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Issue 19 - Changing of the guards for the Scottish regiments

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005


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Changing of the guards for the Scottish regiments

Scotland's historic infantry regiments are to undergo a major re-organisation. As part of our ongoing series looking at Scotland's regiments, Mark Nicholls examines the proposal and its impact on their ancient traditions.

Over the centuries, soldiers from the famous Scottish regiments have fought in numerous conflicts across the globe.

They have been present at the great battles of the 18th and 19th century, fought in two world wars and more recently been involved in operations in Iraq.

Throughout this often flamboyant history, the regiments have steadfastly clung to their traditions and roots, preserving regional identities and clan affiliations.

They have preserved their dress, distinct tartans and valiantly guarded long-established recruitment areas, spreading like a footprint across diverse parts of Scotland.

The Black Watch, for example, traditionally recruits from Perth and Perthshire, Dundee, Angus and Fife, drawing troops from this eastern aspect of Scotland with its fair cities, wonderful countryside, golf courses, fishing villages and a magnificent coastline.

Returning from an extended tour of Iraq towards the end of last year in which it sustained a number of casualties, its history is rooted in the ancient clans that remained loyal to George I during the Jacobite rebellions, which were attempts to restore the Stuart descendants of King James II to the British throne.

And The Royal Highland Fusiliers, which can trace its origins back to 1678, draws on men and women from the vibrant city of Glasgow and across Ayrshire, a landscape of coastal towns, castles, golf courses and renowned as the birthplace of Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns.

Over the centuries, these Scottish units, battalions and regiments have been merged, shaped and re-shaped through conflict, changing global politics or technological breakthroughs in warfare.

But the established traditions have remained for the six current Scottish infantry regiments: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, The Highlanders, The Black Watch, The Royal Scots, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers and The Royal Highland Fusiliers.

Fears that some of that may be lost are understandable amid British Army plans to combine them as one super-regiment to form the new Royal Regiment of Scotland.

The plans were announced in the House of Commons in December by British defence secretary Geoff Hoon who said the changes were essential to provide a more “agile, flexible and deployable” British Army capable of meeting the evolving strategic challenges of the post-9/11 era.

They are part of a wider reorganisation of the British Army, which will see a number of English and Welsh regiments affected, though not the Royal Irish Regiment, with the number of infantry battalions reduced from 40 to 36.

Mr Hoon confirmed that the Royal Scots and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers would merge and form one battalion of the new Royal Regiment of Scotland. The other four battalions of the so-called super-regiment would be the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Royal Highland Fusiliers and the Highlanders.

While campaigners fear the changes will see the historic regiments lost forever, the British Army has stressed that the traditional recruiting areas will be preserved, regional identities adhered to and the antecedent names of the regiments retained in battalion titles. Under the changes, due to be in place from 2006 onwards, the Royal Highland Fusiliers would become the Royal Highland Fusiliers (2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland).

This is unprecedented in British military history but was the option preferred by the Scottish Council of Colonels and approved by the British Army, a move seen by commentators as important in helping preserve the regional traditions of the six regiments.

It means the Black Watch, for example, will still proudly wear the red hackle and the Highlanders the blue hackle in their headgear. These units will also retain an identity with specific reaches of Scotland where visitors can find regimental museums highlighting the fascinating histories of each regiment and visit monuments and sites associated with these fighting forces.

Scotland’s most senior Army officer Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin has gone on record as saying: “Change is never easy but we recognise there is a need for change and a need for the Army to restructure for the 21st century.

“But in this reorganisation, each battalion has retained strong links to its local community, to specific items of uniform, and most importantly it has provided the link between the past, present and future.”

Despite this, a campaign is under way opposing the move, amid concerns these historic regiments will lose their individuality and regional identity forever in the merger. Jeff Duncan of the Save the Scottish Regiments Campaign said: “We must fulfil our promise to defend the regiments.

“Make no mistake – this is an attack on Scotland’s heritage and history as well as the end of the line for the most loyal and ferocious soldiers of the British Army.”

The Scottish Parliament dealt the national Labour government a blow on the regimental mergers by voting against the plan. But the vote was little more than symbolic as the devolved Scottish Parliament has limited influence over defence issues.

The plan, however, has an air of finality about it. The Ministry of Defence has said the changes will happen.

The head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, said they were needed to meet future challenges.

“While the Army cherishes tradition, it cannot base future capability on tradition alone,” he said.

The six infantry regiments may face a degree of uncertainty but the Scots Guards, meanwhile, remain unaffected because of its unique ceremonial role.

Originally raised in 1642 to act as a Royal Guard for King Charles I, Scots Guardsmen remain fiercely proud of their unbroken service and loyalty to the monarch. They conduct the highest standards of ceremonial duties in front of Buckingham Palace in the heart of London, while remaining ready for active service at short notice.

The two regiments that will merge to form one battalion in the new five battalion Scottish super regiment include the oldest in the British Army.

The Royal Scots was formed in 1633. Recruiting soldiers from Edinburgh and the surrounding areas, it saw action in the Napoleonic Wars, both world wars and more recently in the first Gulf War, Northern Ireland and Bosnia.

The other, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers with its own proud heritage, was created in 1689 and recruits from the borders, the wonderful green rolling landscape of Dumfries and Galloway, and Lanarkshire. Despite the inevitability of the new super regiment, the individual battalions have pledged to preserve their individuality, traditions and recruiting areas.

The Highlanders, proud modern-day counterparts of famous Scottish fighting units, will continue to recruit over large tracts of some of Scotland’s most beautiful and challenging terrain, selecting their troops from the Highlands, Inverness-shire, the north east and Aberdeen, and right up to Sutherland and Caithness.

Today, its soldiers encapsulate the spirit of some of Scotland’s more illustrious regiments, bearing names that brought to life a long military history: the Gordon Highlanders; the Cameron Highlanders; the Stirlingshire Regiment; and the 72nd and 78th Highlanders who were formed in 1881 into the Seaforth Highlanders.

Stirling, Scotland’s newest city having been bequeathed the status by Queen Elizabeth II as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002, is the home of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, an active and much-travelled regiment and one that has recently seen action in Iraq.

Still affiliated to the Campbell clan and the Duke of Argyll and Duke of Sutherland, the regiment recruits across a broad swathe of central Scotland, selecting the finest soldiers from Argyll, Stirling, Clackmannanshire, The Trossachs and Dumbartonshire.

Whether the mergers will erode the individuality of these famous Scottish regiments has yet to be seen over the passage of time.

What can never be erased are their flamboyant histories and the Scottish landscape they recruit from: the history remains encapsulated in magnificent regimental museums and monuments and the spirit of these fighting men is forever retained in the contours of Scotland itself.