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Issue 22 - Border patrol

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 22
August 2005


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Border patrol

Mark Nicholls looks at the King's Own Scottish Borderers and its heartland where Scotland and England meet

The King’s Own Scottish Borderers is a regiment that truly embraces the spirit of its name.

In every sense a Scottish regiment, the heartland for the KOSB is the landscape straddling the border with England, across which many a conflict has been fought over the centuries.

And in one of those strange quirks of history and geography, its regimental museum is at Berwick-upon-Tweed, south of the border in England.

Today, the KOSB focuses on a key recruiting area covering some wonderful scenery, historic castles and sites and fascinating towns and villages that have seen the political landscape change dramatically as English and Scottish armies passed to and fro.

Until a decision last year to merge it with other Scottish regiments, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers was one of the oldest unamalgamated regiments in the United Kingdom, famously formed with 800 men in around two hours by David Leslie, 3rd Earl of Leven on 18th March 1689. It first saw action at the Battle of Killiecrankie on 27th July that year.

From next year the KOSB is being absorbed into a new Scottish super regiment under a planned reorganisation of Scotland’s six infantry regiments.

Under the process the King’s Own Scottish Borderers would merge with the Royal Scots 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.

The KOSB, however, will fiercely protect its origins, identity and long history.

Over more than 300 years, the regiment has seen service in the West Indies, the French Revolutionary Wars, South Africa, India and Afghanistan.

It saw extensive service in World War I and World War II, Korea, Malaya and Northern Ireland and the first Gulf War.

The regiment, currently deployed in Northern Ireland, has won six Victoria Crosses, the highest military honour in Britain, including one awarded to piper Daniel Laidlaw at Loos during World War I on 25th September 1915. There, he led the assault from the trenches, playing the Regimental March and Charge. Though badly wounded in the legs, he followed until the severity of his wounds forced him to withdraw.

The part of the UK the KOSB regards as its own covers Dumfries, Galloway and the borders region and since the disbandment of the Cameronians in 1968, Lanarkshire.

They recruit from Berwick in the east to Stranraer in the west, from Gretna in the south to Baillieston in the north on the outskirts of Glasgow The regimental insignia is the Cross of St Andrew upon a circlet inscribed King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

Within scrolls are the mottoes In Veritate Religionis Confido (I put my trust in the truth of this faith) and Nisi Dominus Frustra (He that builds without the Lord buildeth in vain). Since 1898, the regiment has been authorised to wear trews of Leslie tartan, the family tartan of the Earl of Leven. Pipers wear kilts of Royal Stuart tartan.

To understand the history and culture of the KOSB a visit to the Regimental Museum at Berwick Barracks is a first stop.

It traces the history of the regiment from 1689 to the present day through displays of uniforms, badges medals, weapons and relics. Other illustrations bring the regiment’s battles and the life and times of its soldiers to life.

Assistant regimental secretary lieutenant colonel George Wood said: “You can see the complete history of the regiment from 1689 with displays of cap badges, medals various scenes from regimental life and there is also an archive facility for research.

“It is a traditional old-fashioned style regimental museum but no better place to start for an insight into the regiment.” Berwick stands on the River Tweed and is an historic border town on the coast of England set full of anomalies. It houses the regimental museum of a Scottish regiment and its local soccer team plays in the Scottish league. But there again, Coldstream is in Scotland but the renowned Coldstream Guards is an English regiment.

The KOSB moved to Berwick in the 18th century, having had headquarters further south in England. Berwick was considered the location furthest north that was available at the time.

Regimental experts also remind visitors that Berwick is a typical border town and one that changed hands between the English and the Scots more than a dozen times over its colourful history.

It is the same with many countries or regions, the borders mark a political divide but cultural boundaries remain a little more blurred, their definition rooted in the shifting sands of time.

But on the Scottish side of that border, you can experience the landscape of the KOSB with the marvellous towns and villages of the region.

Ancient fortifications, battlefields and ruined abbeys are the backdrop to this region where such characters as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots roamed. This is also where novelist Sir Walter Scott, author of Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, had his home at Abbotsford near Galashiels.

The monumental remains of abbeys and castles at Jedburgh, Dryburgh, Kelso and Melrose are fascinating, all victims in the border wars.

There are also museums and galleries in the landscape and great houses such as Floors Castle near Kelso with spectacular staterooms filled with paintings and tapestries or Traquair, said to be the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, which has been visited by 27 monarchs including Mary Queen of Scots Look toward the west and you are in Dumfries and Galloway, an area described as the “inspiring corner” of Scotland with its miles of coastline along the Solway Firth, historic castles and sites, wildlife, gardens and nurseries and attractive villages.

The Solway Coast heritage trail winds 190 miles through beautiful scenery with monuments, dramatic castles and abbeys along the route.

This is the land of Robert the Bruce and Robert Burns.

The home of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland from 1306-1329, is in Lochmaben, his family seat stands in Annan and nearby is the isolated cave to where he retreated and is famously said to have sought the advice of a spider climbing down the wall.

Close to New Galloway is also Bruce’s Stone, a granite boulder on Moss Rapploch, where he rested after defeating the English in 1307. Bruce’s reign also included one of the most momentous battles in British history, the decisive victory over the English at Bannockburn on midsummer’s day, 24th June 1314.

Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns spent much of his adult life in and around Dumfries. The town has a Robert Burns Trail and you can see his home in Burns Street, Dumfries, where he spent the later years of his life.

Virtually on the border, the blacksmith’s shop at Gretna Green is probably the most famous wedding venue in the world, where runaway brides and grooms fled from England and tied the knot in Scotland to take advantage of the more relaxed marriage laws north of the border.

The marriage act of 1754 was passed in England making marriage a more formal arrangement after members of the English aristocracy feared their daughters would elope and marry men they did not approve of.

But the law was not adopted in Scotland, where so-called ‘hand-fasting’ ceremonies continued. So couples ran away north to marry, often in Gretna, which was the first village across the border and many of those weddings took place in the blacksmith’s shop over the anvil. Anyone could conduct a hand-fasting ceremony and it often fell to the blacksmith to perform it.

Nowadays, couples can still marry over the anvil, but must give advance notice.

There is a visitor centre and other attractions linked with these marriage customs in Gretna and the famous old blacksmith’s shop still survives.

There’s also a museum at Arbigland, Kirkbean, dedicated to John Paul Jones, a man often described as The Father of the American Navy. When Congress formed a ‘Continental Navy’ Paul Jones offered his services and he was commissioned as first lieutenant on 7th December 1775 aboard the Alfred.

Visitors can see the cottage in which he was raised and there is information about his life and a shop and grounds.

Across the countryside there are animal and wildlife sanctuaries such as the Galloway Wildlife Conservation Park at Kirkcudbright. Galloway Forest Park is the largest forest park in Britain covering 300 acres with routes for walking, driving, horse riding and cycling. There are also numerous opportunities for golf, watersports, swimming, fishing and river trips across the region.

The border country and Dumfries and Galloway offer an intriguing perspective on Scottish life. And as the King’s Own Scottish Borderers continue embrace the region as their heartland, visitors too can absorb this inspiring part of Scotland.