Symbols - Opinion Piece
has always been a very strong component of military culture as exampled
by the influence of flags and special icons such as the Eagle standard
of the Roman Legion and Napoleonic Regiments. This opinion piece is
included as a thought provoking example of the power of military symbolism
in the make up of our own military traditions and indeed our culture.
It was written by Fraser Clark who is an accomplished piper with a doctorate
from the University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies in historical
studies specializing in the influence of the bagpipes in Canadian history
and culture. He was awarded the Canadian Gold Medal at the North American
Piping Championships in 1998. The opinions expressed are those of the
Scottish Legends Fade Into History
By Fraser Clark
Their campaign honours read like the history of an
empire: The French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the Napoleonic
Wars, the Liberation of Europe 1945, Gulf Wars I and II. World renown
for their tartan kilt, pipers and red hackle, the Black Watch have earned
the reputation of being one of the fiercest fighting forces and one
of the most effective peace keeping units in the world today. For over
265 years, the Black Watch policed the four corners of the British Empire
while engaging some of the worlds’ more noted - and notorious
- military adversaries: Montcalm, Washington, Bonaparte, Hitler and
Saddam Hussein. Their ferocity in battle is unmatched, their bravery
unwavering, their loyalty, second to none. All 151 battle honours the
regiment paid in blood attests to these principles. Yet, Scots were
saddened to learn that their Royal Highland Regiment, the Black Watch,
have now lost the one battle they could not win.
|Black Watch piper in full Highland
In a decision by the British government to streamline
national defence costs, the Ministry of Defence announced the demise
of the oldest Highland regiment in the British army. The Black Watch
ceased to exist as a regiment last March. Along with their storied past,
goes the unique traditions and distinctive culture that has earned the
Black Watch undying fame.
At a time when cattle raiding and lawlessness characterized
the highlands in the early 18th century, the Black Watch were formed
in 1739 to bring law and order to their brethren in northern Scotland.
They were the first highland regiment raised for service to the British
Crown. They were permitted to play the bagpipes, to don a specially
designed kilt of dark coloured hues – the Black Watch tartan -
and to carry weapons, all of which were outlawed by the government after
the Scottish rebellion of 1745 but skilfully used as a recruiting tool
to gain the trust of their fellow Scots.
Gaelic speaking, Catholic and suspect in their loyalty
to the protestant Hanoverian King George II in London, the Black Watch
were raised to watch the highlands and provide the outward example of
allegiance to the crown. In many respects, they were the forerunners
of the modern day peacekeeper.
|A contemporary member of the Black Watch
serving in Iraq. (MOD UK)
All was not smooth going in the early years. After an isolated transgression
of duty in 1743 – one hundred Black Watch soldiers deserted the
regiment upon rumours of a posting to the West Indies - the Black Watch’s
record of service in peace and war continues to burn images of the kilted
soldier into popular consciousness.
There is a Canadian connection to this historic regiment.
With the threat of American invasion looming large
in the minds of Canadians in 1862, volunteer militia companies were
hastily formed in the rural and urban settlements across British North
America. One of these units, the 5th Battalion Royal Light Infantry,
was recruited solely from the Scottish citizens of Montreal. They would
soon become allies of Scotland’s Black Watch.
In 1905, the citizen soldiers of the now 5th Royal
Scots of Montreal brokered an alliance with their Scottish cousins.
By 1907, the Royal Scots changed their name to the Royal Highlanders
of Canada (Black Watch) adopting the parent regiment’s traditions
while retaining a distinctive Canadian flair. So close were the ties
between the two units fighting side by side during the First World War
that exchange postings were arranged between the various Black Watch
battalions, giving human form to the Shakespearian term - Band of Brothers.
The Royal Highlanders of Canada superseded their Scottish
cousins’ record in battle and earned the right to wear the red
hackle after their actions at Vimy Ridge in 1917. Nearly 12 thousand
Canadians served in the ranks of Canada’s Black Watch during the
First Great War with 2,163 killed and 6,014 wounded. They were awarded
a stunning 6 Victoria Crosses and 26 battle honours between 1915 and
1918. The Canadians’ hard fought reputation to live up to the
fighting spirit of the Black Watch justified their title as Canada’s
With the amalgamation of the Scottish Black Watch, a small group of
Montreal citizens will assume the mantle as the sole bearers of the
Black Watch tradition in the world.
Are they poised to do so?
Currently, the Canadian Forces are undergoing one of
its largest peace-time expansions. Yet, is it unreasonable to place
the Canadian Black Watch on a sure footing, perhaps even resurrecting
Canada’s regular army Black Watch regiment, complete with tartan
kilt, the red hackle and the pipes and drums? After all, Montreal’s
part time Black Watch faces extinction through lack of community interest,
and thus Canada about to lose a cherished tradition for all time.
Of course, the reformation of Canada’s Black
Watch is entirely consistent with this nation’s love affair with
our peacekeeping tradition. Just as the original Black Watch of 1739
were raised to maintain law and order, so too might the Black Watch
of Canada be re-raised in the 21st century. Do we not find Canadian
soldiers deployed to Afghanistan with similar purpose today?
This move is not without precedent. During the Canadian
Armed Forces Cold War expansion, two battalions of Canadian Black Watch
were raised in order to meet the ever-increasing demands by NATO and
the UN. The battalions were located, rather cleverly, in the Maritimes
- Canada’s hub of Celtic culture.
The liberal government under Pierre Trudeau reduced
the regular Black Watch to nil strength in 1970 leaving the vestiges
of the Canadian tradition in the care of a shrinking minority of Montreal
Yet, at the dawn of the 21st century, Canadians are
becoming increasingly aware of their historic past and how we can perpetuate
a distinctive identity. Much of our national history lies at the doorstep
of the Canadian Forces who have largely, until now, been ignored by
the Canadian public. Yet Canadians are in peril of losing our identity
in the face of modernity and the rights of the individual in the context
of citizenship. And with it, the distinctive culture of what a Canadian
soldier is and how he/she sees himself in the broader context of globalization.
Military service culture requires the observance of
traditions that help bind the service member to the state. This is generally
referred to as regimental pride. One need only look to the members of
the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Musical Ride to gain a sense
for what this service pride entails. This is demonstrated through the
practice of tradition - an intangible pride of which a dollar figure
cannot be assigned. In the RCMP’s case, the red serge reminds
us of their identity, the call to history and how they choose to demonstrate
What’s at stake is more than just a record
Members of the Canadian Forces now realize that the numerous customs
and traditions that were jealously protected and handed down from generation
to generation, have slowly been stripped away because we have permitted
it. This includes Canada’s Black Watch.
Now that Scotland’s Black Watch march proudly
into history, it is time Canadians assume the torch and resurrect our
Black Watch to carry Canada’s face across the globe. If we are
proud to see the Maple Leaf donned by our back packing youth, Canada’s
Black Watch will ensure that our sons and daughters will continue to
enjoy those global rights of citizenship paid for by Canada’s
red hackled troops.
What stands in the way?
As numerous Canadian citizens who share a common heritage
to Europe, we can look to the Black Watch to carry forward that distinctive
Canadian identity setting us apart from our American friends. As we
grow increasingly closer to the United States, regiments like Canada’s
Black Watch will continue to define us as Canadian. Scotland’s
Black Watch, that iconic cultural unit that helped define a nation,
has disappeared, likely, forever.
Scotland’s loss is now Canada’s gain: What are we waiting
Over the last several days, I sent copies of this editorial to friends
and colleagues across Canada canvassing them for their thoughts and
feelings. I have received some emotionally charged responses and not
all of them supportive of the content here. I even attempted to hold
a discussion about this editorial with a celebrated Canadian historian
before being rebuked because, to paraphrase this gentleman, there is
no room for this type of cultural promotion in contemporary Canadian
society. I would like to remind my friends and detractors alike that
the narrow definition of things Scottish they seized upon (kilts, bagpipes
and tartan) is in fact, one of the great capers in cultural history.
At first glance, these cultural practises sanctioned by Ottawa may appear
to run counter to the multicultural nature of what it means to be a
Canadian in the constitutional sense of the term (or rather, how can
Ottawa appear to curry favour to one cultural group over another). Thus,
their definition of being Canadian permits little manoeuvrability for
these cultural symbols that regiments like the Black Watch adopted for
I hasten to remind us all that the kilt is not a Scottish
invention but in fact, a form of apparel inspired by the Persians, Romans
and Greeks who initially seized its utility and whose armies were clad
in it. So too did some aboriginal tribes of North and South America
who were uninfluenced by these Arab-European cultural expressions during
pre-conquest days. In fact, when these New World Aboriginals laid eyes
for the first time on kilted Black Watch soldiers in the 18th century,
they believed they’d re-united with their distant kith and kin.
Perhaps they were justified in their viewpoint.
The bagpipe, contrary to popular belief, is capable
of playing some classical music but finds its greatest vehicle for performance
in the folk music genre, European and Middle-eastern alike, because
it was invented over 2,000 years ago in what is now Iran and Iraq. Like
many customs and practises in the West, these appropriated symbols found
form in a plethora of post-renaissance geo-political cultures. All kilt
wearers and bagpipers (Scottish, Swedish, Pakistani and Palestinian)
can rest assured in our contemporary Canada that what they – and
the Black Watch - are really doing is exercising a cultural expression
that belongs to global culture, recognizable and celebrated world-wide
today. What we tend to forget is that what was adopted in Western culture
came from the East and eventually returned there through the experience
of European empire building -a process known to academics as culture
The intent of this opinion piece is not to promote
or offend one ethnicity over another in our now highly sensitive - and
ultimately intolerant – English-Canadian culture. Rather, its
purpose was to highlight the Black Watch as the inheritors of a world
wide cultural phenomenon that we in Canada have the opportunity to nurture
given the constitutionally entrenched principle of multiculturalism.
There is plenty room for discussion here.
If we’re not careful, English Canadians will
begin to question, yet again, what it means to be Canadian in our contemporary
world. If that means resurrecting regiments like the Black Watch, which
help to define this multicultural mosaic we so often like to tout, c’est
Vive le Black Watch!
Some examples of the continuing role played by the playing
of the bagpipes in support of tradition and military symbolism in the
contemporary Canadian Forces are pictured below:
Jeremy Blackburn from Halifax, Nova Scotia plays the bagpipes
during a memorial service at Vimy Ridge in France. MBdr Blackburn
is part of the Canadian Forces contingent participating in Nijmegen
Marches in the Netherlands.
Photo Sgt David Snashall
Piper Malcolm Burrows,
a civilian employed at NATO's Canadian Forces Support Unit Europe
-- Brunssum, Netherlands, plays the Piper's Lament during Remembrance
Day ceremonies attended by Canadian Forces (Europe) personnel
at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery.
Photo: MCpl Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera
|Chief Petty Officer Second Class Rick Crawford,
plays a sunset lament on the bagpipes on the quarterdeck of HMCS
IROQUOIS, in the Gulf of Oman.
Photo by MCpl Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera
|Sergeant Colin Clansey, Pipe Major of the Air Command
Pipes and Drums, plays the traditional lament The Flowers of the
Forest during the official Remembrance Day ceremony at the National
Photo by Sgt Dennis J. Mah, Canadian Forces Combat Camera
to current displays