Duncan McGregor Gillies, a native of Lochgilphead, Argyll, enlisted in the 61st Infantry Brigade at Ayr in September 1878, aged 25 years. Posted to the 2nd Battalion, 21st Foot out in Ireland, he quickly found himself on his way to South Africa aboard the City of Paris, a voyage which did not pass without incident, that vessel running stem on to the Roman Rocks when entering Simon’s Bay during a gale. A correspondent of the Ayr Advertiser who was on board takes up the story:
‘It was a very dark, it was blowing a gale, and there were 1100 men on board. The captain gave his order with coolness and courage from the bridge; the boats were made ready for lowering; signals of distress were sent up and all made ready for lowering. The Scots Fusiliers behaved with admirable coolness, nothing could have been better; the young fellows vied with their older comrades in their apparent contempt of danger. Happily for all on board the gale was increasing, and catching the ship on the port side, pushed her off the rocks, and putting on full steam we now went ahead and passing through forbidden water, over sunken rocks, we got into Simon’s Bay with no water to speak of in the hold. An episode is worth relating as an illustration of the good behaviour of the men. The instant the ship struck the rocks, the quarter-master at the wheel uttered an exclamation of horror, and crying “All is lost!” made a rush to the nearest boat. Two or three young soldiers at once seized the wheel, and did their best to steer the ship until another quarter-master could be got hold of.’
The Battalion was subsequently transferred to H.M.S. Tamar and landed at Durban on the last day of March, 1879. Gillies remained in South Africa until January 1882, but only served in Natal during the course of the Zulu War, thereby qualifying for a no clasp Medal. He would, however, in common with his comrades in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, go on to see extensive service during the First Boer War 1880-81. And he was advanced to Lance-Sergeant in April of the latter year.
Signing-on for a further ten years with the Colours, Gillies was next actively employed out in India, and, having been advanced to Colour-Sergeant, served with distinction in the Burma operations of 1885-87, his service record noting that he was ‘actively engaged against the Dacoits ... [and] ... Dangerously wounded, gunshot wound in left breast, Burma Campaign.’
In May 1887, however, he was found guilty at a District Court Martial of being absent without leave, and reduced to the rank of Corporal, a ruling that put paid to him ever receiving a L.S. & G.C. Medal. But Gillies quickly regained his stripes with an appointment to Orderly Room Sergeant and was re-engaged to complete 21 years with the Colours. He was finally discharged as a Quarter-Master Sergeant in November 1901, aged 48 years, having more recently been employed on the Permanent Staff of the Regiment at Ayr.
In November 1904, the Officer Commanding 21st Regimental District recommended Gillies for the M.S.M. and annuity, not least because of his ‘good Field Service.’ And in Army Order 231 of 1925, his award was finally promulgated;