The Military System in East Lothian 1790–1850

Armies universally rely on part-time or volunteer forces to relieve the burden of routine during times of stress or to augment front-line forces during long campaigns by providing reserves and garrisons. The mechanisms for raising such forces have naturally varied over time. Sometimes volunteers surge to the colours, but balloting and conscription have also been used. Under the UK system the term ‘militia’ was generally applied to statutory regional levies regarded as a part of the armed forces; units raised by landowners (and their inducements) or communities were ‘volunteers’ whose relationship with the military command was sometimes quite tenuous.

The military systems of Scotland and England took a considerable period to align after the unification of the two countries in 1707. England’s Militia Acts aimed to provide a trained reserve that could be embodied in every district. As late as the French invasion scares of the 1790s, Scotland had no effective mechanism to provide similar forces, although both militia and ‘volunteer’ units existed in some areas. The passing of the Militia Act of 1797 attempted to regularise Scotland by giving the Lords Lieutenant the powers to recruit county militias.

The attempted imposition of this Act in East Lothian was handled so badly that it is recalled to this day as the Tranent Massacre. The militia was intended for home service but as this could include deployments to the south of England or even Ireland desertions and failure to deploy were endemic: the Haddington(shire) Local Militia didn’t form until 1808.

East Lothian Yeomanry Cavalry Trooper's JacketIn contrast, elsewhere in the county volunteer bodies had appeared spontaneously and with no concomitant disturbance, for example at Dunbar in 1793 and at Musselburgh and North Berwick in 1797. A similar impulse saw the formation of the first three troops of the East Lothian Yeomanry Cavalry, also in 1797.

After the defeat of Napoleonic France the varying elements of the county’s military receded from prominence and popularity. The yeomanry were dropped from the military establishment in 1827. The infantry volunteers merged into the militia after 1808 but the militia themselves quietly became moribund, although still formally on the books of the establishment: whereas officers continued to be appointed, the rank and file were mustered for training at ever uncertain intervals.

The Museums, Archives and Local History collections at the John Gray Centre have many deposits that relate to this subject, both primary and secondary sources, but no comprehensive study has yet been attempted.

Within the earliest Minute Book we hold for the Lord Lieutenancy there are lists of enrolled individuals and also details about the areas – they were broken down into Districts which grouped Parishes together.  As they stood in 1797:

District Number Parishes
 1  Dunbar, Innerwick, Whitekirk & Tynningham, Oldhamstocks, Stenton,Prestonhaugh, Whittinghame, Spott
 2  North Berwick, Aberlady, Direlton, Athelstaneford
 3  Garvald, Morham, Haddington, Gifford, Bolton
 4  Pencaitland, Salton, Humbie, Ormiston, Tranent, Prestonpans, Gladsmuir

One thought on “The Military System in East Lothian 1790–1850”

  1. Raymond Hood says:

    Have just completed 4 captions for L&B troopers at camp in Ashkirk for a Stenlake publication which will come out shortly. My research threw up the info that an L&B trooper transferred into the Household Cavalry at one point.

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