‘Tis a sad time for the Scottish, as five legendary regiments are piped into the annals of history.
In Basra, the sun beat down on the soldiers gathered in the dust of Shaibah camp. In Edinburgh, a light drizzle fell on the men and women lined up on parade at the top of the castle. In Glasgow, Baghdad, Omagh, Belfast, Cyprus and Canterbury, similar ceremonies were taking place. As midday struck in Scotland, the country’s old regiments slipped into history.
Gone were the Royal Scots – almost 400 years old – the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Highlanders. In their place, to a flurry of pipes and drums, was the new Royal Regiment of Scotland.
It was certainly not the first merger imposed on Scotland’s soldiery, but it has proved to be one of the most controversial. Yesterday, however, the army was putting a brave face on it.
As the moment drew near, a large crowd had gathered around the edges of Edinburgh Castle’s Crown Square. Kenny Mackenzie, the Royal Scots’ Regimental Sergeant Major, marched smartly into the square and snapped to attention.
“By the right, quick march,” the order came, and from around the corner came the new regimental band, belting out the tunes of the Athol Highlander and Glendaruel Highlander. Behind them, a carefully chosen cross-section of the new regiment marched into the Crown Square, wheeled right and came to a halt.
They had been practising hard, apparently, but perhaps in keeping with the furore surrounding the merger, not all were in step. Their boots hit the cobbles like a burst of machine gun fire, rather than the single sharp report that the sergeant major was hoping for. He made them suffer by shuffling them backwards and forwards for a couple of minutes, barking out instructions until he was happy.
Still, as Major-General Euan Loudon, the new regiment’s most senior officer was to say, change may be painful.
“Parade will remove head dress”, RSM Mackenzie yelled, and they whipped off the old caps. Two more soldiers appeared, bearing between them a tray draped in the new regimental tartan and worked their way among the ranks, collecting the last vestiges of the old regiments. They marched out smartly, covering the abandoned hats discreetly with the tartan.
Those remaining in the square waited. The drizzle continued. The crowd, mainly tourists interspersed with press and some military types, craned their necks to see what was going on. Nothing happened. “Where’s the general?” one soldier whispered. More drizzle fell. The onlookers began to talk among themselves.
In Basra, the soldiers of the Royal Scots were baking in the heat. The regiment, the oldest in the British Army, is not due back until May; they had the curious experience of being consigned to history while still being called on to serve in action.
As if there was not enough historical baggage hanging around, the Ministry of Defence had chosen the 373rd anniversary of the formation of the regiment to disband it. About 200 soldiers who were not required for patrolling stood and watched as the standard of the Royal Scots was lowered for the last time, while a lone piper played a lament.
Back in Edinburgh, the general finally appeared, striding into the square, sleeves rolled up. The others had apparently been a little too quick off the mark.
“Parade, general salute,” barked RSM Mackenzie and the band broke into a stirring burst of regimental music. And stopped again, just as quickly.
The general strode up and down the lines, dishing out new caps, each bearing the hackle appropriate to what were once individual regiments, but are now mere battalions: black for the 1st Battalion (Royal Scots Borderers – the old Royal Scots and King’s Own Scottish Borderers); white for 2nd Battalion (Royal Highland Fusiliers); the famous red for the 3rd Battalion (Black Watch); blue for the 4th Battalion (Highlanders); and green for the 5th Battalion (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders).
The caps also bore the new insignia of the Royal Regiment, a lion rampant on a cross of St Andrew, or the crucified cat, as some wags have taken to calling it. It looked quite smart. The general stood in front of them and made his big pitch. It was, he said, a new chapter in the story of the Scottish soldier. “Change may be painful, but it has come to visit us in our day and generation,” he said, but it followed on from a glorious past.
The article briefly tells the story of each of the regiments that are going by the wayside.
â€¢ The Black Watch’s name came from the dark tartan its soldiers wore and from its role to “watch” the Highlands after its formation in 1725, when six companies were formed to stop fighting among the clans. The regimental motto was Nemo Me Impune Lacessit (No-one Attacks Me With Impunity).
â€¢ The King’s Own Scottish Borderers were the local infantry battalion for the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, and Lanarkshire. They were founded 1689 to defend Edinburgh from Jacobites and fought in every major conflict of the last 300 years including, with distinction, the Gulf in 2003.
â€¢ The Royal Scots was the oldest Infantry Regiment of the Line in the army. It was formed in 1633 under a warrant granted by Charles I, raising a body of men for service in France. The regiment saw conflict in many theatres, both world wars and the Gulf war, and action in Northern Ireland.
â€¢ The Royal Highland Fusiliers were formed in 1959 by the controversial amalgamation of the Royal Scots Fusiliers and the Highland Light Infantry. The regiment was awarded more than 200 battle honours, a number unsurpassed by any other unit in the British Army.
â€¢ The Highlanders, a combat infantry regiment of about 550 men, was formed in 1994 with the amalgamation of the Queen’s Own Highlanders (Seaforth and Camerons) and The Gordon Highlanders. It was the only one with a Gaelic motto – Cuidich ‘n Righ (Aid the King).
â€¢ The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, nicknamed the “Thin Red Line” for their actions at Balaclava, were formed in 1881 by the amalgamation of the Princess Louise’s Argyllshire Regiment and the Sutherland Highlanders. They had the army’s largest cap badge and the Glengarry as headgear.
More on the rationale for the change can be found in this Reuters piece:
The army says the new regiment is being forged to meet the changing needs of the 21st century, including more short-notice deployments, peacekeeping duties and the need to operate alongside allies — as with U.S forces in Iraq.
Four of the old regiments will constitute individual battalions with the Royal Regiment, but the Royal Scots and the KOSB will be combined into one battalion over the next few months. The army is also losing three regiments in England.
Loudon said the new super-regiment had emerged from a review of defence policy in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War. What emerged, he told Reuters in an interview, was that “we would have to be prepared to fight across a broad spectrum of operations and, of course, peace support and peacekeeping missions, and to go to these operations at quite short notice and plug in effectively with allies”.
[Loudon] said that a legacy of the Cold War had left the army unbalanced, with a preponderance of “heavy forces that were pretty immobile,” and “light forces that had relatively light combat power”.
“The big idea was that we would re-balance that structure into three areas of capability: light, which would be beefed up; medium, which would be created; and heavy, which would be made as mobile as we could in the future.”
He said the traditional system where units changed locations and roles every three years or so also failed to meet these needs and meant that about 25 percent of infantry in the British Army could be unavailable for operations at any one time as they moved to new locations and retrained for new roles.
In the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the merged Royal Scots and KSOB will constitute the 1st battalion, the Royal Highland Fusiliers the 2nd battalion, the Black Watch the 3rd battalion, The Highlanders the 4th battalion and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders the 5th battalion.
The Royal Scots and KOSB have traditionally worn tartan trews (trousers) rather than kilts, but the Royal Regiment of Scotland will be kilted, wearing the Black Watch, or “government” tartan.
The battalions will, however, retain their distinctive coloured feathers behind their cap badges, known as the “hackle”, and the pipe and drum bands will keep the regimental tartans and accoutrements.
Loudon said history and tradition were integral to the new regiment, but added: “A tradition is only relevant if its legacy, when it is handed down to the next generation of people inspires, them to soldier as their forebears have done.”
He said the spiritual homes of the old units would remain at their old bases in Scotland in the form of regimental museums and associations covering past and present members.
First the 49th Lone Star Armored Division, now the Scottish regiments — ah, but military history can be a cruel mistress.
At least the new Royal Regiment will carry on with the dark but beautiful Black Watch tartan. Unfortunately, there may be insult added even to that saving grace, as the British army has recently lowered the quality standard on kilts, opening them up for the bidding of foreign contractors.
Borders weavers Robert Noble has produced the tartan for the ceremonial kilts worn by Scottish regiments for 150 years.
But in an effort to drive down costs, the Ministry of Defence has announced it is putting the contract to produce tartan for the amalgamated Royal Regiment of Scotland up for tender.
It is also lowering the standards of the tartan’s quality to allow other companies producing cheaper, lower-grade cloth to compete against the expertise of Borders textile companies.
The MoD has launched a competitive tender allowing any manufacturers to compete for the contract of 5,000 kilts, estimated to be worth Â£300,000, for the new regiment.
Previously, only a few firms in Scotland could produce woven woollen cloth to the high standards required, but the MoD has lowered standards so more firms can compete at lower prices.
Jeremy Purvis, a Borders MSP, said the MoD cost-cutting was misguided.
“This is about the standard of cloth provided. It is an insult to the company that has been providing it for over 100 years,” he said.
The MSP also said the MoD’s attitude and insensitivity towards the contract was a worrying reflection on attitudes towards the new Royal Regiment of Scotland. He added: “I hope very much it is not, but the way they have behaved in this incident does give that indication.
“The kilts are clearly going to be sub-standard. Now there will be different cuts and shades on parades and it will be an embarrassment. The ceremonial Scottish wear of kilts and trews should absolutely be made in Scotland.”
Yeah, kick ’em while their down. Don’t worry, despite poorer kilts, the Scots will bravely soldier on, creating a new regimental history.