The History of Leith

January 18, 2008

Leith Mutiny-1779


This letter is a eyewitness account of the Mutiny that took place in Leith in 1779 and forms the centerpiece of a Exhibition currently at the National Library of Scotland. The letter is written by Thomas Stelfox to his wife.

In 1779 Seventy Highlanders of the 42nd and 71st (the known as the Master of Lovat’s Regiment) when marched down to Leith refused to embark as a rumour had been spread that they were to be drafted into a Lowland Corps and they wouldn’t be able to wear the Kilt and they deeply resented this.. They decided to resist this to the death and mutinied.

A report was sent to Edinburgh Castle saying-

“To Governor Wemysis or the Commanding Officer of the South Fencible Regiment
Headquarters April 1779.
Sir-The draughts of the 71st Regiment have refused to embark, you will order 200 men of the South Fencibles to march immediately to Leith to seize these mutineers and march them prisoners to the Castle of Edinburgh to be detained there until further orders-I am etc
Ja Adolphus Oughton”

I response to this two hundred Fencibles under the command of Major Sir James Johnston marched to Leith and found seventy Highlanders on the Shore drawn up in line with their backs to the houses their bayonets fixed and muskets loaded. Sir James drew up a detachment in a similar fashion to make escape impossible. Then he stated his orders which he would have no option but to obey.

His words were translated into Gaelic by a Sergeant Ross. However the Highlanders stood firm and wouldn’t surrender. Johnston gave the order “recover arms” meaning to prepare to fire. At that moment a Highlander tried to escape and he was seized by a sergeant who was instantly bayoneted while another was shot coming to his rescue. The blood was up and the Fencibles and shot after shot were poured onto the highlanders. The fire was returned by the Highlanders but they only had a few shots given to them by a porter. Two Fencibles were killed and one wounded of the Highlanders twelve were killed and many died later of their wounds. The Fencibles closed up with fixed bayonets and arrested twenty-five Highlanders leaving the Shore strewn with dead and dieing. And returned to the Castle. While trying to rescue two Fencibles Captain Mansfield was bayoneted by a Highlander whose charge he try to parry with his sword. He was later buried at Greyfriars Churchyard. The Highlanders that died were buried in South Leith Churchyard and for many years a small mound where they were buried could be seen but through time and weathering this mound has disappeared

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