'Our boys are being used like puppets'

In the Black Watch's home town of Perth, Paul Kelbie finds anger, fear and mistrust
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Standing to attention by the roadside guarding the entrance to Scotland's largest village stands a memorial to the Glorious Dead of Scone.

Standing to attention by the roadside guarding the entrance to Scotland's largest village stands a memorial to the Glorious Dead of Scone.

The grey stone cenotaph commemorates more than 70 individuals from 54 families killed in action during the First World War. Of those almost half were members of the oldest Highland regiment in the British Army, Am Freiceadan Dubh, the Black Watch, who had gone to war with the expectation they would be home for Christmas.

"Our boys are being used like puppets by George Bush and Tony Blair," said one grandmother of a serving soldier yesterday. For generations, the family of Rose Heron from Perth have served with the regiment, and her grandson Mark, 18, is currently serving in Iraq.

"They are professional soldiers and expect to have to go to war sometime but the way the regiment has been treated by Blair and Hoon is a bloody disgrace. We shouldn't be in Iraq in the first place and now our boys have to clean up after the Americans. George Bush calls the tune, Blair dances and our boys have to do the dirty work."

Like almost every other family in the area, the 65-year-old is angry that the regiment has had its return date extended, and the families were kept guessing for ages before the Government officially announced the deployment to the "triangle of death". Mrs Heron said: "Our family is on tenterhooks every time we hear about another British casualty and here we are facing months more of this torture. I don't believe Blair when he says they will be home for Christmas."

Already the village of Scone, which stands at the heart of the Black Watch recruitment area, has seen one new name added to the village's roll of honour - that of Lance Corporal Barry Stephen, who was killed last year while trying to defend his comrades from an attack by Iraqis with rocket-propelled grenades.

The 31-year-old married man died a hero - the first casualty suffered by the regiment since one of their soldiers was killed by a bomb in Belfast in 1971. Since then another member of the regiment has been killed and a third seriously injured. The people of Scone fear that more names may be added to the casualty list.

There are war memorials in almost every village in Perthshire, Angus and Fife, the traditional recruiting grounds of the regiment since its formation in 1740, which serve as a sobering reminder of the sacrifices made by successive generations of their families over the past three centuries in almost every conflict fought by British forces. From the American War of Independence and Waterloo to the Somme, Tobruk and Northern Ireland, the Black Watch has been at the forefront of the action, winning 162 battle honours, 14 Victoria Crosses and numerous other gallantry medals in the process.

From the industrial city of Dundee to the farming villages of Highland Perthshire there is fear and anger over the way the Black Watch, which so distinguished itself in capturing Baghdad in 1917, has been "sacrificed" for political expediency. Even more galling is the uncertainty of the regiment in the latest round of defence cuts, prompting thousands of supporters to take to the streets of Dundee yesterday in protest.

"Our lads are going into dangers without knowing what kind of future is in store for them when they get back," said Anne McMillan, the co-ordinator of the Save the Scottish Regiments Campaign. As the daughter of a former Black Watch soldier she, like many others, grew up in the shadow of the regiment. "People are absolutely irate about the way the Government has handled the deployment of the Black Watch in Iraq. A lot of the boys have told their families that when they get back they will quit the Army rather than be part of some amalgamated super-regiment."

Mrs McMillan said people were angry over the way they felt the Government had lied about the war, the deployment of the Black Watch and also highly sceptical about promises to bring them home before Christmas.

"Blair is putting our boys' lives' in jeopardy and he has no idea what he's doing," said Jim Buchanan, a widower from Arbroath who has two sons - Craig, 27, and Garry, 32 - serving with the regiment in Iraq. "We have to send troops to Iraq but why do our boys have to back up the Yanks when we need them to back up our own soldiers?

"I love my boys, they are all I have left of my wife and I am scared for them. I know they are soldiers and I am proud of that, but the Government has not been straight with us and we feel used. My boys will be in a lot more danger. I don't believe they will be home for Christmas. They are going to be stuck there."

At Aberfeldy, where a giant statue of a kilted soldier in 18th-century battledress stands by the banks of the River Tay close to the spot where the regiment was first mustered, the sense of loyalty remains as strong as ever. Yards from the monument is the Black Watch Inn where the regimental symbol of the Red Hackle sits proudly above the bar, paintings of famous battles adorn the walls and the badge and motto - Nemo Me Impune Lacessit (No one touches me with impunity) - is engraved on the glass entrance.

"We were expecting the boys back in November and now we are being told Christmas," said the father of one soldier. "After all the lies we have had from this government about why we went to war in the first place, it's getting so you can't believe a word Blair says."

Scotland's oldest survivor of the First World War and a former Black Watch soldier, Alfred Anderson, 108, said he was sceptical of promises to have the troops home by Christmas. "That's what they said in 1914," he said.