Also known as the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, this regiment is known for being the “thin red line” of the British Army; the regiment’s soldiers standing three men deep held back the formidable Russian Calvalry at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. They existed from 1799 to 1881, when they were combined with the 91st Foot (Princess Louise Highlanders). Doing service in such diverse places as the Cape (1805), New Orleans (1814), Canada (1835), India (1857), and Gibralter (twice in the 1870’s), wherever they went, they fought well and lived well, so that even Queen Victoria knew and wrote of their bravery and exemplary behaviour, calling them “gallant and splendid”. Wearing kilts, sporrans, and highland bonnets into battle, these men made their chivalry and courage known throughout the Empire.
While military buffs might know of them today, they have largely fallen into obscurity, and unless you have visited Stirling Castle, which served as their headquarters, you probably have never heard of them. But the 93rd deserves some attention from Christians – chivalry and courage were not the only characteristics that set them apart as a regiment.
The 93rd Regiment was a spiritual family. Presbyterianism was ubiquitous in the Sutherland area where the men came from, and many of the regiment’s soldiers were strong Calvinists. Though they had sworn loyalty to their monarch, their first loyalty was to Christ. This shone through in the way they lived and fought.
Away from home and their local congregations so often, the men formed their own officially recognized congregation of the Church of Scotland within the regiment, supporting a minister from their small pay and electing elders from their own ranks. The “kirk tradition of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders is one of the oldest [traditions] they have”. These men were so devoted to their religion that out of their small stipends they purchased a set of Communion silver, supported a missionary, and established a fund for widows of 93rd soldiers who were members of the Church of Scotland. Like today, soldiers were not well paid – these were sacrificial acts of love for Christ. This contrasts with other “Church of England Regiments”, where soldiers often attended chapel out of duty and lived apostate lives during the week.
In 1843, the 93rd was in Canada. During their time there, the commanding officer Lt. Colonel Spark “actively threatened” soldiers, and refused to promote a soldier, William McBean, who had earned the honour. Spark was not picking up a rebellious spirit from the rebels he had come to quell, nor was he power-hungry. 1843 was a year of “major upset in Highland battalion religious life…the formation of the Free Church of Scotland”. This may seem like a minor issue. It was not for the 93rd. Lt. Colonel Spark was refusing to promote McBean on the grounds that he was a “Free Kirker”; the other men he threatened were attending Free Church services, and Spark was trying to put a stop to it. This religious split made a lasting division in the brigade, half going to the old denomination’s services, half to the new. Strangely, the authorities allowed this religious split, McBean was promoted, and both Old Kirkers and Free Kirkers were able to tolerate each other’s convictions, at least outwardly.
The 93rd’s concern with Calvinism and true religion overflowed from principle into the soldiers’ actions. From the Sutherland’s creation in 1799 to 1839, they had not seen any corporal punishment for thirty-two of those years, and in most of them, “not a single man was punished for anything”. In an era when flogging was common, if not routine, in most other regiments, this fact stood out. The authorities were well aware of the Sutherland men’s morality; at one point high ranking officers considered splitting up the 93rd so that their influence could be distributed to more unruly regiments. Thankfully for the men, they were allowed to stay together, regiment and kirk in one.
The 93rd’s Brigadier Sir Colin Campbell, knowing their religious fervor, love for each other, and desire to be blameless before God and men, threatened them before a critical battle with these words: “Now men, you are going into action…No soldier must go carrying off wounded men. If any soldier does such a thing, his name shall be stuck up in his parish church.” With this unusual disgrace looming in front of them, all men obeyed.
The Digest of Service, 1800, remarks that “in such a regiment, not only did each individual feel accountable for his own character but in some degree responsible for the conduct of his comrades…” Not only were these Presbyterians zealous about their personal faiths; they also encouraged fellow soldiers to respect authority, to live uprightly, and to fight knowing that God would direct the battle. Men of the 93rd fought for God, their families and the Empire. In a phrase, they displayed a Protestant war ethic.
This regiment shows us how hundreds of Georgian and Victorian men thought and what their worldview was like. What the soldiers were and what they believed was acted out. Masculinity was demonstrated by chivalry; Highland identity was worn as a uniform; Presbyterianism was lived out in meaningful, moral lives. They remain a pattern for men today – men serving not only as soldiers, but for any man eager to utilize his time, money, and actions to speak for Christ in an embattled world.
Works Cited (excluding unpublished primary sources in the 91st’s regimental archive in the Castle, Stirling, U.K.):
Cromb, James. The Highland Brigade. Dundee: John Leng & CO., 1886.
Henderson, Diana M. Highland Soldier: A Social Study of the Highland Regiments,
1820-1920. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, Ltd., 1989.
Reid, David, F.S.A. Scot., C. F. The Kirk of the 93rd: A Short History. Place of publication unknown: Publisher unknown, 1968.
Shadwell, Lieut-General. The Life of Colin Campbell, Lord Clyde, vol II. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1881.
Sutherland, Douglas. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. London: Leo Cooper Ltd.,
Messenger, Charles. For Love of Regiment: A History of the British Infantry. London:
Leo Cooper, 1994.
Princess Louise Highlanders. “The Thin Red Line”. Regimental Magazine of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. http://www.argylls.co.uk/thinredline.