Based on the word “defencible,” fencibles were the British forces raised for a specific war, not just war, in general, as we think of our National Guard in the United States, who are available for war, but also for civic duties during national disasters.
Acting as local military units, each of which was composed of residents from a particular area of the county and commanded by officers from the British Regulars, they were called up to defend against an outside attack/invasion during the Seven Years’ War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812.
They were enlisted or enrolled to perform duties that would free up the Regular Army to take on offensive operations outside the county. None of those enrolled in the “fencibles” saw action overseas. They aided in the protection of the coastline and served as a “peace keeping” group if riots broke out at home. Customarily, a wealthy landowner or member of the aristocracy would form the “unit.” He would be made “colonel,” for his efforts. They served at home for the duration of whatever war for which they signed up. When that particular war ended, their service also ended.
The time between 1793 and the peace at Amiens in 1802 was where one might find the use of the Fencible Regiments the most, but, as one can see from the list of wars mentioned above, the practice did not go away until about 1815. The regiments which formed after 1802 were actually sent abroad to serve with the British during the wars taking place in North America.
[Engraved portrait of Sir James Grant with a view the Strathspey Grant Fencibles ~ Public Domain ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fencibles#/media/File:+Sir_James_Grant_by_John_Kay.jpg]
In England, county/shire militia regiments were raised for internal defense in the absence of the regular army, but those in Scotland, at least in the opinion of many, were more volatile and were not “encouraged” to form such military units. People worried for insurrection. That does not mean Scottish units did not exist, for the first regiments were raised in Scotland in 1759.
[1790 Oil on Canvas from John Singleton Copley – Hugh Montgomerie, 12th Earl of Eglinton, 1739 – 1819. Soldier; Lord Lieutenant of Ayrshire ~ Public Domain ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Montgomerie,12th_Earl_of_Eglinton#/media/File:John_Singleton_Copley–Hugh_Montgomerie,_12th_Earl_of_Eglinton,_1739–1819._Soldier;_Lord_Lieutenant_of_Ayrshire-_Google_Art_Project.jpg]
For example, Lord Hugh Montgomerie, 12th Earl of Eglinton, entered the army in 1756. Serving first as a captain in the 78th Foot in the war with America and later as a major in the Argyll or Western fencibles (formed jointly by both the Argyll and Eglinton families and led by Colonel Lord Frederick Campbell, he was twice elected to parliament as member for Ayrshire. If we may trust the testimony of Burns, in his ‘Earnest Cry and Prayer,’ Montgomerie’s oratorical power was less conspicuous than his courage: —
I ken, if that your sword were wanted,
Ye’d lend a hand;
But when there’s ought to say anent it,
Ye’re at a stand.
Montgomerie served in the 77th (1st Highland Regiment) from 1757-1763 and was senior Major of the Argyll Fencibles during the American Revolutionary War. He raised the West Lowland Fencibles in 1793, which was made up of the West Lowland Fencibles from Ayshire, as well as other lowland areas. Ironically, at Montgomerie’s insistence, they wore highland dress.
“Most fencible regiments had no liability for overseas service however there were exceptions. Ireland while not united with the Kingdom of Great Britain until 1801 was the destination for several British fencible regiments during the Rebellion of 1798 where they fought in some minor pitched battles. The 3rd Argyllshire Regiment, who like some other fencible regiments had terms of service that extended to any part of Europe, garrisoned Gibraltar (as did Banffshire Fencibles, 2nd Argllshire Fencibles, and the Prince of Wales Own Fencibles) The Dumbarton Fencibles Regiment was raised in Scotland, garrisoned Guernsey, fought in Ireland, and detachment escorted prisoners to Prussia.The Ancient Irish Fencibles were sent to Egypt where they took part in the operations against the French in 1801.
“Fencible regiments were less effective than regular troops for military duties, with problems of lack of education and disease. In Ireland the regiment troops would take part in inter-regimental brawls and attacks on army soldiers. Some regiments of Fencibles, however, were noted for exceptional service.” (Fencibles)
From “The Forgotten Army: Fencible Regiments of Great Britain 1793 – 1816“ on the Napoleon Series website, we find…
Below is an example of a Royal Warrant to raise a Fencible Regiment:
Warrant for the Raising of a Regiment of Fencible Men under the Command of Col. M. H. Baillie, [signed George R]
Whereas we have thought fit to order a Regiment of Fencible men, to be forthwith raised under your command, which is to consist of ten companies, of 4 sergeants, 5 corporals, 2 drummers, and 95 men in each, with 2 fifers to the Grenadier Company, besides a sergeant-major and quartermaster-sergeant, together with the usual commissioned officers; which men are to serve in Great Britain and Ireland only.
Given at our Court at St. James, the 24th day of October 1794, in the 34th year of our reign.
By His Majesty’s Command (signed) W. Windham
To our trusty and well-beloved M. H. Baillie, Esq., Colonel of a Regiment of Fencible men to be forthwith raised or to the officer appointed by him to raise men for our said regiment.
Musteen, Jason R. (2011), Nelson’s Refuge: Gibraltar in the Age of Napoleon, Naval Institute Press, p. 218.
Scobie, Ian Hamilton Mackay (1914), An old highland fencible corps : the history of the Reay Fencible Highland Regiment of Foot, or Mackay’s Highlanders, 1794–1802, with an account of its services in Ireland during the rebellion of 1798, Edinburgh: Blackwood, pp. 353.