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Tuesday 12 August 2014

Indomitable Colonel: Sir Alan Cameron of Erracht

If John Cameron of Fassifern is one of the most famous military sons of Lochaber during the nineteenth century then the same accolade for the eighteenth century should go to Sir Alan Cameron of Erracht (1750–1829). Alan Cameron’s parents were Ewen Cameron of Erracht and Marsaili Maclean of Drimnin, Morvern, the daughter of Charles Maclean of Drimnin, and Isabel Cameron of Erracht. He was educated at Inverness Academy and later at King’s College, Aberdeen (1761–65). The most famous episode of his youth was when he took part in a duel in 1772 over some sleight but when no apology was forthcoming from Alexander Cameron they fought with swords. The unfortunate Alan killed his opponent with what can only be described as a rush of blood to the head. To keep things quiet he fled to his uncle in Morvern where he overwintered. When he returned to Lochaber the situation was not yet favourable so he found it expedient to leave Scotland altogether. This proved to be the making of the man.
Cameron fled to America and found a position in the department of Indian affairs. In 1775 he was commissioned in a provincial regiment, but was taken prisoner when on his way to raise men for the loyalist cause. He was jailed for two years but while attempting to escape he fell from the roof and broke both his ankles. In 1778, still crippled, he sailed to Britain and was put on half pay. The following year he married Anne Phillips.
Some years later, on the 17th of August 1793 to be precise, a letter of service was issued by the War Office to Cameron to raise a Highland regiment of which he was to be the commandant. It is perhaps to this time that the following anecdote belongs which was recorded and later transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 25th of January 1951 from the recitation of John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber:

Ailean an Earrachd

Cò nach cuala mu dheidhinn an duine sgairteil, foghainteach, ris an abradh iad Ailean an Earachd a thog na Camshronaich ann an 1793, duine foghainteach. Agus bha e a’ dol a ghabhail an aiseadh thar an abhainn – àite ris an abair iad Camaisgidh. Agus bha an abhainn glè mhòr agus thill e fhèin agus an t-each comasach a bh’ aige.
Bha an t-eagal air gu faodadh e a bhith air a chall a’ dol thairis air an abhainn. Ach mar a bha e a’ dìreadh bhon abhainn, thug e sùil na dheaghaidh is chunnaic e duine lapach le seann each bàn a’ tighinn air adhart:
“Saoil,” thuirt e ris fhèin, “a bheil an duine seo a’ dol a dh’ fheuchainn na h-abhna?”
Dh’fhuirich e agus chuir an duine an t-each ris an abhainn agus leum e air a mhuin. Agus thàinig e a-nall gu sàbhailte agus dh’fhuirich Ailean air an taobh eile ’us an d’ ràinig e.
“Ma-tà, ’s iomadh àite as an robh mi,” thuirt Ailean, “agus càs cruaidh san robh mi, is cha do ghabh mi eagal riamh ach ro Abhainn Lòchaidh. Ach ’s e th’ umad duine tapaidh. Agus bu mhath leam gum biodh de mhisneachd agam agus rachainn-sa thairis air an abhainn cuideachd.”

And the translation goes something like the following:

Alan Cameron of Erracht

Who has not heard of the brave and powerful fellow that they called Alan Cameron of Erracht who raised the Cameron Highlanders in 1793, a hardy fellow. He was going to cross the river [Lochy] at a place called Camisky. The river was wide and in spate and so he and his able mount came back. He was afraid that he may have been drowned if he went across the river. And just as he was coming back out of the river he looked behind him and saw a weakling of an old man with on old white nag coming towards him:
“I wonder,” he thought to himself, “if this man is going to make an attempt to cross the river?”
He stayed to wach the old man place the horse in the river and he mounted it. He went safely across as Alan stayed on the other side until he reached him.
“Well, then, there’s many a place I’ve been,” said Alan, “in great danger, but I’ve only ever been scared of the River Lochy. You are indeed a brave man. And I only wish that I had as much courage as you so that I could also go across the river.”
The regiment was raised as the 79th Regiment of Foot (Cameronian Volunteers) on August 17, 1793 at Fort William from among members Clan Cameron by Sir Alan Cameron of Erracht. Originally on the Irish establishment, it became part of the British Army in 1804, and in 1806 it was renamed as the 79th Regiment of Foot (Cameron Highlanders).

A further three very short anecdotes were collected, possibly from John MacDonald of Highbridge, and published by the Rev. Somerled MacMillan in his book entitled Bygone Lochaber:

When the 79th Highland Regiment was formed in Lochaber by Allan Cameron of Erracht, most of the volunteers had no English and he had to use Gaelic terms in order to make them understand his instructions when going through their drill. Hay was tied to the left foot and straw to the right, and when he wneated them to march he cried, “Feur, stràbh, feur, stràbh” (“Hay, straw, hay, straw”). In this way they came to understand the command: “Left, right, left, right.” When he wanted them to turn right he shouted “Taobh a’ phutain” (“The button side”), and when he wanted them to turn right he cried: “Taobh tuilt” (“Button-hole side.”

The founder of the 79th Highland Regiment may have been a brave soldier but it is obvious by his prayer before battle that he had little time for God and for eternal verities. He is said to have addressed the Almighty after this fashion: “If Thou wilt not be with us to-day, don’t be with the French at any rate. Thou knowest that I don’t often trouble Thee by asking things for Thee, and if Thou hear me now it will be long before I trouble Thee again.”

It is said that Sir Allan of Erracht’s handshake was so unbearably energetic that his friends never left him without tears in their eyes. On one occasion a gentleman, who had frequently suffered from his grasp, jocularly held out his foot instead, when Sir Allan seized hold of it, and made him hop all the way down Bond Street in London.

A short sketch career reflects that Cameron was an ambitious individual as showing inspiring leadership qualities. Born in Erracht, near Banavie, Cameron joined the army as a volunteer and served in North America. At the beginning of the American War of Independence, Cameron was captured by American colonists in 1775 and imprisoned for two years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He returned to Scotland in 1784. 
 After war was declared with revolutionary France in 1793 Cameron raised the 79th Foot (later known as the Cameron Highlanders) and was accepted as its Colonel (although his army rank still appears to be no more than Major at this point). He commanded the regiment when it joined the forces of the Duke of York in the Flanders Campaign of 1794, and during the retreat through Holland 1795. From 1795 until 1797 the regiment was in the West Indies and served at Martinique. Cameron was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1796. Devastated by fever the 79th was eventually withdrawn from the West Indies and rebuilt in Guernsey 1798. Cameron again served under York in the Helder Campaing in 1799. The 79th was in garrison in Houat in 1800, then joined Abercromby’s expedition to Egypt and Minorca in 1801. A second battalion was raised in 1804. Cameron was confirmed as Colonel of the 79th Foot on 1 January 1805. In 1807 he led his regiment in the expedition against Copenhagen under Cathcart.
Shorty thereafter, Cameron joined the army in the Peninsular in late 1808, as a Brigadier-General commanding the 2nd Brigade of Rowland Hill’s 3rd Division in Portugal, collecting stragglers from Moore’s army. Under Wellesley from 1809, his brigade saw action at Oporto 12 May, then became the 2nd Brigade of Shebrooke’s 1st Division, fighting at Talavera 28 July, and at Busaco 27 September 1810. He was promoted Major-General but on 25 July 1810 he was invalided home.
Cameron was noted for his outspoken eccentricity. When asked his opinion on the idea of replacing kilts with ‘trews’ in the Highland regiments he responded famously and at length against it. When the 95th Rifles were added to make up his brigade in late 1808. “On hearing that our four companies were to be put under his command, this gallant but eccentric old chieftain declared, ‘he did not want a parcel of riflemen, as he already had a thousand Highlanders, who would face the devil.’ Had our corps been raised northward of the Tweed, it is more probable that our brigadier would have set a higher value on us; but we were moved to another brigade before he had an opportunity of judging of the merits or demerits of the Southerners in the field.”
Cameron was awarded Knight Commander, Order of the Bath, in 1815 and then raised to the rank of Lieutenant-General in 1819.

On raising, it was decided that the red-based Cameron tartan would not be used, and instead a new design was devised. The Cameron of Erracht tartan was based on the MacDonald sett with the addition of a yellow line from the Cameron tartan, and the omission of three red lines found in that of MacDonald.
The regiment was formed at the height of the French Revolutionary Wars, and moved to the Netherlands in 1794 where it took part in an unsuccessful campaign, before being evacuated back to Great Britain. On its return the 79th Foot was listed for disbandment, with the men being drafted into other units. In the end the regiment was reprieved, being instead posted to the West Indies in 1795. After a two-year tour the 79th were on garrison duties in England and Guernsey until 1799. In 1799 the regiment was again in action against the French in Holland, as part of the Helder Campaign. On October 2, 1799 it took part in its first major battle at Egmont-op-Zee. At the end of the campaign the 79th returned to England. In 1800 the 79th was part of a force that took part in a failed assault on the Spanish coast at Ferrol. In March 1801 the 79th Foot landed at Aboukir Bay, Egypt as part of an expeditionary force to prevent French control of the land route to India. After victories at Mandora and Alexandria, the British forces forced the surrender of the French forces at Cairo. Along with other regiments that took part in the Egyptian campaign the 79th Foot were henceforth permitted to bear a sphinx superscribed EGYPT on its colours and badges. The 79th spent the next few years in Minorca and the United Kingdom without coming under fire. A second battalion was formed in 1804, as a draft-finding unit. The 1st Battalion took part in an engagement at Copenhagen, Denmark in 1807, before returning to England. In 1808 the 79th Foot moved to Portugal, moving to Spain in the following year and participating in several major battles of the Peninsular War: Corunna in 1809, Busaco and the defence of Cadiz in 1810, Fuentes d'Onor in 1811, The Battle of Salamanca, the occupation of Madrid and the siege of Burgos in 1812, the Battles of the Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive in 1813; The Battle of Toulouse in 1814 Following the abdication of Napoleon in 1814, the regiment moved to Cork, Ireland. However, with the return of Napoleon from exile, the 79th Foot travelled to Belgium in May, 1815. The regiment took part in the final battles of the Napoleonic Wars at Quatre Bras and Waterloo in June.

A memorial cairn was raised to the memory of Sir Alan Cameron of Erracht and the inscription reads as follows:

IN 1793

Alexander MacKenzie, History of the Camerons with Genealogies of the Principal Families (Inverness: A. & W. MacKenzie, 1884)
Loraine Maclean (of Dochgarroch), Indomitable Colonel (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1986)
Somerled MacMillan, Bygone Lochaber: Historical and Traditional (Glasgow: Privately printed, 1971)
SSS NB 11, pp. 973–74

Sir Allan of Erracht, K. C. B. by an unknown artist (1806). Oils on canvas.
Recruitment notice for the 79th Cameron Highlanders looking for volunteers (1793)
The 79th Cameron Highlanders at the Battle of Waterloo (1815)
Memorial cairn to Sir Alan Cameron of Erracht

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