Sconemac's - The Authentic (Earliest) History of the Blackwatch

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"The Authentic (Earliest) History of the Blackwatch"



"We can boast no Battle Honours for our part in the American War of Independence, because it was rightly decreed that Battle Honours should not be granted for a war with our own "kith and kin."

"Quote" -- The Blackwatch


The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), of which Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen, is Colonel-in-Chief, was raised on the banks of the River Tay at Aberfeldy, in Perthshire in 1739. It is the senior Highland Regiment of the British Army.

The Regiment was formed from Independent Companies which had been raised in 1725 to -- "police" -- or "watch" -- the Highlands of Scotland, at a particularly turbulent time. It was first called "The Highland Guard", later becomeing the Blackwatch.

In the early eighteen century no roads penetrated the rugged Highlands. Every glen had it's fierce fighting men, armed and ready to battle their enemies including the English. Most of the clans were on fighting terms with at least one other clan, and many of them were openly against the English King, proclaiming themselves still loyal to the exiled Stuarts. of France. In 1715 some of the clans had revolted and attemped to put James Stuart back on their throne.

In 1724 a new Commander-in-Chief was appointed to Scotland; and Irishman, General George Wade. He built roads and forts and revived the experiment of arming Highlanders 'loyal' to the English King and felt they were trustworthy. They were formed into Independent Companies. All others were forbidden to carry arms. All "Highlanders", that is.

In 1725, six companies were formed. Raised from the most loyal (to the English) clans -- Campbell, Grant, Fraser and Munroe -- they were stationed in small groups all over the Highlands, and their duties included stopping such activities as fighting between clans and any insurrection against the King, and stopping the old sport of raiding the Lowlands (reiving); the carrying of arms and plotting against the English government. Most Scots, Borders and Highland, had not yet accepted being conquered.

The Lowlanders, as you may have read of the Border Reivers. The Borders' were a fierce lot themselves and could be quite cruel and dangerous, usually against each other. The young men selected for the 'Black Watch' were the 'pick of the lot' of Highlanders loyal to the King of England. They were often related, and proud of their privilege of bearing weapons. They became known as "Am Freiceadan Dubh" or "The Black Watch", because of the dark tartan they wore, -- the better to "spy" on their fellow Scots....much better than the red uniforms of General Wade's regular soldiers, who dressed in the 'give away' colour of bright red as other Dragoons for the English. They realized they could be seen from afar, so the uniforms became dark colours, to blend in with the forests. The word "black" associated with "Dubh" meaning black, was used in a derogatory manner and the "watch" as the primary service they provided -- they watched the Highlanders; arrested them; killed them and imprisoned them. No weapons were allowed the Highlanders, so it was easy once a Highlander was found, to find the outlawed weapon, arrest them and thus put them in prison (or worse), many were put to death. At this time in history they were "hated" by the Highland Clans who saw them only as traitors". The clans were proscribed or prohibited frm wearing their tartans, forbidden their beloved claymores, dirks, and sgian dubhs, as well as their harps, bagpipes, and other musical instruments. They were forbidden to worship in their own way, and were ordered about much as if they were not human. It was the dehumanizing of the Highlands and it began then. It never stopped and the Clearances was the "final solution" to the English/Lowland problem. Getting the Scots out of the Highlands was a difficult process, but they did it and they did not use humane methods, nor did they care anything about being human and humanitarian ways.

*"The Highlands of Scotland were fast becoming troublesome, to England and amongst the clans themselves on occasion. The real worry was, what they were doing?, and that it be stopped, at all cost. To preserved the "peace" whose feuding was worrisome to the English. Might they not 'rally'?, (once again)?, against their opposing loyalties of the Stuarts and the English Kings? It became necessary (by the English forces), who deemed it necessary to "police", or "watch" the Highlands with troops having a local knowledge of this fierce and rugged country and of the tortuous paths of the Highlands, whilst keeping an eye to the local politics. Six Independent Companies of troops were raised for this task from clans known for their adherence and loyalty to, what will later become known as, the house of Hanover, (England). Three (3)companies were formed from Clan Campbell and (1) one 'each' from Clans Fraser, Grant and Munro, (details from the Black Watch). In 1724 General George Wade,(an Irishman), was placed in command of the Independent Companies, with the thought in mind that he would be more 'acceptable' to the Scots than and English commander. He began to build roads, forts and forbade all but the Independent Companies to carry arms. The Highlands had not yet become a part of England, so you can imagine how they hated the "dreaded Black Watch". While the regular British soldiers wore brilliant red coats, the Scotsmen of the Independent Companies wore a sombre tartan of dark colours and because of this had been dubbed the "Black Watch". It is similar to the Clans Campbell tartan, which formed most of the original Blaclwatch.

The Black Watch was stationed in small groups all over Scotland and charged with stopping the fighting among the clans and the plotting against the forces of the King of England.

In 1739 King George II incorporated the six Independent Companies of The Blackwatch into a foot regiment, insisting that "the men to be natives of the country and none others to be taken." The only exception was the Colonel, who was a Lowlander of Irish descent, since to take a commander from one clan might easily alienate the others.

The first parade of the new foot regiment was held in a meadow beside the River Tay, between Taybridge and Aberfeldy. Each soldier was equipped with a musket, a bayonet and a basked-hilted broadsword. Those who wished were given permission to also carry a pistol, a dirk, and a targe.

In 1736 the French and Indian War broke out in North American and the Regiment was shipped to New York, where the men attracted much attenion from the Indians, who thought for some reason, (probably their kilts), that they were distant relatives. The Black Watch fought one of its most famous battles at Fort Ticonderoga in 1738, attacking the French in the fort for four hours, and, when finally recalled, half of its men and two-thirds of its officers had been killed or wounded. The Museum at Ticonderoga contains mementos of the Regiment.

Sent again to North American for the War of Independence, the Regiments again fought valiantly, driving Washington from Brooklyn and attacking White Plains, N.Y. The Black Watch, like many of its countrymen at home took a dim of the War however, and its official history states:

"We can boast no Battle Honours for our part in the American War of Independence, because it was rightly decreed that Battle Honours should not be granted for a war with our own "kith and kin."

Four years later in 1742, the Regiment was taken out of Scotland for a European war, to fight the French in Flanders. There the Regiment encounter the enemy, 'the French', the enemy had high regard for their bravery and dubbed them "Highland Furies", and earned the highest for their bravery from the French soldiers."

In 1751, while stationed in Ireland, the Black Watch received the Royal Warrant -- the number "42nd." This time it was watching the Irish!

Campaigns in Flanders and the Napoleonic Wars followed in the Regiment's history, and it was during this period that The Black Watch won the right to wear "The Red Hackle," a red vulture feather, in its bonnets, a right safeguarded by an Army Order which described the Hackle as "to be used exclusively by the 42nd Regiment." All British began to respect the Black Watch and their fighting spirit and fierce fighting.

In 1861, Queen Victoria made the name "The Black Watch" official, calling it "her own regiment".

One of the most famous episodes in its history occurred a decade earlier -- the sinking of the Birkenhead. Two platoons of recruits were on board to join the Regiment which was fighting in South Africa. Near Cape Town the ship struck a rock and broke in half. The troops were told by the ship's officers that their own hope lay in jumping overboard and swimming for the lifeboats. Their own officers, however, explained that this would endanger the women and children already in the boats. The men stood firm in their ranks while the ship sank and 357 of them were drowned.

Thereafter the history of 'The Black Watch' is the history of the "Wars of Britain." In India, under Wellesley, who was later to become the Duke of Wellington; in Egypt where they earned the Sphinx as part of their badge after practically destroying Napoleon's "Invincible Legion" at the Battle of Alexandria; in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo; in the Crimea where they took part in the Battles of The Alma, Balaclava and Sebastopol; in the Indian Mutiny and in South Africa; in the First World War, when a total of five Battalions were raised and in which 60 Battle Honours were gained; in the Second World War when the Regiment was represented in every major theater of war except Norway and Malaysa; and finally in Korea, in 1952 along side their American and Canadian allies. The British and Americans always seem to be allies and fighting along side each other. They get along well and the words, "limey" and "yanks", usually are terms of friendly banter. Wherever there is a war, the British and the Americans (add to that now. the Canadians (usually) and Australians, are aligned, and it is, as it will always be, perhaps from their common heritage, they have more in common than they, at first, realized.

George V was The Black Watch's first Colonel-in-Chief, and Queen Elizabeth the third , the deceased Queen Mother, its second, of her brothers having been killed while serving with the Regiment in the first World War.

In the second World War the Regiment was in the path of the German offensive in the spring of 1940, some units being evacuated at Dunkirk, others discimated and the remainder taken prisoner by the enemy. The Battalions reformed and fought in Somalialand, Crete, Toburk and at Alamein, where 19 year old Piper McIntyre of the 5th Battalion, hit three times, played his pipes lying on the ground until the died. Later came Sicily and D-Day, the Ardennes, Cassino and Greece.

Today the Black Watch with its Regimental Depot at Perth, continues in the same traditions, recruiting its men from Perthshire, Angus and Fife, where families for many generations have been proud to see their sons wearing the Red Hackle and The Black Watch Tartan.

[ Authors note: I write history as it is, and I would appreciate it greatly if the Campbells, Grants, Frasers and Munros would not take offense of the article. Do not write to me with any complaints. I am writing about past history, as it actually happened. The facts were given to me by the "Black Watch" itself, and although somewhat apologetic of their early background, they realize as well as the rest of the world, that they are all brave, fighting men, who in the early days were caught up in differing loyalties and religions. Those days are past, and that is where we should leave them, but history is history, and I will write it !!, always ending with the "high note" of what is now, not then. Nancy MacCorkill ]

This was the true history of 'The Black Watch' and everyone knows it is a respected regiment and has been for centuries. However to overlook the regiments early beginnings, would be a disservice to all who died at their hands, in their own Scotland.

*Additional source material from the Black Watch is inserted in the text and notated with the asterisk (from an interview with the Blackwatch by N.MacCorkill).

©Nancy A. MacCorkill, F.S.A.Scot,
Author, Poet,
Clans Gunn, MacLeod of Lewis, Keith, Wallace
Historian of the Ancient Highland Clans of Scotland,



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