Military chiefs are facing an angry backlash after they refused to deny they were planning to axe historic Scottish battalions – including The Black Watch.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross was among those demanding “urgent” reassurances over the future of famous cap badges, amid reports they could be lost to cost-cutting. ‘
SNP MP Drew Hendry warned it could represent a “double betrayal” to the Highlands, by accelerating the closure of Fort George, the current home of The Black Watch.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said it was “considering the implications” of a decision to move to a one-year spending review, following reports in The Sun that the military had been told Britain can no longer justify a total of 30 infantry battalions.
It was claimed units such as the Black Watch, The Highlanders and Royal Highland Fusiliers were under threat because they had struggled to fill their ranks.
MoD sources described the reports as “purely speculative”, and insisted that “no decisions have been made”.
These reports speculating about the future of The Black Watch are deeply unhelpful.”
Mr Ross, the Moray MP, said: “The Black Watch is more than just a symbol of our shared history and traditions, it’s a Scottish and British institution that continues to play a vital role in our armed services.
“These reports speculating about the future of The Black Watch are deeply unhelpful.
“I’m urgently seeking reassurances from the Ministry of Defence that this battalion will not be disbanded and we will continue to make the strong and compelling case that Scotland’s significant contribution to the UK Armed Forces is maintained.”
The Red Hackle
The Black Watch, also known as 3 Scots, and The Highlanders (4 Scots), became two of five battalions in The Royal Regiment of Scotland, following an amalgamation in 2006.
Having traditionally recruited from Tayside, hopes were growing locally that 3 Scots might relocate to the nearby Leuchars base in Fife following the expected closure of Fort George in 2032.
Any move to axe the battalion, which wears the famous Red Hackle, would break a 2016 promise from the then-Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who said The Black Watch was “going to be with us forever”.
The Highlanders – previously a regiment in its own right, formed in 1994 as an amalgamation of the Queen’s Own Highlanders (Seaforth and Camerons) and the Gordon Highlanders – traditionally recruited from the north and north-east, and are currently based at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire.
Recruitment woes have previously raised concerns that famous battalions could be axed, including in 2012 and 2016.
Figures from 2018, the most recently published breakdown, showed that The Black Watch had 440 personnel out of a “requirement” of 552, while The Highlanders had 490 out of 653.
However, it is understood that infantry numbers overall have increased by 500 since April this year, with recruitment targets on course to be reached two years in a row.
‘Callous’ UK Government
Mr Hendry, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, highlighted a potential knock-on impact for Fort George, if The Black Watch was amalgamated.
“That disbanding The Black Watch is even being discussed, just days after Remembrance Sunday, just shows how callous this UK government is,” he said.
“The fact that the Ministry of Defence might further betray the legacy of The Black Watch is bad enough, but this will have a knock-on effect on their already vague promises over Fort George, accelerating closure and leading to a double betrayal.
“At a time when we need to support our armed forces, this UK Government would rather throw them, and our communities that rely on Fort George, on the scrapheap.”
The ‘golden thread’
Edward Mountain, a Conservative MSP for the north and former Army officer, said: “The government must ensure, before there is talk about cutting any regiments, that we fully recruit to our target of 82,000 soldiers, if we don’t then there is a real threat to the security of the UK.”
Aberdeen SNP councillor Michael Hutchison is an Army reservist who was attached to The Black Watch when it went to Cyprus in 2015.
He said: “Like all the Scots battalions, The Black Watch are fiercely proud of their history, their reputation and their battle honours.
“Over nearly three centuries soldiers from The Black Watch have served with honour and gallantry and in doing so have shaped history itself.
“It would be a tragedy if this famous battalion with its golden thread were to be cut by the UK Government.”
An MoD spokesman said: “This government has committed to grow defence spending. In light of the decision to move to a one-year spending review, we are considering the implications for the completion of the integrated review, and will provide an update in due course.”