South African Military History Society


Past meeting - Johannesburg
The massacre of Glencoe in 1692 is remembered to this day as one of the most bloody and treacherous incidents in Britain's military history. It was the subject of the curtain raiser given by John Murray at the society meeting on 12th February.
The MacDonalds of Glencoe were the smallest branch of Clan Donald, a Highland tribe that had populated large portions of the western mainland of Scotland and the glens of Antrim in Ireland. For more than 150 years after the Battle of Bannockburn their chieftain had held the title of Lord of the Isles as a reward for his clan's support for the victor, Robert the Bruce. This was the basis of the MacDonald's claim to be the leaders of Gaeldom, and as such the rivals of the kings of Scotland. It was one they continued to cherish long after the title had been taken from them and their tribal enemies had eroded their power. They hated the government in the south, and resisted its jurisdiction, preferring to live as rebels and plunderers.
The usurpation of the British throne by William of Orange, William III, in 1688, was followed by years of rebellion in the Highlands, where sympathies for the deposed King James remained strong. The exiled James released the clans from their oaths of allegiance, but, mainly owing to delays caused by the weather, not all the clan chieftains were able to meet the deadline for switching their loyalties, and it was decided by William's deputy in Scotland, the Master of Stair, that an example would have to be made. He chose, the 500 or so MacDonalds of Glencoe as suitable candidates.
It was fateful that a mixed force of Scottish Lowlanders and Campbell Highlanders should have been chosen for the job. The Lowlanders were mostly experienced soldiers who had little respect for Highland customs, including the inviolability of hospitality received or extended. The Campbells had benefited considerably from the MacDonalds' misfortunes in the past, and were now regarded as deadly enemies. The 135 soldiers sent to Glencoe were quartered in the houses of the village, and although the Lowlanders were treated with no more than reluctant respect, the relationship with the Campbells developed some warmth. Their commander, Captain Robert Campbell, was related by marriage to the second son of MacIan, the MacDonalds' chieftain.
There was some delay in proceeding with the planned massacre, but it finally started at 5am on 13th February and in the ensuing slaughter 38 clansmen were counted as killed. The total would have been higher had not many escaped into a blizzard blowing at the time, possibly warned by the Campbell Highlands. There is no record of how many perished in that blizzard.
A commission of inquiry convened in April 1695 declared the massacre to have been "murder under trust", planned and ordered by the king's servants, a deliberate attempt at genocide.

The main lecture of the evening, "The Evolution of Regimental Colours in South Africa", was given by Brigadier Professor Deon Fourie, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Museum.
Vexillology, the study of flags, is an esoteric discipline, and indeed few people even know the meaning of the word. Yet flags, along with other distinguishing emblems, have played a long and colourful role in military and political history. Virtually every military unit has at one time or another had a flag, or "colour", to serve as a rallying point and to bear its battle honours.
South Africa has been host to the development of a vexillological culture dating from 1652, which has and passed through several distinct phases corresponding to the successive stages of the political domination of the country.
The first regimental colours appeared in the period of the Dutch East India Company among the foreign mercenary units that were hired to garrison the Cape. These were followed by the colours of the French regiments that occupied the Cape after the American Revolutionary War, and these, in their turn gave way to those of the Batavian Republic which preceded the British occupation. The extended British period was a particularly fruitful one for the development of regimental colours as innumerable regiments of the British Army served their time in the country, and frequently handed on their military culture to the many military units raised locally.
The two independent republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State both had their characteristic colours, before they in their turn were superseded by the flags of the Union and Republic periods. The holding of full democratic elections in 1994 was followed by the choice of yet another national flag to symbolise a different kind of national union.
The flags of each period have had their own characteristic forms. For example, flags of the British period tended to feature a central emblem, often made up of local fauna and other domestic objects, surmounted by a crown and enclosed in floral wreaths entwined with battle honours. The wreaths could be of local flora, such as the protea, or foreign ones such as the rose and the thistle. In the Union period the crown disappeared, although not always the wreaths, which were sometimes retained unchanged. Later the wreaths might be dispensed with and the battle honours placed symmetrically around the central feature, which could often be a local animal. The union flag, which was often placed in the top lefthand quarter during the British period, also tended to disappear as the country progressed to complete independence.
The Black nations of South Africa have not been noted for the development of flags and similar emblems, although at least one can be identified among Moshoeshoe's baSotho. It consisted of a pole projecting from the top of the small, bird-shaped shield and decorated with ostrich feathers. It probably bore a closer resemblance to the Roman and Napoleonic eagles than to the traditional regimental flag, although it doubtless served a similar purpose.
The evolution of regimental colours in South Africa has now entered yet another phase, which can confidently be expected to produce its own historically distinguishing characteristics.

The December 1998 edition of the Military History Journal will be a special Anglo-Boer War edition, and suitable contributions are invited from the public. These should be submitted as soon as possible, but in any case no later than end-August.


12th March:
CR Martin Ayres Historical instances of military incompetence
ML Maj-Gen R de Vries Case studies in mechanised warfare
16th April:
Annual General Meeting
ML Hamish Paterson The Great Mariannas Turkey Shoot
(Please note that 16th April is the third Thursday of the month)

12th March Bill Brady The Channel Dash - 1942

Cape Town:
12th March Angus MacBride The History of Military Illustrations

George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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