THE army is coming home to Scotland.
So said First Minister Alex Salmond last week in response to the Ministry of Defence’s announcement that Scotland is about to become a huge garrison for the British Army, with its numbers here being increased from 3500 to 6500 soldiers and the creation of new barracks across the country.
If Salmond’s comment was meant to be a reprise of the daft Three Lions anthem of England’s doomed tilt at the European Championships in 1996 -- “football’s coming home” -- it was not wide of the mark, being both wrong-headed and not grounded in any reality.
Like all political spin-doctoring, the pithy phrase conceals as much as it reveals. There is no such thing as Scotland’s army and there has not been one since 1707 and the Act of Union, which ended the Scottish military establishment. It’s not even certain if the new bases at Leuchars, Kinloss and Kirknewton will house Scottish regiments when they eventually open during the coming decade.
However, to Mr Salmond’s credit, the comment was a good soundbite and it was clearly meant to counter the suggestion made by Defence Secretary Liam Fox that the opening up of new bases will help to strengthen the Union, as indeed will be the case: the armed forces are among the most powerful embodiments of the United Kingdom.
Suddenly the army in Scotland has found itself being used as a political football in the increasingly uneasy relationship between Westminster and Holyrood. It’s not difficult to understand why this has happened. Of all the totems which help to sum up Scotland and a sense of Scottishness, the figure of the kilted soldier is perhaps the most potent. In his kilt and sporran, his feathered bonnet and his white spats, he is a colourful yet utterly respectable figure. Marching behind the regimental pipes and drums he is as familiarly Caledonian as the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond or the heather-covered road to the isles. If the kilted Scottish soldier did not exist, VisitScotland would be hard pressed to find an alternative.
On a more profound level, though, the iconography is not just ridiculous, it is also based on some rather dodgy historiography and dubious traditions. The figure we understand to be the Scottish soldier today came into being towards the end of the 19th century when the army went through one of its spasmodic periods of reform.
During these changes, which were engineered largely by a Scot -- the Secretary of War Richard Burdon Haldane -- regiments which were once identified by numbers were paired and given territorial names such as the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (previously the 91st and 93rd).
Then as now the amalgamations caused outrage among old soldiers who were scandalised to see time-honoured numbers being supplanted by names of counties and other affiliations, many thought to be nonsensical. For example, the regiment which became The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) in 1881 was formed from the 26th Foot, a heavy marching regiment which recruited mostly in Lanarkshire, and the 90th Perthshire Light Infantry, which had very different traditions and social values. It took many years and a global conflict before the amalgamation was accepted by everyone in the new regiment.
A by-product of this interest in military matters was the volunteer craze, a Victorian fancy for part-time amateur soldiering which involved some gentle shooting practice and drills and, best of all, dressing up in turkey-cock uniforms. In Scotland the recruitment figures for the volunteer units were twice the United Kingdom average, which was undoubtedly assisted by the creation of formations with Highland affiliations, mostly in the central belt. With their panoply of kilts, tartan trews, ostrich feathers, ornate sporrans and pipe bands, they were an irresistible attraction and Scots rushed to join them. Most of the outlandish uniforms owed nothing to tradition. They were invented by local colonels and came to represent self-conscious nationalism, or what the military historian John Keegan has described as “a force for resistance against the creeping Anglicisation of Scottish urban life”.
The apotheosis of the Scottish love affair with the army came in the First World War. Scots provided more recruits per head of population than any other part of the United Kingdom in the 18-41 age group, and the casualties were correspondingly high -- some 140,000 or 15% of the British total. The reasons why those young men swarmed into uniform defy a simple explanation. Partly it was a result of the general enthusiasm for war: the patriotic rush of 1914 saw the creation of a huge volunteer army, and in that respect a sense of adventure also played a part.
In Glasgow alone 20,000 had volunteered by the end of August 1914, and in the following month three battalions of the Highland Light Infantry, the local regiment, had been formed exclusively from men who worked in the corporation’s tramways department (15th battalion) served as members of the Boys’ Brigade (16th battalion) or were members of the city’s Chamber of Commerce (17th battalion).
Patriotism was an important factor, but it was often backed by peer pressure or threats from above. The Earl of Wemyss gave notice that all able-bodied men aged between 18 and 30 working on his estates in East Lothian would be put on half-pay for the duration of the war, with their jobs kept open, if they joined up. “If they do not enlist,” continued the earl’s offer, “they will be compelled to leave my employment.”
However, in recent years that enthusiasm for going “awa for a sodger” has been diluted as the army itself has shrunk -- one of the policies hidden in Dr Fox’s statement last week was that by 2020 the army will comprise no more than 82,000 soldiers, a reduction of 20%.
If recent recruiting figures are anything to go by, not many of them will be Scots. At the beginning of the 21st century, for the first time in more than a century, the number of Scots joining the British Army fell below the national UK average.
Scots supplied 13% of the British Army’s infantry manpower needs throughout most of the 20th century. A summary of enlistments in Scotland showed that in 1999-2000 the number of recruits joining Scotland’s six infantry regiments was 528 but by 2004-2005 it had fallen to 301. (To be fair, in 2009, there was an unexpected spike in recruitment in Scotland with figures topping the 1000 mark.)
At the same time the numbers being recruited into regiments or corps which offer trade training remain fairly constant. In 1999-2000, 168 Scottish recruits joined the Royal Logistic Corps and in 2004-2005, this had only fallen to 159. There were several reasons for the change in recruiting patterns across Scotland.
In Edinburgh and the Lothians, unemployment had been low for a long period -- it was just 2% in 2004. The low-density population of the Highlands provided a smaller pool for regiments such as The Highlanders (today’s 4th Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland) and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (today’s 5th Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland). Even high-density areas such as Glasgow and Ayrshire did not make matters any easier for the Royal Highland Fusiliers (today the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland), which recruits from that area. In 1999-2000 it recruited 89 soldiers but this had dropped to 56 in 2004-2005.
Pay was another factor. Two advertisements carried on the sides of Lothian buses during 2005 provided a clue as to why young people were turning their backs on the army. One was an Army infantry recruitment advertisement. The second offered jobs as bus drivers starting at £22,000 -- almost twice the pay of a trained infantryman. Even unskilled workers’ pay rates are comparatively attractive, especially in the tourism and service sectors where tips and bonuses boost incomes.
Education, job satisfaction and the falling birth rate also played a part in dissuading young Scots from considering a career in the army. With some 40% of school-leavers going into tertiary education, the army is not seen as an attractive alternative. Demographic change has also been influential. From 1985 to 2005 in Scotland, there was a 42% fall in the number of males aged 16-24.
In addition, adverse publicity surrounding the army has influenced the attitudes of parents, guardians and partners of potential recruits. Alleged abuses at the Deepcut training centre in Surrey resulted in the deaths of four soldiers from 1995 and 2002. There was widespread disquiet about the army’s involvement in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, about later deployment to Afghanistan, where 377 soldiers have been killed to date.
The Iraq conflict was an unpopular and perhaps illegal deployment which eventually cost the lives of 179 British troops. To make matters worse, British soldiers were involved in allegations of brutality and abuses of human rights. Some of the cases were brought under the aegis of the International Criminal Court, which would make the soldiers war criminals if found guilty. Although the army in Scotland argues it is difficult to find hard evidence that adverse publicity affected recruiting, there is agreement that high-profile opponents of the war, such as Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was killed serving with the Royal Highland Fusiliers in Iraq, did not make life any easier for army recruiters.
Given that uncertain background, it is difficult to understand the brouhaha surrounding last week’s announcement about the changes in the army’s establishment in Scotland. For traditionalists who value the presence of uniformed soldiers there was dismay that the army will pull out of Edinburgh -- the historic barracks at Redford and Dreghorn will be closed and sold off, as will the divisional headquarters complex at Craigiehall, but this was balanced by relief that the size of the army’s “footprint” in the country will be increased.
This is being brought about by the decision to retain Fort George near Inverness, to eventually move soldiers into the Royal Marine base at Condor in Arbroath, and to expand the existing barracks at Glencorse at Penicuik, as well as building a new barracks on the old Cold War airfield at Kirknewton to the west of Edinburgh and putting a new brigade headquarters at Leuchars. Add on enlarged training facilities in the south-west and the creation of a new mobile brigade, and for the first time in many years the army will have a highly visible presence in Scotland.
So is the old alliance between the Scots and their regiments being retained and strengthened? Well, up to a point. Nowadays Scotland has only one infantry regiment, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, with five regular and two Territorial battalions, one foot guards regiment and a heavy tank regiment, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. The odds are that the soldiers manning the new barracks will come from other British regiments and many of them will be “refugees” from the army in Germany as the British presence there is scaled down. There won’t be much romance: fewer kilts, and berets instead of bonnets.
Perhaps that doesn’t matter. Scotland’s relationship with the military is changing inexorably to a new position in which the claims of tartanry will play second fiddle to the reality of battle dress worn by British soldiers, many of whom come from Commonwealth countries.
Contrary to what the SNP Government had feared, the defence presence in Scotland is not being scaled down. Instead it is being increased to levels not seen since the late Victorian period. While the two Royal Air Force bases at Kinloss and Leuchars will disappear, the dreaded downturn in local economies will be mitigated by an increase in the number of soldiers and their families. There will be fewer fast jets but far more foot-sloggers.
So whatever one makes of Alex Salmond’s declaration that the planned increase in “Scotland’s army” is “returning us to where we should rightfully be”, one thing is certain. The tills will ring merrily in local businesses. That’s generally what happens when the soldiers come home.
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