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Posted on Apr 1, 2010 in War College

Tim Newark Interview, Author of ‘Highlander: The History of the Legendary Highland Soldier’

By Peter Suciu

Highlander: The History of the Legendary Highland Soldier. Skyhorse Publishing, 2010. Armchair General interview with author Tim Newark.

The Gordons went up after them and the Gurkhas were watching them go up, and they had tears streaming down their eyes because the Gordons were going into a storm of fire.

To most, the Scottish soldier is one wearing the kilt and playing the bagpipes. This, of course, is a wildly over-simplified view and is far from accurate. In fact, only the "Highlanders" were technically outfitted in the traditional Scottish garb, but even here the truth is so mixed with the legend that it is hard to keep things straight.

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Author Tim Newark, editor of the British history magazine Military Illustrated, separates the fact from the fiction in his new book Highlander: The History of the Legendary Highland Soldier (Skyhorse Publishing). This work chronicles the long story of Scottish warriors, from their early days when King James recommended that be treated as "wolves and wild boars" to their exploits in the Indian Mutiny, where Highlanders won six Victoria Crosses in a single day, and to the modern day. Newark, a Londoner with Scottish Highlander blood, has crafted a tale that holds together throughout the saga of these warriors but never bogs down on a single or select character.

Nor does he focus too much on any one unit, although some could argue that the Black Watch, the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot, gets a bit more treatment than others. Instead of being a regimental history per say, this is instead a history of all Highland regiments, and the only complaint is that some stories are too quickly passed over, and others—notably the 1815 Battle of New Orleans—are completely left out. In the latter case, it could be argued that the particular battle, which occurred after the peace had been signed, is remembered far more for the defeat of the British forces, but Newark doesn’t shy away from the setbacks the units faced. As a noted author, whose past works include The Mafia at War and Celtic Warriors, Newark once again shows his skill in telling a story where not every battle ends in victory, and not every soldier is the hero. This is what makes Highlander worthy of high praise.

Tim Newark took time to sit down and talk to us about this new book, as well as share some thoughts on military history. Here is what he had to say:

Armchair General: You go into a lot of detail about individual soldiers, and you didn’t limit yourself to one unit or one story. How long did it take to research Highlander and how did this project come about?

Tim Newark: I wrote my book about Celtic warriors about 20 years ago, and so I’ve always been interested in the subject and I’ve always been collecting material. When I finished that, I knew I really wanted to carry on with this and carry it from the late 17th century to the 21st century.

ACG: Obviously this isn’t a book you could do just from your office.

TN: When I decided to do this project, that’s when I decided to go up to the Highlands and go to all the regimental museums, and dig in the archives to find new primary materials. Diaries, letters and hand written accounts, and that process really after building on 20 years of interest took about a year really. That was very intense. That required spending several days in the archives going through boxes and boxes of old material.

ACG: What type of assistance did you get in the process?

TN: The museums were very helpful. The Black Watch Regiment in particular were very helpful, and guided me towards material that had not been published before. And in some of the stories … there was a scandal, which occurred in the desert in the Sudan campaign, and this came out of a personal account that had never seen the light of day. So yeah, that’s the kind of research involved.

ACG: Obviously, you weren’t able to tell every Highland story however. One I noticed, being an American, is that you didn’t include the Battle of New Orleans, so were there other items left out that you wanted to include?

TN: That’s very true. I think I took as my guide the material I could get to. I was really led by the new material that I turned up, because I don’t like to write a book from other books. I prefer to go to archives, so in a way, I had to leave out some stories I couldn’t research firsthand, like New Orleans. I prefer to go the stories where I could research and bring something fresh.

ACG: Some might complain that the book is selective.

TN: Yes, it is quite selective, and someone wrote to me and said there is too much about the Black Watch, because he was from another Highland regiment. I said, "but that’s where the good stories were." And that’s what I found, so in a way the book is a collection of found material. That is why it has the path and the shape it does.

ACG: You also pull in some stories that are often times overlooked, notably the Highlanders relationship with other units such as the Gurkhas. Was this important for you to include?

TN: That was very important, as I was inspired by the photograph, which is reproduced in the book and shows Gurkhas standing shoulder to shoulder with Gordon Highlanders. That is very unusual for the time, because white European soldiers wouldn’t really mix with other countries. I mean they would look down on Asian soldiers, but that photograph was taken straight after the Battle of Dargai in October 1887, where the Gurkhas went up the hill to fight the mountain tribesmen and got badly mauled.

And the Gordons went up after them and the Gurkhas were watching them go up, and they had tears streaming down their eyes because the Gordons were going into a storm of fire. They took something the Gurkhas couldn’t take, and what was also lovely was then that the Gordons helped carry down the casualties of the Gurkhas—which again was quite unusual for that time, but it just reflects that these were two fighting nations that impressed each other. I was moved by that, I was quite touched by that, and so I made that a feature of one of the chapters.

I also got in touch with the Gurkhas museum and they showed me this letter, where a Gurkha describes the tears in his eyes as he sees the Gordons going up the hill. So again I was led by the material, and I thought that was an example of a good story.

ACG: Would you then consider a follow-up book that would look at other Highland regiments as this one was so focused on the Black Watch?

TN: Sure, sure. But I think my next book is going to be on Irish soldiers, those fighting abroad. That is what I’ve been researching.

ACG: So more soldier’s tales?

TN: I’m just interested in "alien" soldiers working in the British Army, and in the Army of the United States, ones where they have a strong national identity, and a fighting spirit. That’s what I found with the Highlanders and that’s what I am finding with the Irish as well. So I’m really interested in the national fighting spirit.

ACG: Anything after that?

TN: It is really the Irish book. I’m really involved with the research. I’m off to Dublin later this month to see the archives. I’m going to interview some veterans of the Congo, some Irish from when the United Nations were out there in 1960. The Irish got involved in an ambush where nine of them … they had just got there for, like, three months. They had got on the aircraft in Dublin, landed in Congo wearing First World War–like clothes and were worn out. So they were wearing the wrong clothes and they got sent into this ambush and nine of them were killed by the tribesman.

This shocked Ireland, and it was a big scandal at the time. This is the largest amount of Irish soldiers killed on peacekeeping duties. I’ve met some of the men who have been there. Six months later there was a rematch of sorts, where the Irish took on the tribesmen, and I’m talking to a veteran from there, to get the last man situation from him.

ACG: Those sound like interesting tales.

TN: This is what I like, I like getting first hand stories. So that’s one of the stories for the next book.

ACG: This is quite different from your past work, where you’ve covered military camouflage and more recently wrote about the role the Mafia played in the Second World War. The best way to describe this is to say your work is quite eclectic. What can you tell us about those stories?

TN: That came out of my military history. My publisher at the time wanted me to do a book based on a TV documentary on the sinking of the Normandie in the Second World War. My editor really liked the idea of bringing the Second World War and the Mafia together. I said I’d do it, but I didn’t know if I could do it.

ACG: Was that a challenge?

TN: I just went off and did a lot of the research. I went to Sicily and over here (New York City) and surprisingly I went to the British National Archives. It changed my whole view on the role of the Mafia and the United States in the Second World War.

Everyone says that the Mafia helped with the invasion of Sicily. Nonsense. I exposed that. So in a way it comes back to my interest in military history. And that has led me to some interesting stories, and crime history as well.

Thank you to Tim Newark for talking with us.

Click here to read a review of Highlander: The History of the Legendary Highland Soldier.

2 Comments

  1. Good interview….like the inclusion of the first hand stories. Makes me want to read the book.
    Thanks,
    M.

  2. Dear Tim,
    I have just finished your book Highlander, and enjoyed it very much. it has wanted me to find out more about my Great Uncle who I believe was the Colonel of the 5th Gordons during the First World war. I guess I could contact the Gordons Museum re where he would have been on the Western Front. He survived unscathed, tho he was taken prisoner during the Germans big push in 1918.His name was Maxwell Fielding McTaggart.
    His brother, my grandfather, was a teacher in Egypt at the outbreak of war, and because of his skills in Arabic, was made a young officer in the Egyptian Labour Corps. I have tried to find out more about this unit, without much success. Gerald Brackenbury fought at Romani and got a MID. I would like to find the citation for this, but don’t know where to start looking.
    If you have any information I would be very grateful.

    Kind Regards,

    Gerry Brackenbury.

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