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Scotland Magazine Issue 20
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Famous across the world
In our continuing series on the great Scottish regiments, Mark Nicholls looks at the origins of the Black Watch and the part of Scotland it calls its own
The very name provokes so many questions... Why the Black Watch, what were its origins, its history and how did this gathering of clansmen come to be known across the world as one of the most famous of the Scottish regiments?
As a regiment, the Black Watch has an intriguing history, one that is linked with that of Scotland, the whole of Britain and beyond. The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) traditionally recruits from Perth and Perthshire, Dundee, Angus and Fife, drawing men from this eastern aspect of Scotland with its fair cities, wonderful countryside, golf courses, fishing villages and a magnificent coastline.
But its ancestry is rooted in the ancient clans that remained loyal to the Hanovarian King George I during the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, which were attempts to restore the Stuart descendants of King James II of Scotland, VII of England to the British throne.
Six independent companies of Highlanders were raised in 1725 from clans Campbell, Grant, Fraser and Munro and charged with keeping peace and order in the Highlands. They adopted as their uniform a 12-yard-long plaid of dark tartan.
It is from the darkness of the tartan and the role of ‘watching’ the Highlands, that the name is derived, the forces thus becoming the Black Watch. Soldiers of the regiment also proudly wear the feathered red hackle in their headgear. Throughout the various amalgamations of the companies, battalions and regiments the name the Black Watch stayed, although it was only formally recognised as recently as 1922, almost 200 years after the first independent companies were raised.
Over a history that is now closer to 300 years, soldiers of the Black Watch have fought in distant locations across the globe.
More recently, the 1st Battalion Black Watch enhanced its reputation as Scotland’s premier armoured infantry regiment with a gallant role in the Iraq War of 2003.
Soldiers from the regiment returned to Iraq in 2004 to continue in a post-war deployment and after a request from US forces last October, moved north to operate in an area closer to Baghdad, losing five troops during the deployment.
You would have thought that the regiment’s heroic role in this difficult task, and those that have gone before, would be rewarded and recognised, yet it now faces being absorbed into a new Scottish super regiment under a planned reorganisation of Scotland’s six infantry regiments.
Under the process, 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 would be made up by the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Royal Highland Fusiliers and the Highlanders.
There are many old soldiers who are not at all happy about this. However, the Black Watch will retain its identity and its long history will never be forgotten.
The regiment’s first action was in 1745, but over the centuries men from the Black Watch have served in India, in Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars, in the Crimea, in South Africa during the Boer Wars, in both World Wars, and in Korea and in Northern Ireland.
The first of the regiment’s 14 Victoria Crosses – the highest honour for gallantry in the British army – was awarded to Lieutenant Farquharson in Lucknow, India in 1858. Much of the regiment’s flamboyant history is enshrined in the Black Watch Regimental Museum based at Balhousie Castle, an original medieval tower house in Perth.
Regimental museum curator Major Ronnie Proctor explained: “We have artefacts, silver, paintings and weapons right from the start of the regiments as independent companies in 1725 through to the present day.”
A new development is a room depicting a World War I scene with a Black Watch soldier portrayed in a trench, and there is a DVD illustrating what life was like for soldiers at the time. There is also a book of remembrance which lists the names of the 8,000 soldiers from the regiment who lost their lives in World War I. The Scottish regiment is also allied with The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada.
Major Proctor said: “Anybody who visits the museum will get a comprehensive view of the history of the regiment and indeed of Britain, as the regiment is so interlinked with British history from the Jacobite rebellions right up to the present.”
The regiment’s history is visible across this part of Scotland, with a number of monuments and memorials dedicated to its soldiers. Yet there is also much else to see in the region. Perth, traditional home of the Black Watch, was once Scotland’s capital city, and Scone Palace, home of the Stone of Destiny between c500 and 1296, is where forty two of Scotland’s kings were crowned.
The city, which inspired Sir Walter Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth and , in turn, a Bizet opera, sits invitingly on the banks of the River Tay. Lush parklands and gardens, excellent shopping, and reminders of a colourful medieval history are highly visible.
Out and about in Perthshire, you can visit Auchterarder, known locally as The Lang Toon – a name derived from its extended High Street. Today, little of the original Burgh of 1200 remains, but the town now dating largely from the 18th century is famous for the quality of its shops. Close by, the narrow fields and woodlands of the area lead into Strathearn, the location of the world famous Gleneagles Hotel, standing amid panoramic views.
Mention of Gleneagles leads the mind inevitably to golf, with challenging courses not only at Gleneagles, but also in Auchterarder, Whitemoss by Aberuthven, and Dunning, while, not too far away, in Fife, is St Andrews Links. Long-recognised as the original home of golf, centred on the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, formed in 1754, the course will host the 2005 Open Championship in July.
Another popular Perthshire attraction is the Pitlochry Dam and Fish Ladder where salmon annually negotiate the specially constructed ladder allowing them to bypass Pitlochry Dam into the man-made Loch Faskally.
The countryside around Pitlochry, north of Perth, offers stunning scenery, and is steeped in history with locations such as the conservation village of Moulin.
Three miles north of Pitlochry is the beautiful Pass of Killiecrankie. The story of the famous battle in this tree-lined gorge, now in the care of The National Trust for Scotland, is featured at the visitor centre.
And further on is Blair Atholl, a traditional stone built village with pony trekking, mountain biking, guided walks or golfing. The Atholl Country Collection folk museum portrays Highland life in a bygone era and has a working water mill. Blair Castle, the magnificent seat of the earls and dukes of Atholl, has 32 rooms open to the public, each displaying a wealth of arms, porcelain, paintings and other artworks. The Bowmore Blair Castle International Horse Trials are held in the stunning grounds of the castle every August.
At Aberfeldy, on the banks of the River Tay, you will find the Black Watch Memorial, commemorating the raising of the worldrenowned regiment. Nearby is the Aberfeldy Distillery and Dewar’s World of Whisky.
Heading back east, towards where the river becomes the Firth of Tay and is spanned by lengthy road and rail bridges, stands Dundee, a city with a fascinating maritime history. Two of the world’s most famous wooden ships are permanently docked on Dundee’s waterfront: Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery, which took him to the Antarctic and HM Frigate Unicorn, the oldest British-built ship still afloat.
Dundee is a cosmopolitan city with quaint restaurants, shops,theatres and bars, but beyond lies the unspoilt landscape of the Angus Glens with moorland and high burns. These include 10 munros (mountains of over 3,000 ft), and miles of narrow twisting roads. At the head of Glen Clova, perhaps the most beautiful, is Glen Doll where narrow roads and a footpath lead to the heart of the Cairngorm Mountains.
Travelling further into Angus, discover Carnoustie, the home of the 1999 Open Golf Championship, won in the most exciting fashion by local boy Paul Lawrie in a four-hole play off to defeat Justin Leonard and Jean Van de Velde.
The coastline here is also magnificent, the glens wonderful and refreshing, the small towns all of interest: Montrose or Forfar, Arbroath – home of the famous smokies (smoked haddock) – and Brechin.
Here the Pictavia visitor centre, in the grounds of Brechin Castle Centre and Country Park, provides the chance to find out more about the lives of some of Scotland’s ancient people – the Picts. Near Forfar you can visit the splendour of Glamis Castle, the childhood home of the Queen Mother who, until her death in 2002, was Colonel in Chief of the Black Watch.
Angus and Dundee Tourism:
Kingdom of Fife Tourism:
The Black Watch:
Ministry of Defence: