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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

James Miller

Swords for Hire: The Scottish Mercenary

(Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2007).  xvi + 292 pp. £20/$34.95. ISBN 1 84158 446 0.

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In a moment of crisis, Shakespeare’s King Claudius of Denmark calls for his “Switzers”.  His contemporary Scandinavian equivalents might well have called for their Scots.  Mercenary soldiers were perhaps Scotland’s largest export in early modern times and military service overseas affected Scottish society deeply, particularly in the first half of the 17th century when up to a fifth of adult males may have been engaged on foreign fields.

James Miller’s book sets out to memorialise this period of Scottish and European history.   This is not an academic study (though Miller is generous in his acknowledgement of the work of others in this field).   Miller is at his most comfortable when he has a clear narrative thread to follow, particularly when this is laid down by talented contemporary writers like Robert Monro in respect of his service in the German wars of the 1620's and 30's or Patrick Gordon, whose remarkable career embraced service in Poland and Russia from the 1650's to the 90's.   The core of the book relates to the first half of the 17th century.   Indeed it is arguable that a study specifically focussed on the years 1600-50 would have worked rather better than what we have here.  The book  goes “upstream” into the 14th century and “downstream” to the 18th century in a series of rather scrappy and disjointed chapters (there is, for instance, a great deal more that could be said about the Scottish presence in 15th and 16th  century French armies) which add relatively little to the story when a great deal more could potentially be said about Scottish service in the Thirty Years War than Miller has space to develop.  What we have is very much pitched at the level of generals and colonels and the experience of ordinary soldiers gets relatively short shrift- though the story of James Nauchtie of Aberdeen refusing to marry Mariorie Henderson in 1621 even though the banns had been called “because he hes conducit him selff to gang to Bohemia to play the sogeor” (15) has a timeless air about it.

There are also some notable omissions.   The whole Gaelic speaking world of military service linking the Hebrides and the Western Highlands with Ireland is ignored.   So, too, is the substantial role of Scots with European experience in the armies on both sides of the Civil War in England-the English Parliament had numerous Scots in its forces well before the Scottish Covenanting Government entered the war on its side.

It should also be said that Miller is not an early modernist (his previous publications have been on 20th century warfare) and the book contains an alarming number of basic errors of fact.   To take a few examples, Emperor Charles V could hardly have been the source of a statement dated to 1573 (10), the False Dmitri claimed to be the son of Ivan IV, not his grandson (77), it is at best confusing to talk of “Hussites” as a “fourth denomination” in Bohemia around 1600 (98) and Catherine the Great would probably have been mortally offended at being described as “Prussian” (256).  In addition he has been poorly served by his editor, with repetitions and inconsistent name forms creeping into the text (e.g. Tsar Mikhail Romanov also appears as “Michael”).   In this context I would add that the review copy had pages out of sequence.

Careful reading of Miller’s text does throw up some important points.   The sheer number of Scottish Privy Council warrants allowing recruitment into various overseas services during the 1620's and 30's is striking (indeed the amount of recruitment authorised in Scotland in those years was so substantial that it began to provoke resistance).   It is hard to imagine that many more men would have been levied had Charles I sought to field an army in Germany under his own banner; Scotland (and England?) were hardly the passive bystanders in the German wars that they have sometimes been portrayed as.  Warrants for recruitment into foreign service were being issued even as the Scottish army prepared to intervene in England under the Solemn League and Covenant.   This intensive recruitment is all the more noteworthy given that Scotland had virtually no domestic arms industry and a minimal military establishment; the men shipped across the North Sea to fight for Christian IV of Denmark or Gustav Adolf of Sweden were mostly raw recruits who had to be armed and trained up to the ways of modern warfare on arrival.  It is also intriguing to find Monro noting that Scottish and English units brigaded well together and would back each other up in confrontations with troops of other national origins (139)- an early sign of a “British” identity developing on foreign fields?

Miller makes some interesting points about the complex interleaving of national and confessional allegiances which might make a Scottish Catholic in Imperial service reluctant to serve against his king’s brother-in-law or see Protestants fighting for the France of Cardinal Richelieu.   He also notes the ways in which Scottish mercenary service was remembered, sometimes in improbable places (for instance the slaughter of a troop of largely unarmed recruits for the Swedish service by Norwegian peasants in 1612 became part of the mythology of resurgent Norwegian nationalism in the late 19th century).   If read with suitable caution, his book serves as a serviceable overview of the activities of Scottish mercenaries in 17th century Europe; however, it only scratches the surface of the issues which arise from the activities of these men.

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Brian Ditcham

Independent Scholar <>

Page Added: March 2008