“The Devils in Skirts still scare the bejesus out of the natives.” – Author Adrian Greenwood discusses Victoria’s Scottish Lion

“Beware the London establishment trying to bring you to heel with honours, flattery and peerages; that’s what they tried with Campbell.”

In May 1808 the son of a Glaswegian cabinet-maker was commissioned an ensign in the 9th Foot (without purchase). That August he saw his first action at the Battle of Vimeiro. The military career of Colin Campbell, later 1st Baron Clyde, would include The Peninsular War, The War of 1812, The First Opium War, The Second Anglo-Sikh War, and The Crimean War. His “Thin Red Line” won immortality at the Battle of Balaclava.

Campbell, in contradiction of many assumptions about class and the British Army in the 19th Century, ended his career as a Field Marshall. When he received an honorary degree from Oxford University, it was in the company of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Dr. David Livingstone. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. A statue of Campbell (by John Foley) stands in Glasgow’s George Square. A complex, mercurial man, loved by his troops and admired by Queen Victoria, he’s been called Britain’s first ‘working-class’ field marshal.

Adrian Greenwood, Campbell’s most recent biographer, read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Christ Church, Oxford before taking an MBA at Imperial College. After university he started buying British Rail lost property at auction and selling it at car boot sales around London. From there he moved on to antiques, and eventually specialised in antiquarian books. Having supplied items to a broad range of clients – including the British Library and the Getty Museum – Adrian retired to concentrate on his writing.

Victoria’s Scottish Lion: The Life of Colin Campbell, Lord Clyde (published by the History Press, July 28th). To find out more visit: www.adriangreenwoodbooks.co.uk

Why Campbell?

I first came across him 25 years ago when I was doing History ‘A’ Level – I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t more famous. Over the years I kept seeing his name in books on the Victorian army, by historians like Trevor Royle and Saul David, and he seemed by far the most brilliant general of his age, yet no one had looked at his career thoroughly for a century or more. Then, as I found out more about him, the idea of writing the story of this working class maverick, riling the Victorian establishment, became irresistible. As one reader said to me, ‘You wonder why you haven’t heard of this man before.’

What accounts for Campbell’s rise through the ranks?

Well, back in the Peninsular War it wasn’t quite as hard to get promotion as Sharpe would have you believe. Campbell got his first commission for free because there was such a demand for new officers. He was promoted lieutenant because the officers above him got shot or died of disease, then he was made captain for leading a ‘forlorn hope’ at San Sebastian – that’s when a young officer leads a detachment to storm a town’s defenses. In that assault he was hit twice by musket balls but won his captaincy.

In peacetime it was much harder to rise up the ranks but Campbell managed to borrow the money to become major and then lieutenant-colonel. After that, even in the 19th century, promotion was by seniority and merit – you couldn’t buy a rank higher than lieutenant-colonel, you had to wait until the old buffers further up died off. After a long pause stuck as a colonel, he raced through the general ranks during the Crimean War (1854-56) and the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858).

Was there a particular battle, or other event, which shaped Campbell more than any other?

Difficult to pin down one, but his very first battle, Vimeiro in 1808, had a big effect. Campbell described how a captain led him by the hand up to the front while the French shot and shell thundered overhead. He was only fifteen. After that he was fearless – Queen Victoria used to tick him off for rushing into action, sword in hand, in his sixties, when he was supposed to be supervising the battle.

His other formative experience, what made him a ‘soldiers general’ (one who always looked after the men) was seeing the losses on the terrible retreat to Corunna through the Galician mountains in 1809.

What did Disraeli mean when he said that Campbell had, “only one fault – a courage too reckless for his country”?

Purple prose on Dizzy’s part, to play up to the mob, I think. He definitely wasn’t referring to rashness in strategic terms – if anything Campbell was criticized for being too cautious. Either he was referring to Campbell’s personal courage, his tendency to rush in where the fighting was thickest, or his habit of speaking his mind and rubbing people up the wrong way.

Campbell served in a time when Scotland was largely imperialist and unionist. What lessons, if any, can modern Scots draw from such ancient history?

What a disproportionately large contribution Scots made to the British army, in terms of officers and men, and to world history. Second, beware the London establishment trying to bring you to heel with honours, flattery and peerages; that’s what they tried with Campbell. Third, the Devils in Skirts still scare the bejesus out of the natives.

What has been the reaction so far from other scholars of the period?

Very positive, although at the time of writing it’s not out yet, nor are the reviews. There has been a distinct air of expectancy from a lot of academics in this field.

What’s the single best fact you’ve learned from your research into Campbell’s life and times?

From a historical perspective, whole chunks of his career – like his time in the Caribbean – were previously unreported and unstudied, but if you want a single anecdote, it was Campbell’s reaction when the 1,200 civilians he was evacuating from Lucknow, in the face of 50,000 rebels, tried to take their furniture with them. A vicar’s wife strapped a harmonium to a camel to get it out of town. When one man tried to take a ‘large, circular drawing room table’, Campbell lost his temper and ordered it left by the roadside.

Why did Campbell change his name (he was born Colin Macliver)?

That’s still opaque. It wasn’t, as usually claimed, because when his uncle, Colonel Campbell, presented him at Horse Guards, the Commander-in-Chief (the Duke of York) assumed he had the same name and no-one dared correct him. Actually, Colin started using the name Campbell before that, when his uncle took over his education and sent him to school in Gosport in his early teens. One newspaper suggested Colin was really his uncle’s son, but that seems far-fetched – he would not only have been illegitimate but the result of an incestuous affair between a brother and sister.

His mother and uncle’s family, though poor, was descended from the Dukes of Argyll, so for them the Campbell name was extremely important. Maybe his uncle, in virtually adopting him, insisted he use the name. It’s still a puzzle.

As a book dealer you sold some ultra-rare J.K. Rowling 1st and special editions. Will these really hold their value as well as a signed 1st edition by P.G. Wodehouse or a 1st French edition of Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days?

Excellent question. I remember when someone told me a Harry Potter had sold for £1,000 at auction (this was in the late 1990s), I couldn’t believe a modern children’s book could make that much, yet this June Sotheby’s sold one for £25,000. The first hardback edition of the first Harry Potter is genuinely scarce – there are probably no more than 50 really good copies.

Rowling’s place in children’s literature is well and truly cemented so they should hold their price, but they haven’t gone up as much in the last seven or eight years as other modern first editions. That’s partly because the films have come to a close and that’s a big factor.

If my customers asked whether a specific book would be a good investment I used to tell them to try the stock market instead, but if you want a ‘blue chip’ book to buy, go for Bond. They have been performing well for forty years, and they get a fillip every time a new film appears.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Victoria’s Scottish Lion?

For the action bits ‘The Campbells are Coming!’ or the ‘Thin Red Line March’. Half the book’s about India and I played quite a lot of Ravi Shankar while writing it.