There is a pride in Scotland, romanticized perhaps, but a pride nonetheless, about our military traditions. Scotland has always provided a percentage of the British Army that is disproportionate to its population's size. Where does this martial culture sit alongside the shortbread tin version of the Highlands, or the socialist glory of the former industrial areas? What is the enduring appeal of regiments like the Black Watch?
Young men around the world are often limited to narrow, predetermined roles that prove more fragile and less sustainable under the pressures of growing up. Many of them find that the identities they would choose for themselves aren't available when they reach adulthood. If the environment does not offer an alternative when this change confronts them, then sometimes they turn to those organizations that are adept at exploiting this need for identity.
During the rehearsals for the original 2006 production, a former Regimental Sergeant Major of the Black Watch gave the actors the benefit of both 267 years of parade ground insults and of the particular attention the regiment pays to what a layman might find trivial. The exact way to wear your uniform, for example. The impulse to turn as much of the world as possible into an acronym. But mostly what he taught them about was pride. To take a pride in yourself. To take a pride in what you are doing. To take a pride in your appearance. To take a pride in what you represent. When the actors first mastered a piece of marching, he took them outside and made them march in the street: he was proud of them and he wanted other people to see what they could do. To me this was indicative of the seductive nature of surrendering yourself to an institution that has refined its appeal to the male psyche's yearning for a strong identity.
Like any military unit, the Black Watch has to carve out its own identity. It has to see itself and its members as special. It has several tactics for achieving this. Its history is drummed into recruits from the day they enter basic training. Then there are the uniforms: the kilts, and the red hackle that they wear on their Tam O'Shanters. There are the Pipes and Drums, who played at John F. Kennedy's funeral and tour the world.
There is a cachet to be had from serving in the Black Watch, the oldest Highland regiment. They call it the 'Golden Thread': the connection that has run through the history of the regiment since its formation. Even today, in our supposedly fractured society, the regiment exists on a different plane. In Iraq, there were lads serving alongside their fathers. There were groups of friends from even the smallest communities: the army does best in those areas of the country the UK Ministry of Defence describes as having 'settled communities.' The army does not recruit well in London or any other big city; fighting units tend to be more at home with homogeneity than with metropolitanism or multiculturalism. The central core of the regiment has always been the heartland of Perthshire, Fife, Dundee and Angus.
When the clans of Scotland used to fight, they would have people who stood in front of the soldiers and recited the names of their ancestors. In the end, our soldiers don't fight for Britain or for the Government or for Scotland. They fight for their regiment. Their company. Their platoon. And for their mates.
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