At the end of every May, Blair Castle in Highland Perthshire plays host to a truly unique event; when the regiment of the Atholl Highlanders parades and is reviewed by their colonel, the Duke of Atholl.
This is no ordinary regiment however, as it has the distinction of being the only private regiment in Europe. Bedecked in kilts and plaid of the Murray of Atholl tartan and bearing Lee-Metford rifles, the officers, rank and pipe band gather in front of the 700 year old castle and take the salute from the duke. It is a simple gesture, but one that takes us back hundreds of years and a continuity in the relationship between the great chief and the men of Athol.
The earldom, indeed ancient kingdom of Atholl sits at one of Scotland’s great crossroads; historically, stretching from Glen Lyon in the west to Glen Isla in the east, and from the Gaick Pass in the north to Dunkeld in the south. It was where east met west, where north met south and where Highland met Lowland. Centred on the lush valleys of the Tay basin, Atholl has long been one of the keystones of the realm; a fact reflected in the number of earls that were members of the royal house.
Like many parts of the Highlands, this was a place that needed defending, maybe more so due to its location, and the Men of Atholl have stood and fought for their ancient earl, against his enemies since time immemorial: back to Pictish times, and beyond. In medieval times those earls were based at Dunkeld, and held court at Logierait, but by the 14th century they’d also established themselves at Blair Castle. This was a vital position, strategically; guarding the northern passes of the Gaick, Minigaig and Drumochter, as well as the southern pass at Killiecrankie. These were war-like days, with bands of wild caterans, ambitious Highland lords, and an even more ambitious royal house all vying for power in the mountains, and every inch had to be defended.
In time the earls, and later, dukes of Atholl consolidated their power, position and prestige among the hills of Highland Perthshire, and became key players at court as the Stewart dynasty became masters of the whole of the British Isles. During the War of the Three Kingdoms (often called the English Civil War), and the Jacobite wars that followed, much of the bloodshed during the turbulent years of the 17th and 18th centuries would be spilt on the slopes of Atholl. The Highlanders were a law unto themselves, the clan chiefs were kings in their own fiefdom, and they proved an unknown quantity and a danger to the government and crown. Atholl was key to their control, and several battles would be fought there to determine who held sway. The men of Atholl remained loyal to the Stuart crown: the Robertsons, the Stewarts, the Murrays, the Macintoshes, and many more besides fought and died for the cause, and followed their prince into oblivion.
Following the horrors of Culloden in 1746, where many Athollmen lost their lives the London Government, in a knee-jerk reaction following the collapse of the ’45 Rebellion, drafted draconian laws against the Highlanders. These included the prohibition on wearing tartan, kilts, the playing of bagpipes, and most significantly the right of Highland Chiefs (regardless of the political persuasion) to raise private armed militia or armies. Only soldiers fighting for king and country had the right to bear arms. Many chiefs and lords, used to controlling armed men, raised regiments under their command for the British Army, and given rank accordingly. In their turn, the clansmen swapped their traditional loyalty for chief to that of colonel and regiment. Colonel and chief were often one and the same, but times had changed.
In 1777 the 4th Duke of Atholl raised the 77th Regiment of foot to fight against the rebellious Americans in the civil war raging across that continent. It was meant to be a relief force, and as such these Atholl Highlanders as they were called, spent much of their time in Ireland training. However, the British surrendered in North America before they set sail, so after their three year term was over, they expected to be disbanded. But the authorities, who had just spent time and money training them, wanted the regiment to serve in the East Indies instead. On learning the news the men mutinied and were disbanded. The service to the British Army of the Atholl Highlanders came to an abrupt and rather dishonourable end.
Highland lairds may have been unable to maintain private armed militia but it didn’t stop them retaining a retinue of men as a ceremonial bodyguard – it fitted their Victorian romantic ideals of the Highlands. In 1839 Lord Glenlyon, later the 6th duke, took a retinue to the Eglinton jousting tournament. Five years later in 1844 the Duke provided Queen Victoria with a bodyguard of 200 when she visited Blair Castle, and in a bout of sentimentality that she was prone to, she revoked the law of 1746 for the duke, and presented him with Regimental Colours, and thus elevating the Atholl Highlanders to an private armed regiment. Although essentially a private guard, the regiment is technically part of the British Army, and carries the Queen’s colours.
The 7th Duke provided regular regimental bodyguards to royalty heading north to Balmoral, mainly at Dunkeld; but by the First World War the regiment had all but disappeared into obscurity. During both world wars the Men of Atholl served in many regiments including notably the Black Watch and the Scottish Horse Cavalry, but the ceremonial Atholl Highlanders were essentially a relic, a thing of the past.
In 1966 Ian Murray, 10th Duke of Atholl, resurrected the regiment replete with pipe-band, received new Colours, and once again marched the Atholl Highlanders. Over the next thirty years the numbers grew, the events increased and new life was breathed into a great tradition. He died in 1996, and on his death John Murray, 11th Duke agreed to continue with the regiment – and that is something that both his son the Marquis of Tullibardine and his grandson the Earl of Strathtay and Strathardle will lead enthusiastically into the future.
Today there are around 110 Atholl Highlanders including the pipe band. They wear the duke’s tartan, march to the tune the ‘March of the Atholl Highlanders’, written by local fiddle hero Niel Gow, wear the eagle-wing plaid over Georgian tunics and don the Juniper plant, the clan plant of the Murray Clan in their Glengarries. The motto of the regiment is: ‘furth, fortune and fill the fetters’, which basically means – ‘go forth, win the day and return with the booty’. Last year they received new colours from HM the Queen which allows the continuance of this unique organisation, the last private regiment in the western world.
Where can I find Blair Castle
This article was written by David McNicoll, who himself is an Atholl Highlander. He now lives in New York where he runs Highland Experience USA which specialises in travel to Scotland and Scottish tours.