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Well Fed Scottish Warriors Waged Fierce Battles

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 Hartkeisonline.com. 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

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  1. Kimberly Hartke says:

    Stay tuned for part 3, tomorrow!

  2. diet combined with grit and a determination to see it through — diet doesn’t necessarily = the intestinal fortitude to charge forward into battle … the Scots have long been known as people who do not retreat (even when they should! 🙂 ) and the diet fortified them for sure! Great series, look forward to part three (my family lineage includes both lowland and highland Scots — the lowlanders were known for their fierceness and stubbornness in battle as well)

  3. After I submitted the post, I learned some more details about the 74th Highlanders in India. At Assaye, 168 of them were killed and 295 wounded, out of 500. This led the British army to strike the 74th from the list of active regiments, as it was expected that most of the 295 wounded would die in the hot tropical climate, where most wounded men died of infection. The Army thought the 74th had been destroyed. But they underestimated the incredible vitality and recuperative powers of the Scottish Highlanders. Nearly all of the wounded men recovered, and the 74th fought in the battle of Argaum, two months after Assaye.

  4. Sorry this doesnt add up at all. Most highlanders (and the majority of British recruits) joined the army due to poverty. The diet in the army was actually better than what they had in civilian life. Army rations in those days were pretty basic, usually a pound of meat which was salted and often poor quality before it was preserved and a pound of bread or biscuit (ie twice baked bread) again this was often poor quality. Quite often sawdust would be added to the loaf to make up the weight. The performance of highland regiments in battle was very impressive but no better than any of the other line regiments of infantry in the British army in that period. This was mainly due to 1. the regiments recruiting from a geographical area that they had adopted which increased a recruits pride in his “local” regiment As to their surviving injuries and what have you there are numerous accounts of other soldiers in the British army surviving similar horrific injuries. These can be found in any personal accounts of the Napoleonic, Crimean or colonial wars.

  5. Chris G, the health and vitality of the Highlanders came from the healthy diet and way of life they had before they enlisted, not what the army fed them. As for the rest, not only does it add up, it is well documented. I invite you to review a few of my sources:

    Rob Roy MacGregor, His Life and Times, by W H Murray -

    The Scottish Highlanders and Their Regiments, by Michael Brander,

    Wellington in India, by Jac Weller

    Montrose, by John Buchan

    War through The Ages, by Lynn Montross

    I stand by everything I wrote.

  6. You can stand by whatever you like anecdotes and personl accounts from hisory books are hardly double blind, empirical peer reviewd studies are they? In those days regiments were often overseas for years on end living on the diet I mentioned, at some poit the benefits gained form a previously healthy diet would wear off .You can point to as many historical accounts as you like, there are also well documented cases of other regiments in the British army whose soldiers carried out similar feats of arms and endurance as that of the highlanders. Read William`Cobbetts account of the diet of the rural poor in that time, It was mainly bread cheese and tea. By the time lots of highlanders enlisted their days of a healthy diet were over that is why they enlisted. Why would someone with access to a healthy diet and having a good immune system join an organisation that paid them a shilling a day before stoppages and a poorer diet which often lead them to no food at all when the supply chain was broken An organisation that had a reputation for posting people to fever ridden islands and not even having basic medical care. Most of the recruits were from the agricultural poor such as labourers who had fallen on hard times. Most highlanders turned off their land enlisted becasue they were a martial race/warrior caste reduced to poverty. They would recive a regular albeit monotonous diet in the army How do you account for the well documented cases of regiments of the Gurkhas and Indian hill people in the employ of the British govt in India performing as well if not better than British troops. In the case of the Gurkhas, they were brought up on a diet of Dahl baat with rice (lentil curry) and were used to a life of hard labour in mountain villages. There religion wouldnt permit most kinds of meat, hardly any for most of them. There are well documented cases of them surviving horrific injuries. (I am not pursuing a veggie argument here I regard meat as a health food) I would suggest that the survival of highlanders or anyone in those days was due to having the genes that helped them survive the high infant mortality of the day and being able to benefit from circumstances that saw them encountering dirt and bacteria on a daily basis. Also with no welfare state the onus was on them to pull through any injury or illness to enable them to continue provide for their dependents.
    Have a look at Redcoat and Sahib and Soldiers by Richard Holmes for accounts that dont focus exclusively on highland regiments.To add to the confusion its also worth mentioning that`at certain times highland regiments were not exclusivelty recruited from the highlands. Scottish lowlanders, Irish and English often served in these regiments.

  7. No amount of vehemence changes history. The truth is reflected in the sources I cited, and I simply disagree with the accuracy of most of your statements. My disagreement is supported by my sources, and I once again invite anyone to read them.

    Your information about the Ghurka diet is not accurate..The Ghurkhas came from Nepal, and ate Nepali food. If you look at The Nepal Cookbook, written by the Association of Nepalis in the Americas, you will not find a single recipe with Dahl as an ingredient, and only a single recipe containing lentils.But you will find plenty of recipes for Pork, Lamb, and Chicken. This book was written as an attempt to preserve something of Nepali cooking traditions.
    The Ghurkhas themselves were famous for cooking several Pork and Chicken curries. Because of the fame of the Ghurkhas, several of these dishes became popular in England.

  8. Keep churning out your narrative. Nepalis in rural parts of the country lived and still live on dahl baat, ususally twice a day . I didnt get this from books I have been to the country, twice, and seen it. Poor nepalis only eat meat on special occasions, only wealthy nepalis get to eat meat on a regular basis.and have the werewithal to publish cookery books. They dont need to join Gurkha regiments.

    We can bat this theory on supposed reistance that highlanders had to injury back and forth till the cows come home. There are still accounts of simliar incidents regarding other regiments in the British army that recruited elsewhere and in its colonial regiments who were brought up on very poor diets. It cant be down to diet alone as many had not known a healthy diet for years if at all. This is fact.read any 119th century account of a recruits pre army experiences. I say again one reason they joined the army was to receive regular meals compared to what they were used to. There may have been highlanders who ate very well befoere deciding to join that doesnt they all did.

    I would suggest that by the time they nd recruits from other area joined the army they were used to a very tough existence indeed. An existence that prepared them well for the conditions encountered on campaign. An extreme form of selelction bias if you like.

  9. thank you for the great post. keep them coming!

  10. so cute..so funny


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  2. […] But traditionally, the Highlanders had free access to wild game, wild fish, and the meat of their herds, which made them unique in Europe at the time. Game, fish, and meat were a large part of their traditional diet, and an important part of their incredible health, size, strength, and vitality, as shown in Part 2: Well Fed Scottish Warriors Waged Fierce Battles […]

  3. […] Well Fed Scottish Warriors Waged Fierce Battles - Hartke Is Online!Feb 2, 2012 … Today, Stan Fishman tells of the amazing exploits of well-fed soldiers in part 2 of his series on the warriors of the Scottish Highlands. […]

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