On the morning of 1 September 1880, as the column from Kabul breakfasted near Kandahar, Major Ashe, who served on the staff of Major-General Sir (later Lord) Frederick S. Roberts, observed that:
It was impossible not to be struck with the splendid appearance and peculiarly fine physique of the Highland regiments: their chest measurement, muscular development, and the bronzed hues of sun and wind giving them a martial appearance beyond all the other corps.
Thereafter in the ensuing battle of Kandahar, the 72nd (later the 1st Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders) and the 92nd Gordon Highlanders would win fresh laurels in the first of a series of military triumphs, and some tragedies, over the next twenty years that would confirm the worldwide reputation of the Scottish soldier. That reputation had been forged since the Nine Years War (1688–97) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) as a loyal and resolute servant of the British Crown. It was tested by the response to Jacobite risings, or rebellions, of 1715 and 1745–6, bolstered by imperial service in North America, India and throughout the empire; and enhanced by engagement with the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic forces. Yet as the empire approached its zenith in the late nineteenth century, the fighting reputation of the Scottish soldier attained fresh heights in achievement, reportage and imagery. This imagery firmly associated the Scottish soldier with a distinctive concept of Scottish identity, expressed within the British army and imbued with an imperial purpose. The Scottish diaspora responded by creating Highland regiments, as ‘a wave of manifestations of Scottish identity’ swept through the colonial world in the 1880s, largely stimulated by the formation of Caledonian societies.
Scottish regiments and ‘Highlandism’
In 1881 the recently elected Liberal government established the context within which the Scottish, and in particular the kilted, soldier would thrive. By endorsing the regimental reforms of Hugh Childers, the secretary of state for war (1880–2), it established nine double-battalion and one single-battalion Scottish regiments (six of which had Highland status and five were kilted). The ten Scottish regiments represented some 14 per cent of the seventy double-battalion regiments and one single-battalion regiment formed across the United Kingdom.