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Historical and Traditional Sketches of Highland Families and of the Highlands
The Black Watch, or Forty-Second Royal Highlanders, &c.


At the period when the Highlands was governed more by might than either justice or honour, lawless bands of freebooters and cattle-lifters committed sad depredations on friends and foes, rich and poor. To such excess were matters carried with a high and daring hand, that at last their deeds of spoliation became intolerable, threatening many with utter ruin; and although small detachments of soldiers were stationed in garrisons in different localities in the Highlands, they were not of sufficient strength to cope with the hardy and reckless cattle-lifters, aided as they generally were in their movements and flights, by a thorough knowledge of every nook and corner in the whole country. To counteract their lawless and annoying deeds, and render some security to life and property, many of our Highland chieftains and lairds found it necessary to raise companies of strong, resolute, and able-bodied men, acquainted with the country—each respective gentleman maintaining the company which he had raised—and whose duties were generally performed by night in scouring the country, searching for stolen cattle, or intercepting the marauders with their "creach," and restoring them to their owners. The dress of the different companies was of a similar description, being dark green jackets, philabeg, hose, and brogues with large buckles, black belt over the shoulders, another round the waist, a large broadsword on the one side, and a dirk on the other—hence they were called the "Black Watch," or Freiceadan Dhu. They sometimes carried muskets, and it may also be said that they were a kind of rifle corps. Their vigilance, determination, and prowess soon struck terror and alarm into the hearts of the evil doers, and their very name carried fear with it, so that ere long depredations were scarcely heard of, and at last existed only in the mere name. An effectual check being thus given to the freebooters, it was considered unnecessary to continue the Black Watch any longer; but, nevertheless, as they were such useful, brave, and excellent bands of men, it was thought a hardship to disband them, particularly as their country at the time required the services of all able to carry arms in its defence—and these men, if formed into a regiment, would make a very superior one. To suggest such to these brave men would be inconsistent with the motives which embodied them, and not altogether safe. But the chiefs and lairds, being bent on forming them into a regiment, had recourse to artifice and flattery. Accordingly, in April 1744, the different companies were assembled in Inverness; but the object for which they were called together was of course kept a profound secret. At Inverness, all the companies were embodied into one, and non-commissioned officers of "the regulars" were procured to drill them every day, and train them in the proper army exercises. They remained a considerable time in Inverness, were put "through their facings" daily, and learning the different military manoeuvres at last, naturally supposing that their services being now no longer required, they would be allowed to return to their homes and families; but no—they were otherwise destined. The place where they used to exercise is a little to the south of the Ness Islands, still known as Campfield.

Artifice and flattery, as stated, were necessary to induce the Black Watch to leave the vicinity of their homes. They were told by their chiefs and officers, that his Majesty, hearing of their fine appearances and the great service they had done the country, was anxious to make a personal inspection of such a distinguished body of men previous to their being disbanded. This had the desired effect. The duped Black Watch, elated with such a message from royalty, unanimously consented to embark for London, on the understanding, that after the review, they would be sent home to their families. However, a few weeks previous to their embarkation, a melancholy occurrence happened which threw a sad gloom over the whole corps, and was construed by many as a bad omen. One of Lord Lovat’s company had been for some time paying his addresses to a young female in the town, who became enciente. Pretending to be going to the Aird to bid adieu to his parents, he requested the confiding girl to accompany him on his parental message, that he might introduce her as his intended partner for life, and on their return to town he would have their union solemnized. Cheered by the prospect of an immediate union, and relying on his assurances, the unfortunate girl consented to accompany him. On the road thither, they called at Peggy Bain the innkeeper’s, at Clachnaharry, where they had a glass of gin, or hollands. Here they remained for a considerable time, he being evidently anxious to prolong their stay as much as he could; and, intending not to go much farther with his unsuspecting victim, was wishful that the shades of night would close and shroud the diabolical deed he contemplated. They started at last for the Aird, but, alas! horrid to relate, the Aird she was destined never to reach, for they only reached Bunchrew, and, there, close to the roadside, beneath the foliage of an alder tree, the poor unfortunate girl was barbarously murdered by her inhuman seducer. In about an hour after the tragical deed was done, he was in Peggy Bain’s again, and had a dram. Seeing him besmeared with blood, Peggy suspected what had occurred, and asked what had become of his companion, and how far he had accompanied her; but he would return no answer, and hastily departed for town. Next day the mangled corpse of the deluded female was found in the spot where she had been murdered. The Black Watchman, understanding that he was generally suspected, precipitately fled to the hills and fastnesses of the Aird, supposing, no doubt, that amongst his own clan he would be secure, and which he certainly was for some time, for they aided him greatly, and thereby eluded those sent in pursuit. President Forbes, who was at the time in Edinburgh, hearing of the murder, and of its being committed near his favourite residence, wrote Lord Lovat, stating, that he hoped none of his clan would shelter or screen an individual guilty of such an atrocious crime; besides, that he had written to Inverness, in order that a party of the 15th foot, then stationed in the Castle, would go to the Aird and capture the murderer, if possible. This had the desired effect; for the murderer was soon taken, tried, and sentenced to death. He confessed the crime, and acknowledged the justness of his sentence. The alder tree never again shot forth leaves, but for years stood a withered stump, as if bearing testimony to the atrocity of the crime perpetrated under it. The narrator well remembers seeing this tree.

Whilst the above distressing events were being enacted, the Black Watch had left in great glee for the metropolis. They were reviewed by his Majesty and principal officers, and high were the encomiums passed on them. After satisfying the curiosity of the cockneys, they were marched to Chatham, where they were to embark for the continent. At Chatham they understood the turn matters had taken, and that they were not to be allowed to return to their peaceful homes as promised, but fight with Britain’s foes. A good many here deserted, but the most were captured, a few only making good their escape. Britain was then waging war with France, and the first appearance of the Black Watch on the continent was at the memorable battle of Fontenoy. Here they were placed where the battle raged the hottest; but seeing the slight damage done the enemy’s ranks by their muskets, they seemed to waver, which being noticed by their companions, thought they meant to desert, and were therefore preparing to fire upon them, but they were sadly mistaken; desertion they knew not, or dreamed of, for throwing away their cumbersome muskets, and drawing their claymores, the Black Watch,

"True to the last of their blood and their breath,
And, like reapers, descend to the harvest of death,"

dashed instantly amongst the enemy, whose line, by the impetuosity of the charge, they soon broke, and made fearful carnage. At this time a party of dragoons rode up, and followed the advantage gained by the Black Watch, to whose bravery and undaunted courage the victory was mainly ascribed. Of them the French commander remarked, "O! how these royal bonnets slaughter our men," which being reported by the Duke of Cumberland, commander of the British forces, to his Majesty, the latter said, "Then let them henceforward be royal." This memorable battle was fought on the 30th April, 1745. Subsequently, the cause of the Pretender was exciting some alarm, and it was thought advisable to recall the Duke of Cumberland with a considerable part of his forces; but although the Black Watch, now the 42d Royal Highlanders, had distinguished themselves, they were not allowed to return, Government fearing, that once more on their native hills, they would not fight for the House of Hanover against their chiefs and relations, who fought in Prince Charlie’s cause. This was probably a judicious step, and not even affording them an opportunity of testing their loyalty. It is but justice to say, that the 42d, throughout all the wars up to 1815, distinguished itself as a brave, valiant, and renowned corps, which their innumerable laurels amply testify.


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