​​​​​The Volunteer Movement

Between 1793 and 1815 Britain was at war with France. The proximity of the two countries made invasion attempts a distinct possibility, and in 1797 the French actually managed to land a small and ultimately unsuccessful force in Fishguard Bay, Pembrokeshire. At a time when regular troops were urgently needed abroad, the government turned to two sources to defend Britain's coasts against future encroachments by the French. One source of manpower was the Militia, which was conscripted in each county by ballot and served compulsorily for five years. The Militia had been embodied in December 1792 at the outset of the war with France. The other source of manpower was the Volunteer Movement, which did not rely on conscription, focused on the local recruitment area, and guaranteed exemption from the Army and the Militia (which increased its popularity). The Volunteer Movement began in 1794, sponsored by the government, but did not reach its peak until 1803-5 when Napoleon made ostentatious invasion preparations at Boulogne. By 1804, 400,000 men had joined Volunteer regiments around the country to fend off any French attack.


Burns's high regard as a conscientious soldier as can be seen in the great ceremony with which his funeral was conducted. It involved other military units besides his own Dumfries Volunteers and is described in detail by several sources. Alan Bold says "it is conducted in military manner by the Dumfries Volunteers, the Cinque Port Cavalry and the Angusshire Fencibles on Monday, 25 July, when he is buried in the northeast comer of St. Michael's churchyard, a quarter mile from his home." Hugh Douglas states, "The splendid cortege made its way from the Town hall to St. Michael's kirkyard, the unpaid volunteer uniform hat and sword crowning the coffin." James MacKay describes the Dumfries Volunteers as the pall bearers, wearing black crapes on their left arms while the Cinque Port Cavalry band played the Dead March from Saul by Handel. The Angusshire Fencibles closed the procession with a guard that fired three volleys over the grave. (Some doubt about this more likely it was Angus Fecible Men.)


"The soldier reflects the character and values of the society from which he is drawn as much as, if not more than, his fellow citizens."  Robert Burns was a private in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers during the last year and a half of his life. He may not have known that when he joined, he became a comrade in a proud tradition that spanned several centuries and is known throughout the world: the Scottish warrior of great feats and great mystique. The record of his service, though brief, reveals much about his character which some of his biographers seem to have missed. Scottish regiments in the British forces can be said to date (ironically) from the 1745 rebellion. According to John Laffin, "Astute English politicians realized that the Highlanders were brave men who would be used in Bntain's far-flung wars." And, "For the government, the great advantage of the Highlanders was that they were expendable. If they were killed abroad, then they could not take part in another Jacobite rebellion in Scotland."2 From the Jacobite time until today, Scots both Highland and Lowland have been avidly recruited into regiments which served Britain so well that quotes about their prowess like "the thin red line" and "forward the tartan" built a reputation which has become a mystique. So much so, that today a phrase "the tartan curtain" refers to the exclusivity of Scottish regiments. So where does Robert Burns fit into this military tradition? He enters it a scant few decades after the Jacobite rebellion during a busy time of regiment building due to invasion threat from France. This threat precipitated a wide-spread home guard movement which saw volunteer units sprout up in the 1790's and disband in the first decade of the 19th century when fear of invasion receded. One such unit, the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, was born in 1795 and disbanded in 1802. To be exact, the Dumfries Volunteers began on January 31, 1795 when the inaugural meeting was held in the Dumfries Court House and attended by Robert Burns. At a meeting held February 20th Colonel de Peyster was elected Major Commandant of the Corps by the members. Mrs. De Peyster then provided the corps with a flag and Colonel de Peyster commissioned 100 muskets ("Brown Bess") from Birmingham on February 29th. Dr. John Harley was made surgeon to the corps and Rev. Dr. W. Burnside chaplain. John Hamilton was made captain (elected by 75 members, among them Robert Burns), David Newall made lieutenant to the first company and Wellwood Maxwell lieutenant to the second (Burns' company) on March 21st. Each company was limited to 50 men including officers and NCOs. Members agreed to serve without pay during the war with France and to have an area of operations not more than 5 miles outside of Dumfries. Burns was among 59 members taking the Oath of Allegiance and signing the Rules, Regulations and Bye-Laws on March 28th. The governing body of the corps was a committee consisting of all officers and eight members. The members served a three month term on the committee. Burns served on this committee for a term starting on August 22, 1795. The volunteers' uniform seems elaborate from the following description but was similar to those of other volunteer units of the time: "a blue coat half lapelled with red cape (a style of collar) and cuffs, and gilt buttons with the letters R.D.V. engraved on them; a plain white Cassimere vest, with small gilt buttons; white trousers made of Russia tweedling, tied at the ankle; white stockings; a black velvet stock; hair to be worn short, or turned up behind: a round hat turned up on the left side with a gilt button; a cockade, and a black feather (plume); their shoes to be tied with black ribbon." This was their dress uniform to be worn on public occasions, the undress uniform of short blue jacket with red shoulder straps, cape, and cuff was worn on ordinary occasions as the working uniform.Such was the organization of the volunteers and Burns involvement with them when in April 1795 Burns song Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat (also called "The Dumfries Volunteers"), appeared in the Dumfries Weekly Journal. Its popularity has out lived the life span of the Dumfries Volunteers, lines from it having been used on post cards depicting soldiers of various time periods.This song speaks of his commitment to the corps' purpose and is not just hypocrisy as some of his biographers suggest. The sentiments of the song are backed up by Burns's record of activities as a Dumfries Volunteer. William Will says that "Never was man more unfortunate in his biographers."7 Burns's early biographers tended to characterize him as dissipate and unsteady in his habits. His hard work at farming and at the excise disprove this characterization. But his conduct with the Dumfries Volunteers particularly stands out in disproving this. John Baynes states in his book on Scottish soldiers: "Burns was a much more complicated personality than his popular image of a heavy-drinking, womanizing peasant, occasionally throwing out a poem attacking the pretensions of the rich."8 The real proof of Burns character resides in a source rediscovered 100 years after Burns' death, the minute book of the Royal Dumfries Volunteers. Of the minute book, Wills says: "The Volunteers set up a standard of discipline in some ways even more rigid than that of the Church, and yet Burns stands the test and comes off with flying colours." He attended the meetings, the drill sessions, served on the committee and never once was fined for absenteeism or drunkenness or insolence as many members, both officers and privates, were. Drills were held for two hours twice a week and committee service involved supplying the corps with arms and other material. Certainly this amount of work on top of his excise duties and 'writing the occasional song'..... (A Man's a Man for a' That, Last May a Braw Wooer', This is no My Ain Lassie, The Heron Ballads', Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat) is not dissipation or hypocrisy unless we redefine these terms! Burns took seriously the rule to serve without pay and to provide his own clothing. Though often short of funds himself, he objected to the decision at the May 18, 1795 meeting on the appointment of several members of the volunteers to solicit contributions to the corps. He signed a letter with twenty-four other members which protested solicitation as a form of begging: "We cannot help expressing our disapproval of the mendicant business of asking a public contribution for defraying the expenses of our Association". And continued with: "That the Royal Dumfries Volunteers should go a-begging with the burnt-out cottager and shipwrecked sailor is a measure of which we must disapprove." This prompted the committee to decide not to accept donations under a guinea and retum any already collected under that amount. Burns' attitude here is another demonstration of his real concern for the oppressed. "All his life he had been championing the cause of the distressed or the oppressed, whether the oppressors be the Church or the State" William Wills says of Burns. Hence his interest in both the American and French Revolutions. He acted upon his beliefs when he sent the guns he captured from the smuggling brig to Dover for shipment to the French Legislative Assembly. "Before those troublesome cannons reached Dover, the whole political situation had altered. England, that had, so far, regarded France with a kind of amused tolerance, was set by the ears by France's Declaration of War on Engiand's ally, Germany, and occupation of the Rhine Delta."This had unfortunate consequences for Burns as "All who were known ever to have expressed sympathy with the Revolutionaries were immediately suspect." Burns became worried that his employment as exciseman was threatened and he did what he had to do to prove his loyalty and keep his post. Here Burns's attitude seemingly changed, but in reality did not as we are seeing two separate things: his empathy with the oppressed versus threat of foreign occupation of the very ground he lived on. France as a cause for the oppressed became France the foreign power threatening invasion, perhaps to march its soldiers up the very street in which Burns's family lived. Remember, the volunteers were only to operate in a radius of 5 miles around Dumfries, so their purpose was to defend home ground, not to defend a political or moral view. "He (Burns) hated war. He saw it as senseless. Were his country invaded he would fight. But for no other reason."14 As for gaining justice for the oppressed, a piece from the song Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat says it best:

"No! never but by British hands
Shall British wrangs be righted."

A sad incident at the close of Burns' life involving the Dumfries Volunteers shows his character as responsible and not dissipate. About the bill for his uniform, Hugh Douglas said that, "He did not in fact owe serious amounts to anybody -- it was only in his own mind that the debtor's prison loomed". Burns knew he was dying and wanted to set things right for his own peace of mind and the secunty of his family. "When he received a letter to say that the bill from a local outfitter for his volunteer uniform was overdue he panicked and wrote off at once to his cousin, James Burness in Montrose to ask for 10 pounds. He wrote also to George Thomson who sent him five pounds on July 14. In the light of his earlier disapproval of accepting donations for the corps' uniforms and his steadiness in meeting attendance and drill, it is a shame that this small debt had to cloud his last days. Burns's high regard as a conscientious soldier can be seen in the great ceremony with which his funeral was conducted. It involved other military units besides his own Dumfries Volunteers and is described in detail by several sources. Alan Bold says "it is conducted in military manner by the Dumfries Volunteers, the Cinque Port Cavalry and the Angusshire Fencibles on Monday, 25 July, when he is buried in the northeast comer of St. Michael's churchyard, a quarter mile from his home." Hugh Douglas states, "The splendid cortege made its way from the Town hall to St. Michael's kirkyard, the unpaid volunteer unifom hat and sword crowning the coffin."James MacKay describes the Dumfries Volunteers as the pall bearers, wearing black crapes on their lett arms while the Cinque Port Cavalry band played the Dead March from Saul by Handel. The Angusshire Fencibles closed the procession with a guard that fired three volleys over the grave.  So ended in deserved splendor a life which often was not recognized for its true worth while he lived, and sadly by many people for a long time after. Were it not for Burns's service in the Dumfries Volunteers and the record of it in the minute book, part of the vindication of his lifestyle would not have occurred. This record shows Burns worthy to be numbered among the Scottish soldiers who came before and after him and on whose deeds was build the Scottish military mystique.


The Cinque Ports consist of Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich, along with the two Ancient Towns of Winchelsea and Rye. Additionally Deal, Faversham, Folkestone, Lydd, Margate, Ramsgate and Tenterden make up the Cinque Ports Confederation. The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, head of the Confederation, resides at Walmer Castle. Nationally the Cinque Ports enjoyed particular commercial liberties and privileges, and were the first line of defence against invasion from Europe. They were fortified accordingly with castles such as those at Dover, Deal, Walmer and Sandown. The Cinque Ports were also expected to harbour and man the ships that provided the country's primary defence. In later years the Cinque Ports lost the Traditeir commercial importance but retained their important role in Britain's defence, as the Kent and Sussex coast is at times as little as twenty miles away from French soil. 

The Cinque Ports Volunteers, 1794-1802

The Cinque Ports were not slow in responding to the new threat. In June 1794 the Cinque Ports raised several regiments of Volunteers, Yeomanry (Cavalry) and Fencibles (short for "Defencibles" and comprising both cavalry and infantry). These were the Cinque Ports Fencible Cavalry and the New Romney Fencible Cavalry. The Cinque Ports Fencible Cavalry was commanded by the Hon. Robert Bankes-Jenkinson (later Lord Hawkesbury and, as the Second Earl of Liverpool, Prime Minister 1812-27). By October 1795 the Cavalry consisted of six troops of eighty men, including Non-Commissioned Officers. Among the leading officers of the Volunteers, Yeomanry and Fencibles were prominent members of Rye's most important family, the Lambs: Thomas Davis Lamb headed the Rye troop of Fencible Cavalry, James Lamb captained the Volunteer Infantry Company of Rye, and Thomas Philip Lamb captained Rye's short-lived Gentlemen and Yeomanry corps. Other Volunteer units were to be found in Hastings, Hythe, Romney, Seaford, Sandwich, Folkestone, Margate, Tenterden, Deal and Walmer. Hastings, Lydd and Thanet also had troops of Gentlemen and Yeomanry. Artillery units were also formed at Deal and Sandown. ,As in other areas of the country, however, the Volunteers and Yeomanry found it difficult to recruit adequate numbers. The full strength of a company was meant to be three officers, six sergeants, six corporals, four drummers and a hundred and twenty privates, but this quota was not reached. Nor were the Volunteers adequately armed. The Fencibles were more successful, and were even sent to Dumfries, Scotland in 1796, where the regiment assisted in the funeral of the poet Robert Burns. The New Romney Fencible Cavalry also served in rebellious Ireland from 1797 to 1800. However neither the Fencibles nor the Volunteers were used for any purpose other than quelling civil unrest, which was rife in the harsh wartime conditions of the 1790s. In 1798 the Fencible Cavalry served at Deal, Dover, Ramsgate and Margate in response to the threat of invasion following rebellion in Ireland, but otherwise most units were dispersed across the country on peace-keeping duty. The Volunteers were also used to guard against smuggling along the coast. The Volunteer Uniform in the 1790s consisted of a blue coat with red facings, brass buttons bearing the Cinque Ports crest, a white shirt, waistcoat and breeches, and a bicorne hat (after 1799 a shako). Officers also wore gold epaulettes and lace and had larger gold buttons.


20TH October 1794 order to Lord Archibald Douglas to raise a regiment of Fencible Men. Lord Archiebald Douglas  was commanding officer to Colonel Charles Hunter, 8th Laird of Burnside who helped set up the Angus Regiment of Fencibles in 1794. Charles Hunter, 8th Laird of Burnside, was instrumental in setting up the Angus Regiment of Fecibles. His son David 9th Laird of Burnside went on to fight with the Militia in Ireland and became a General. “Had a good many Highlanders from the Highland Borders. Lord Archiebald Douglas’s name as commanding officer, appears on a list of officers who landed at Dunakadee on 16th and 17th June 1795. He was listed as Colonel in September 1795. The second in command was  Lieutenant Colonel David Hunter, a Captain William Douglas is also listed.

The uniform had yellow facings

The Angusshire Fencibles were disbanded in Perth on 19th July 1802

In 1795, Archibald James Edward Douglas [formerly Stewart], first Baron
Douglas (1748-1827) raised the Angusshire Regiment of Fencible Infantry, who
served in Ireland and Dumfries, as well as being involved with founding the
Angus Volunteers Company of Fencible Men earlier in the same year. It was
the latter Company that were on duty at the funeral of Robert Burns in 1796
(although some references have inaccurately attributed this to the former