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Moss-trooping in South Africa February 4, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, literature, military history.
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In the district of the 17th Lancers fight

Not far from where Smuts' men met the 17th Lancers, eastern Cape

Moss-trooper. n.  One of a class of marauders who infested the  ‘mosses’ of the Scottish Border, in the middle of the seventeenth century; a border freebooter.

Moss. n.  A bog, swamp, or morass; a peat-bog.  (Chiefly Sc. and northern dialect.)

It is September, 1901, in the Cape Colony of South Africa.  A Boer commando led by Jan Smuts has just made a successful assault on the British 17th Lancers regiment.  The Boers, who had been starving and dressed in rags, are able to refurbish themselves from the regiment’s captured supplies.  Deneys Reitz, a 19-year-old Boer, describes the activities of the commando, as they go from from one village to another in the British colony, as “moss-trooping.”

His grandfather had been educated in Britain, where he had actually met Sir Walter Scott.  His father loved to recite the long narrative ballads of Scott to his family gathered in the parlor.  Deneys had grown up reading the novels of Scott, and at one abandoned farmhouse during the war, he and a friend are delighted to discover “almost a complete set of the works of Scott,” which they promptly seize and bring along on their horses along with their canteens and their Mauser rifles.

Mosses and mists in Scotland (Glencoe)

Mosses and mists in Scotland (Glencoe)

Deneys would have heard the phrase “moss-trooping” in Scott’s “The Lay of the Minstrel”:  “A stark moss-trooping Scot was he…”

They are in a dry country of open veld and sharp kopje, thorn-bush and antelope.  It could hardly have been more different from the misty moors of Scotland, but the vastly outnumbered Boers took their inspiration where they could find it.  The imagination does what it needs to.

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