You and Whose Army? The Story of the Atholl Highlanders

In the fraternity of the super wealthy there are many very expensive indulgences that help proclaim the owner’s status; The massive yacht, the exotic cliff top villa, maybe a private jet? However no matter how far up the fortune 500 rankings you go the Duke of Atholl has something that beats every oligarch hands down. His own private army.

The Atholl Highlanders are Europe’s only legally recognised private army, although merely a ceremonial regiment and not officially part of the British Army they were awarded colours.

Atholl Highlanders at the 2009 Gathering

Atholl Highlanders at the 2009 Gathering

The Regiment evolved from the 77th Regiment of the Foot who were raised by the 4th Duke of Atholl in 1777 (not to be confused with an earlier 77th – Mongomeries Highlanders or a later one – the Middlesex Regiment) . This date will be familiar to any scholars of American history since this was a time when the Brits were quite busy attempting to deal with those pesky colonial types on that side of the Atlantic. They were also about to have their already full hands made even fuller by the French and Spanish jumping in too.

Enter the 77th! (sort of)

Unfortunately the regiment didn’t quite make it to the heart of the fighting. Formed as a relief regiment they spent most of their time over in Ireland waiting to be called into the fray. Under the conditions on which the men signed up they were supposed to serve for either three years or the duration of the war with America. In 1781 at the end of their term of service the men were all expecting to return home, however they were transported to England and marched down to Portsmouth ready to embark on a long sea voyage to the West Indies. This was too much for the men of the 77th who promptly mutinied and refused to go. Exasperated their commanders marched them back to Berwick and the regiment was disbanded in 1783, thus ended the less than glorious history of the 77th.

And that would have been the end of it had it not been for, of all people, the Earl of Eglington. In 1839 the Earl had been rather miffed that the year before Queen Victoria’s coronation had been a rather drab affair by normal standards and the traditional banquet had been cancelled after George IV’s coronation nosh up ended in most of the silverware going missing afterwards.

The Earl decided to put on a tournament at Elgington house in Ayrshire. This being the height of the Gothic revival the while thing was to include a medieval jousting competition. Alas this early forerunner of ‘The Gathering’ ran into several problems including the weather and the events own popularity which ended up with most of Ayrshire gridlocked.

Nevertheless one of the ideas planned for the tournament was for a ceremonial guard, The 6th Duke of Atholl, also Lord Glenlyon offered to supply this and the regiment was reborn as the Atholl Highlander’s. As a purely ceremonial guard the  regiment performed several duties such as escorting Queen Victoria during her tour of Perthshire in 1844 and while a guest at Blair Castle.

In recognition of the service performed by the Highlanders, All local volunteers raised from around the estate the Queen agreed to award them with colours and this was presented by Lady Glenlyon.

The only private army in Europe have withstood the times and indeed are still there albeit 100 strong when many other famous Scottish Regiments have long since disappeared. Many of those who have volunteered with the regiment have seen active service elsewhere, for instance serving with other regiments during both world wars.

So if you ever get into a standup fight with the Duke of Atholl and feel tempted to utter the phrase ‘oh yeah, you and whose army?’ you might want to rethink that strategy.




About rodger moffet

Rodger is the Director of ScotClans. Expert in all things clan and tartan.

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2 thoughts on “You and Whose Army? The Story of the Atholl Highlanders

  1. Marilyn

    This was a great article, very well researched and well written too, with wry humor scattered throughout to make it more interesting.. My computer has been giving me fits all day but it turns out that this article was worth waiting to read. Glad I fought the computer and was finally able to load this article. 🙂 Kudos to the author!

  2. Shari Hurst

    Thank you! Very interesting article. Family lore is that an ancestor was part of Queen Victoria’s bodyguard… timeframe 1820~1845. Any idea where I might find Atholl Highlander rosters for that time period?

    thanks in advance – shari


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