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Kirkintilloch Town and Parish
Sketches of Kirkintilloch Men I have Met in the Army

By a Sergeant of the Highland Brigade.


The generation of townsmen who witnessed the outbreak of the Crimean War, are passing away; and the rising generation know little of those who left Kirkintilloch at that momentous period to fight for their Queen and country.

Among the eager thousands who rallied round the British standard, during the Russian war of 1854-55, few towns of the same population in Scotland, can show such a record of patriotism as Kirkintilloch, measured by the number who enlisted at that time, and the martial spirit which prevailed; and it is the only town we know of which sent a father and five sons into the ranks. This is the more remarkable, when one remembers that the townsfolk are little used to military life ; and except on rare occasions, do not see British soldiers in numbers, in their ancient burgh. But the news of the Crimean War found many eager readers amongst the weavers, who were keen politicians; and could, with fervour and intelligence, discuss the latest from the seat of war. All this, tended to fire the imagination of the youth of the town, with the result that many enlisted, in such numbers indeed that each neighbour informing the other, that her son “to the wars hath gone,” usually had a like story related to her; nobody’s son seemed inclined to stay at home.

Soon after the British victory at Alma, on the 20th September, 1854, a recruiting party from the Stirlingshire militia, paraded the quiet streets of Kirkintilloch; and immediately the war spirit showed itself in upwards of 100 recruits joining the ranks; and the first day of March saw them mustered at Stirling Castle.

Among those who joined, was a man named William Wilson, better known by the name of Billy Wilson; by trade a calico printer, but also a handloom weaver. Shortly before this time his wife, a good woman, had died, and Wilson was left with seven of a family. His eldest son had sailed with the troops to the Crimea, and had taken part at the battle of Alma; and in less than two months after, the father had joined the militia. Two other sons, Thomas and James, joined the 42nd Highlanders; and in a few weeks after, the father volunteered into that distinguished regiment, with the desire of going to the Crimea. During the year 1855, much hard fighting took place in the trenches before Sebastopol; and during a sortie, Robert Wilson, the eldest son, fell dead, in the act of storming the Russian redoubt. The father had met with an accident in Stirling, and was in the hospital for some time; and before he had recovered, there were prospects of a peace. After the war, came a reduction in the ranks of our army, when the elder Wilson was discharged; but he had only been a short time at home, when two other sons, William and John, joined their two brothers in the 42nd. The father only lived a few years after returning to Kirkintilloch; but never once regretted giving his sons, or his own service, to his Queen; and had his case been brought before the Chelsea Commissioners, a pension might have been allowed him.

The year 1857 brought sad news from India: the native army of Bengal had mutinied and so every available regiment was ordered to India. The 42nd was one of the first to sail, and in a few months after, were facing their dusky foes on the sultry plains of India; and the Wilsons took an honourable share on the many hard fought battlefields ; and on the long and toilsome marches, which so much tried the stuff that filled the British redcoats. The Wilson boys passed safely through all the dangers of the long campaign; but alas! disease laid hands on William, and he died in Agra in 1861; and James died in Allahabad in 1867. Thomas went to New Zealand when he left the regiment, and Tohn to America, where we believe they both are now.


In the summer of 1853 there came to Kirkintilloch a corporal and private, belonging to the Gordon Highlanders, for the purpose of recruiting for that good old Scottish regiment. They had their rendezvous in a public-house in the Cowgate, then occupied by Niel M‘Kechnie. All young men were invited in to have their height taken, and so many thereby took the Queen’s shilling; but the temperance sentiment has become so powerful in the nation now that it is illegal to enlist a recruit in a public-house, and no soldier dare give the enlisting shilling to any person under the influence of drink. What a blessed change since the days of the Crimean war, when it was no uncommon thing for a young man to be filled drunk, and told next morning that he had taken the Queen’s bounty : hence the reason why so many deserted. During the summer a young townsman named James Aitchison created a sensation among the youth of Kirkintilloch by his feats as a swimmer and diver. Many a night, troops of people gathered on the canal bank, near Bellfield, from which James would dive right into the canal basin, in which he would sport about like a duck. It is not too much to say he was the best swimmer in the district. One fine morning, however, young Aitchison donned the Queen’s uniform, having joined that distinguished regiment, the 42nd Royal Highlanders. He was sent to the depot at Stirling, where he found another knight of the shuttle, William Scott, who had joined a few weeks before him. By the time they had learned the goose step, the regiment was ordered in March, 1854, to hold themselves in readiness to sail for Turkey, as war clouds were gathering in the East.

On 20th May they embarked on board the steamer Hydaspes, numbering 944 of all ranks. Life on board of a transport, where the men were packed like herrings in a barrel, and especially as they had stormy weather, is not the most enjoyable. Many a laughable scene, however, took place, at dinner time, especially, when some of the orderlies not infrequently stumbled down the hatchway, with their pea-soup about their ears—a laugh at their expense being the only sympathy they got. Without mishap, the vessel reached Scutari. Here the famous Highland brigade was formed, consisting of 42nd, 79th, and 93rd, under Brigadier Sir Colin Campbell, a brigade that was henceforth to play an important part in the annals of British victories.

On 13th June the regiment embarked for Varna, on the shores of the Black Sea, where they joined the brigade of Guards, this forming the division which was commanded by the Duke of Cambridge. Aitchison and Scott kept very reserved. The stir of camp life was new to them, and they quietly learned their duties. During their stay at Varna, preparations were being pushed on by the British authorities, so that by the month of August the army was on its way to the Crimea, the 42nd landing at Oldfort on 14th September.

On the 19th they marched to Balgunach, sighting the Russians for the first time, and exchanging a few shots by way of a welcome to the Crimea. The night on which they landed the rain fell in torrents, and as no tents or other shelter were to be had, the men suffered very much. The troops had been served with biscuits, and an allowance of coffee beans and sugar; but no wood of any kind could be had dry enough to kindle fires for cooking purposes, so that some of the men took the wooden boards out of their knapsacks for firewood, others chewed their coffee beans and ate their biscuits. They were now face to face with the realities of a soldier's life, and which would try their mettle to the utmost, yet they bore up bravely. The 42nd was on the right of the line of the Highland Brigade, which had Sir Colin Campbell at its head. They advanced steadily, the Russian batteries making fearful havoc, but though the Highlanders left many killed and wounded behind them, Scott and Aitchison came out of it all, untouched by bullets or other dangers.

On the 3rd May, the allies sent an expedition to Kertch, and the 42nd formed part of the force. The magazines were exploded, and corn and other useful grain were secured. A few French and Turkish soldiers broke open the wine store. A Frenchman, who used the butt end of his rifle while it was loaded to open a door, caused his rifle to go off, and the bullet lodged in poor Aitchison’s nose. He was taken to the hospital, where the doctors failed to get the bullet. The wound healed up, and he returned to his duty ; shared in all the dangers of the assault on Sebastopol, and returned with his regiment to Aldershot at the close of the war. Aitchison and Scott shared in all the battles that took place during the Indian Mutiny, and after coming scatheless through all, poor Aitchison was sunstruck at Bareilly in July, 1858, and died, and the head surgeon found the bullet, which entered his nose at Kertch in 1855, in his groin, having found its way there without causing him any pain. William Scott finished his ten years’ service in 1863, and was on his way home, but volunteered to take part in the Maori war.

After landing in New Zealand, he took part in the campaign ; finished his period of twenty-one years' service, took his discharge and well earned pension, and settled in the colony. By the time he left the colours of the 42nd, his place had been filled by quite a number of young men from Kirkintilloch, all and each of whom have kept up the good name of their predecessors, and the fame of their old burgh town.


On the morning of the 23rd September the 42nd, along with the greater portion of the army, took a long flank march round the head of the harbour, and through M‘Kenzie’s farm, to the heights of the Tichernaya. During this march, named by the soldiers “the meal march," because of a capture by the British of a large convoy of provisions belonging to the Russian army, consisting of ammunition and a quantity of meal, whereby the soldiers had their haversacks filled, and a large quantity of that staple food was unnecessarily wasted, so much so, that it was to be seen strewn along the line of march. On 26th September Balaclava was entered with little opposition. On 2nd October the regiment took up position before Sebastopol.

Here, another Kirkintilloch youth, named James Stirling, better known as Picken, rather a stirring young man, and too fond of whistling Boyne Water—and this roused the blood of the natives of the Green Isle; indeed it was on account of a row at the cross, where heads were broken, that James enlisted, and now he had the satisfaction ot breaking heads to his heart’s content. But every bullet has its billet, and a Russian bullet found out Stirling, and so, in one of the many sorties which characterised the long siege of Sebastopol, he was severely wounded, and rendered unfit for further service. Now he is at home, enjoying his pension. Long may he sit by his fire and talk the night away,

"Weep o'er his wounds, or tales of sorrow done,
Shoulder his crutch and show how fields were won."


There follows to be noted here, the names of other two brothers, who joined the 42nd Highlanders, in the spring of 1855—John and David Russell. While in conversation with an old drill sergeant some years ago, as to the different qualities of recruits, who came through his hands, and he had drilled hundreds of men in fact, he used to brag that he would make a soldier out of a sentry box. He said that weavers made the best soldiers—first, because they were well set up; and second, because they had not been spoiled by eating too much beef.

To say that the elder of the Russells was a good specimen of a British soldier, would only be truth, five feet eight inches, and well built, with full chest and square shoulders, and the perfection of cleanliness, these are at all times the points that catch the eye of an officer. When Lord Elgin came to India as Govemor-General, a guard of honour of twenty men and an officer were picked out of the regiment, and John Russell was one of that guard—he was afterwards chosen to attend the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Hugh Rose. The men in the barrack rooms were not ill off for a looking-glass when Russell's boots were at hand. He went to Malta during the Crimean War, but because of his youth the doctors would not let him go to the Crimea. The regiment had not been long in Dover, however, when the news of the Indian Mutiny startled the British nation, and the 42nd was ordered to Portsmouth for embarkation for India, and after a pleasant voyage the regiment landed at Calcutta on the 2nd November.

Here the wildest rumours were current, and the deepest anxiety was felt for Calcutta, but British redcoats arrived daily. Sir Colin and his staff had arrived, and were awaiting more men—the 78th and 93rd Highlanders were already at the front, or on their way—victory had already begun to shine again on the British army. Delhi, the largest and strongest fortified city, with perhaps the most gorgeous palace in the world, was again in the hands of Britain, and the Royal standard fluttering over its minarets, captured by a mere handful of men—some 4,500—with myriads of armed desperadoes against them, but they knew no defeat. India could not then as now, boast a network of railways—150 miles of rail from Calcutta to Runeegunge was all. The 42nd pushed on to Runeegunge, where they were fully equipped for their work in the field. When Allahabad was gained, good news greeted the soldiers. Sir Colin Campbell had scored his first great victory, having relieved the heroic Havelock and his little band of brave warriors, who had held the residency of Lucknow since 25th September, bringing off some 600 helpless women .and children, with nearly 2,coo sick and wounded—thus showing the world what the hero of Alma and Balaclava could do. Amongst the sick and wounded was one young man belonging to Kirkintilloch, who lately died at Cowlairs—John Law. He had only b&n a few months in the 78th Highlanders, when he was sent to India, and in Havelock's relief was dangerously wounded in the chest, and so invalided and pensioned; and although he lived some years, he never got over his wound—a good young soldier he was.


On reaching Cawnpore there were 10,000 more men ready to advance on Lucknow, and amongst the regiments were the 79th Highlanders, the three regiments that formed the brigade that Sir Colin Campbell commanded at Alma and in their ranks was another Kirkintilloch man, John Ferrie, who had volunteered from the 71st regiment. He served through the campaign, was present at Lucknow, Fort Rowha, and Bareilly; and in a determined stand at Shahjihanpore, where the 79th upheld their renown. Kirkintilloch was fairly represented at Amy. There were present William Scott, James Aitchison, James Thomas, William Wilson, John and David Russell, Alexander Frazer, and James Reid, belonging to the 42nd, George Bryce, of the 93rd, and John Ferrie in the 79th Highlanders, with Alexander Graham in the 78th—and all of whom bore their part well.

At noon on the 9th March, 1858, the troops paraded behind some earthworks which had been thrown up, the Highlanders in line, supported by the 2nd brigade. During the whole forenoon a heavy and well-directed fire was kept up by the battery belonging to the naval brigade. About two o’clock, the wished-for order was given: “The brigade will advance. Quick march.” Such a splendid line of men could not be surpassed by any nation as they steadily marched forward, every man reserving his fire until within 200 yards ; and then —when the word “charge” was given—you could hear amidst the roar of cannon, and the pattering volleys of musketry, the wild cheer of the battalions as they rushed on the foe!

It may be asked, what were the thoughts that flitted through the minds of those brave men, as they marched onward, many of them to certain death. Was it fear? No; it could not be that. And yet there is a certain consciousness and solemnity on such occasions ; but it soon passes away, and the younger soldiers are anxious to do their duty, and keep up with their veteran comrades, and so, load and fire. As they do so, they seem to be animated with one aim,, and that devotion. Others, again, have a notion that music, and a noise, and confusion are necessary accompaniments to a battle. No such thing. The officer’s word is enough; and often without it, the soldiers know how to act.

All day and night the Sepoys kept up a continual shower of bullets, and even sallied out in force to drive back the invaders, but it was a hopeless game. The morning of the nth brought with it an order for the 93rd to storm the Begum Palace, and a breach in the outer wall was deemed wide enough to afford an entrance. But before the Sepoys gave up the Begum, one of the most desperate hand-to-hand combats that took place during the siege, was enacted here.

Here fell one among the many brave men; George Bryce, ot the 93rd, a Kirkintilloch man, the only one who was killed during the siege. He was much thought of in the company; he had been at the Relief in November, with Sir Colin, but now, alas! he had met a soldier’s death in the breach. The Highland brigade, consisting of the 42nd, 78th, 79th and 93rd, were sent into Rohilcund, where the greater portion of the rebel army (which had made their escape from Lucknow), had gone. All went well until the morning of the 15th April, when, after marching eight or nine miles, and just about sunrise, the column was halted and scouts sent to the front. Then the order—that three companies of the 42nd, supported by a like number of the 93rd— advance in skirmishing order.

After clearing a dense jungle of young bamboo, a heavy fire was opened from the ramparts of Fort Rooyah; a strongly-built mud fort, surrounded by walls fifty feet high, and a deep broad ditch running around three sides. The skirmishers and their supports advanced into the ditch. The artillery battered at the walls for some hours. Ladders were tried to scale the ramparts, but they were too short; men were falling on all hands, the 42nd had three officers and thirty-eight men killed and wounded, the other regiments suffering also. Here, Sergeant Stirling, of the 42nd (now Lieutenant Stirling, commanding the Lennox-town Volunteers), was severely wounded—the only soldier from Campsie we knew—and he maintained the honour gained by his townsman, James Foyers, in Burgos, in Spain. We are indebted to the ballad literature of Scotland for the noble deeds of Foyers. The lines speak for themselves; no Victoria Cross was held out in those days for acts ot devotion:—

“Far distant, far distant, lies Scotia the brave,
No tombstone memorial to hallow his grave;
His bones now repose in the rude soil of Spain,
Where young Jamie Foyers in battle was slain.

“From the Perthshire Militia to serve in the line,
The brave forty-second we sailed to join.
To Wellington’s army we did volunteer,
Along with Jim Foyers, that bold halberdier.

“That night when we landed the bugle did sound,
The General gave orders to form on the ground,
To storm Burgos Castle, before break of day,
And young Jamie Foyers to lead us the way.

“But mounting the ladder for scaling the wall,
A shot from a French gun, young Foyers did fall,
He leaned his right hand upon his left breast,
And young Jamie Foyers his comrade addressed—

"For you, Robin Pirrie, that stands in campaign,
If goodness should send you to Campsie again,
You can tell my old father, if yet his heart warms,
That his son Jamie Foyers expired in your arms.

"But if a few moments in Campsie I were,
My mother and sisters my sorrows would share,
But alas! my poor mother, long may she mourn,
For her son Jamie Foyers will never return.

*But if I had a drink of Baker Brown’s well,
My thirst it would quench, and my fever quell.
For life’s purple current was ebbing so fast,
That young Jamie Foyers soon breathed his last.

“They took for a winding-sheet his tartan plaid,
And in the cold grave his body was laid ;
With hearts full of sorrow they covered his clay,
And muttering—‘poor Foyers’—marched slowly away.

“His father and mother and sisters do mourn,
For Foyers, the hero, will never return,
His friends and companions lament for the brave,
For now Jamie Foyers is laid in the grave.

“The bugle may sound, and the war-drum may rattle,
Nae mair will they rouse the young hero to battle,
He fell from the ladder like a soldier so brave,
And Foyers, true hero, is laid in his grave.’

But Stirling did not fall, but with the pluck of a true British soldier kept his post until night drew on, when the stormers were drawn off, and It turned out that the whole force of rebels had scampered during the night. The whole division were indignant at the seeming want of ability in General Walpole. Sir Colin Campbell was furious when he heard of the sad loss of so many officers and men. During the hottest of the fire the younger of the brothers Russell of Kirkintilloch went in search of water, and that under a heavy fire; and he was successful in bringing that most precious element—more so on the battlefield.

While in the trenches an incident came under observation that verified the saying that there is many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip. A comrade who had a dram of rum in a soda-water bottle took the bottle in his hand, and while holding it a few inches from his lips looking at it before drinking, a bullet split the bottle into bits, leaving the bottom in his hand with about a thimbleful of the rum left. If he was not a teetotaler ever after he should have been.

As the column approached Bareilly on 5th May about daybreak, the Highland Brigade, consisting of four regiments, formed line, and as the country was beautifully spread out in a long plain, the Sepoy cavalry could be observed making efforts to turn the flanks of the advancing infantry; but the horse artillery unlimbered and gave them a few rounds—the line steadily advanced on the old cavalry barracks, in which were a body of Budmaches, or irregulars. Here John Russell of Kirkintilloch saved the life of Private Ritchie who, in the act of going over a low wall, was attacked by a stalwart Sepoy who dealt a blow with his tulwar; but Russell with his rifle parried off the stroke, and despatched the wretched man. The rebels retired on all hands. The fort and town itself was occupied next serve in various regiments of the army, and a large proportion joined the Highland Brigade. The most prominent were Andrew Marshall, who had two brothers serving in the line, and Alexander Finlayson. Both these men continued for twenty-one years in the Black Watch, and they took part in the Ashantee war in 1874, where the steady, cool, soldierly bearing of Marshall drew from Sir John M‘Leod high commendation. The example of such men as Andrew Marshall nerved the young soldiers. What a pity that he should have met such a violent death at Govan a few weeks since ! Drummer Alexander Frazer, who went through the mutiny with the 42nd, after that regiment had left India volunteered into the third battalion, the 60th Royal Rifles, and rose to the rank of paymaster-sergeant; and when his regiment went to the Zulu war in 1879 he accompanied it, and after coming home to Glasgow, where he arrived on the Saturday very ill with heart disease, the writer of these sketches met him ; but, sad to say, he died next evening, and was buried with military honours by a company of the 26th Cameronians. He was a good and true soldier, and one who kept true to Kirkintilloch.

Amongst others who joined the 42nd in India and volunteered to other regiments were James Watson, James Vassie, James Purves, John Gray, and John Reid. Some of them went to another good regiment, the 92nd Highlanders, which had in its ranks other Kirkintilloch men— the two brothers Henderson, who both attained the rank of sergeant, John and William Purdon, and Walter Scott—all of them serving with credit to themselves and to the colours under which they marched.

As a traveller from Kirkintilloch proceeds to the east, he passes on his left, immediately under the railway bridge, a row of thatched cottages, in one of which used, years ago, to reside a good old Presbyterian, Elder Scott, whose second son James had just finished his apprenticeship as an engineer when the Crimean war was going on. Young Scott, fired with enthusiasm, enlisted in the 42nd to get to the Crimea. He was promoted to the rank of sergeant in a few months, and went to Malta, and after the war was over he purchased his discharge and went to Australia. He was a man of superior ability, and conducted himself like a gentleman. In the house where Scott was born there lives at the present day William Anderson, a staunch good light infantry man. He served with the 71st Regiment in the Crimea, and in Central India during the mutiny. The 71st numbered in its ranks William Knox, William Martin—who very simply lost a foot after being discharged— and the two brothers, John and David Mason, who had another brother in the 1st Royals, also Robert Downie who died on service; George Calder and John Liddell—young men, all of whom added honour to the British arms, and some of whom enjoy a well-earned pension.

Kilsyth, like Campsie, had only one with whom we became acquainted, namely Martin Grey, a steady, cautious man, who attained to the third stripe in the 42nd. Why so many of the youth chose the profession of arms, and not one the sister branch of the service, the royal navy, and why so many joined the 42nd, are questions that will require future consideration. An old major of this corps, Major Murray, late of Gartshore, presented a standard to the Kirkintilloch company of Volunteers, thus, as it were, linking the volunteers to the gallant old “bricks.” If any apology was needed in recording the names of those here spoken of, the following will suffice :—

Thae were a* cronies o’ mine, cronies o' mine,
And they’ll a’ mak’ ye welcome, thae cronies o' mine.

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