Gallantry of the Seventy-First Highland Light Infantry, pp.26-32.

[Tales of the Highlands Contents]

Clifford. – How little known are the miseries to which the brave defenders of Britain’s glory are subjected! – and how meagre is their reward, and how poor is their harvest of individual fame! – Our Nelsons and our Wellingtons, to be sure, are as certainly, as they are deservedly, destined to immortality of name. But is it nor most painful to think that so many of our bravest hearts have gallantly fallen, to sleep in undistinguished oblivion? Your scene in the old barn, Serjeant, reminds me of an anecdote which I had from an officer of the Ninety-first Regiment. – It has never yet appeared in print, though it well deserves to be so recorded, as being worthy of that distinguished corps, the Seventy-first Highland Light Infantry, to which it belongs.

The circumstances took place in 1813, during the Peninsular War. The Seventy-first were at that time stationed with the Fiftieth and the Ninety-second, at St. Pierre, on the main road between Bayonne and St. Jean-pied-de-Port. – This was the key of Lord Hill’s position on the rivers Adour, and the fire of musquetry brought against its defenders on the 13th December, was such as the oldest veterans had never before witnessed. The corps under Lord Hill, indeed, were on that day attacked by Soult’s whole force. But so nobly did those fine regiments perform their duty, that the late Lieutenant-General the Honourable William Stewart, next day gave out an order, which I remember treasuring up in my memory as a masterpiece of soldier-like diction. I think the very words were these:- “The second Division has greatly distinguished itself, and its gallantry in yesterday’s action is fully felt by the Commander of the Forces, and the Allied Army.”

And well indeed had they merited this highly creditable testimonial of their good behaviour. But the carnage was great, and there were many who, alas! did not survive to participate in the honour conferred by it. Several of the wounded belonging to the respective corps, were huddled together in the lower storey of an old house, that stood upon the very ground on which the thickest part of the contest had taken place. Now it happened, that certain officers from different regiments had taken shelter in a room in the floor above, where they were refreshing themselves, after their fatigue, with such food and other restoratives as they could command, and among them was that officer of the Ninety-first who told me the facts to which he was an ear-witness.

The conversation of these gentlemen, though mingled now and then with many regrets for lost companions, had a certain temperate joy in it – a joy arising from a conviction that they had behaved like men – and which was tempered by strong feelings of gratitude to a kind Providence, who had preserved them amidst all the perils of the fight. Suddenly their talk was put an end to by the most heart-rending groans and shrieks of agony, that came up from the room below, through the old decayed floor. What mirth or joy there was among them, was altogether banished by the frequency and intensity of the screams, that betokened the mortal sufferings of a dying man. They sat for a time mutely, though deeply sympathizing, with the poor unfortunate from whom they came. At length they distinctly heard another faint, and apparently expiring voice, say, in a tone of rebuke, – “Haud your tongue, James, and bear your fate like a man. We’ll soon be baith at ease. – But, in the mean time, haud your tongue, for there are folk aboon us that may be hearin’ you; and if you have no respect for yoursell, recollect what you owe to the gallant Seventy-first Hillant Light Infantry, to which we baith belong.”

This appeal had the desired effect. All that could now be heard, in the stillness of the night, was a low murmur. A surgeon, who was of the party, immediately went to administer what relief he might to the wretched sufferers. But in one short hour these heroic men had ceased to exist, and no one can now tell even the name of either of them.

Author. – A most touching anecdote! – What magnanimous fellows!

Grant. – Their names should have been written by the hand of Fame herself, in letters of the purest and most imperishable gold! – Yet they have been allowed to sink into the sea of forgetfulness, and,

“Like the snow-falls in the river,
 A moment white, then gone for ever,”

they have melted into oblivion – so far, at least, as this world is concerned.

Clifford. – Yes; they sleep unremembered, whilst every lily-livered cobbler, or tailor, who has handled his awl, or his bodkin, with no more peril to his person than may have lain on the point of one or other of these formidable weapons, has his tombstone – his death’s head and cross-bones – and his attendant cherubims – as well as his text and his epitaph.

Serjeant. – Very true, sir – very true. What have such chields as these to do with fame? But for all that, we see fame arise to the silliest men, and from the most trifling causes.

Grant. – Right, Archy. For instance, I remember a certain Highlander, who gained his fame in a way that may perhaps make you envious – for it is the tale of your unwhisperables that has brought him to my mind.

Serjeant. – Aye, sir! – What was his story?

Grant. – Why, the hero was a certain Rory Maccraw, who, despising the kilt which he had worn all his life, resolved, at all risks, to figure in a pair of those elegant emblems of civilization called breeches. At the present day, one may travel from the Tweed to the Pentland Firth without seeing such a thing as a kilt; but at the time of which I am now speaking, anything in the shape of breeches was just as rarely to be seen as the kilt is now. Rory had a pair made for him in some distant town, where, as they would say in Ireland, he had not been by when his measure was taken, and having put them on, he left his glen to go to a market. It was observed by his neighbours, that he never before took so long a time to walk the same distance, and, from his strange and stately manner of strutting, they attributed this circumstance to the pride he felt in his new garments. Arrived at the market, the expectation he had indulged in, that he was to excite the wonder and envy of all the people there, did not deceive him. He was followed, and stared at, and admired, and questioned wherever he went. If a dancing bear had waddled through the fair, he could not have had half the number of people after him. But like most of those who envy the lot of their neighbours, these good folks only saw the outside of things, and knew not the misery which was covered by this fair external show. In the midst of their admiration, poor Rory was in torture. He would have given all he was worth, unmentionables and all, to have got rid of the admiring crowds that followed him; and at last, long before he had done half his business in the market – for as to pleasure, he could taste none of it – he, the envied, the observed of all observers, watched his opportunity to steal hobbling away down a back lane, whence he went limping in agony into the country. There, seating himself by the public way-side, regardless of what eyes might behold him, he pulled off the instruments of his suffering, and hanging them on the end of his staff, he placed it over his shoulder, and so trudged his way homeward, in defiance of the taunts, gibes, and laughter of the crowds which he fell in with by the way. But his fame was established; and ever afterwards he went by the name of Peter Breeks.

Clifford. – Capital!

Author. – Well, Archy, to return to your own story, and the disappointment you have met with in the arrestment of your career of glory, I would fain comfort you with the old proverb, that a contented mind is better than riches.

Serjeant. – This is very true, sir; and I am very thankful that I am blessed with that same. And although I got but little in the army but hard knocks, yet I would take them all over again, rather than that I should not have seen the many things I did see, as well as the heaps of queer human beings I met with during the few years I served. What is man, gentlemen, unless he gets the rust of home, and the reek of his own fire-side rubbed off him by travel? He can never be expected to speculate on any thing but the ducks in the dubbs, or the hens on the midden-head. Though I had a tolerable education for the like of me, what would I have been had I never been out of this valley? Not much better, I trow, than one of the stirks that are bred in it. Bless you, sirs, I saw a vast of human nature in my travels.

Grant. – And thought much and well on it too, Archy, if I mistake not.

Serjeant. – May be I did, sir, – and a very curious nature it is, I’ll assure you. But, gentlemen, we must cross the water at this wooden bridge here.

Author. – If you had not seen so much by going into the world as you have don, Archy, I have great doubts whether that curiosity, which has since made you pick up that great store of your native legends which you are said to possess, might not have lain entirely dormant.

Serjeant. – Oh, bless your honour, I should never have thought of such things. It was the seeing so much that roused up the spirit of enquiry within me. And so it happened, that after I came back from the sodgering trade, this spirit could not rest till I had gathered up all the curious stories I could get. And then I fell tooth and nail upon books, so that, when I was not working, I was always reading histories, novelles, magazines, newspapers, and such like, so that I am not just altogether that ill informed. But stop a moment, gentlemen; do you see yon bright green spot in the hollow of the hill-side yonder above us?

Grant. – Yes; but what is there wonderful about that, Archy?

Serjeant. – There is nothing very wonderful about itself, indeed, but it is worth your remarking for all that. It is what we call in this country a wallee, that is, the quaking bog out of which a spring wells forth.

Clifford. – Tut, Archy! There are few grouse shooters who have not experienced the treachery of these smooth-faced, flattering, but most deceitful water-traps.

Serjeant. – Smooth-faced, flattering, and deceitful, indeed, sir; I’ve heard them compared by some to the fair sex, beauteous and smiling outside, and cruelly cold-hearted within. But I think any such comparison is most unjust, for my old woman never deceived me; and, as I have told you, if it had not been for her oatmeal balls I verily believe I should not have been here at this moment.

Clifford. – It would ill become you, indeed, to slander the fair sex, Mister Serjeant, and depend upon it, you will not catch me doing so.

Serjeant. – But about the wallee yonder; I was saying –

Clifford. – Aye, the wallee; I shall never forget the first cold-bath I had up to the neck in one of them. It was all owing to the spite of a cunning old moorcock, which I had severely wounded. Out of revenge, I suppose, for the mortal injury I had done him, he chose to come fluttering down into the very middle of what I conceived to be a beautiful surface of hard green-sward. Being but a young sportsman at the time, and very eager to secure my bird, who sat most provokingly tock-tock-tocking at me, as if he had bid me defiance, I ran down the bank, and made a bound towards him. In I went souse. I shiver yet to think of it – my very senses were congealed – and for a moment I verily believed that I had been suddenly transformed into the North Pole, and that the cock-grouse that fluttered around me was Captain Parry some to explore me. And, i’ faith, if it had not been for the light foot and strong arm of the gilly who was with me, I believe I might have been sticking upright there, preserved in ice till this moment. There was a moorish bath for you!

Serjeant. – They are most unchancy bits for strangers; that is certain, sir.

Clifford. – Unchancy indeed! But if that is all you have to tell us about yonder place in the hill-side, Mr. Archy, you may save yourself the trouble of attempting to astonish me with your information; for, Sassenach though I be, I promise you that I have been long ago initiated into the full depth of the mystery. – Nymphs and Naiads of the crystal Aven, what a beautiful stream there is for fishing!

Serjeant. – ‘Tis very good, indeed, sir. But yon wallee that I was speaking about would swallow a horse, with you on the top of it. Many a time have I thrust a long pole down into it without reaching anything the least like firm ground. It would swallow that fishing-wand of yours, sir.

Clifford. – (Already employed in putting his rod together.) – Plague choke it, I should be sorry indeed to see my rod go in any such way. It is one of the best Bond ever made; and though adapted, by means of these different pieces, to any size of stream, it was never intended for such deep-sea fishing as you would put it to. I shall apply it to another purpose, my good serjeant. With this sky, the trouts there will take a grey mallard’s wing with a yellow silk body, in great style.

Serjeant. – But the wallee up yonder is worth your notice, because of an auld auncient monumental stone that once stood on the dry bank beside it.

Grant. – Ha! a monumental stone! – let us hear about that.

Serjeant. – It was about seven feet high, sir, and the tradition regarding it is that it was set up there in memory of a sad story that is connected with it.

Author. – A story, said you?

Clifford. – Then, my good fellow, Serjeant Stewart, just have the kindness to sit down there, and tell us the particulars of your sad story, while I give a few casts here over this most tempting stream.

Serjeant. – With all manner of pleasure, sir; I shall be happy to tell your honours all I have gathered about it. It is the very legend for which Mr. Clifford marked me down in his book.

Clifford immediately began to fish. Grant and I seated ourselves on the daisied bank of the river, one on each side of the serjeant. The gilly stretched himself at length on the grass, and was soon asleep – the pony with the panniers grazed as far around him as the length of his halter would let him, and my Newfoundland dog Bronte sat watching the trouts leaping, whilst Archy proceeded with his narrative, as nearly as I can recollect, in the following words; but if not always precisely in the serjeant’s own language, at least I shall give it with a strict adherence to his facts.

4 thoughts on “Gallantry of the Seventy-First Highland Light Infantry, pp.26-32.

    1. This wee book’s full of sad wee stories but you’re absolutely right. I’m in the belief we should remember in order to prevent it’s like again.

Leave a Reply