History Demands Merger Of Scotland's Regiments

Roundup: Talking About History

Ewen Macaskill, The Guardian (London), 12/16/04

Old soldiers, and serving ones, have been campaigning hard in Scotland to save Scottish regiments from merger. An announcement is expected from Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, today.

The campaign has been vigorously supported by much of the media in Scotland, recalling regimental histories going back to the 18th century. Typical is the columnist Magnus Linklater:"Merely reciting their names: Black Watch, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Royal Scots, King's Own Scottish Borderers, is enough to stiffen the sinews, to summon up the whiff of cordite at Waterloo, or the thin red line at Balaclava. You cannot divorce emotion from the memories of great battles fought, or lives bravely sacrificed."

Most Scots are brought up on such stories of martial tradition, of Scottish regiments, especially the Highlanders, in the thick of bloody battles. But there is an alternative history, though one heard less often. It is more likely to be raised among what remains of the Highlanders than by those in Edinburgh and Glasgow prone to misjudged nostalgia.

I first heard this alternative history from Derick Thomson, the Gaelic poet and professor of Celtic studies, who spoke with bitterness of the Highland regiments as" cannon fodder". The regiments were raised in the 18th century, mainly as a way of helping to pacify the Highlands. The threat posed by the clans was removed by recruiting regiments and putting them in the front line - the Black Watch suffered 50% casualties at the Battle of Ticonderoga in 1758 - or sending them to disease-ridden places such as the West Indies.

School textbooks lauded the bravery of the Highlanders in General James Wolfe's battle for Quebec in 1759. Less often recorded is Wolfe's disdain for his own soldiers. Reflecting the British government view, he wrote:"They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country and no great mischief if they fall." And fall they did, in large numbers, the deaths of so many men contributing, along with the Clearances, to the depopulation of the Highlands that persists until this day.

The historian Tom Devine, in The Scottish Empire 1600-1815, notes that estimates of the number of Highlanders fighting in the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars ranged from 37,000 to 48,000 men."This is quite an extraordinary figure, given that the population of the Highlands was around 250,000 to 300,000 during the second half of the 18th century."

The regiments can rightly take pride in the part they played in the first and second world wars, and in post-war engagements. But the motives behind raising these regiments and the way they were cynically deployed should temper the views of those who oppose merger on grounds of regimental tradition. Unlike Linklater, my sinews do not stiffen in recollection at generations of Highlanders who ended up as cannon fodder.

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