The Early Decades of The Black Watch
Formed in 1725 as “The Highland Watch” in independent companies, what became known as The Black Watch, due to the darkness of their government tartan and the watch they kept over the highlands, they were captained by Gentlemen who at that time were loyal to King George II.
Their Tartan was agreed by General Wade, the then Commander in Scotland, whose idea it had been to found the Watch. It is now commonly agreed by Tartan experts that the tartan worn was based on the patterns used in the areas around Inverness-shire, Ross-shire, and Moray.
In 1739 those independent companies were formed into a regiment, the 42nd of Foot, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Robert Munro of Foulis. He was a very highly respected man in the Highlands and when he was killed at the Battle of Falkirk in 1745 (commanding the 37th Regiment) his funeral was attended by all the chiefs. He was considered to be the father of the regiment…
There is a common misconception that The Black Watch fought at Culloden in 1746. The only involvement the regiment had in the “45” was at the battle of Prestonpans where a company of recruits, destined for the regiment in Flanders, was diverted to General Cope’s army. Due to their inexperience, this company was entirely captured or killed. The company commander – Major Aneas MacIntosh of MacIntosh was, famously, held prisoner at Moy Hall by his wife (Colonel Anne) for the duration of the rising.
During the “45” the regiment fought its first battle in Flanders at the Battle of Fontenoy and then, barracked on the south coast of England, and was involved in raids on the French coast.
In 1758 the regiment was granted the Royal title and fought against the French at the battle of Ticonderoga in North America where it was decimated. In what was referred to at that time as one of the most amazing sights, the 42nd carried out one of the last Highland charges with broadswords, bagpipes, and dirks. This battle was also made famous in a story by Robert Louis Stevenson – although it was widely known in Scotland, about a ghost and Major Duncan Campbell of Inverawe being forewarned of his impending death.
The Black Watch became so famous that it was, arguably, the premium regiment to join in Scotland during the late 18th century but its Colonel, Lord John Murray, insisted only Highlanders of good character were allowed in. It can be argued that The Black Watch had become the most famous regiment in the British Army.
The Black Watch and the Gaelic language
The Gaelic language has always been in the regiment’s life to a greater or lesser degree –
whether it be the Regimental toasts of The Black Watch:
Deoch, slainte’ mhath , Here is to good health
Agus slainte’ an Ban Righ, And health to The Queen,
Agus slainte’ mhath do na huile And good health to the company present
Slainte’ mhath! Good health
Deoch slainte an Fhreiceadan Duibh Health to The Black Watch
– na curaidhean dileas – the faithful heroes.
… and furthermore
“Am Freiceadan Dubh nan cath; The Black Watch of the battles;
toiseach tighinn, direadh falbh!” first in attack, last in retreat!
There are then the Proverbs and song:
The collections of Gaelic song by Reverend James MacLagan 1728-1805, Chaplain of the regiment from 1764 till 1788, are renowned. Held at Glasgow University they have recently undergone extensive conservation work.
‘Oran a rinneadh dan chat-bhuidhinn Rioghail Ghaoidheallach nuair a BHA iad dol d’America San bhliadhna 1756’ ‘A Song to the Royal Highland Regiment when it was departing for America in the Year 1756’ is one of two poems composed for The Black Watch.
MacLagan’s collection comprises 250 manuscripts with some 600 poems and songs of which a number will have come from men serving in the 42nd at the time he was chaplain.
There are other poems in the Gaelic about The Black Watch, such as …
Deoch slain an t-Seann Fhreiceadan ‘Health to the old Black Watch’ composed by Duncan Ban MacIntyre in praise of the Black Watch after the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, page 39 in the Angus Fraser Collection from the Simon Fraser Collection Volume II
John MacGregor’s ‘Oran do’n Fhreiceadan Dubh’ (‘Song to The Black Watch’) praises the Black Watch’s service in America at the time of the Seven Years’ War
Gaelic Poem by Anon. about the battle of Ticonderoga, translated by Michael Newton
Oran do’n Reisimeid Duibh Song to The Back Watch. Composed in praise of the regiment at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801
Òran do’n Chath-bhuidhinn Rioghail, Ghaelich, an deigh Cath na h-Eiphit ‘sa bhliadhna 1803 A Song to the Royal Highland Regiment after the Battle of Egypt in 1803) the 2nd poem by Rev. James MacLagan for The Black Watch.
”Oran an t- Saighdeir” Alasdair Mac Iain Bhain (1772-1812) ‘Song of the Soldier’
Alexander Grant (Glenmoriston) is thought to have been a Private in the 42nd 1795-1812
Fear le feadan thrì bann, One with a three-banded chanter,
’Ga spreigeadh ’s a’ champ; Stirring up the camp,
Bu Bheag dheth ’s an àm I had precious little satisfaction out of it
Mo chéutabh. at the time.
B’ annse geum aig mart seang, I prefer the bellow of a slender cow,
’Dol do’n bhuaile ’na deann, Going to the cattle fold in haste,
’S bean ’ga leigeil ’am fang, And a woman putting it in a fank,
’S a Chéitean. In May.
Captain Archibald MacRa Chisholm (1824 – 1897) the Black Chanter and Shinty, known as Aneas, Chisholm served in the 42nd from 1842 till 1855. He was a proficient piper and some of his handwritten manuscript survives in the regimental archive. He was the nephew of Colonel John MacRa of Ardintoul who passed on the Black Chanter of Kintail (am Feadan Dubh Chin Tàile) and the Earl of Seaforth’s Bagpipes to him.
Chisholm in turn passed them on to his nephew Colonel Sir Colin MacRae of Feorlinn who served in The Black Watch from 1890 till 1905. In due course, they were passed to his son, Captain Kenneth MacRae of Feorlinn, who served in The Black Watch from 1914 till 1922.
These same pipes and chanter are now in Inverness Museum.
Chisholm is credited with being very influential in the Gaelic community during his lifetime and for having saved the game of Shinty from extinction, founding the Strathglass shinty club in 1879, and being one of the founder members of the Inverness Gaelic society.
The Gaelic Culture spreads across the world
Many of the Officers and men who had served in The Black Watch emigrated to the far-flung corners of the Empire, where they took with them the Gaelic culture. But a few of such men and their families are:
John Riddell Paterson, emigrated in 1859 to Canada, Piper to the Royal North British Society of Nova Scotia in Halifax.
Piper George Munro emigrated to New Zealand in 1910 and set up the Gaelic society in Dunedin.
Pipe Major George Ross emigrated to Australia a noted teacher and Gaelic speaker
La a’ bhlar, s’ math na cairsdean On the day of battle, friends are good
Pipe Major Alistair Duthie
late The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment)
Piper to the Gaelic Society of Perth