highland costume carried a small standard.”15 The small standard possibly being a pipe banner.  

What did the Pipers wear?

It was usual for Highland regiments to have one piper per company, and perhaps this was the allowance for the Highland company. Apparently pipers were not allowed on the Regimental strength at this time, there being an allowance only for fifers and drummers (see the early Horse Guards communiqués with the Rifles where buglers are shown as drummers). Therefore the pipers that came from the Highland Regiments to form the E.C.R and again with Cameron to form the 95th would be supernumeraries paid for and maintained by the Highland Officers, in the latter case, presumably by Cameron himself. Thorburn’s Uniform of the Scottish Infantry iterates, "Pipers have always been associated with Scottish Regiments, but it is seldom realised that it was not until 1854 that they were given official sanction... Up to this date pipers had been maintained at the expense of the Colonel, their existence was not recognised by the War Office, and no reference to their uniforms can be found in official regulations."16

A Piper of the Cameron Highlanders, 1804

None the less, there is a Pyne picture of a piper of the 79th dating from 1804 in his Costume of Great Britain series that may give some indication of the appearance of the Highland company’s piper.17 The green bags were customary at this time, and match a set in the Winchester Rifles' museum. The provenance is through Major Cameron's family. They were given by Mr Francis Head of Inverailort in 1955.18

Did the Highland Company remain Scottish?

Mr Head is also recorded in the Rifle Brigade Chronicle of 1954 as having supplied the Museum with a list of names of those serving in the Highland Company in 1808, contained in an aquittance roll of that date, listed to Capt. H. Cameron’s company.19 From the names, it appears that the company retained its Scottish identity at this time.20 The references by Surtees and Kincaid suggest that the Highland Company was still in existence in 1812.

[1] Captain Sir John Kincaid, Tales from the Rifle Brigade-Adventures in the Rifle Brigade (Pen and Sword, 2005) p.52

[2] William Surtees, Twenty-five years in the Rifle Brigade (Greenhill, 1996) p.136

[3] Rifle Brigade Chronicle, 1931, 4, p.222

[4] Lt-Col. Greenhill Gardyne, History of the Gordon Highlanders, Vol. 1, 1901, p.83

[5] Ibid. p.83

[6] History and Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade 1800-1813, Vol. 1 (Naval and Military Press, 1912) p.41

[7] Ibid. p.25, and RBC 1928, p.201

[8] Ibid. p.28

[9] RBC, 1931, p.223

[10] John Prebble, The Highland Clearances (Penguin, 1963) p.148

[11] RBC, 1931, p.223

[12] RBC, 1928, p.202

[13] Eileen Hathaway (Ed.), A Dorset Rifleman: The recollections of Benjamin Harris (Shinglepicker, 1995) p.19

[14] Jonathon Leach, Rough Sketches of the Life of An Old Soldier (Ken Trotman, 1986) p.242

[15] Captain Cooke, Memoirs of the Late War, Vol. 1 (Kessinger publishing, facs. of 1831) p.27

[16] Thorburn, Uniform of The Scottish Infantry, 1740-1900 (HMSO, 1973) p.5

[17] WH Pyne, The Costume of Great Britain (William Miller, 1804) plate 60

[18] RBC, 1955, p.121

[19] RBC, 1954, p.97

[20] RBC, 1928, pp.208-210