Photograph of members of the Royal Perthshire Rifles, 1880
For today’s object we have a black and white photograph of members of the Royal Perthshire Rifles dated to 1880. The Volunteer movement was reformed in 1859 following a perceived weakness in Britain’s ability to defend itself at home. Following the Anglo-French success of the Crimean War France now saw itself as the foremost military power in Europe. Their increased militarism led to concerns across the continent which eventually reached Britain.
The potential of a threat to British interests by France increased dramatically following the failed assassination attempt on the French Emperor Napoleon III and his wife by the Italian radical Felici Orsini. Orsini had travelled to Britain where he ordered 6 bombs to be made by the London Gunsmith James Taylor. Two of these bombs Orsini detonated on the heaths outside Sheffield to test their effectiveness. Satisfied Orsini then travelled, along with four companions, to Paris and on the 14th January 1858 threw several of them underneath the French Emperors coach as he and his wife travelled to see a performance of the William Tell Overture. The bombs successfully detonated killing 8 and wounding 142 spectators, but both the Emperor and Empress emerged unhurt. Once the British connection to the plot was unearthed there were howls of outrage from the French people and press. Le Moniteur, the official paper of the time, published an article by a leading French General, in which he stated that it would be an easy thing to plant a French eagle atop the Tower of London.
This sense of a threat from France tapped into a deep concern for the state of Britain’s defences, which had been going on for some time. In 1846 The Duke of Wellington, a man who knew a few things about war, had written an open letter to Sir John Burgoyne, who at the time was the Inspector General of Fortifications, in which he deplored the state of the countries defences, especially along the south coast. In April 1859 a mass meeting was held in St Martin’s Hall, Longacre, to protest against the perceived weakness of the National Defence. As a result of this meeting, and the public pressure it instilled, offers to form Volunteer Corps began to pour in, both to the newspapers and in the form of petitions to the government. Even the Poet Laureate, Tennyson, got in on the act, and published an ode in the Times, on May 9th 1859, the poem ‘Form, Riflemen Form!’
Between 1859 and 1860 Volunteer Regiments began to form in England, in places such as London, Exeter and Liverpool, but it wasn’t until February 1860 before the first Volunteer Regiment was created in Scotland, under very unusual circumstances. A meeting was held in Glasgow between the survivors of the Glasgow Light Horse, formed in 1796, The Glasgow Volunteers, formed in 1803, and the Glasgow Sharpshooters, formed in 1813. Only one survivor of the Glasgow Light Horse was actually present, a Mr Robert Reid who was then 88 years old. They resolved that they would form themselves into a veteran Rifle Corps, called the ‘Old Guard of Glasgow’ and would be armed and clothed at their own expense. This Regiment was officially accepted into the Army List on 3rd April 1860, and numbered the 78th Lanarkshire Regiment. There is no evidence that they ever appeared in uniform or did drill. What they did do however was to set the example for the younger generation to follow, which they rapidly did in short order.
As soon as the Volunteer Battalions were being formed arguments about precedence started to become very vocal. In the end an official list of County Volunteer Battalions by precedence had to be drawn up, with the Perthshire Battalions 52nd out of a total of 95. Even within the various counties the idea of precedence was evident amongst the various Volunteer Battalions. Precedence was based on the receipt of their offer of service, given to the Lord Lieutenant, and on occasion this could degenerate into farce. For example, in Ayrshire, there developed an actual race to Egglington Castle, where the Lord Lieutenant of the County had his home, between officers of 2 rival Artillery Volunteer Battalions, with the 1 beating the other, as the 2nd had been delayed ordering a carriage, whilst the 1st had simply run for it.
In Perthshire a number of Volunteer Companies were formed, including 1st Perth, raised December 13th 1859; 2nd Perth, raised December 13th 1859; 5th Blairgowrie; 6th Dunblane, accepted Dec 13 1859, officers elected May 3rd 1860; 12th Callander, disbanded 1865; 13th St Martins; 14th Birnam; 16th Stanley, disbanded 1864; 17th Bridge of Earn, formed April 1863, disbanded June 1863 due to a lack of officers; 18th Highland Perth and 19th Highland Crieff. As the needs of the Volunteer regiments changed over time, many of these regiments amalgamated, were disbanded, or simply vanished as it proved impossible to maintain recruitment. BY 1908 the system was in deed of reform and the Volunteer battalions formed part of the basis of the newly created Territorial Army, of which the Black watch had four battalions.