British Rule - The Scots in Corfu, 1851

Officer and soldiers of the 92nd Regiment at Edinburgh Castle, 1846.

By Kostas Handrinos. A few years ago, I came across a 1998 calendar published by the Post Office Bank, which had photos of traditional Greek local costumes and musical instruments.

December / 2017

In the corner of one of the pages there is a very small photo with two musicians wearing the old Corfu village clothes – a fez and ‘tsarouchia’ (traditional rustic shoes) without pompons – and playing the ‘tabourlo’ drum and ‘niakara’ (pipe), the instruments they played at local Corfu celebrations up to the beginning of the 20th century and which are still played in Zakynthos.

‘Local musicians, Corfu’. Two village musicians playing tabourlo and niakara at a festival. On the right, two village women in traditional festival costume and behind them, a ‘pavioni’ – a tent that they put up at the festivals.

“…at a Corfu celebration”

The description of the picture in the calendar is as follows: Music at a Corfu festival – colour lithograph from the publication “Sketches of Character and Costume in Constantinople, Ionian Islands etc. from the original drawings made on the spot by Captn. Forbes Mac Bean, London, 1854. Lithographed by J. Sutcliffe”.

At first I thought that Captain Forbes MacBean was a Scotsman who landed in Corfu, went to a local festival and painted the locals. As it was the only picture of tabourlo and niakara playing in Corfu that I had ever seen, I tried to find a bigger and better picture. I found some scanned water colour pictures from the publication – from the cover and the first page.
“92nd Highlanders Regiment of Foot”

Seeing “92nd Highlanders” under the artist’s name, I searched for more information and found the following:

Captain Forbes MacBean served in the 92nd Highlanders Regiment of Foot, known as the ‘Gordon Highlanders’ after their first commander, General George Gordon. This historic Scottish regiment became part of the British Empire forces in 1794 and participated in several battles, including Waterloo in 1815 against Napolean. After missions to places such as Jamaica, where many of them died of yellow fever, Gibraltar and Barbados, they returned to their base in Scotland in 1844.

92nd ‘Gordon Highlanders’ Regiment of Foot, Waterloo, 1815.

In 1851, under Lt. General Sir William MacBean, they received orders to go to the Ionian Islands, which was still under British rule and whose commissioner was the merciless Sir Henry George Ward – hated by the Ionian people and known as ‘Wardo’.

Most probably, the majority of the regiment was stationed in Corfu, the capital of the Ionian Islands, in the British Barracks in the Old Fortress, whose construction had been completed the previous year. Some units must have been sent to guard other Ionian Islands, and certainly to Cephalonia, where there had been bloody uprisings two years previously.

The Scots passed two peaceful years in Corfu. It must have been a strange sight for the locals when they paraded in their tall bearskin hats, tartan kilts, drums and bagpipes. Based on pictures from that time, they had brass bands and so they certainly must have performed in concerts in Spianada Square as was the custom wherever the British forces went during the Victorian period.

In the meantime, Captain Forbes MacBean must have had plenty of free time to visit the festivals and litanies in the Corfu villages. He liked to draw and paint watercolours – as was popular in Britain at that time – and he painted villagers, priests, musicians and traders. His water colours, though quite comical, vividly depicted the people of the time, their clothing and their activities.

‘Greek villagers, Corfu’. Fruit seller in a village.
1853 to 2006

During his stay in Corfu, it seems that Forbes MacBean travelled to Albania and Montenegro, where he painted the people from those regions as well. He certainly didn’t paint them in Corfu or Constantinople as he doesn’t mention those places on the paintings and on one painting of an Albanian soldier he clearly writes, ‘sketched in Albania’.

The 92nd Highlanders Regiment remained in the Ionian Islands until 1853, when they went to Gibraltar. From there they were sent to take part in the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, but arrived just before the war ended, so weren’t involved in any significant battles. What most probably happened was that on their way to Sevastopol, they passed through Ottoman Constantinople – who were allies at that time – and Forbes MacBean painted his other water colours there.

A century passed before Scottish soldiers came to Corfu again. According to my father, after the end of the 2nd World War, along with the British allies, a detachment of Scottish soldiers landed and paraded in Liston with drums and bagpipes, to the surprise of the locals.

After a 200-year history, the 92nd ‘Gordon’ Regiment joined up with other Scottish units and since 2006 has been part of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.