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Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War


Stuart Allan and David Forsyth of National Museums Scotland take a look at the role of disaporic Scots in the Great War.

Emigration has been a constant theme in Scottish history. In the years immediately before the outbreak of the Great War, emigration from Britain and particularly Scotland had reached its ‘greatest crescendo’.  In 1914, as the world prepared for war, thousands of men in Scotland enlisted for military service. Across the world, in the countries of the British Empire where Scottish emigrants had settled, thousands more joined up.

Scotsmen, and men of Scottish descent, became part of the armed forces of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Many of them joined units that expressed Scottish identity, though others did not. In the industrial cities of England, and in other parts of the world, the Scottish military tradition went to war.

Long before the Great War, military service was one way in which Scottish emigrants demonstrated their affinity with the cultural traditions of their ancestral homeland.
Along with Caledonian societies, St Andrews societies and Burns Clubs, military units which adopted Scottish regimental traditions were part of the emigrant social scene. 

These part-time regiments were part of the constituted defence forces of the British empire. Their Scottish identity was expressed in conspicuous display of Scottish military dress, regimental titles and insignia, and through the military bagpiping tradition.


The Scots were one of the oldest and most prominent immigrant groups in Canada. Their distinctive identity was seen to complement the Canadian military image. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (pictured above) included many infantry battalions with Scottish titles, uniforms and naturally pipes and drums to encourage the troops. One Canadian commanding officer, who was not of Scottish extraction, commented on the effect of the pipes:

I believe that the purpose of war is to win victories, and if one can do this better by encouraging certain sentiments and traditions, why shouldn't it be done?

In Australia, by contrast, the old country identities of immigrants from Scotland and elsewhere were far less openly or visibly expressed in the forces mobilised for overseas service. The service and sacrifice of Australians was commemorated as an ideal of Australian nationhood. Scottish emigration to New Zealand was proportionately high, with concentrations in Otago and Southland. There were Scottish reserve regiments in New Zealand, but by 1914 immigrant military identities were discouraged.

Scottish identity emerged only informally in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Though ethnic distinctiveness was not officially sanctioned by the neither the Australian nor New Zealand governments. However, Scottish interest groups such as the Caledonian Society of Otago helped to raise the necessary funds to form fully-equipped pipes and drums for units destined for war service. In the Otago case a newspaper report of the time noted that the pipe band was established in recognition of ‘the sentimental and romantic value of bagpipe music’.

Scottish settlement in South Africa was concentrated around the goldmines of the Witwatersrand, and in the business and professions of the cities. Young men were attracted to the idea of service in a traditional Scottish regiment. The Scottish image was also popular with volunteers from other European immigrant groups.


Scotland’s nearest neighbour had long been a prime destination for Scottish migrants. In London and Liverpool, Anglo-Scottish regiments were part of the social networks and associational culture which had been established by Scots in business and professional life.

In 1914, similar groups of émigrés began to recruit new Scottish battalions in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Manchester and many came forward in these cities both from among industrial workers and a whole range of business and professional occupations. However, it was in the north-east of England that this call to arms was most successful; where four battalions of the Tyneside Scottish were raised numbering over 4,000 volunteers. A poster of the era described these men as being ‘Hard as Hammers’!

However, despite the presence of the Scottish military tradition within the Commonwealth the defining outcome of the Great War was the rise of nationhood within these British Commonwealth countries.  As the excitement and optimism of 1914 gave way to the grim reality of years of conflict, the human cost of fighting World War One became a foundation of national consciousness – for Canada at Vimy Ridge, for Australia and New Zealand at Gallipoli, for South Africa at Delville Wood, these were emotive and defining experiences which added to the growing sense of national identity in each of these nations.

Discover some of the objects in the Common Cause exhibition on the National Museums Scotland website.

Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War is at National Museum of Scotland until 12 October 2014.

National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF; tel: 0300 123 6789; website.


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