Colombia, Poland, Venezuela, Ireland, Sweden, Morocco, the list goes on. For hundreds of years, Scottish soldiers have seized the opportunity to earn money fighting in foreign lands. In other words, they were mercenaries. Sometimes these Scottish soldiers of fortune supported established monarchs, while at other times they fought with rebels eager to change the status quo. But wherever they went and whoever they fought, the results in most cases were stories worth telling.
Related: 10 fascinating stories of legendary mercenaries
10 Peter McAleese
Peter Maltese, born in Glasgow in 1942, led a band of mercenary fighters to Colombia in 1989. McAleese had an impressive pedigree for his role as commander of a motley crew of soldiers of fortune. He had served in Britain’s notorious elite force, the SAS. In a documentary about his life, McAleese reinforced the image of him as an all-around tough guy, saying: “I was trained to kill by the army, but the fighting instinct came from Glasgow.”
McAleese left the army in 1969 and entered the shadowy world of mercenary fighters, seeing action in African hotspots such as Angola and what was then Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe. But why did he travel to Colombia? In a barely believable turn of events, he was hired by the Cali Cartel to kill the leader of their main rival, the Medellín Cartel. In other words, McAleese’s mission was nothing less than to assassinate Pablo Escobar. The Scotsman and his friends were going by helicopter to Escobar’s compound. But McAleese’s helicopter crashed in the Andes, seriously injuring him. The plot was aborted. McAleese escaped and died in 2021, aged 79. Escobar died in a shootout in 1993.
9 Gregor MacGregor, Prince of Poyais
Born on Christmas Eve 1786, Gregor MacGregor began his military career rather conventionally by joining the British Army’s 57th Regiment of Foot while still just 16 years old. The young man saw action in the Napoleonic wars and eventually reached the rank of major before hanging up his sword in 1810. For his next adventure, his eyes turned to South America and he arrived in Venezuela in 1812.
MacGregor met the revolutionary leader, General Francisco de Miranda, who accepted him into his forces as a colonel in the fight against the Spanish colonialists. MacGregor, who had been knighted, was promoted to general in the Venezuelan army. His exploits included an attempt to seize Florida from the Spanish and an attempt to found a colony in Nicaragua.
His grandest scheme, however, saw him taking the title of Prince of Poyais while developing a colony in Honduras Bay. To do so, he lured gullible British investors and potential settlers with false claims. They lost all of his money and the colony was a total disaster. Somehow, “Prince” Gregor was unscathed.
8 Patrick Leopold Gordon of Auchleuchries
Born in the North East of Scotland in 1635, Patrick Gordon first left his homeland while still a teenager. He traveled to the Polish city of what was then Danzig and is now Gdańsk, where he enrolled in a Jesuit college. In 1655 a war broke out between Poland and Sweden, and it was then that young Gordon first became a mercenary. It appears that he was not overly selective about who his employers were, as he fought on both sides during hostilities.
In 1661 Gordon turned away from Poland and Sweden and decided to join the Russian army. With the rank of major, he rendered useful service in 1661 by putting down civil unrest in Moscow. After Peter the Great came to power in 1696, Gordon became a key adviser and even a friend to the young tsar, attaining the rank of general. He played a major role in suppressing an attempted palace coup against Peter in 1698. He died a year later.
7 James Francis Edward Keith
Keith was a high-born Scotsman, the second son of the ninth Earl Marshal of Scotland. Despite this, he was forced to leave his homeland after becoming involved in the failed Jacobite attempt to seize the British throne in 1715. Fleeing to France, Keith ended up in Spain, where he became an officer in the Spanish army. . But since he was a Protestant in a Catholic country, his prospects were bad, so he went to Russia.
In 1728 Keith was made a colonel of a Russian regiment and fought against the Swedes. After his time with the Russians, it seems Keith was eager for new pastures, and joined the Prussian army, seeing extensive action in the Seven Years’ War that convulsed much of Europe and North America. Keith, now a Field Marshal, fought at the Battle of Hochkirch in Germany in 1758, when 80,000 Austrians faced 31,000 Prussians. The Austrians defeated the Prussians killing 9,000 of them, including Keith.
6 Archibald Ruthven of Forteviot
Archibald Ruthven was born into a distinguished Scottish family; his father was Lord Ruthven. In 1572, Ruthven sailed for Scandinavia, where he accepted a position in the army of the Swedish King Johan III. Johan’s first order was for the Scotsman to return to his homeland to recruit 2,000 mercenaries. In the end, he returned to Sweden with almost 4,000 soldiers.
Ruthven became embroiled in a bitter dispute over the pay of his soldiers which resulted in the execution of a Scottish officer for embezzlement, Hugh Cahun. Before he was executed, Cahun accused Ruthven, baselessly as far as we know, of planning the assassination of King Johan. Apparently clear, Ruthven now sailed for Livonia on the Baltic Sea with his troops. There, a bitter dispute with his German allies resulted in the deaths of some 1,500 men. The result of this deadly feud was that Ruthven was accused again of conspiring against Johan. Despite his denials, the unfortunate Scotsman was jailed and died in jail.
5 Sir Harry Aubrey by Vere Maclean
Born into a well-to-do Scottish family in 1848, the splendidly named Sir Harry Aubrey de Vere Maclean joined the British Army in 1869 and saw service in Canada, Gibraltar and Bermuda. After seven years in the army, Maclean resigned his commission and accepted the position of drill instructor in the army of the Sultan of Morocco, Mawlay Hassan.
Not long after arriving in Tangier, Mclean took command of 400 infantry troops, with an increase in pay contingent on his learning Arabic, which he did. Abdul-Aziz succeeded Hussain as sultan and retained Mclean’s services, sending him on missions to various Moroccan provinces. But life in Morocco was not without its dangers; In 1907, the Scotsman was kidnapped and held for ransom for seven months. The following year, Abdul-Aziz was deposed by his own brother Mawlay Abdul-Hafiz. The new sultan intended to keep Mclean, but the two could not agree on a contract, so Mclean resigned and lived out his days in Tangier until his death in 1920.
4 Peter Duffy
Raised in the northern Scottish town of Elgin, Peter Duffy was born in 1941 with a certain privilege. He was sent to Gordonstoun, the same private school King Charles attended a few years later. Later in his life, Duffy was second in command of a group of mercenaries who went to engineer a coup in the Seychelles in 1981.
Duffy’s commander was “Mad” Mike Hoare, a notorious mercenary of many years. Hoare and Duffy led a group of fighters made up of former Rhodesian soldiers and former South African special forces. Armed to the teeth, the men flew to the Seychelles aboard a commercial flight. Unfortunately for Duffy and his comrades, an airport official noticed an AK-47 in a man’s luggage. A shootout ensued, and Duffy and others managed to escape by hijacking an Air India plane, leaving behind a dead comrade. Several of the conspirators were tried the following year in South Africa. Duffy received five years, Hoare 10. Duffy died a broken man in 1981.
3 George Sinclair
In 1612, Captain George Sinclair set sail from Scotland with a troop of Scottish mercenaries he had recruited at Caithness in the Scottish Highlands. They were to join the cause of King Charles IX of Sweden, who was fighting against his neighbor Christian IV of Denmark. Sinclair and about 300 men landed in Norway with the intention of marching on Sweden.
The Scots had not foreseen the possibility that the Norwegians would not welcome a mercenary force passing through their country. It just so happened that the Norwegians were not happy at all. Seven days after Sinclair and his men reached Norwegian soil, a local force launched a deadly ambush. As the Scots entered a narrow valley, the Norwegians rolled rocks down the slopes to block their escape routes. Once the rocks were released, the musketeers took out the mercenaries, killing more than 150. Sinclair was shot dead by a man named Berdon Sejelstad. The Scotsman’s wife and child, who had recklessly accompanied the ill-fated expedition, were also killed, though not before the woman stabbed one of the Norwegians to death.
The Redshanks were mercenaries recruited mostly from the Hebridean islands off the northwest coast of Scotland, though Highlanders from the mainland also joined. In the 16th century, they went to fight for the Irish as they opposed the English invaders of the Emerald Isle. Life in the Scottish Highlands and islands could be hard, and men were glad to earn the money paid to those who fought for the Irish lords.
In one case, a regiment of Highland fighters arrived as a kind of wedding gift. That was in 1569 when Scottish lady Agnes Campbell, daughter of the Earl of Argyll, married the Irish nobleman and chief Turlough Luineach O’Neill. She brought 1,200 Scottish mercenaries to the marriage. Unsurprisingly, the English were not very happy with the continued influx of Highland warriors pouring into Ireland. From the end of the 16th century, the English authorities began to bribe the heads of the Highland clans. The payments—bribes might be the right word—were made on the condition that the bosses kept their men at home.
1 Alexander Leslie of Auchintoul
Alexander Leslie de Auchintoul was born into a landed Scottish family in 1590; Auchintoul is located in the north-east of Scotland. Leslie began fighting for the Poles in 1618 when he was captured by the Russians. He was freed and, in 1629, the Swedes hired him. The Swedish king, Gustav II Adolf, sent him to Moscow, and Leslie stayed there in the service of the tsar.
The Smolensk War, a conflict between Poland and Russia, broke out in 1632, and Leslie brought in regiments of mercenaries from European countries, including England and Scotland, to fight for the Tsar. Returning to Scotland in 1637, Leslie found himself drawn into the Civil War of the time, on the wrong side. Captured in battle on the Scottish borders, he narrowly escaped execution, the fate of many of his comrades. However, he was banished and never allowed to return to Scotland. Leslie returned to Russia, where he achieved the rank of general, the first Scotsman to do so. His achievements included seizing Smolensk from Polish control in 1654.
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