History and Uniform of the 78th
Highland Regiment of Foot
Canada's association with the colourful and distinguished Highland regiments of the British Army dates back almost to the time of their beginnings. Two of the first four regular High land regiments were raised specifically for service in North America; and, although disbanded on the conclusion of the struggle with France, their influence on Canadian military dress and custom still remains.
The final phase of the 150-year struggle between Britain and France in North America began in 1754. It became evident that large-scale military intervention in the colonial conflict was required if Britain was to prevail. This would necessitate sending British regulars to North America. Therefore, authority was granted for raising two Highland regiments of foot the 77th Regiment (Montgomerie's Highlanders) and the 78th (Fraser's Highlanders), for service in the New World.
Simon Fraser, Master of Lovat, son of the 11th Lord Lovat who was executed for his part in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46, was commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel Commandant and authorized on 5 January 1757 to raise a regiment of foot. The regiment, designated the 78th Regiment of Foot, 2nd Highland Battalion, was to have a strength of forty-four officers, forty sergeants and corporals, twenty drummers, and ten companies of 100 men each.
The 78th assembled at Inverness, and soon recruited to full strength. In fact, when the regiment embarked at Glasgow in April 1757, it was accompanied by so many volunteers that three additional companies were authorized. When another company was added in 1758, the unit had the formidable strength of 1,542 all ranks.
The Fraser's spent their first North American winter that of 1757-58, in Connecticut. Some practical soul proposed that the Highlanders should he clad in trews during the cold weather; but the officers and men raised such an uproar that the 78th was permitted to retain its original Highland dress winter or not!
In the spring of 1758, the regiment joined the force being assembled for the assault on Louisbourg. The 78th took part in the original assault-landing as well as the subsequent siege operations that led to the capitulation of the fortress in July 1758. Fraser's Highlanders then moved to New York, where they were to pass the winter, but they were transferred first to Boston and then, as a result of the disaster at Ticonderoga, to Albany.
Fraser's Highlanders joined General Wolfe's Quebec expedition in the spring of 1759, and served with distinction throughout the campaign. They were the only Highland troops present at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The regiment remained in Quebec during the trying winter of 1759-60, and took part in the battle at Sainte-Foy on 28 April 1760. Subsequently, the 78th accompanied General Murray's force in the advance on Montreal, where it met with the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot and the 77th (Montgomerie's Highlanders) Regiment of Foot, both of Amherst's force. Here, for the first time, the three Highland regiments serving in North America during the Seven Years' War came together.
Between 1760 and 1763, the 78th Regiment served in garrison locations in Montreal, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. A detachment formed part of Colonel William Amherst's force that recaptured St. John's in Scptember 1762.
In December 1763, Fraser's Highlanders were ordered to disband in Quebec. Land grants were offered to those who chose to stay in Canada, and many officers and men remained to help build the country they had come to conquer.
The colourful dress of the Highland regiments of the British Army borrows nothing from European military fashion. It is based solely on the traditional dress of the Highlands of Scotland. The 78th adopted Highland dress very early, and was one of the first two regiments serving in Canada to do so.
Reliable contemporary evidence on the dress of the Fraser's is sparse. The brief notation, "Seventy-Eighth Regiment - Uniform, Red Faced White, Belted Plaid and Hose," provides little detail.
A veteran of the 78th wrote that "thanks to our generous Chief, we were allowed the garb of our fathers, and in the course of six winters, showed the doctors that they did not understand our constitution for, in the coldest winters, our men were more healthy than those regiments who wore breeches and warm clothing".
"The uniform was full Highland dress with musquet and broad sword, to which many of the soldiers added the dirk, at their own expense, and a purse of badgers or otter skin. The Bonnet was raised or cocked on one side with a slight bend inclining down to the right ear, over which was suspended two or more black feathers". From this information and what is known of Highland military dress of the period, the uniform of the 78th can be reconstructed with some certainty.
The outstanding feature of Highland dress was, of course1 the kilt. The 78th wore the belted plaid, which consisted of twelve yards of double-width tartan. The fabric was spread on the ground and neatly pleated over the waist-belt; the soldier lay down on the plaid, fastened his belt, and stood up. The lower part of the plaid formed the kilt proper. The upper portion, which fell over the belt, was gathered behind and fastened at the left shoulder. In inclement weather, the plaid was unfastened and drawn about the shoulders like a cloak.
The filibag or little kilt was worn by some regiments on occasions when the belted plaid was too cumbersome. But there is no evidence that the 78th possessed both garments.
The tartan of the period was a hard fabric of combed wool, and was harsh on bare flesh. It was not until the 1870s that it was replaced by the present-day softer tartan made from carded wool.
There is much speculation as to the sett or pattern of tartan issued to the 78th, but no hard evidence. Several authorities on Highland dress are of the opinion that the Fraser's wore the government pattern (Black Watch), perhaps with a coloured overstripe.
The regulation red coat of the British infantry was much too long to accommodate the belted plaid, so Highland regiments adopted a short red jacket cut square across the back a few inches below the waist. A 1751 painting depicts a Highland jacket as a short single-breasted garment with a turn-down collar. The small turned-back cuffs have a straight slash edged with white tape, and the buttons and buttonholes have short tape loops. The jacket has a single right shoulder-strap to hold in place the wide sword-belt. The red waistcoat, edged with white tape, is almost as long as the jacket.
The red and white pattern hose, cut from cloth and sewn up the back, were supported a few inches below the knee by a red tape garter. The black leather shoes fastened with metal buckles.
The flat blue-black bonnet of the Highland regiments is shown in contemporary illustrations with a plain or sometimes a red band; the diced band commonly associated with Highland head-gear was riot yet in evidence. A small red touri and black ribbon cockade were common adornments of the bonnet.
The white collarless shirt was worn with a white neck cloth or, on active service, a black stock.
Grenadier companies of some early Highland regiments wore a mitre-shaped fur grenadier cap. It seems probable that such a unique Highland distinction would be adopted by the 78th, but there is no evidence to support this speculation.
The sporran or purse was provided at the soldier's own expense. There seems to have been no standard sporran pattern for the regiment, although it is known that some were of otter and others of badger skin.
Officers wore a scarlet jacket and waistcoat similar to those of the soldiers. Although some officers' jackets had plain lapels of facing colour set with buttons but without lace loops, most contemporary illustrations show the officer's jacket without lapels. Cuffs, collars, jacket fronts, and waistcoats were probably trimmed with narrow gold lace, but such embellishments were kept to a minimum on active service.
The Highland soldier's equipment consisted of a black waist-belt with steel buckle to which was attached a small cartridge pouch, a bayonet, and, frequently, a dirk supplied by the soldier. A wide black leather cross-belt with steel buckle, slide, and tip was worn over the right shoulder to hold the basket hilted Highland broadsword.
The plate illustrates a 1758 private soldier of the 78th in his regimentals. Wearing feathers in the bonnet was a common practice for Highland regiments. The number of feathers gradually increased until the bonnet took the form of the present-day Highland feather bonnet.
It seems that some, if not all, of the 78th carried a lighter musket than the standard forty-six-inch barrel Brown Bess. A military musket with a forty two-inch barrel, often referred to as the Light Infantry Musket, was issued to some units of the British Army about this time and may have been used by the Fraser's.
The 78th (Highland) Regiment of Foot (Fraser's Highlanders) introduced the colour and distinction of Highland dress to Canada, and it continues to be a part of Canada's military heritage.
This articles is an extract from the book Military Uniforms in Canada, 1665-1970 by Jack L. Summers and Rene Chartrand (Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 1981) and is reproduced here by the kind permission of the Canadian War Museum. Reprinting or duplication of the text or illustration without permission from the Canadian War Museum is prohibited.
Copyright: Canadian War Museum