Eilean Donan Castle in the Scottish Highlands

Photo Credit: Eusebius

Part 2 of a 3 part series, see part 1 Scottish Highlanders Traditional Diet

The Mighty Highlanders and Their Real Food Diet

By Stanley A. Fishman, Author of Tender Grassfed Meat and Tender Grassfed Barbecue: Traditional, Primal and Paleo

Thousands of pages could be and have been written about the amazing prowess of the Scottish Highlanders in battle. Their wonderful traditional Scottish diet gave them incredible strength, endurance, and agility, which enabled them to accomplish astonishing feats in battle. I will cover two significant examples.

During the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, a small Highland army under James Graham, Marquess of Montrose, won many astonishing victories over much larger and better equipped enemy forces. In one battle, Montrose decided the best way to deal with the enemy cavalry was to lure them into a bog, where their horses would sink into the soft ground.

But no cavalry would knowingly ride into a bog. Montrose stationed a group of Scottish warriors in a bog, where the ground was so soft that a man who stood still would sink deeply into the muck. The only way to avoid sinking was to constantly shift one’s feet, pulling them out of the strong grip of the muck and planting them on another part of the bog, then repeating the process endlessly.

Most people would have been exhausted after a few minutes of this “bog dance.” The Highlanders kept this up for well over an hour, long enough for the enemy to deploy their army, long enough to convince the enemy cavalry that the ground was solid, long enough for the enemy cavalry to charge. The enemy cavalry charged right into the bog and got stuck there, the horses sinking in right to their bellies. At this point, the Highlanders cut down the helpless cavalry, winning the battle. It is remarkable that they had the energy to swing their swords in grueling hand-to-hand combat after struggling with the clammy muck of the bog for over an hour.

Scottish Warriors Show Impressive Strength and Endurance in Battle

During the battle of Assaye, in India, in 1803, two Highland regiments the 78th and the 74th played a crucial role in a battle where the British were heavily outnumbered by a well-armed, well-trained enemy. The British army had only 6,000 men, including a thousand Highlanders in the two regiments. The Maratha confederation had 60,000, and hundreds of modern cannon, while the British had only a handful of guns. At least 10,000 of the Maratha infantry were trained and equipped to the most modern European standards, and had many European officers. These men were veterans who had won many battles.

The battle began with an exchange of artillery fire. The British commander, Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon) ordered his army to attack before the greatly superior enemy guns could destroy them.

The 500 men of the 78th Highlanders led the attack. They marched in a thin straight line, directly at the enemy artillery. Cannonballs ripped off limbs and cut the Scottish warriors in half. They marched forward. Thousands of musketballs, known as grapeshot, were fired from the cannons at close range, shredding many Highlanders. They marched on. The ten thousand veteran, European-trained infantry stationed just behind the artillery watched in disbelief as the 78th kept coming, despite heavy losses, marching right into the deadly fire of the cannons.

At fifty yards, the 78th raised their muskets, and fired a single deadly volley right into the artillerymen, killing many and disorganizing the rest. The Highlanders charged with the bayonet, and overwhelmed the gunners, despite being heavily outnumbered. Several Indian regiments in British service came up to join the attack, and all the guns were taken. The surviving Highlanders then marched beyond the guns, formed another line, and prepared to attack the ten thousand veteran infantry facing them. As they marched forward, the ten thousand broke and fled, wanting no part of the giants who had done the impossible and captured the guns. The 78th and the Indian regiments pursued. A number of the Maratha gunners had pretended to be dead. They started firing their guns into the rear of the Highlanders. The 78th turned around, and once again marched through the hell of cannonballs and grapeshot, charging the gunners with the bayonet. This time, they made sure the gunners were dead.

In the meantime, the 74th Highlanders had been ordered to attack another part of the Maratha army. They suffered even greater losses from deadly artillery fire. So many of them were down that the few survivors were charged by thousands of Maratha cavalry. They formed a square, and fought on. Though only a few of them were left, they beat off constant attacks in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Finally, some British cavalry charged the Marathas from behind, causing them to flee. Wellesley came up and ordered the 74th to meet him. Only forty men answered his order. Wellesley angrily asked where the rest of the 500 man regiment was. “They are all down, sir,” was the reply.

Resistance to Wounds and Infection

Though only 40 men of the 74th Highlanders were able to stand after the battle of Assaye, hundreds of them recovered fully, and were able to fight in the battle of Argaum, two months later. This ability to heal from battle wounds was typical for the Highland regiments.

Tens of thousands of Highlanders served in the British army during the period 1750 – 1870, and over 86 Highland regiments were formed. The medical services of the day were terrible, and wounded men often died horrible deaths from infections. Amputation was the common treatment for most wounds. The British army doctors recorded many seemingly miraculous recoveries by the Highland soldiers. Highlanders who were so badly wounded that they were left to die without treatment—often recovered. These included men who had been shot in the abdomen, or lungs, or head, or back, often with the musket ball still lodged in their bodies, even a man who had his shoulder blade and several ribs ripped off by a cannonball. Time and time again, the Highlanders would recover from terrible wounds that were considered fatal by the doctors of the time.

They would recover from these wounds with no medical treatment, as their case was considered hopeless. Many simply did not get the fatal infections that were so common to wounded men in the days before wounds were disinfected. All of these miraculous recoveries were done by the natural functions of the Highlanders’ healthy, well-nourished bodies. Many of these men who were left for dead recovered so completely that they spent many more years in the military.

Despite their strong immune systems, many of the Highland soldiers died from the plague, typhus, yellow fever, and other diseases that plagued the armies of the time, especially when they were short of food. The Highlanders survived these diseases at a much better rate than other soldiers.

Yet while the Highlanders were using their amazing health and prowess to serve the British Empire, the Empire was destroying the very way of life that made the Highlanders so formidable. This will be covered in Part 3.

Stanley Fishman is the author of Tender Grassfed Meat. His newest book is Tender Grassfed Barbecue: Traditional, Primal and Paleo He is a frequent guest blogger on See Stanley’s other “recipes” for good health on his Guest Blogger page.

See part 1 Scottish Highlanders Traditional Diet

See part 3 The Destruction of the Scottish Food Culture