The Mighty Highlanders

A Lesson for Modern Times

The plow of the farmer, tilling the soil at the old battlefield of Assaye in India, hits something solid. The farmer examines the bone his plow has turned up. It is a human thighbone, much larger, stronger and thicker than usual. The farmer knows he has found the remains of a Highlander.

Once, the Highlands of Scotland were inhabited by a group of people noted for their incredible strength, size, health, endurance, vitality, and prowess in battle. Armed only with swords and small shields, they consistently defeated much larger armies of professional soldiers armed with guns and cannon. Finally defeated by overwhelming numbers and superior technology, they were recruited by their conquerors and won victories for them all over the world. While most of the men were away fighting for the British Empire, their families were eventually driven off their land and out of their country to accommodate the demands of industrial agriculture. These people were known as Highlanders.


What was the secret of the Highlanders’ prowess? Why were they larger, stronger, faster, and able to defeat much larger groups of enemies in hand-to-hand combat? What gave them their incredible endurance that enabled them to march sixty miles over steep roadless hills and fight a battle—all in one day? Why did they recover from horrible wounds that would have been fatal to most other men?

It could not have just been their hard physical work, because all the peasants of Europe and India did hard physical work. The difference was in their diet. While most of the people of Europe ate a grainbased diet, the Highlanders ate mostly animal foods, just as their ancestors did.

The Highlands of Scotland is a high land, full of hills, mountains, streams and valleys. The soil is not very good for agriculture, but provides great grazing lands.

The Highlanders’ diet was based first on the raw milk of their herds. They kept large herds of small, agile cattle, of tiny sheep, and of goats. All of these animals produced milk, which was drunk either fresh or fermented, added to porridges raw, and made into raw cheese and raw butter. The cheese and butter were used at all times, but especially in the harsh, cold winters.

The Highland diet varied with the seasons. During the spring and summer, wild game of all kinds, including the native red deer, were hunted and eaten. Fresh fish was a vital part of the diet during these seasons, as the many rivers and streams were rich with salmon and many other kinds of wild fish.

Beef was not eaten during good weather, which led some travelers to conclude mistakenly that the Highlanders did not eat beef. But during the fall, many cattle, sheep and goats were killed, and their meat salted to provide meat during the cold part of the fall and during the long winter.

Every part of the animal was used for food, including all the internal organs. The famous Scottish dish known as haggis, made from innards and oatmeal cooked in the stomach of a sheep, originated in the Highlands.

Few vegetables were available (though onions and turnips could be found in season, along with some wild vegetables, such as nettles). The main fruit available was wild berries, in season. The only grains that could be grown in the Highlands were barley and oats, which were made into breads, porridges and cakes. Sugar was largely unavailable, though some honey could be found. Grains were usually eaten with raw milk, raw butter or raw cheese, or all of them. Oats were cooked and dried and carried in a pouch in wartime as a survival food.

It should be understood that the Highland cattle were not bred for giving huge amounts of milk, like modern dairy cattle. The amount of milk they produced was dependent on the quality of the plants they grazed on. In a bad year, when a particularly cold winter had damaged the native forage, they produced less milk. At these times, the Highlanders would take some blood from their cattle, and use it for food, often in the form of blood puddings.

This diet produced a group of people who were much stronger, larger and healthier than most other Europeans. Their incredible vitality even extended into old age. One Highlander in England enlisted in a Highland regiment at the age of seventy and fought in the French and Indian War, becoming famous for his prowess with the broadsword, when he led small parties of men into the thick brush to hunt down enemy sharpshooters.


Thousands of pages have been written about the amazing prowess of the Highlanders in battle. Their wonderful diet gave them incredible strength, endurance and agility, which enabled them to accomplish astonishing feats in battle. Two significant examples stand out in the annals of history.

During the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, a small Highland army under James Graham, Marquess of Montrose, won many astonishing victories over much larger and better equipped enemy forces. In one battle, Montrose decided the best way to deal with the enemy cavalry was to lure them into a bog, where their horses would sink into the soft ground. But no cavalry would knowingly ride into a bog. Montrose stationed a group of Highlanders in a bog, where the ground was so soft that a man who stood still would sink deeply into the muck. The only way to avoid sinking was to shift one’s feet constantly, pulling them out of the strong grip of the muck and planting them on another part of the bog, then repeating the process endlessly. Most people would have been exhausted after a few minutes of this “bog dance.” The Highlanders kept this up for well over an hour, long enough for the enemy to deploy their army, long enough to convince the enemy cavalry that the ground was solid, long enough for the enemy cavalry to charge. The enemy cavalry charged right into the bog and got stuck there, the horses sinking in to their bellies. At this point, the Highlanders cut down the helpless cavalry, winning the battle. It is remarkable that they had the energy to swing their swords in grueling hand-to-hand combat after struggling with the clammy muck of the bog for over an hour.

A second example is the battle of Assaye in India in 1803, when two Highland regiments, the 78th and the 74th, played a crucial role in a battle where the British were heavily outnumbered by a well-armed, well-trained enemy. The British army had only six thousand men, including a thousand Highlanders in the two regiments. The Maratha confederation had sixty thousand men and hundreds of modern cannon, while the British had only a handful of guns. At least ten thousand of the Maratha infantry were trained and equipped to the most modern European standards and had many European officers. These men were veterans who had won many battles.

The battle began with an exchange of artillery fire. The British commander, Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon) ordered his army to attack before the greatly superior enemy guns could destroy them.

The five hundred men of the 78th Highlanders led the attack. They marched in a thin straight line, directly at the enemy artillery. Cannonballs ripped off limbs and cut Highlanders in half. They marched forward. Thousands of musketballs, known as grapeshot, were fired from the cannons at close range, shredding many Highlanders. They marched on. The ten-thousand veteran, European-trained infantry stationed just behind the artillery watched in disbelief as the 78th kept coming, despite heavy losses, marching right into the deadly fire of the cannons.

At fifty yards, the 78th raised their muskets, and fired a single deadly volley right into the artillerymen, killing many and disorganizing the rest. The Highlanders charged with the bayonet and overwhelmed the gunners, despite being heavily outnumbered. Several Indian regiments in British service came up to join the attack and all the guns were taken. The surviving Highlanders then marched beyond the guns, formed another line, and prepared to attack the ten-thousand veteran infantry facing them. As they marched forward, the ten thousand broke and fled, wanting no part of the giants who had done the impossible and captured the guns. The 78th and the Indian regiments pursued. A number of the Maratha gunners had pretended to be dead. They started firing their guns into the rear of the Highlanders. The 78th turned around, and once again marched through the hell of cannonballs and grapeshot, charging the gunners with the bayonet. This time, they made sure the gunners were dead.

In the meantime, the 74th Highlanders had been ordered to attack another part of the Maratha army. They suffered even greater losses from deadly artillery fire. So many of them were down that the few survivors were charged by thousands of Maratha cavalry. They formed a square and fought on. Though only a few of them were left, they beat off constant attacks in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Finally, some British cavalry charged the Marathas from behind, causing them to flee. Wellesley came up and ordered the 74th to meet him. Only forty men answered his order. Wellesley angrily asked where the rest of the five-hundred man regiment was. “They are all down, sir,” was the reply.


Though only forty men of the 74th Highlanders were able to stand after the battle of Assaye, hundreds of the wounded recovered fully and were able to fight in the battle of Argaum two months later. This ability to heal from battle wounds was typical for the Highland regiments.

Tens of thousands of Highlanders served in the British army during the period 1750–1870, and over eighty-six Highland regiments were formed. The medical services of the day were terrible and wounded men often died horrible deaths from infections. Amputation was the common treatment for most wounds.

The British army doctors recorded many seemingly miraculous recoveries by the Highland soldiers. Highlanders who were so badly wounded that they were left to die without treatment often recovered. These included men who had been shot in the abdomen, lungs, head, or back, often with the musket ball still lodged in their bodies, even a man who had his shoulder blade and several ribs ripped off by a cannonball. Time and time again, the Highlanders would recover from terrible wounds that were considered fatal by the doctors of the time. They would recover from these wounds with no medical treatment although their cases were considered hopeless. Many simply did not get the fatal infections that were so common to wounded men in the days before wounds were disinfected. All of these miraculous recoveries were accomplished by the natural functions of the Highlanders’ healthy, well-nourished bodies. Many of these men who were left for dead recovered so completely that they spent many more years in the military.

Despite their strong immune systems, many of the Highland soldiers died from the plague, typhus, yellow fever, and other diseases that plagued the armies of the time, especially when they were short of food. The Highlanders survived these diseases at a much better rate than other soldiers.


The Highland way of life and their healthy diet were destroyed by industrial interests. While most of the Highland men were off fighting for the British Empire, the way of life they cherished was being destroyed.

In the early eighteenth century, Britain had a huge textile industry and wool was in great demand. However, just about all the good grazing land in Britain was already used. The wealthy and powerful decided that they could get more wool if the Highlands were used for large herds of sheep only. But the Highlands were already well populated with the Highlanders, who were almost all small farmers and herders, with diverse herds of cattle, native sheep, and goats which already used the land.

This was not an obstacle for the large industrial wool industry, which developed a plan to drive the Highlanders off their land so it could be used for large herds of wool-bearing sheep.

The land in the Highlands was owned by the clans, and each clan chief was supposed to administer it for the benefit of his clan. The industrialists used their money and power to change the ownership laws. In 1746, the law was changed to give ownership of all the clan lands in the Highlands to the clan chiefs, who were tempted with great wealth if they cleared their lands of people and replaced them with sheep. Greed usually won out. This effective strategy also deprived the Highlanders of their leaders. The new landlords drove the Highlanders off their land, often paying for them to emigrate to the Americas, Australia, or New Zealand, which many of them did. Those who refused to go were met with brutal farm raids, where the police would kill their herds, burn their crops, and actually set their homes on fire to force them to move. Sometimes they were given so little time to pack their belongings and leave that they were burned alive in their homes. Many died from exposure and starvation as they tried to make their way to a source of food and shelter. This evil and brutal assault on innocent farm families was known as “the Clearances.”

Nearly all the fighting men were off serving the same British government that was driving their families off their land, and those who were left had no clan organization to help them resist, since industry had corrupted most of the clan chiefs.

The traditional Highland diet was also destroyed, along with the herds and small farms that provided so much of the food, and people who were driven off the land could no longer hunt or fish on it. The displaced Highlanders began eating the same diet as other Scots and Europeans, since the food they needed was no longer available. Without their healthy diet and way of life, the health of the former Highlanders became no better than that of other Europeans.

Objections were raised in Britain to the brutality of the Clearances, but nothing effective was done to stop them. The Clearances finally stopped because nearly all the Highlanders had been driven from the Highlands.

The Highland way of life, along with its healthy diet, had been destroyed. Large flocks of wool sheep, tended by a few Lowland shepherds, occupied the hills and valleys that had been inhabited by a strong, healthy people and their diverse herds.


Unfortunately the use of the government to drive small farmers off their land for the benefit of industry was not limited to the Highlands. Similar events have happened in the United States of America, and are happening now. The Nixon administration told farmers to “get big or get out,” and instituted policies that forced many small farmers to leave their farms.

The current government, under the excuse of “food safety,” has slaughtered herds of healthy animals, confiscated farm equipment, destroyed valuable farm products, and threatened and terrified many farmers and their families. Small farmers are being driven out of business. This has been documented by the magnificent movie, Farmageddon, which everybody should see.

Small sustainable farmers, producing real food products such as raw milk and raw cheese, are the main target at the moment. But the regulatory agencies are perfectly capable of turning on any farmer, at any time, even if no one has been harmed in any way by the farm or its products.

The one agricultural group they treat with kid gloves is the large industrial agriculture industry, the huge factory farms, and the CAFOs.

The Highland diet was destroyed when the needed foods were no longer available. The real food diet that has benefitted so many of us will also be destroyed if we can no longer get the necessary foods. We need to protect our small farmers. The use of government agencies to harass and destroy small sustainable farms must stop.

It is said that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. Let us do all we can to stop the U.S. version of “the Clearances,” before our small farmers are driven from their land.





The Highland bagpipes were a weapon of war. The pipes were played to call the clans to war, to inspire the men, to keep them marching when they were tired, and to get their blood up in battle. The wild, piercing, droning notes of the bagpipes would carry through the noise of any battle, and their inspiring effect on the Highland soldiers was recorded in hundreds of cases. Men who had marched dozens of miles up and down hills would pick up their feet at the sharp music of the pipes and march on. The irresistible Highland charge took place to the wild skirling sounds of the pipes, which would inspire the men to be even stronger, faster and fiercer. Particular tunes (called charging tunes) were played to inspire the men when they charged into battle. When Highland regiments were raised to fight for the British Empire, they brought their pipers with them. The British generals tried to get the Highlanders to replace the pipes with the standard military drums, but gave this up once they saw the effect the pipes had on the Highlanders. After many years, drums were added to the Highland regiments, but the pipes remained.

Playing the pipes took great strength, dexterity and endurance. The Highland bagpipes require the piper to do several things at once. The unique sound of the pipes is created in part by air leaving the bag. The pipes have no bellows, and the only way to refill the bag is for the piper to blow into it through a special tube. The piper holds the bag under the left arm, blows a melody into a flute-like tube called the chanter, squeezes air out of the bag with the left arm to create certain sounds, at certain times strikes the bag precisely with the right hand to create other sounds, uses the fingers of the right hand to help play the melody on the chanter, continually blows more air into the bag, and refills his own strong lungs so they have the breath to blow into the bag. All of these actions are done together or in quick succession, and need to be done perfectly. The piper also had to march in perfect step with the other soldiers when they were traveling.

The pipers were often called upon to play the pipes for hours on end. When the Highlanders were in battle, the pipers were expected to be right in the front of the battle, playing their inspiring music with great vigor. Once the charge began and the men were fighting hand-to-hand, the pipers were expected to play even more loudly and faster, as it was believed that the more furious the music of the pipes, the more they would inspire the fighting men. The piper would also have to avoid being shot or killed by the enemy, who would often target the pipers. Doing all of this all at once, in the madness of battle, took enormous strength, powerful lungs, and great endurance, another testimony to the incredible health and vitality of the Highlanders.



This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2012.

Tim Boyd was born and raised in Ohio, graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a degree in computer engineering, and worked in the defense industry in Northern Virginia for over 20 years. During that time, a slight case of arthritis led him to discover that nutrition makes a difference and nutrition became a serious hobby. After a pleasant and satisfying run in the electronics field, he decided he wanted to do something more important. He is now arthritis free and enjoying his dream job working for the Weston A. Price Foundation.

4 Responses to The Mighty Highlanders

  1. sam walsh says:

    I know living in these times would have been arduous, however I can not doubt a passion to consume what the Highlanders did, and to feel the strength and vitality we Western and Modern daygoers only get a sliver of. To use the bounty provided by Nature in those times I envy. Great read

  2. anciao do tempo says:

    beautiful!!!!!! long live the highlanders!

  3. Luke Rencher says:

    What a great article. Inspiring and sad all at once. We don’t have men in the world like those anymore. For those that care, we can change our diets to copy those of the Highlanders and find a robust strength to live a proud and daring life that these people once shared.

  4. xkandakex says:

    This article contradicts a previous WAPF piece on the traditional Highland diet:

    Oats were a MAJOR part of the Scot diet for thousands of years, as described in length at the article above. Ironic that Dr. Price himself also recommended whole oats as part of his nutrient rich diet therapy. Oats were incorporated into everything, eaten daily if not twice daily, stuffed into meats and fish of all sorts, simply mixed with water and baked into hardtack, stirred in with nettle or kale broth for soup.

    Indeed, it was not milk or butter or fish that were thought to be the secret to Scotland’s famous brawny men, but their oatmeal!

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