On the 12th of May, 1725, what was to become The Black Watch was commissioned under General Wade as an independent militia to police the Highlands.
The Black Watch was an elite military Regiment whose history stretches back almost three centuries. Mention ‘The Black Watch’ almost anywhere around the world and you will almost certainly elicit fond recognition of one of Scotland’s most famous fighting units. Mere mention of the name is enough to conjure up visions of bravery and valour, and swirling kilts (‘ladies from hell’ as the Germans called them in World War I France).
The Black Watch was raised in a unique way, in the wake of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. Originally, six companies of trustworthy Highlanders were raised from loyal clans; three from Clan Campbell, one of Grants, one of Frasers, and one from the Munros. This was in 1725, when General Wade, as leader of the King’s Army in Scotland, set up the ‘Highland Watch’. The companies of the ‘Watch’ were stationed in small detachments across the Highlands, to prevent fighting between the clans, deter raiding and assist in enforcing the laws against the carrying of weapons. Inadvertently General Wade created what was to become one of the world’s greatest and most enduring military brands.
The title ‘The Black Watch’ (gaelic: ‘Am Freiceadan Dubh’) was derived from the dark green government tartan it was issued and the original role of the militia companies. The uniform changed over time (Scottish troops wore kilts until 1940), with the distinctive Red Hackle being adopted in 1795, but the nickname has been more enduring. The regimental motto was ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’ (No man provokes me with impunity).
In 1739, King George II authorised the raising of four additional companies and these were amalgamated with the six independent companies of the ‘Highland Watch’ to form a single infantry Regiment of the Line. This Regiment was originally numbered the 43rd Highland Regiment, with John Lindsay, 20th Earl of Crawford as its Colonel, but it was renumbered as the 42nd in 1749. The men were to be “natives of that country and none other to be taken.” The first muster of the new Regiment took place near Aberfeldy, in May, 1740, and is commemorated by a monument in the form of a soldier dressed in the uniform of those days.
The original uniform was a twelve yard long plaid of the dark tartan which is now so well known as the Black Watch tartan. This was fastened around the body with a leather belt. The jacket and waistcoat were scarlet with buff facings and white lace, and a blue bonnet was worn. The men were armed with a musket and bayonet, a broadsword and generally also a pistol and a dirk.
Early the regiment’s history a seemingly inauspicious event occurred, when, in 1743, it was ordered to London, ostensibly for an inspection by the King. However, rumours abounded that the Regiment was to be shipped to the unhealthy climate of the West Indies and that the King was not to inspect. Many of the men genuinely believed they had been enlisted only for service in Scotland and decided to return home. Marching by night, over a hundred of them reached Northamptonshire, before they were eventually captured. They were tried by court martial and three of the leaders were condemned to be shot in the Tower.
The remainder of the Regiment proceeded to Flanders, for action against the French. When the ’45 Jacobite Rising broke out, the 43rd returned to the south of Britain in anticipation of a possible French invasion. However, one company of the regiment fought at the Battle of Culloden, under Dugald Campbell of Auchrossan, with no casualties. You might wonder if the Rebellion would have taken place had The Black Watch been left to fulfill its role policing the Highlands, rather than being posted to the Continent two years previously.
During its time in France, the regiment experienced its first full combat at the Battle of Fontenoy, in 1745, where it surprised the French with its ferocity, and greatly impressed ‘Butcher’ Cumberland. The 43rd was allowed “their own way of fighting”, which meant that each time it received the French fire, its Colonel, Sir Robert Munro, ordered his men to “clap to the ground.” For the first time in a European battle, this Scots Regiment introduced a system of infantry tactics. Alternatively firing and taking cover, springing up and closing with the enemy, it drove them back several times. The Regiment was described by a French officer as “Highland Furies who rushed in on us with more violence than ever did the sea driven by tempest.”
As part of the Childers Reforms of 1881, the 42nd Regiment of Foot was amalgamated with the 73rd (Perthshire) Regiment of Foot to form a new regiment. In recognition of its famous nickname, the new regiment was named The Royal Highland Regiment (The Black Watch), being officially redesignated The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), in 1931. However, as part of the Government’s 2006 reorganisation of the Army, The Black Watch lost its Regimental status and become a Battalion within the new Royal Regiment of Scotland.
“In a Highland Regiment every individual feels that his conduct is the subject of observation and that, independently of his duty, as one member of a systematic whole he has a separate and individual reputation to sustain, which will be reflected on his family and district or glen.”
These words were written by a 19th Century, Black Watch historian. Today, they illuminate nearly three centuries of courage, honour, gallantry and devoted service to King, Queen and country. From its first great battle, at Fontenoy, to Fallujah, in Iraq, in 2005, with Ticonderoga, Waterloo, and two World Wars in between, the Black Watch has been there when the world’s history was being shaped. Along the way, The Black Watch collected an incredible 164 battle honours, 14 VCs and a reputation that places the regiment in a category of its own.