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The Regimental badge of the Black Watch

Military Symbols - Opinion Piece

Symbolism 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 author:

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 Regimental regalia.

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 Royal Highlanders.

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 citizen soldiers.

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 that history.

What’s at stake is more than just a record of history.

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 for?

Post Script

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 themselves.

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 transfer.

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 la vie.

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:

Master Bombadier 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 War Memorial.
Photo by Sgt Dennis J. Mah, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

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