The Fife Fencible Infantry

Beginnings

The Fencible Regiments were regular army regiments but raised for home defence only, hence the title. The Fife Regiment began raising in late 1794 under Colonel James Durham. One of the first recruiting sergeants was the celebrated Jewish Boxer Daniel Mendoza, champion of the London Prize Ring. On the 16th April 1795 the regiment of 720 was inspected at Cupar and only twenty men rejected, another 200 men were inspected and passed at Wolverhampton and with other recruiting parties the total number was reported at 1000 rank and file. A young Ensign and surgeon's mate at the time was Robert Brown, the later famous botanist. By October the Fife Regiment was on their way to Ireland where they would be involved in some of the momentous events of the next few years.

The Brothers Durham

Certain names reappear in the history of the Fifeshire regiments, three brothers named Durham from Largo feature prominently. The eldest, James, served in the army for over seventy years, first joining the 2nd Dragoon Guards in 1769 aged 15, he raised the Fifeshire Fencible Infantry and eventually rose to General in 1830. The second brother, Thomas, spent some time in the Honourable East India Company's service. He joined his elder brother as Lt. Colonel, 2nd in command of the Fencibles. Later he held the same rank in the Fifeshire Militia and commanded a regiment of Fifeshire Volunteers. The third brother, Philip, joined the Royal Navy in 1777, he survived the sinking of the Royal George off Spithead in 1782. By 1793 he was a full captain and as one of Nelson's Band of Brothers commanded HMS Defiance at Trafalgar in 1805. He was steadily promoted up the Navy Ranks and through Rear and Vice Admiral, as well as being MP for Queensborough and Admiral of the Blue in 1830 he also held a captaincy in the Fife Yeomanry from 1830 till 1838. By the time he died in 1841 he was Admiral of the Red (the highest attainable rank in the Navy at the time.)

The Nickname

The small stature of many of the Fife men led them to be nicknamed "Garvie" after the small herrings fished near Inch Garvie in the Firth of Forth. One day at encampment at Lisburn racecourse a disturbance was heard in the line. The general in command rushed from his tent and demanded to know what was happening. The Irish sentinel on guard cheerfully replied "Only foive of the Fifeshire drowned in a camp-kettle".

Ireland

Ireland in the mid 1790's was at boiling point. Irish Patriots at home and abroad with the encouragement and support of the revolutionary French Government were planning an uprising to gain independence from British Rule. The British Government was alert to the trouble and this was one of the main reasons the troop numbers in Ireland were so increased. The Society of United Irishmen was formed in 1791 with a view to counter British influence in Ireland by having a radical reform of the Irish Parliament with representatives of Irishmen from every religious persuasion. When the French declared war with Britain in 1793 the movement became more revolutionary and was outlawed by the British Government. Forced underground the movement stockpiled arms for an uprising and called on the assistance of the French. The Society was divided between those who wished to wait for the French and those who wanted to press ahead but after a preemptive rebellion in Leitrim was crushed in 1793 the society decided to wait and plan. The United Irishmen made a concerted effort to recruit soldiers and sailors into their society. In April 1796 two soldiers, Hugh Wheatly and John Lindsay, returning to the regiment from furlough met with a group of United Irishmen and were given the oath in the house of a wealthy Antrim farmer, William Orr. Subsequently this was reported and William Orr was arrested for high treason, charged with administering unlawful oaths and committed to gaol under a warrant dated 17th of September 1796. A French invasion force of 15,000 men sailed for Bantry Bay in December 1796 but poor weather foiled the landing attempt. The British responded to the attempted landing by imposing Martial Law from March 1797 and increasing arrests and weapon searches.

1797 - the Carrickfergus Plot

Wheatly and Lindsay may not have been converted to the United Irish cause, but others in the regiment certainly were. A rising of the United Irishmen was planned in April 1797 and a plan was formed to seize the castle of Carrickfergus using troops stationed there. The plot was uncovered and several conspirators captured. Seven soldiers from the Royal Irish Artillery were tried and transported. Two NCOs from the Fifeshire Fencibles, Reid & Dean, managed to evade capture by deserting.

The Orr trial

In September 1797 the trial of William Orr was finally held. He pled innocent as another member of the society who escaped to America, William Mckeever, had actually administered the oath to Wheatly. The government wanted to make an example to deter others from joining the society and trying to sway troops from their allegiance to the King, Orr was found guilty. He was sentenced to death and was taken to the gallows on Saturday 14th October still proclaiming his innocence. It was widely seen as "judicial murder", "Remember Orr" was used as a rallying cry for the United Irishmen from then on. During the harsh winter weather of 1797/98 the troops continued to search the countryside for rebels and their arms. Captain Lyster died of cold and fatigue after looking for concealed arms in three feet of snow on the Giant's Causeway. By Spring 1798 the United Irishmen were under pressure from the continual campaign of arrests and disarmament. In March several high ranking members of the society were arrested and it was decided to set the date for an uprising for the 23rd May without waiting any longer for French Aid. Because several high ranking members of the United Irishmen had already been arrested the movement was hampered with little coordination between the risings in the North and South. The Fifeshire Fencibles were stationed in the North and with other troops under Major-General Nugent, faced the United Irishmen at the battle of Ballynahinch on 12-13th June. It was a decisive victory for the Government forces and the village of Ballynahinch was sacked by the troops, Cavalry scoured the countryside for fleeing rebels and many were given up by informers. Henry Munro, leader of the Irish rebels at the battle was given up by a farmer he had paid to hide him and he was hung outside his house in Lisburn 3 days later. Although the uprising was eventually quashed throughout Ireland, sporadic acts of violence still erupted throughout the country.

In December 1798 James Graham alias Thomas McFadan, a new recruit, was charged with uttering seditious words, he was thought to be a deserter from either another regiment or the Navy as he bore marks of previous floggings. In February 1801, a party of the Fifeshire and South Cork regiments apprehended a twenty five strong gang of notorious robbers and murderers in the bog near Newbridge. Some of the gang were implicated in murders of two Highlanders, a Dragoon and a servant in that neighbourhood in 1798. Six were suspected of attacking a recent mail coach, near the Curragh. Following the peace treaty with France the government were unsure what to do with the Fencible Regiments but decided that it would be better to have all the army able to serve overseas. In April 1803 the Fife Fencible Infantry disbanded at Kilkenny, 150 volunteered into regiments of the line. Some soldiers complained that they were not marched back to Scotland to disembody.