Friday, 23 October 2009

Am Freiceadain Dubh


Black Watch Memorial Aberfeldy

Firstly, let me introduce you to the man in the photo. His name is Samuel Macpherson and he was born in Laggan in the highlands about 1712 or there abouts. He is standing on a memorial to the regiment of which he was part. It was officially The 43rd {Highland} Regiment Of Foot but was known in Gaelic as 'Am Freiceadain Dubh'. but we know it much better in Britain as 'The Black Watch'

I have a natural sense of the ironic. It reassures me, keeps me sane, brings a wry smile to my lips and sometimes, a deep sense of satisfaction.

I think that as a Scotsman its part of our national character, part of our make up.

Let me tell you a wee tale. Its a tale of history, of Scotland and of irony. Jings, three of my favourite things all in one. I hope I can do it justice.

I once worked in Fort William in the highlands. Its gaelic name is 'An Gearasdan' which means simply 'The Garrison' and reminds us that it was fortified as a frontier outpost of the British Army when the area was a hotbed of rebellion in days long past. In the town there is a nice wee museum, and because of the area and its history there is a substantial part of it given over to Jacobite memorabilia. I found myself in there one lunchtime just browsing round the usual cases of Jacobite glass and Highland weaponry. All very enjoyable to be sure but not really that out of the ordinary in any good local authority museum in the North of Scotland. As I was passing through a corridor linking two of the rooms I passed an old print.

Large and faded, without any kind of label to explain itself, it showed Highland soldiers apparently parading through a town, marching four abreast, clad in bonnet and plaid and being watched by 18th century townsfolk and led and accompanied front, side and rear by evenly spaced horsemen. They are approaching a high gateway.

On closer inspection I saw none of the Highlanders were carrying any weapons and it was this that made me really look. As I did so I realised that the parade was no such thing, it was an escort. And those town gates are actually the gates to the Tower Of London.

What the print actually shows is the arrival at the Tower of London of the mutineers of the 43rd {Highland} Regiment of Foot in 1743.

At this point let me rewind time slightly even more and give some background detail, some historical context of the 'Watch' Regiments as I understand it anyway.

In 1667 Charles the Second authorised the Earl of Atholl to raise and train independent companies of troops from the most trusted { loyal to the crown } clans, and to cause them to 'keep watch upon the braes' in an attempt to impose law and order onto the wild highland regions and to protect the interests of the crown.

By the end of the century there were many regiments raised and led by the clan chiefs and with loyalty through him to the King. The clan chiefs used the authority of the king to their own ends when it suited them and by 1717 the watch regiments were disbanded as being ineffective. Where necessary they were replaced with regular troops, especially so after the early Jacobite rebellions, but regular troops were more like prisoners in their own barracks at Ruthven, Bernera or An Gearasdan, surrounded as they were by an alien landscape of imposing, unfamiliar hills and often unfriendly natives who spoke little or no English.

During the rebellion of 1715 many members of watch companies left to fight for the Jacobites - no breach of honour for they followed the only real allegiance they recognised, that of loyalty to the clan chief who had ordered them to join the army in the first place. The unreliable or potentially disloyal watch regiments were replaced with four garrisons of lowland or English foot. But the garrison forts were, as I said above, incapable of enforcing the rule of law and by 1727 general Wade - of road building fame - advised the King to reinstate the watch regiments.This was done and recruitment began in the old ways and with the same promise that the regiments would be retained to serve only in the highlands to protect their own lands. That was firmly understood by the regiments to be their sole 'raison d'etre'.

Completing enlistment was no problem as with the effects of the disarming acts, particularly on the loyal clans, joining the army became the only legitimate way for a young man raised in the martial traditions of the day to be able to bear arms. The vital difference this time was that control of the regiments now passed from clan chiefs into the hands of central government and professional, almost exclusively English orientated, senior officers.

While these senior officers knew of the terms of enlistment, they had no conception of - or attachment to - the men themselves. They didn't understand the meaning of the bond that had been given or the regiments instinctive attachment to its native land, tongue and culture. They also failed to realise that many of the men enlisted and serving under them as junior officers and lower ranks were far from being the kind of men so common in the other regiments of the British army. These highland volunteers were often gentlemen and the sons of gentlemen and felt themselves responsible for their behaviour to a clan, clan chief and a highly ingrained sense of honour. It was this trait that often made Scots regiments such effective fighting forces.



By 1741, recruitment and training over, The Black Watch {named after the dark colour of the government tartan} was sent to look over its glens. Well trained but poorly equipped - more than 400 of the regiment used family swords - they were given empty promises of kit ordered and weapons to be supplied that never materialised. But the real issue wasn't poor kit but of honourable promises repeatedly broken. For these honour sensitive products of the highlands the scene was set and of course history and circumstance was turning.

The Jacobite threat had never gone away, in fact it was ever increasing and Britain was at war with France in the fields of distant Flanders. It may be that previous experience of 'turncoat' regiments during the recent rebellions prompted the King to consider that to have large numbers of well trained, but not necessarily loyal, troops left behind at home in a politically volatile situation was just too big a risk. France was also very effectively using the Jacobite cause to try and destabilise the ruling powers position and to force them to retain troops at home in case of emergency, thus weakening strength for overseas service. These factors laid the foundation for what was to follow.

By the end of 1742 the regiment received orders that it was to proceed from its mountain glens to the links at Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, not far from where I sit right now, to be reviewed by General Clayton. Months before, they had been advised in letters home by a fellow officer serving in London in the regular army that it was being openly stated there that the Black Watch would be sent into England and then on overseas. This fed into the regiments deepest fears of being removed from their homelands against the conditions of their enlistment.

Once arrived in Musselburgh, tired and anxious, they were told that the General now wished to review them at Berwick on Tweed, and so those weary men would have marched right past my front door. Perhaps they billeted overnight here in the village or nearby. I do know that on arrival at Berwick, and finally on English soil, the men were told that the King himself wanted to review them in London and after that they would be able to return home to their families. Tension mounted as more and more promises made proved to be of little value, and when the men expressed fear about being taken from their hills and anxiety of being posted abroad they were given platitudes and little else. As the regiment marched south through Alnwick, Newcastle, Richmond, Doncaster and Royston, while the highlanders appreciated the stir they caused - these feared, wild looking foreign speaking men and undoubted rebels - while they seem to have enjoyed the crowds who came to stare in the towns and countryside they passed through, the situation became more fraught the further from home they found themselves.

The men in the regiment were not aware that it was the Kings custom to review a regiment before it was posted overseas. It was not until they were in London and billeted across the city that they came in contact with people who were aware of that fact, and who made the highlanders aware too. In London they also met a party of Royal Scots just returned from Barbados with lurid tales of disease and death which did nothing to quiet the rumours that were flying round.

They also found that the King would not be reviewing them as promised after all having recently departed for Flanders himself.

After some rest time the regiment was paraded in front of the Duke of Montague and that afternoon given orders to proceed to embarkation on the Thames. No destination was given. Angered by what they saw as a clear and final betrayal of trust many of the men stated they would soldier no more but would return home as soon as possible. Others stated they did not want to continue in service unless all promises made were delivered and that there was a clear guarantee they would be returning to the highlands.

Samuel Macpherson, a sergeant in the regiment, a quiet, studious, well educated man who had studied law in Edinburgh until inactivity and frustration caused him to join the watch, and his cousin Malcom Macpherson, decided that if the men wanted to return home immediately they would take them. They would return the same way they had come, marching openly in good order, and if they needed to defend themselves to do so then so be it.

Those who intended leaving met on the nearby common at midnight and, when challenged by brother officers wanting them to stay and again plead their case, forced their way through them at point of bayonet with cries of "Stand off!" More than a hundred made their way in good order and avoided bloodshed. They were joined the next day by some 70 more men, distrustful of the government, senior officers and determined to return home.

A very accurate print.
 Notice how the plaid is being used to keep the guns lock dry.

In 72 hours of freedom they travelled almost 100 miles on foot and not one of the units searching found trace of them. They molested no one, they stole nothing. They were given intelligence from sympathetic Scots in Wellingborough which told them they had come as far as they possibly could without interference from vastly superior numbers, and they took up a defensive position in the shelter of a small wood called Ladywood, near the ruined shell of the mansion house called Leyvden New Bield and strangely enough only about 8 or 10 miles from where that sorry lass Mary Queen of Scots finally lost her head.

After negotiations over two days with a member of the local gentry who had also alerted the militia that the mutineers were well prepared, well dug in and well supplied with arms and apparently willing to make a stand, they surrendered and threw themselves on the mercy of the Army in the hope that their grievances would at last be heard fairly. They were, as the museum print clearly showed, taken under guard to the Tower Of London.

Samuel Macpherson, Malcolm Macpherson and another, Farquhar Schaw, were identified as leaders of the group, quickly tried, found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to be shot. All others were, as their worst fears had always been, sent to the West Indies for life.

Before they were put to death against a wall in the tower while their comrades looked on, some hiding their faces in their plaids to avoid the sight, a few sketches were made of them taking exercise to be used in the daily pamphlets which were the precursors of newspapers.

One of the Ladywood Mutineers

Many years later, while looking for an accurate depiction of the uniform of the day, it was one of these sketches that was unknowingly used as the basis for the memorial to the raising of the Black Watch regiment in Aberfeldy.

It appeals to my sense of history that to this day, in some way, Samuel  Macpherson still stands defiantly and looks out upon the hills he loved, had promised to protect and never wanted to leave.

It appeals to my senses of both irony and justice that many people who come to stand at the foot of that memorial to rightly commemorate honour, sacrifice, courage and leadership stand there not knowing that they are looking up at a man who was put to death having been cruelly cheated and lied to by those in whom he had placed his trust, but who had himself always been true to his word, his principles and his people.

Well done Sam....

La a blhair s'math na cairdean
Its good to be with friends on the day of battle.


It seems not all the remaining mutineers were sent to the West Indies but were dispersed through several regiments and sent overseas to America and the far East also.

see you later.........

5 comments:

Elizabeth Rhiannon said...

I love reading about your history, especially when told by you. You are a very talented writer...or is it because you're Scottish? :) Everyone we met while on our trip there had the best and most well-told stories. Must be in the blood :) Great post ~ER~

Bovey Belle said...

What a fascinating essay - and it sounds as if it just came straight from your own knowledge rather than cribbing, as I am wont to do! There are times when those in command (or is that ALL the time?) have no common sense and no notion of the word loyalty, let alone the word betrayal. Thank you for putting this Sassenach straight anyway - if it's any consolation, I'm on your side over this - poor sods . . .

P.S. Dubh means the same in Welsh where it is spelt Ddu. A Llewellyn Ddu lived in our house in its earliest 15th century incarnation.

Morning's Minion said...

Very, very interesting and the way that history should be written! It may be my ancient Scottish blood rising up, but seems to me that they were forever badly used by the English. For me, these two warring bloodlines finally melded in early New England and we became what my family referred to as "New England Yankee."

Alistair said...

Hullo Lassies,

Thanks for all your nice comments about this post.

Samuel Macpherson has been a personal hero of mine ever since I found his, and his two companions, story many years ago. I would love to be able to write a book about this whole episode because I find it just so poignant but have always been worried that I could not do the story justice, but who knows maybe one day. I do seem to be developing a bit of a style of writing in my posts. { But writing a character is a different thing altogether.}

I have always been drawn to the more melancholy side of history and the tales of the treatment of the highland regiments in those distant days is full of injustice and cynical manipulation. I think in total about 15 or maybe 16 regiments mutinied at one stage or other due to the treatment they received and several souls paid the same price as Sam and had stories just as tragic.

As for the 43rd, well they shortly became the 42nd and in that guise fought in the French and Indian wars of American history. Due to incompetent leadership, or maybe some of that cynicism I mentioned in my comments to one of MM's posts, the Black Watch was all but destroyed at the Battle of Ticonderoga {in 1758 I think?}

They went on to become perhaps the most famous Scots regiment in the army until recent amalgamations with other regiments.

You seem to like these kind of posts so maybe I will have to have a wee think tae masel'. There are plenty of stories to be told from my wee lonely brain cell. My head is full of useless information but I cant remember what my lovely G said to me five minutes ago half the time.

But that itself may be another story.

Thanks again for your encouragement. I really appreciate it.

kind regards........Al.

Big Swifty said...

Alastair, I can't get enough of this sort of information. I am fascinated by history, and have been foccussing on Scottish and Irish history for a few years, to get a better understanding of the whole Republic/Northern Ireland issues, and also to learn about the UK's history from a less anglo-centric (and over-simplified) viewpoint. If you wrote a book on this topic I would buy it.

The Sunday Posts 2017/ Hush Hush

Hush, hush, time tae be sleepin'. Hush, hush, dreams come a-creepin'; Dreams of peace and of freedom, So smile in your sleep,...