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Sun 9 August 2020
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'Edinburgh' by Louise RaynerIn 1778, the Earl of Seaforth, the chief of the Mackenzies, raised a regiment of about 1,000 men from his estates. So great a proportion of this number were Macraes that the regiment - officially named the 78th Seaforth Highlanders - became commonly known as the Macraes.

In June 1778, the newly levied regiment came to Edinburgh and were quartered in the castle and elsewhere in the city. In August, they were moved to Leith for embarkation to Guernsey. Most men had enlisted for no more than three years and there was a written condition attaching to their enlistment that they would not serve their time outside Britain. The rumour, though, was that the whole regiment was to be sold to the East India Company for service in the East Indies. The Highlanders sought reassurances from their officers, but the explanations they received were far from convincing.

On Tuesday 22 September, the regiment were marched to Leith Links and ordered to board the boats assembled there. The rumblings of discontent spilled over and the men refused to obey. Some eventually did take to the boats, but some six hundred remained defiant. Fearing that other troops might be called against them, and after some hours of discussion, they then marched in regular order to Arthur’s Seat, with two plaids fixed on poles instead of colours and with the pipes playing at their head. Having ascended the former volcano, they took up position around the top of the crags and prepared to defend themselves against any assault, vowing to remain there until their just demands were satisfied or they were ejected by force of arms.

The sensation this caused among the citizenry of Edinburgh was considerable. A large crowd had turned out to witness their march across the city, and many now proceeded to keep the mutineers supplied with provisions. The sympathies of the ordinary people of Edinburgh plainly sided with the Highlanders.

'Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat' by Hugh William WilliamsThe authorities, as can be imagined, did not view the mutiny in the same benevolent light. The senior generals of the army in Scotland immediately summoned more troops to Edinburgh and assembled a substantial force comprised of men of the 11th Dragoons, the Buccleugh Fencibles and the Glasgow Volunteers. Fortunately, the generals were disinclined to resort to force of arms and instead began negotiations. General Skene, the Earl of Dunmore and the Duke of Buccleugh were among those who visited the encampment over the next few days to conduct talks with the Macraes. To their credit, the Highlanders remained respectful and well disciplined throughout, but remained staunch in their demands: a pardon to all of their number for all past offences; that all levy money and arrears due to them should be paid before embarkation; and that they should not be sent to the East Indies.

On the Friday morning, the generals at last conceded and signed a bond confirming all the Highlanders’ demands, whereupon the Macraes formed themselves into marching order and left the hill, with the pipes playing and a large crowd walking behind. Thereafter, on the Tuesday morning, one week after the mutiny started, the regiment assembled in front of Holyrood Palace and marched to Leith with the Earl of Seaforth and General Skene at their head. There, they took ship to Guernsey, cheered by a large portion of the people of Edinburgh.

There now seems little doubt that the government had, indeed, determined to send the regiment to the East Indies in violation of their contacts. The view taken of the Highlanders was that they were ' ignorant, unable to comprehend the nature of their stipulations, and incapable of demanding redress for any breach of contract '. The Affair of the Wild Macraes, as it came to be known, showed that the Macraes were not so ignorant after all. One of the paths leading to the top of Arthur's Seat is still named Piper's Walk today in memory of the Macraes' ascent of the hill; it is a lasting reminder of their brave stand against injustice.

The postscript to this tale tends to confirm the government's intentions, for the 78th Seaforth Highlanders were posted to the East Indies anyway in 1781. It is said that they consented to it, which may or may not have been the case, but what is certainly true is that very few returned to Scotland, disease and other factors having contrived to exact a high toll upon their numbers.

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