Claymore for hire—the story of the Scottish mercenary
There have always been mercenaries and some nations have a better temperament for the trade than others. Mercenaries, both historically and present day, have tended to be hardy men from mountainous, uncompromising countries and climates. In an age of families which expected to have numerous sons to ensure a continuation of the line, ‘young gentlemen’ of the Quentin Durward variety often took to the sword to make their way in the world. The Scots have always been attracted to the mercenary life—especially at times when there was no war to fight at home—and their mercenary numbers were made up of all ranks from senior officers to common soldiers, who would sometimes go into foreign service as an entire regiment. The high point of Scottish mercenary activity was during the European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when upwards of an incredible 40,000 Scots were employed under arms at any one time. This excellent book discusses the role of the Scots in the service of Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Italy, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and France and it makes fascinating reading especially for those interested in pre-Napoleonic warfare.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Thomas Keith, a record of whose service was furnished to us by the War Office, was a native of Edinburgh, where he served his apprenticeship to a gunsmith before he enlisted, on the 4th of August, 1804, in the 2nd battalion of the 78th Highlanders, commanded by Major-General Mackenzie Frazer of Castle Frazer; and soon after he went with the corps, under Lieutenant-Colonel MacLeod of Gienis, to join the army in Sicily under Sir John Stuart, the Count of Maida, where he took part in the victorious battle of that name, and the subsequent capture of Crotona on the Gulf of Taranto.<br>
Keith, proving a smart, intelligent, and well-educated soldier, was appointed armourer to the Ross-shire Buffs, now ordered to form a part of the expedition fitted out in Sicily in 1807 to occupy Alexandria, to compel the Turks to defend their own territories, and relieve our allies, the Russians, of the pressure they put upon them.<br>
Like most British expeditions, this one under Mackenzie Fraser proved too slender; it consisted only of the 20th Light Dragoons, a regiment then clad in blue with orange facings; the 31st, 35th, and 78th Regiments, with that of De Rolle and Les Chasseurs Brittaniques, a mixed corps, formed of deserters from all countries.<br>
On the 18th of March General Eraser disembarked this force near the Arabs’ Tower, westward of Alexandria, and began his march for the latter, with the view of attaching it and keeping open a communication with the naval squadron; but he was either ignorant of the actual strength of the Turkish forces in and about the city, or that the Mameluke Beys, though in arms apparently against the new viceroy, Mehemet Ali, now were ready to follow him against the British troops.<br>
Alexandria was captured, but then, followed our defeat at Rosetta (or Raschid) on the Bolbiton branch of the Nile, where General Patrick Wauchope of Edmonston fell, with 185 officers and men of the 31st Regiment alone, and next day the heads of these were displayed on stakes along the road that leads towards Tantah.<br>
Another disastrous affair—when Keith fell into the hands of the enemy—followed at the village of El Hamet, four miles south-west of Rosetta, on the banks of the canal that unites the Nile with Lake Etko. There Colonel Macleod, with five companies of his Highlanders and two of the 35th, with a few of the 20th Dragoons, took post on the embankment, when in the mist, on the morning of the 21st April, they were furiously attacked by an overwhelming force of Albanian cavalry and infantry, that came down the Nile in 70 large river-boats. MacLeod formed a square, but the rush of the foe proved too great for him, with their lances, matchlocks, and yataghans.<br>
A company of the 35th and another of the Ross-shire Buffs were cut down though making a desperate resistance, and every officer and man of both companies perished, save some 22 who escaped, and Keith and a Highland drummer who were taken prisoners. Seven Albanians were slain in succession be the claymore of Sergeant John MacRae of the 78th ere his head was cloven from behind by a yataghan; and, ere Lieutenant MacRae fell, six men of his surname, all from Kintail, perished by his side. MacLeod also fell, and the Albanians were seen caracoling their horses on all sides, each with a soldier’s head on the point of a lance. (General Stewart.)<br>
Keith with a few survivors was dragged to Cairo, where 450 heads, hewn from MacLeod’s men, were exposed in the market-place, with every mark of barbarous contempt; and there he became the property of Ahmed Aga, who purchased him for a few coins from an Albanian lancer. Ahmed, fortunately for Keith, conceived a strong fancy for him, and finding all chance of escape utterly hopeless, according to the means of locomotion in those days, he and the drummer adopted the turban—Keith taking the name of Ibrahim Aga and the latter that of Osman, under which we shall have to refer to him again when in old age.<br>
Keith had soon to quit the service of his new friend Ahmed. A Mameluke of the latter, a renegade Sicilian, having insulted him, swords were drawn, and the young Scotsman killed the Sicilian on the spot, and, to escape the consequences, fled to the favourite wife of the viceroy, Mehemet Ali, and procured her protection. She gave him a purse of money, and sent him disguised to her second son, Tusoun Pasha, born at Kavala, in Macedonia (where Mehemet’s father had been head of the police), and he took Keith into his service, pleased to find that he was a skilful armourer and master of the Arabic language.<br>
Though little else than a boy, Tusoun (we are told by the author of Egypt and Mohammed Ali) had a fiendish temper, and on Keith incurring his sharp displeasure by some omission of duty, he ordered the latter to be assassinated in bed, and beset the house with armed slaves, whose instructions were to mutilate him and bring away his head. But Keith was prepared for them!<br>
Ere they could enter his room he was out of the doorway, which he had barricaded, and which he defended for half-an-hour with his sword and pistols, till a pile of dead lay before him; then seizing a lucky moment, when they shrank from that ghastly barrier, he leaped into the street, and brandishing his bloody sabre, once more sought the protection of Tusoun’s mother.<br>
She effected a reconciliation between them, and the savage young prince, in admiration of his courage, appointed him Aga of his body of Mamelukes, a post of importance, in which he displayed many brilliant qualities. “In the bearded Aga of the Mamelukes, who shaved his head in conformity to the rules of the Prophet, it might have been difficult to recognise the kilted Ross-shire Buff of a year or so before; but now his former military experience made him of vast service in infusing a species of discipline among the Mamelukes and other wild and barbarous horsemen in the pasha’s army, while his knowledge of all kinds of weapons, his bodily strength, bravery, and hardihood, made him almost their idol. Thus he stood high among the Agas of the pasha of Egypt.”