Black Watch Origins

The origins of The Black Watch can be traced back to 1725, when George II requested a series of Independent Companies to watch and patrol areas of the Highlands. The primary purpose of the Companies was to prevent smuggling and cattle rustling following the Jacobite Rising of 1715. The Companies originally wore kilts of locally woven tartan and comprised of groups of local men, most of whom were trusted and respected members of society.

The Independent Companies were bought into the British Regimental System on 25th October 1739, and numbered the 43rd Regiment of Foot, however they continued to be known by their more popular name, Am Freiceadan Dubh (Gaelic, The Black Watch). The dark government issue tartan may have contributed to the epithet, however it is possible the name derives from the original role of the regiment, which was to keep ‘watch’ for crime (namely blackmail and extortion of cattle in the Highlands). In order to prevent ill-feeling between clans the first commanding officer was chosen as Lowlander – John Lindsay, 20th Earl of Crawford.

The Black Watch were originally assembled at Aberfeldy in 1740, and kept watch in the Highlands for the following three years. The regiment was ordered to London by George II in 1743 for inspection, however along the way speculation ran rife that they were to be shipped to the West Indies to fight in the War of Austrian Succession. This would have surely been a terrifying prospect for men who had never traveled far from their birthplace before. As the regiment grew closer to London, the rumour mill prompted a mutiny and many men deserted and attempted to find their way back to Scotland. The deserters were rounded up by cavalry in Northamptonshire, with the ringleaders (Corporal Samuel MacPherson, Corporal Malcolm MacPherson and Private Farquhar Shaw) executed by firing squad at the Tower of London on 18th of July 1743. The remaining deserters were sent to regiments in the Mediterranean, the West Indies and Georgia.

The first combat operation by The Black Watch was at the Battle of Fontenoy in Flanders in 1745, where the regiment distinguished themselves with great bravery and suprised the French with their brutal ferocity. The regiment was renumbered the 42nd Regiment of Foot in 1751, earning the title ‘Royal’ in 1758 as well as ordered to have a 2nd Battalion raised. This Battalion was eventually elevated as the 73rd Perthshire Regiment.

When the 1745 Jacobite Rising broke out The Black Watch returned to England in anticipation of a French invasion. One company of the regiment fought for the Hannoverians at Culloden under Dugald Campbell of Auchrossan. There were no casualties.

In 1756 the regiment was sent to New York to support British colonial settlements who were being threatened by the French and Indians. The regiment lost over half of its men in an assault at the strongly fortified French position of Fort Ticonderoga. The attack was launched without artillery support, and the regiment charged forward under deadly fire. 647 men out of a total of 1100 were lost.

Throughout the remainder of the 18th century the regiment fought at important North American battles including the capture of Montreal (1760) from the French effectively completing the British conquest of Canada, and the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) at battles in Brooklyn, Bloomingdale, Fort Washington, White Plains, Brandy Wine Creek and Yorktown.

The Black Watch was involved in many battles against the French in the 19th Century, most notably the Battle of Alexandria (1801) where the regiment distinguished themselves by capturing the standard of Napoleon’s ‘Invincible Legion’. The regiment also took part in the French Army’s last stand at the Battle of Toulouse (1814), and the Battle of Waterloo (1815) alongside Cameron and Gordon Highlanders. In 1854 the Black Watch formed part of the force sent to the Crimea, under the command of Sir Colin Campbell.

The regiment moved to India in 1857 to fight in the Indian Mutiny. For Scots, the battle conditions could not have been more further from ideal. Fighting in the heat and dust, combined with long marches and a determined and skillful enemy would have tested the hardest of Highland soldiers. Eight men received the Victoria Cross at this time. The First Battalion also ‘liberated’ a brass gong from the mutineers of the Gwalior contingent at Seraghai. This gong was used to tell the time at Black Watch barracks.

During army reforms of 1881, the regiments were amalgamated  – the 42nd became the 1st Battalion of The Black Watch, while the 73rd became the 2nd Battalion of The Black Watch. However the 73rd had developed it’s own distinctive traditions and patterns of service, which were essentially wiped out by the 43rd during this amalgamation period. From 1881 the regiment was officially known as The Black Watch (The Royal Highland Regiment).

At the beginning of the First World War the 1st Battalion was based in Aldershot, and because of proximity were amongst the first troops to land in France in July 1914. This Battalion took part in early battles of Mons, Marne, Aisne and Ypres, and by November many men had been injured or killed. Of those who marched from Aldershot in 1914, only 39 were still serving with the 1st Battalion in 1918. The 2nd Battalion served in Macedonia, Gaza, Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Battalions of The Black Watch fought in nearly every major British action in the Second World War. In 1940 the 1st Battalion (along with two territorial divisons and the 51st Highland Division) were captured at St-Valery-En-Caux following the retreat from Dunkirk. The 2nd Battalion fought in Somalia against the Italians.

The regiment won honours after The Battle of the Hook in Korea in 1952, and was involved in many peacekeeping and counterinsurgency missions worldwide including the Kenyan Mau Mau Uprising and the Malayan Emergency. The Black Watch was the last British military unit to leave Hong Kong in 1997. The regiment also served in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and was particularly targeted by Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army.

The Black Watch fought during the initial siege of Basra in the 2003 Iraq War and were deployed to Iraq again the following year, suffering causalities caused by IEDs and car bomb attacks. In 2004 it was announced that The Black Watch would join five other regiments (The Royal Scots, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers, The Royal Highland Fusiliers, The Highlanders and The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) to make the Royal Scottish Regiment. This amalgamated regiment would be made up of five normal and two territorial battalions, to reflect the growing recruitment difficulties and inefficiencies of maintaining so many small separate units. Opposition for the joining of regiments was widespread, however all of the regiments were able to keep their former name as an identifier, with its Battalion number as subtitle. Today the regiment is known as The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. The battalion was also able to keep its most famous distinction – the red hackle on the Tam O’Shanter.