Saturday, 22 March 2014

Recharging batteries.

Black Watch Memorial Aberfeldy 

This coming week we are taking a short holiday, staying in Aberfeldy where this statue is to be found. While I'm there I hope to rekindle a love affair with writing, with history and with my wee blog. It's been far too long, too easy to get out of the habit of spending an hour or two creating something, too easy to interject something else and too easy to forgive not doing it. I want to get past that even if I can't return to the frequent posts of my redundancy imposed free time.

Meanwhile, as I may not have an internet connection while I'm away, here is an older post based on my love of little known history. As it concerns Aberfeldy it makes a connection. While I'm there no doubt I'll be standing at the foot of this memorial and paying my respects to the man and his two friends who died so long ago.


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. Known in Gaelic as 'Am Freiceadain Dubh', it's more famous through translation 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.

Let me tell you a wee tale: a tale of history, of Scotland and of irony. Jings, three of my favourite things all in one.

I hope I 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 me that it was fortified as a frontier outpost of the British Army when the area was a hotbed of rebellion in years 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 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.

Looking closer I saw none of the Highlanders were carrying any weapons and it was this that made me curious. 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. It was a story I knew but had been far from mind as I wandered here in Fort William.

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 clan chiefs and with loyalty through him to the King. The clan chiefs used the authority of the king to increase their own power 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 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 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 Scottish 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 duty and 'raison d'etre'.

Completing enlistment was no problem as with the effects of the disarming acts, particularly on the loyal  government supporting 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, senior officers.

While these 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 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 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 made Scots regiments such effective and ultimately, valued, fighting forces.

By 1741, recruitment and training over, The Black Watch {named after the dark colour of the government tartan} was sent to watch over its glens. Well trained but poorly equipped - more than 400 of the regiment used family weapons - they were given empty promises of kit ordered and weapons to be supplied that never materialised. But the overwhelming issue wasn't poor kit but of honourable promises repeatedly broken. For these honour sensitive products of the highlands the scene was set. History and circumstance would ultimately turn against them and make them victims of their principals.

The Jacobite threat had never gone away, in fact it was ever increasing and from 1740  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 King George 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 Hanoverian 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 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 they 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 with fixed bayonets and 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 a mansion house called Leyvden New Bield.

The men negotiated over two days with a member of the local gentry who also alerted the newly arrived militia that the mutineers were well prepared, well dug in, well supplied with arms and apparently willing to make a stand. Given assurances over two days guaranteeing a fair hearing they surrendered and threw themselves on the mercy of the Army in the hope that their grievances would at last be honestly heard. 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 or the Americas for life.

Samuel, Malcolm and Farquhar were put against a wall in the tower and executed while their comrades looked on, some hiding their faces in their plaids to avoid the sight. They were  conveniently already wearing their shrouds under their plaids at their killing and were hastily put into coffins and buried where they fell. They lie there still.

Before this a few sketches were made of them at exercise and 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 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.

See you later.


Unknown said...

Very interesting. I would like to see that area someday. You are a very good story teller. Hope you are enjoying your break.

Yamini MacLean said...

Hari Om
Breath deeply up there and recharge indeed! This was a fascinating read and something about which I was sadly unaware. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. YAM xx

Alistair said...

Hello girls,

I'm glad you enjoyed this tale. It's very special to me, maybe because of the way it started for me. Although I'd heard of the mutiny I never realised there were any depictions of it - other than the statue. I remember asking the museum staff about the poster that day and they hadn't any information about it or where it had come from. They didn't know what it represented or the story of the mutineers. I've always felt that was sad. It's a cracker of a story as well as an important bit of history. I've often thought there might be a book in it! Who knows.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, just read it and found it fascinating. Love reading your tales and hearing them too. x

Alistair said...

Why thank'ee kindly Cap'n Jack.

Anonymous said...

Great Stuff, Alistair. Print it off and send a copy to the museum so they can stick it up. I'm sure other visitors would enjoy the story, well told.

Adam QLD

Alistair said...

Thanks Adam,

Glad you enjoyed it. I've never thought of sending them the tale. Maybe I should do that.


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