Black Watch returns to Belfast

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The Independent Culture

The Black Watch, one of the toughest regiments ever to come out of Scotland, has just returned to Belfast not in the form of foot patrols inching along dangerous city streets but in the shape of a compelling drama.

The play Black Watch was staged, to standing ovations, in a modern school in north Belfast, which was for decades probably the most violent district in Northern Ireland as the army fought the IRA. Both the military and the paramilitary lost many members; now today both have left the Belfast scene.

The real Black Watch has also gone, subsumed into another regiment. But the play has won many awards and accolades for its depiction of young Scotsmen at war, in this case in Iraq, and showing the world of the universal soldier.

In the early 70s the regiment's reputation and instantly recognisable feathered bonnet made them attract particular attention in republican parts of Belfast.

"I would have to say that we enjoyed seeing the Glengarrys appearing," a former schoolboy rioter, now a respected figure in the city, said very privately. "This was because they made for soft targets. Our strike rate always went up. Some of the others tended to wear helmets, which presented us with more of a challenge."

The National Theatre of Scotland production, which close in Belfast on Sunday, did not bring old adversaries together: the audience was very much made up of the middle class, well-mannered and respectable.

But the show did produce one remarkable reaction, from left-wing activist Eamonn McCann. As chairman of the Bloody Sunday Trust, he has devoted years to condemning the actions of paratroopers in Londonderry in 1972.

But the performance was so full of depth and dazzling inventiveness that even Mr McCann, obviously no friend of the army, was caught up in the strong emotions it generated.

In a panel discussion afterwards he admitted: "I never thought that I'd see something about the Black Watch regiment which made the tears brim in my eyes, but they did.

"That really surprised me. And it overwhelmed politics for me, because I could see it with my politics in the background and it didn't in any way at all damage the experience."

The play was a huge success when it was first performed in 2006 but the surprise has been that it has been so successful for so long. This is partly because of the strength of the production, which the audiences in Belfast, as elsewhere, acclaimed with standing ovations.

But its enduring popularity is also due to its continuing relevance as the British army has seen years of action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wars may change but the experience of individual soldiers is entirely transferable.

Even though the play features stylised sequences of song and dance, it is telling because it concentrates on the human element, the fortunes of ten young recruits from the Fife and Tayside region of Scotland.

For many in their tough district joining the Black Watch has been part of their heritage, stretching back for centuries, to the Napoleonic wars and beyond.

The writer, Gregory Burke, who is from the area, said military recruitment fell off some years ago "but now it's completely jam-packed because of the recession - they're turning folk away now."

In the panel discussion John Moore, an English ex-soldier who was paralysed in a south Armagh IRA ambush in which his friend died, confirmed the play's point that in combat soldiers fight primarily for their colleagues and their unit.

"That's absolutely true," he said. "You're doing it for your mates or you're doing it for yourself. It was not for Queen and country for me - that's not a very patriotic thing to say but that is the truth."

He recalled that patrolling in the IRA's south Armagh heartland of Crossmaglen, where the Black Watch had been stationed, had been eerie as well as dangerous. "People would try their damnedest to ignore you," he remembered.

"They would totally blank you - you had this feeling of being like a ghost in a movie."

The regiment lost several men in Northern Ireland and in the 1970s was involved in controversy when a patrol shot dead a 17 year old postman. They claimed he was a gunman, but the authorities later acknowledged he was an innocent party and paid compensation to his family.

No soldiers were prosecuted, although some members of the patrol were imprisoned for planting ammunition. By comparison with other units, however, the Black Watch did not often hit the headlines.

A veteran journalist this week: "I remember the postman's death as being especially gratuitous but overall the Black Watch's fierce reputation wasn't matched by their conduct. They were generally small-town Scots - not Rangers fans with guns."

The now respectable one-time rioter remembered: "In nationalist minds soldiers involved in raids couldn't be Celtic supporters - therefore they were all Rangers fans and consequently hated. They returned hate with hate, venom with venom.

"It was only many years later that I discovered the Black Watch were religiously mixed - it came as a shock."

The drama, as Eamonn McCann wonderingly observed, has an amazing breadth of appeal, attracting praise from both the Socialist Worker and the Daily Telegraph.

The Black Watch revisited Belfast in the form of actors showing the human side of war in Iraq. The Northern Ireland bases where they served many tours of duty have largely gone now, in many cases to be replaced by modern homes and other buildings.

Almost always there is no remaining trace - apart from in the memory of locals and former soldiers - that these were the scene of countless sniper attacks and machine-gun and rocket assaults.

Elsewhere in the world, though, the business of soldiering goes on. Belfast may be largely at peace but there are many other conflicts, and many other Scotsmen willing to join up to take part of them. But, just for a few dramatic days, Belfast once again became a theatre of war.

Black Watchcan be seen at London’s Barbican from 27th Nov – 22nd Jan, 2011. Booking: 020 7638 8891/