Highland Invasion

Mass Immigration. It fuelled Brexit and fear of it has not gone away.

But what if thousands of strangers arrived in your town - tonight?  What if the population jumped by almost half in just 48 hours?

It happened in Bedford a century ago.

They spoke differently, they dressed differently, they had different hygiene standards too.

The story of the Highlanders in Bedford in World War One has much to teach us today.

It’s about comradeship and generous community spirit, but also mistrust, anger and even death. 


In 1914 Bedford was a quiet, conservative town with a population of 40,000. At its height there were also 22,000 troops mainly from the Highlands. That’s the equivalent of an extra 48,000 people today.

How well did they integrate? How did Bedfordians respond? On the whole very well. But there were tensions and sadly some of the newcomers were felled, not German bullets by an enemy they could not defeat, disease.


Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914. Within twelve days the Scottish troop trains began arriving at Bedford.

Sixty-seven snaked into Bedford station and within forty-eight hours 17,000 men descended on the town - with 4,000 horses.

The rumour mill had already been at work. The Russians were coming.

A troop train had stopped up the line from Bedford. A woman serving refreshments asked the soldiers where they were from. "Rooshar" they said. They were from Ross-shire but their heavy accent was misunderstood.

English was the second language after Gaelic for many of the troops. Many were from poor parts of rural Scotland. They wore kilts and many of them were unused to urban ways.

Tired after an eighteen hour rail journey, they were met with mugs of hot cocoa.

Their quartermaster described them as mentally and physically of all sorts, sizes and shapes, some with a devil may care attitude, others with a rather dazed expression. 

Commanding Officers used the Bedfordshire Times to express their thanks for the reception, with a plea – in bold type – “to express the hope that the townsfolk will refrain from buying the men intoxicating liquor”.  

Why Bedford?

The Highlanders were part of the forces protecting Britain from attack by the Germans. Bedford was chosen because of its good communication links. Their role changed from defence to offence when it was clear that British troops across the Channel were facing a greatly superior enemy.

Most had left Bedford for France by May 1915.  

The impact that the young Highlanders had on Bedford - and Bedfordians had on them - will be explored in a series of articles.