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Black Watch

by Willie Scobie

In April of 1725, on the advice of General Wade, Commander-in-Chief in North Britain, King George I authorised the raising of a "Watch" which was comprised of six Independent Companies which were to be "employed in disarming the Highlanders, preventing depredations, bringing criminals to justice, and hindering rebels and attainted persons from inhabiting that part of the kingdom."

The companies were captained by Lord Lovat, Grant of Ballindalloch, Munro of Culcairn, Campbell of Lochnell, Campbell of Carrick and Campbell of Skipness.
On the 15th May of that year Wade issued an order regarding the uniform of the companies -

"take Care to provide Plaid Cloathing and Bonnets in the Highland Dress for the Non-Commission Officers and Soldiers belonging to their Companies, the Plaid of each Company to be as near as they can of the same sort and Colour."

Although a few commentators have argued that each company originally wore its own tartan, it is generally accepted that where Wade said " . . .the Plaid of each Company to be as near as they can of the same sort and Colour." he clearly meant (and that's how it was interpreted by his company commanders) that the same tartan should be worn by all six companies.

We can state with confidence, from the evidence of the Ballindalloch Letters, that by 1733 the six companies were certainly wearing the same pattern and Ballindalloch's tenants were weaving the plaids for all of them. That tartan was identical to, or very similar to, the one which we have long known as "Black Watch", officially termed the Government Tartan. In 1739 the six companies were raised to ten and, by the King's Warrant, they became the 43rd Royal Highland Regiment (later 42nd), continuing to be commonly known as the Black Watch.

Photohgrap[h of the Black Watch HQ at Balhousie Castle in Perth, Scotland.There has been much speculation as to why the Watch (and thus the regiment) was called "Black". The two main theories are - (1) that this was because of the very dark appearance of the Watch's uniform tartan. (2) that the Watch was employed in combating the protection rackets known as "black mail". For some, neither of these explanations is entirely convincing and it has been suggested that, as agents of an unpopular government, soldiers of the Watch were considered to be black as in the sense of "black hearted". Since, however, the officers of the companies seem to have used the term themselves, this suggestion also fails to convince. The present author offers the possibility that the designation came from the Black Cockade of the House of Hanover (as opposed to the White Cockade of the Jacobites).

General Stewart of Garth, who should be dependable because he claimed to have information from men who were with the regiment in 1739, tells us that a new tartan was introduced at that time which was "distinct from all others". It is possible that it was then that the very characteristic and idiosyncratic arrangement of the thin black lines was added to the existing green/blue/black of the tartan. Garth served with the Black Watch from 1787 to 1804, so we may be confident that the regimental tartan with which he was familiar was identical to that of 1739 (or his sources would have informed him of any change). Portraits which depict the Government Tartan in precise detail exist from the 1760s.

Regarding the old and persistent belief that the Government Tartan had originally been a Clan Tartan of the Campbells, perhaps something more may be said. Although conventional wisdom does not accept that Clan Tartans, in a rigidly defined sense, existed as early as 1725, it may be that given a looser definition, the claim might stand.

Any pattern which has had a special association with a particular clan, probably because it has been woven and worn in a territory dominated by the clan in question, or any tartan known to have been worn in a uniform manner by a clan - might be a realistic definition. In his Letters from the North of Scotland (written between 1726 and 1737), Captain Edmund Burt, gives circumstantial evidence which implies that the tartan worn by at least one of the Independent Companies had previously been worn by the clans folk of its Captain. Burt does not identify the Captain or the clan in question, but given that three out of the six were Campbells this may add some weight to that clan's enduring claim to the Government Tartan. In the 1819 Key Pattern Book of William Wilson & Sons, suppliers of tartan to the military, this note relating to the Government Tartan is to be found - "This is said to be the Munro Tartan - but it is far more probable that it is the Campbell Tartan." It is possible, however, that in the early 1700s this pattern was a popular one worn commonly by different clans throughout the Highlands.

In 1793 George III asked the Duke of Argyll to raise a regiment. Argyll delegated that task to Duncan Campbell of Lochnell and in July of the following year the 98th Argyllshire Highlanders (later 91st) were founded. Lochnell garbed the regiment in the tartan which the Campbells by then thought of as their own - the Government Tartan.
In 1800 Major-General William Wemyss (a cousin of the Countess Elizabeth) raised the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. The regimental tartan, though called "Sutherland" was in reality the Government Tartan (as confirmed by Wilson's records).

The Government Tartan was worn widely by Highland military units and it became the basis of regimental tartans such as the Seaforth Highlanders (with red and white over stripes), the Gordon Highlanders (with yellow over stripes), and a number of Fencible regiments. It is believed that the adoption of these patterns as Clan Tartans by, for example, MacKenzies, Gordons, Grants, Munros and Sutherlands, arose from the military association.

In 1881, when the 91st (Argyll) were amalgamated with the 93rd (Sutherland), to form Princess Louise's Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the new regiment wore the Government Tartan. When the Royal Regiment of Scotland was founded, on the 28th of March 2006, it amalgamated six Scots regiments:

Royal Scots & King's Own Scottish Borderers
Royal Highland Fusiliers
Black Watch
Highlanders
Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
Territorial Army (Scotland)

The tartan chosen for the new regiment was, appropriately, the Government Tartan in distinguishing lighter shades. From the foregoing it can be seen that for a period of at least 270 years this iconic tartan has been worn by Scottish soldiers. In different shades, sometimes lighter, at other times darker, but essentially the pattern which was worn by Rob Roy's sons when they served in the Independent Companies and by the Thin Red Line at Balaklava.

The continuity has, admittedly, not been unbroken. For example, there was a time when the tartan we now call "Campbell of Cawdor" was worn by the 91st. However, from the age of the claymore and flintlock to our own era of sophisticated technology, this elegant tartan has been an enduring symbol of loyalty, courage and sacrifice.

Sources:
"The Black Watch Tartan" - H.D. MacWilliam
"The Origins and Development of Military Tartans" - James D. Scarlett
"The 1819 Key Pattern Book" - Peter MacDonald
"Campbell Tartan" - Alastair Campbell of Airds.
"Tartans" - Brian Wilton
"Mutiny" - John Prebble
"Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders" - William McElwee and Michael Roffe.
"Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland" - Edmund Burt.

 

Black Watch (42nd) tartan, lightened to show the pattern.

 

The MacKenzie tartan.

 

The Gordon tartan


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