Kilts and bagpipes are merely the distinctive symbols of a tradition rooted in Canadian military history – the Highland regiment. In the period after the defeat of the Jacobite forces at Culloden in 1746, the pace of political, economic, and social change in the Scottish Highlands increased. One of its results was depopulation and the movement of Highlanders to the Lowlands, England, and abroad. British North America was a favourite destination of the Scottish diaspora and had been since soldiers of two Highland regiments settled in Quebec after the Seven Years’ War. From the 1780s up to the First World War, the pace of Scottish emigration to British North America/Canada ebbed and flowed; it was, however, significant. Some communities such as Hamilton had large Scottish populations by the mid 1850s; in Hamilton’s case, it was about 22 per cent. And in Hamilton, as elsewhere in this period, the Highland Regiment became most closely identified with the militia. In 1856, for example, a Highland Rifle Company was formed in Hamilton, the result of efforts by powerful civic leaders of the local Scottish community.
Between the 1870s and the First World War, as part of heightened cultural self-consciousness, Scottish-Canadians engaged in myriad initiatives to demonstrate and secure their integral place within the fabric of Canadian society. There were books about the Scots in British North America, poetic tributes, attempts (failed) to secure the Gaelic language, an increased emphasis on the recovery of Scottish-Canadian folklore in poetry and song, the rise of clan societies, the St Andrew’s Society, the Sons of Scotland, and novels depicting Scottish-Canadian communities across the land. Unlike the English and the Irish, the Scots had no political traditions to implant in the new land. The Union of 1707 and the crushing of Jacobitism in 1746 all but eliminated a distinctive Scottish political custom. It could be argued that the closest approximation was the radical and often militant Scottish unionism with its Covenanter fervour, its biblical egalitarianism, and its unyielding grittiness.
The period of the late 19th century witnessed a rising interest in militarism across the Western world (and Japan) and in Canada as well. Humans are paradoxical creatures to be sure, and by the 1820s, courtesy of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the poetry of Robert Burns, the once despised Highlander had acquired a romantic aura (it was, after all, the great Romantic age), and the Highlander – with his history (no longer a threat), his music, and his dress – moved to the centre of an emerging Scottish cultural identity. The martial attributes of Highland clans provided a fearsome quality to a fascinated commercial, industrial world. All of these trends were abetted by press reports of the famed Thin Red Line at Balaklava during the Crimean War of the 1850s and the Romantic art that followed it.
Across Canada, Scottish-Canadian communities, clan societies, and cultural organizations mobilized effectively to lobby successive governments for kilted regiments with pipe bands. Such activity offers proof, if it were needed, of the skill and determination of this community to assert itself and in a manner that, self-evidently to be sure, seemed a natural outlet for the unique cultural proclivities of the warlike Highlander. The federal government was consistently wary of the precedent and the expense. The former fell quickly and the latter problem was solved by having the regiments pay for their distinctive dress. Canadian Highland regiments owe their existence to the assertiveness of Scottish-Canadians in this period and political organization. The 91st Regiment Canadian Highlanders (established in Hamilton in 1903) embodies both of these attributes. The inclusion of “Canadian” demonstrated the attachment of the community to its new home as well as to its ancient roots and its motto, Albainn Gu Brath (Scotland Forever).
In spite of the determination of Sam Hughes to stamp the Canadian Corps with his own brand, the numbered battalions retained in some cases Highland dress and in others pipe bands. The pipes and drums of the 19th Battalion, CEF, played the 2nd Division across the Rhine in December 1918; its successor led the Canadian Berlin Battalion in the British victory parade in Berlin in July 1945. The struggle to retain Highland regiments remains and, for the most part, the battle, though incessant, is usually won. Highland regiments have come and and gone in the regular force; the RCAF has a pipe band. In the dust and heat of the Afghan plain, one of the most enduring symbols for Canadians was a piper leading a flag-draped coffin into the rear of a Hercules aircraft. The piper has endured.
In the case of the 91st, its founders, William Alexander Logie and James Chisholm, wrote to the minister in 1903 that the “men are a particularly fine class drawn chiefly from the better class of Scotchmen who own their own homes and have a stake in the community.” The Highland regiments of Canada proved attractive to those with Scottish forebears, but the nominal rolls demonstrate convincingly no tendency to exclusivity. In fact, in yet another paradox of human behaviour, the Highland regiments became Canadianized. The kilts and bagpipes have been retained; the regiments remain on the order of battle; and those who wear the kilts have represented the changing face of Canada over the 20th and 21st centuries, and proudly proclaim as their own the cultural traditions of another time and a different place.
The modern Highland regiment is much different from the clan war party of 300 years ago. The broadsword and dirk have given way to modern weapons, the men and women of the regiments are no longer exclusively of Highland origin, and Gaelic is now a language reserved for ceremonial occasions. But, for all of that, much remains the same. The emphasis upon courage, loyalty, and duty are with us yet as are the great symbols of the Highland war party of old – Highland dress and the bagpipes. Albainn Gu Brath!