FIRST WORLD WAR: Bedford’s Tartan Army - how a war diary from Somme hero inspired historian

In August 1914, just as Bedfordians were coming to terms with the news that Britain was at war with Germany, the relative peace and quiet of the town was shattered by the friendly invasion of thousands of soldiers from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, writes Richard Galley

Between 15th and 18th August 1914 around 17,000 Scottish territorial soldiers arrived in Bedford for training in preparation for reinforcing the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. These were men of the Highland Division (later to become the 51st

Highland Division) whose infantry units carried famous and evocative names such as Gordon, Seaforth, Argyll & Sutherland and Cameron Highlanders.

By the time it left the Town in May 1915, the Division numbered over 22,000 men. To set this

in context, at the outbreak of war Bedford’s population was somewhere in the region of 39,000.

The kilted troops became a familiar and welcome sight in the town and surrounding countryside, accompanied by the sound of bagpipes and drums. They were certainly a curiosity with their Highland dress and strong regional dialects. Indeed, many of the soldiers spoke Gaelic as their first language.

Largely as a consequence of the dispersal of billets throughout the Borough, Bedfordians took the Highlanders to their hearts. Strong, genuine and lasting bonds were forged between the Town and its Scottish visitors. Several Bedford families can trace their connections back to Highland Division men who returned to the Town and made it their home after the war ended. Bedford should take enormous pride from the manner in which it welcomed the soldiers and looked after them, particularly through the work of the Borough Recreation Committee for the Troops and the dozens of civilian volunteers who supported it.

However, tragedy came in the form of disease. In the winter of 1914 measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria ran through the ranks of men from the more remote areas of the Highlands and Islands who had never been exposed to these diseases. The majority of men who contracted one or other of these illnesses survived, but some fatally succumbed and their bodies were either returned to Scotland for burial or interred in Bedford’s Foster Hill Road

cemetery, which is the final resting place for thirty-three Highland Division men.

>> Local historian, Richard Galley, began researching the story of Bedford’s Highlanders several years ago having read the original 1915 pocket diary kept by Private Hugh McArthur, an 18 year old Argyll & Sutherland Highlander from Islay who was stationed in Bedford from August 1914 to May 1915 and who died during the fighting on the Somme in August 1916.

Richard explains why he thinks the story deserves a higher profile, particularly during

the centenary of the Scots’ arrival in Bedford,

He said: “I find the story of the Highlanders’ time in and around Bedford hugely inspirational and believe that today’s community should be encouraged to take great pride in how our sleepy

market town and its surrounding villages responded with such warmth, generosity, energy and enthusiasm to the sudden influx of 17,000 kilted Highlanders in the early days of the Great War. The strong bonds that were forged between the Highlanders and Bedfordians a century ago were genuine and enduring, many lasting to this day.”

Richard Galley was born and raised in Bedford and educated at Bedford School.

He spent nearly 25 years working for the UK’s leading private medical insurance company and is now a freelance consultant specialising in organisational development and change management.

He has a lifelong interest in military history, particularly the two world wars and the contribution made by Bedford to both of them.

Richard is Pipe Sergeant of Bedford Pipe Band.

If you would like to learn more about Bedford’s Highlanders please go to:

Richard is also available to do an illustrated talk on the subject. Please contact: