Highland Supermen: The Scottish Soldier as Heroic Surgical Patient, 1800-1914. Part 1

August 2019

In the first of a two-part blog post, Senior Research Fellow James Kennaway looks at the mythology surrounding Scottish soldiers and surgical fortitude. 

Discussions of heroic surgical fortitude among British troops in the long nineteenth century often focused on the figure of the Highland soldier. While he regularly served as a visual shorthand for all of Scotland and indeed the whole British Army, his ‘wild’ mountain homeland and linguistic and ethnic otherness provided an apparent rationale for supposed powers of endurance under the knife.

In many ways, with his mountain background, he was a model for the whole ideology of ‘martial races’, which would be so prominent in debates on the recruitment of Indian troops.[1] Their ability to take pain and losses was generally given a central role in the glorification of Highland troops. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) drew on clichés of unflinching Highlanders at Waterloo, describing a piper continuing to play ‘Highland airs’ as those around him were ‘exterminated’. ‘These Scotchmen died thinking of Ben Lothian, as did the Greeks recalling Argos.’[2] (There is, incidentally, no such mountain.) However, the admiration for the Highlander was often double-edged, combined with allusions to putative racial basis of the poverty of that homeland and unfavourable comparisons with the ‘Saxons’ of the Lowlands and England.

Robert Gibb – The Thin Red Line (1881). Paintings like this reflected the cult of the Highland soldier as an imperturbable hero, capable of undergoing extraordinary pain without complaint.(Wikicommons.)
Robert Gibb – The Thin Red Line (1881). Paintings like this reflected the cult of the Highland soldier as an imperturbable hero, capable of undergoing extraordinary pain without complaint.(Wikicommons.)

There was nothing new in the idea that certain peoples were particularly warlike and able to withstand pain. At least since Herodotus, writers have argued that particular nomadic and pastoral ethnic groups were especially fitted for military conflict and that others, corrupted by city living and luxury, could not stand discomfort, let alone surgery. Until the modern era, attitudes towards the martial character of particular peoples and on the related question of their level of toughness in surgery generally followed this model of environmental causation.

Assumptions about the resilience (or lack of it) among ‘Celts’ in surgery often owed much to thinking about the role of the poor Celtic rural economy, sometimes framed in terms of the Scottish Enlightenment stadial theory of progress. James Young Simpson, the Scottish pioneer of chloroform, implied that Celts from agricultural backgrounds were likely to be have greater powers of endurance in surgery, addressing the issue primarily in terms of diet. Asking, ‘Is … the Scottish peasant fed almost solely upon oatmeal, as liable to fatal surgical fever after surgical injuries?’, he admitted that he had no evidence to prove it, but said it was the ‘general impression’ that they seem to ‘stand surgical knocks, and injuries, and operations with a wonderful impunity’.[3]

Assumptions about extraordinary powers of endurance among Scottish soldiers were a recurring theme in discussions of bravery in surgery throughout the period. Especially earlier in the century, such thinking did not necessarily explicitly draw on racial theory but on environmental explanations. David Stewart of Garth’s influential 1825 Sketches of the Character, Manner and Present State of the Highlands implied that the Highlander’s martial nature was inherited from clans as a matter of the ‘social system’, not of how he was ‘favoured by nature’.[4] The Battle of Waterloo was a key point of memory in the following century, and tales of Highlanders scoffing at the agonies of war wounds and medical treatment from that campaign were endlessly repeated. For example, Walter Scott, in his 1817 book on the battle and its aftermath, Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk, recorded with patriotic pride the admiration of the locals for Highland soldiers:

‘Your countrymen are made of iron’, said a lady in Brussels, and told how she had met a wounded Highlander supporting himself by the rails as he made his way with difficulty. She said she feared he was very badly hurt and offered help, when he drew himself up, thanked her, and said, ‘I was born in Lochaber, and I do not care for a wound;’ but the effort was too much, and he sank on the pavement.[5]

Nineteenth-century military memoirs offer countless examples of the composure of Highland soldiers undergoing treatment for wounds, many of which explicitly relate it to their ethnic character, but without allusions to racial theory. For instance, David Baird, a Lowland officer who saw service in India against Tipu Sultan and against Napoleon in Europe, praised the ‘heroic endurance’ displayed by Captain Donald M’Kenzie, a stalwart Highlander, whose leg was disabled by a cannon shot at Bergen op Zoom in 1814.

When told that amputation must be immediately resorted to, he sat in a chair holding the limb with his own hands, until the operation was over. He then asked to see it and, looking some time, exclaimed, ‘There is but one such left in the King’s service, and here it is’, slapping his remaining leg. He lived to the patriarchal age of eighty, married, and died respected by all who knew him. [6]

By the mid-nineteenth century this anecdotal style of discourse on Celtic troops’ resilience in surgery described above was joined by a more explicitly racial view that saw the putative differences between categories of British soldiers as the result of unalterable inherited characteristics.[7] The term ‘race’ was not new, but took on a harder biological sense in the wake of work by physical anthropologists and anatomists such as Pieter Camper, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and John Cowles Prichard.

Moving towards a more fixed conception of Celtic identity based on heredity made the views of doctors and surgeons much more important. Their role in the construction of a Celtic ‘race’ shows how scientific language and concepts helped create a more sinister understanding of ethnicity and its role in surgical fortitude – one with clear connotations in politics. Ascribing different levels of physical sensitivity and moral strength in relation to pain to environmental causes implied a view of peoples that left open a liberal imperialist option of future self-government. Unchanging racial hierarchies, in contrast, offered a more direct justification of indefinite dominion – a factor that had more drastic implications in parts of the Empire with harder racial boundaries.

This is the first of a two-part blog post. To read part two, click here.

[1] Heather Streets, Martial Races (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), pp. 55-62. See Peter Womack, Improvement and Romance: Constructing the Myth of the Highlands (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989).

[2] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (London: Collins, 1955), p. 340.

[3] James Young Simpson, Clinical Lectures on the Diseases of Women (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lee, 1863), p. 174.

[4] David Stewart of Garth, Sketches of the Character, Manner and Present State of the Highlands (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1825), 1.242-243.

[5] Walter Scott, 'Paul’s Letters to his Kinfolk', in The Miscellaneous Prose Work of Sir Walter Scott (3 vols) (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1867), 1.441-524, here 1.482.

[6] John William Cole (ed.), Memoirs of Peninsular Generals 2 vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1856), 1.101.

[7] See Suman Seth, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).