98th (91st) at the Cape of Good Hope, 1795


The 98th Highlanders arrived at Simonstown in September 1795, as part of a force some 4,500 strong under Sir Alured Clarke, an ambitious officer for whom the conquest of the Dutch colony at the Cape was the one great chance of achieving military renown.

But the luck was all against him. His Second-in-Command had already forced a landing with the advance guard, and had driven the Dutch off their only tenable defensive position in front of Cape Town. When, after a cautious and leisurely disembarkation lasting no less than ten days, Sir Alured faced the now vastly outnumbered Dutch at Wynberg, they cheated him of his great victory by running away after one ragged volley, which cost his army one seaman killed and 17 soldiers wounded, 4 of them from the 98th. He made the best of a bad job with a general order thanking his troops for ‘their spirited exertions and cheerful perseverance through every hardship’ in terms which Wellington would have thought fulsome after a major victory.

So the 98th had, technically, their baptism of fire, and settled down as the permanent garrison, to suffer for seven unhappy years really serious casualties from the insalubrious climate and the insanitary conditions in Cape Castle. They lost 11 dead in the first month; and they seldom had less than 100 sick in hospital.

Much worse, however, for morale was the order in December to adopt the standard uniform of the British Army in India. Lochnell had gone to vast trouble to fit them all out with six yards each of the dark green Campbell tartan with the black stripe. For the rest they wore the full Highland dress: scarlet coats faced with yellow for both officers and men; black stocks, leather for rank and file, velvet for the officers; diced hose in red and white with scarlet garters, and Highland shoes with yellow or gold oval shoe-buckles. Lace with black and white cotton for NCOs and men, silver for officers; and officers’ epaulettes, when worn, were also of silver lace. All ranks wore the regulation Highland feather bonnet and officers wore their own hair, clubbed over the ears with red rosettes on each club and the queue tied with a black bow. All this had now to be abandoned for garments no more suitable for hot climates than the kilt, and drearily undistinguished: white trousers with black half-gaiters, scarlet tunics and absurd round, black, felt hats, ‘at least 6 inches high with a 4-inch brim’, curled up at the sides, with a plume over the left ear, white for the grenadier company, green for the light company and black for battalion companies.

In this costume, deeply resented by all ranks, the 98th soldiered on as the Cape Town garrison. There was little excitement to be had in a city of 1,200 houses inhabited by 5,000 free folk, Dutch and mixed races, and 10,000 black slaves. Food was cheap, but widespread deforestation had made firewood extremely expensive and also deprived the officers of any decent shooting. They improved their lot, however, by fetching out a pack of foxhounds and hunting jackal, while the troops stagnated and went down in large numbers with various local diseases. There was a brief flutter of military activity when the Dutch attempted to recover their colony in 1796. Morale in the Regiment was never allowed seriously to sink. With a typical Scots desire for self-improvement they formed a regimental school, with a fee of 1s. a month; and from Scotland Lochnell busied himself with the formation of a regimental band.

Thus, nothing very decisive had happened to the now renumbered 91st when, under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens, they handed Cape Colony back to the Dutch and reassembled at Bexhill in May 1803. They were much depleted in numbers, having been heavily milked in their last months at the Cape to bring the regiments destined for India up to full strength; and it took them more than a year to get back their full Highland dress. From 1804 onwards the men were issued with six yards of tartan every two years for the upkeep of their kilts. All ranks wore the Kilmarnock bonnet, cocked, for fatigues and minor parades, covering it with the feather bonnet for ceremonial occasions. The plaid became increasingly a purely ceremonial garment and officers were forbidden the kilt as ball and dinner dress. To compensate, they were allowed gold epaulettes instead of silver.

All this helped to keep up morale for another five years of inactive soldiering, moving about southern England as part of the forces hopefully gathered to defeat Napoleon if the admirals ever let him slip across the Channel. They had a brief hope of better things when the Highland Brigade was sent to Hanover at the end of I805. But they were back in Kent throughout 1806 and thereafter in Cork. Throughout all this they clearly remained a very good regiment. They were ceaselessly inspected and invariably earned the ‘Strong Approbation’ of the generals. The Commander- in-Chief, H.R.H. the Duke of York, was ‘Highly Pleased’ with them in 1805. Rather more significantly, Sir John Moore was ‘Extremely Well Pleased’; and before they left Dublin, in June 1808, to join the army in Portugal, they paraded for the Lord Lieutenant and gave him ‘Great Satisfaction’.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This