The gallant forty twa: Black Watch soldiers relaxing in Dover shortly after the Crimean War in 1856
As talk of independence threads through the tapestry of Scottish politics today, the role of the Scottish soldier has become, once more, a national issue. Would an independent Scotland be able to maintain a viable army? Would the Highland battalions survive? And if they did, who would serve in them? The Jocks are as proud of their traditions today as they ever were. In Afghanistan, where they fight under the general banner of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, their identity hidden under the anonymity of names like "3 Scots" or "5 Scots", they make no bones about where their allegiance really lies; their T-shirts proclaim unmistakably "Black Watch" or "Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders", their loyalty is to their history and heritage rather than a collective name.
The modern soldier, however, is probably just as interested in the army as a career, and the prospects it offers, as he is in nostalgia or past allegiances. Would a small Scottish army, committed to domestic defence, offer him the range and variety of a British defence force — to say nothing of the action?
Two books, whose publications are coincidental, reflect these issues — and throw up both the contradictions of Highland history and the extraordinary qualities of the fighting men who have emerged over the centuries from this small corner of Britain.
In The Last Highlander Sarah Fraser has assembled a vivid portrait of the last aristocrat to be executed in the Tower of London — Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, who backed the rebellion of Charles Edward Stuart in 1745, and paid the ultimate price. Victoria Schofield has written a formidable history of the Black Watch, a first volume only, which takes us from the founding of the regiment in 1739 to the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1899. Its battle honours criss-cross the world, from Fontenoy to Ticonderoga, Quatre Bras, Waterloo, the Indian Mutiny, Egypt, and the West Indies; no war takes place without "the gallant forty twa" at its heart, and in the course of it they fight with broadswords, rifles, cannon, bayonets or their bare hands, garnering the highest praise from their commanders and eliciting fear and loathing among their enemies. In the course of it they collect 14 Victoria Crosses, surely the highest number garnered by the smallest, tightest knit group of soldiers in the British Army.