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The fate of the Colours of the old King’s Own Scottish Borderers is the subject of debate and the future of the regimental museum in Berwick has been thrown into mix. The KOSB colours were retired earlier this year when the Queen presented the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, which was created in 2006 by merging the KOSB with the Royal Scots, with its own colours. The KOSB was raised in Edinburgh in 1689 and some argue the old colours should be preserved there. But the old regimental depot and museum is in Berwick and there are growing calls for the colours to be laid up at the historic Berwick Barracks. The problem may be that it’s feared English Heritage, who own the old barracks complex, want to turn it into luxury flats. The museum’s opening hours have already been cut in what many supporters regard as an attempt to cut visitor numbers down so much that its closure will be justified. It’s a good little museum and it would be a tragedy if is shut down.An online appeal has been launched to bring the Colours to Berwick -Berwick4borderers

The site also includes details of plans to save the museum and use the barracks complex to help injured ex-service personnel and their families.

 

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I watched a documentary recently about the 1916 film The Battle of the Somme, possibly the most successful British movies of all time; 20 million tickets were sold for it in Britain alone. The documentary featured attempts to work out which bits of the film were real and which bits were recreations. It was a silent movie but men could be seen talking. A lip reader was brought in and revealed what the men had said. Fascinating. But the scary bit came when experts in facial recognition were brought in to help identify some of the soldiers who appeared in the film. Stills from the movie were compared with photographs of people reputed to have been in it. On at least two occasions, the experts announced they had a close match, only for military records to reveal the man in the photograph could not be in the man in the film. What scared me was that these experts regularly gave evidence in court linking bad guys captured on security tapes to the accused. The experts were the first to admit that the identifications of the men in the movie were not definite, they would only go as far as to say it was worth looking at their military records. But they gave every appearance of knowing what they were talking about and if I were on a jury I would have taken their evidence far more seriously than I obviously should of. Sadly, I suspect few of the criminals  fingered in court by "expert witnesses" of this kind had military records to back up their alibis.

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I’ve often wondered about the “Leave No Man Behind” policy of western armies fighting in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed to me crazy to risk more lives to recover a dead body. Surely, it would be better to leave one dead body behind than lose five more men in a counter-attack to recover it. Of course, you can’t know for sure that someone’s dead until you take their pulse. And I’d like to think that if it was me lying there that someone would make to effort to rescue me. In the old days, rescuing the wounded used to voluntary. But now soldiers are ordered to go back in.
Then, I got it. Commendable though rescuing the wounded is, it’s not the point. What NATO commanders want to avoid is the bodies of their soldiers being used as propaganda. The last thing they can afford is a video on Al Jazeera of a British, Canadian, or American head being paraded through a village stuck on top of a pole. Hearts and Minds is a policy that applies as much to the Home Front as it does to the frontlines of an insurgent war.

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When I was a newspaper reporter, I wanted answers. It was a matter of professional pride to get them. But I met my match in the mid-1980s in the shape of the then Liberal Party leader David Steel. There was some controversy within the party over the policy on nuclear weapons. Someone slipped me Steel’s cellphone number and I gave him a call. I grilled him for 10 to 15 minutes to find out what the party policy was. He was a busy man and that was all the time I had. I thought I’d pinned him down to a firm statement of policy. I was satisfied. Then I looked carefully at my notes. It became apparent that he’d chosen his words very carefully. I had heard what I wanted to hear. He hadn’t actually said what I thought he was saying. He had said precisely nothing. I was torn between admiration and frustration. I’d been bested by an old pro. I tried the cellphone number again. But this time there was no answer.

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It’s more than a little disappointing to find the BBC describing the 1948 Scots Guards massacre of 24 ethnic Chinese rubber plantation workers in Malaya as “alleged”. Sadly, there is little “alleged” about the massacre. Members of the Scots Guards patrol involved have given sworn affidavits that they were ordered to kill the men at settlement and the soldiers who did not want to be involved were sent to guard the women. The women also maintained that the men at Batang Kali were murdered in cold blood. Only the official British version maintains that all 24 men were shot while trying to escape. Common-sense suggests that the lack of wounded male villagers points directly to a massacre taking place.
The BBC was reporting the welcome news that there is to be a judicial review, probably next Spring into a British government decision a year ago to refuse to hold a proper public inquiry into the incident. A Scotland Yard investigation in the early 1970s, after members of the patrol told a Sunday newspaper that they had taken part in a pre-mediated massacre, was shutdown before it could be completed.
It’s pretty obvious that Batang Kali was selected for the massacre because it was suspected to be a supply base for the Communist guerrillas operating in that part of Malaya. The lesson intended by the massacre was learned and there was no further trouble in Batang Kali area. If a proper inquiry had ever been conducted while the adult villagers present in 1948 were still alive, it's possible that it might even have revealed that some of the men killed were active guerrillas. Or may they were indeed have been nothing but rubber plantation workers. But the British Government decided that the most important thing was to protect whoever ordered the killings. The fact that lorries arrived at the settlement to take the women folk away shows that the killings were not the work of a “rogue” patrol but part of a well organised operation. It would appear that the Scots Guards came into Batang Kali  from the jungle, rather than via the road, in an attempt to surprise the guerrillas believed to be operating out of the settlement. The British Government does not protect the reputations of ordinary squaddies. So who has it been protecting?

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Years ago, many years many years ago, I worked in Inverness with an old English fellah called Tom. He’d had both legs amputated below the knee and got around with the aid of a grotty old brown National Health Service walking stick. I knew that he often took a short-cut home along an alley which was notorious for muggings. I asked him if he felt safe doing that. And that’s when I discovered that grotty old stick had a secret. I don’t think National Health Service sticks usually contain a rapier-like Wilkinson Sword blade. Tom told me it was a British Officers’ sword stick. I’ve often wondered what happened to it after he died. Did the folks that cleared his house know what it was or did it end up being thrown out?

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Canadian television recently had a drama based on the events surrounding the creation of Canada from the British North American colonies. Many of the main players in the events in the 1860s which are portrayed were Scots. I was delighted to find that many of the TV actors  sported Scottish accents, some good, some not so good. In fact, I was more than delighted, I was stunned. Canadian broadcasters have a dreadful habit of giving every character from the British Isles an English accent. There was a drama about the massacre of Scottish settlers in the early 1800s by mixed blood Metis hunters near the site of present-day Winnipeg. The leader of the hunters was a guy called Cuthbert Grant who may well have been educated in Scotland. The hunters were put up to terrorizing the settlers by Scottish fur traders who didn’t want farmers getting their way. So, there was a lot of Scot-on-Scot violence going on. How many Scots accents were heard? I counted one – and a little research showed that although he had a Highland name he was raised in the United States. Of course, that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have a Scottish accent, I’ve come across old second-generation Ukrainians born in Canada who speak English with a heavy Eastern European accent. I also remember a factual program about the evolution of Canadian English. It included a damning criticism of American influences delivered in a snotty English accent by an actor playing a school teacher. Once again, a little research revealed that the teacher in question was one of the many Scots who propped up the Canadian education system in the mid-1800s.
Of course, it’s hard to know how a specific person spoke in the days before recordings. But there are lots of recordings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speaking with a surprisingly strong Scottish accent. But Canadian television portrays him speaking with a plummy English accent.
You may wonder why this is important. Well, what if the famous Jewish people of history were all portrayed as Roman Catholics? Or the famous Blacks of American history were portrayed as white guys? And while I’m on the subject of accents, how come a Canadian radio presenter lets himself be egged on into doing his “Scottish” accent on air? I’ve got a feeling that if he’d been asked to do his “Chinese” or “Indian” accent he would have refused.

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I was astonished to hear what a respected British international affairs and military analyst had to say when he was interviewed on Canadian radio recently.  He said that when the Americans and Canadians went into Southern Afghanistan a decade ago they believed the Taliban were foreign fighters with very little connection to local communities.
I was in Afghanistan in early 2002 and I knew that many of the people in the villages around Kandahar Airport were not happy to see armed foreigners driving around as if they had a right to be there. The foreign soldiers would only be tolerated if there was some tangible benefit to the locals from their presence. And making sure little girls got to go to school wasn’t one of the priorities for the guys who’d stashed their AK-47s and RPGs in drainage culverts when the Yanks and Canucks first showed up. You could see in their faces that if we didn’t start handing out sweeties soon, there was going to be trouble. And there has been.
We’ve dug a deep hole for ourselves in Afghanistan. We’ve tried to do things on the cheap. We’ve got into bed with some very unpleasant characters. In fact, we’ve proved very bad at picking our friends.
The time has come to have a look at what we actually want to achieve in Afghanistan. Would an Afghanistan without western troops be a menace to world peace? What are we prepared to pay and sacrifice for peace in Afghanistan? It is not going to come cheap.

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The latest edition of History Scotland provides proof, if proof were needed, that emigrating to Canada was a good move for young Scots a century ago. The magazine’s Scots in Canada Special took a look at Canadian Army enlistment documents from the First World War. They show that Scots who enlisted in Canada were both heavier and taller than their brethren who joined up back in Scotland. The authors of the article speculate as to why that might be. A healthier diet and better housing are obvious answers. The figures suggest the Scots quickly caught up with their Canadian born contemporaries in terms of height and weight after a couple of years in Canada, though they were slightly shorter on average.
On the other hand, the magazine argues, perhaps the Scots who went to Canada were already in better shape than the Scots who remained at home. A case of Canada creaming off some of the best of Scottish manhood. Certainly, food for thought there.

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I was reading a book recently about big business in Canada. What struck me was how much of it involved smoke and mirrors. Companies were taken over using money that didn’t exist. Bending the rules and pushing the envelope strayed on far too many occasions into criminality. Company executives seemed to decide that the law didn’t apply to them. That got me thinking me about the teetering world of high finance. Conventional wisdom seems to be that to prosecute white collar crime would cause a catastrophic loss of confidence in financial markets. I remember hearing a former City of London broker admit on the radio a couple of years back that he and all of his colleagues regularly broke the law. I thought at the time that criminal prosecutions might have actually restored confidence: I don’t remember any. Now it seems that the bankers learned nothing from the financial crisis triggered by the US mortgage market collapse – except that the “too big to fail” ploy might not work again. Perhaps it’s time to call the cops.

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In the past couple of weeks I’ve read two articles having a go at the Hollywood movie Braveheart. What is it about that film that gets under the skins of Englishmen so? Maybe they’re not used to being portrayed as the bad guys. Though I don’t think many Bollywood historical epics have many good things to say about the Raj either.
The English critics accuse Braveheart of being historically inaccurate. William Wallace did not father a child with the Queen of England. He didn’t win a battle when the Irish mercenaries in English service met the Scots halfway across the field and started partying. Englishmen kidnapping Scots brides to satisfy their lust was not a major cause of Wallace’s fight. King Edward I was not a medieval Darth Vader. Wallace did not hunt down and kill all the Scots nobles who sided with the English. The Scots didn’t wear the style of kilt seen in the movie and many didn’t wear kilts at all.
I say, take a chill pill. It’s Hollywood. The basic facts are there. Wallace did fight the English, many of the Scottish nobility did side with the English, Wallace did defeat the English, was defeated in turn when Edward/Darth Vader showed up in person and Wallace did die a barbaric death for a crime he wasn’t guilty of – he owed no allegiance to Edward and therefore couldn’t commit treason.
Hollywood follows in the tradition of the Viking sagas and medieval ballads. Exact historical accuracy takes a back seat to capturing the essence of the story. And, anyway, who do the Braveheart nay-sayers cite as their sources. Why, English propagandists. There is much we will never know about Wallace. It was a complex time. Hollywood doesn’t do complex. 

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An inquiry has just confirmed that Afghan journalist working for the BBC, Ahmed Khpulwak,  was shot dead last July by a United States soldier who mistook him for a suicide bomber. War reporting is inherently dangerous and accidents can, and will, happen. But the incident raises some concerns. US troops have killed several journalists in the past few years but they never seem to kill US journalists. Why is that? Have US journalists been lucky so far? Or do they know enough about the training and abilities of their own military to be super-wary of it? Will it take the death of a US journalist to force an improvement in US military training and end the killing of their foreign colleagues. So-called friendly fire attacks on British troops in both Gulf Wars revealed that US pilots were so badly trained that they were unable to recognise the armoured vehicle of allied nations – vehicles that bore no resemblance to any the Iraqis had in their inventory. I’ve wracked my brain and I can’t recall a single recent incident in which British or any other western troops have killed a reporter. Perhaps the law of averages and the size of the US military means American troops are the most likely to be involved in “friendly fire” attacks on fellow soldiers and journalists. Or perhaps there’s something else going on.

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Even before the Royal Regiment of Scotland was created, Canada had more kilted infantry units than Scotland. OK, so the Canadian units were reservists but the fact is that units such as the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada from Vancouver, the Calgary Highlanders and the Black Watch of Canada from Montreal, all point to a proud Scottish military tradition in Canada.
Scots soldiers played a major role in conquering Canada from the French in the 1760s. Only a few years later the Scottish veterans of that campaign and their sons helped repel an American invasion. There was even a regiment called The Royal Highland Emigrants, which included amongst its officers the husband of Highland Jacobite darling Flora Macdonald.
During the First World War, Canada’s kilties captured so much of the glory accorded to the Canadian Corps that after the war several militia units assumed Scottish identities. No fewer than 15 Canadian reserve units have either Highander or Scottish in their names. And even although Canada’s ethnic make-up has changed dramatically in the last 40 to 50 years, Canadian soldiers still don the kilt. I remember meeting some Canadian Seaforths when they were on exercise here in Edmonton. None of the guys I met  was even of European descent but they were all proud to parade in the kilt. And come to think of it, I’ve never been on an overseas Canadian military base that didn’t have at least one piper.
So, I’m looking forward to the September/October issue of History Scotland which celebrates the Scots in Canada. I’m told that not only does it look at the Canadian/Scottish military tradition but also at the Orcadian contribution to opening up Canada’s west to European settlement. There’s also a piece on Canada’s old Gaelic-speaking communities. I remember a Scottish teacher who spent her summers on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia saying she could tell where in the Highlands and Islands folks’ ancestors came from by the type of Gaelic they spoke.

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I’ve been working on a project which has involved going through newspaper and magazine reports written during the Boer War. What always strikes me about them is how honest they are about the reality of war. Soldiers suffer mental breakdowns and shock on the battlefield. Sergeants claw at the veldt scrub in agony as they wait for a death that no medical attention can avert.
This is the kind of coverage not seen in the heavily censored accounts that came out of the First and Second World Wars. The British commanders in the Boer War come in for a scrutiny and criticism that might have been valuable in the First World war – and may even have saved lives. The ordinary soldiers didn’t escape criticism either. As an office boy on the Glasgow Herald I spent two weeks finding out what the paper had to say about events over the preceding 200 years. I remember a leader, or as some people might call it, an opinion piece, along the lines of “We do not mind British soldiers surrendering, but 200 fully armed and fresh troops raising their hands to 20 Boers does stick in the craw more than somewhat”. The Herald’s leader writers were also far from impressed with the treaty which ceded Hong Kong to Britain in 1842 and were convinced the Chinese negotiators had got the better of the British. “Just what use is this miserable little island at the mouth of the Canton?” was the gist of the paper’s leader at the time.

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Back in 2002 a Canadian sniper set a new record for a long-range kill. I covered the story for the Edmonton Sun but kept it muted in comparison to some of the accounts that appeared around the time. It was indeed a fine piece of shooting but I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate a death. Snipers, and so I’ve just learned, Apache attack helicopter pilots, are amongst the few soldiers these days who get a good look at the faces of the people they kill. That makes it a very intimate type of killing. But even those snipers and pilots don’t know the story that brought that enemy into their sights. Yes, that bad guy had to be put out of action. But no, don’t ask me to join in the celebrations.

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 They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That’s not always true. Maybe someone who wants to salve their conscience for past misdeeds might treat someone else to a free meal. But one thing I’m fairly sure about is that there are no legitimate free copies of Scottish Military Disasters available for download. SMD was recently launched in e-book format and there are now sites out there offering it as a “free” download. That’s very generous of them if they plan to pay me the royalties I’m entitled to. But somehow I don’t think I’ll hold my breadth waiting to the postie to deliver the cheque. There are some advocates of copyright piracy who will use some twisted logic which claims that I’m secretly delighted by this development. I’m not. And maybe I should take the attitude that hell-mend anyone who downloads the book for “free” from one of these sites and what may happen next serves them right. The sites I’ve come across make an administrative or subscription charge. The charge is impossibly low if royalty payments to the hundreds of thousands of writers and musicians whose work is available for download are to paid. But suppose the token charge is a way to get your credit card number or some other financial details. I for one wouldn’t trust information like that to people who appear to have the technical know-how to disable anti-piracy safeguards. Also, when I looked into this I found out that many of these so called free downloads include a hefty dose of malware, including spyware. That’s providing there is a download available in the first place and you’re not just providing your credit card number and only getting a major financial or computer headache in return. I haven’t been able to find someone daft enough to test that very suspect site out.
If you are interested in a legitimate e-book version -  http://www.nwp.co.uk/9781906476588

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I’ve got something to add to my previous blog on book reviewing. In Book Reviewing 101 I cautioned that many reviewers have an agenda which is not obvious to the reader. Well, I want to add a guideline which would bar people mentioned in a book, favourably or otherwise, from reviewing that book. I recently read a book with several glowing reviews on the back cover. I was disgusted to find that the people quoted were actually in the book. Someone should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

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I was reading a book about the war in Afghanistan recently. It made me wonder if even some of the professional soldiers sometimes fail to understand what’s going on there. One was quoted as showing contempt for Taliban because of battlefield evidence that they were hopped up on drugs for the fight. I don’t doubt it. But these are the $10-a-day Taliban hired from the ranks of the boisterous under-employed teenagers to be seen in nearly every Afghan village. The Taliban are led by highly professional and experienced guerrilla fighters who have handed Brits, Americans and Canadians some very bloody noses over the years – much as they once did to the Soviets with training and equipment supplied by the West. I pick those three because outside of the various special forces units from around the world, they are the only ones who have really been fighting. The hard core of the Taliban fighters are Al Qaida fanatics from Pakistan, the Middle East, and the Muslim diaspora of Europe and North America. 
Sometimes it’s not clear who has been firing at western troops. There are drug gangs and even Afghan police taking shots. Some Afghan police may be professionals dedicated to law enforcement but they are sadly appear to be in the minority. The Afghan National Army seems to be more reliable in many ways. But the vast majority are from the minority groups and not the majority Pashtun population. Just what’s going to happen when NATO and the Americans pull out and civil war ensues is far from clear.  Many Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan have already worked out which side their bread is buttered on. 

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It seems nowadays that television and radio presenters are encouraged to banter on-air with other members of the program team. The theory is that this makes them appear more human and accessible. What it actually often does is demonstrate that there are a lot of people involved in television and radio who should not be encouraged to go off-script. They reveal themselves as vacuous and even rather stupid. Frankly, I don’t care if the news-reader has a cat or what the weather guy thinks about the latest sports result. It’s boring!
Another aspect of North American news broadcasting which I hope doesn’t spread is the cult of personality when it comes to the programme anchors. Stand-in presenters are forced to announce that they are covering for so-and-so, the usual presenter. It’s almost as though the presenters are bigger than the programme. Quite frankly, I don’t care who is presenting the show, as long as they do a good job. No more silly people who use the "assumption of ignorance" introduction. I hate listening to people who think if they didn’t know something, then no-one will know it. I once listed to two or three minutes of some daft woman telling me what Diego Garcia wasn’t – ie. a liqueur or a Mexican movie star. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she’d told us in the programme  trailer before the news on the hour that it was an island.
It’s a cliché that TV anchors are pretty-boy and pretty-girl airheads. I know of several who are highly professional and astute journalists. But I also recall one of the stupidest people I’ve come across in my entire life being made an anchor on the television news. Isn’t it interesting how often stupidity and arrogance are wedded?

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This is embarrassing. Anyone who reads Book Brief regularly will know how often I bring up how I used to tell trainee newspaper reporters that one silly mistake in their copy destroyed the credibility of the whole story and they’d pretty wasted their time.
Well, it turns out there’s a mistake in Scottish Military Disasters. Perhaps luckily, it isn’t something many people are going to spot and lose faith in the book. I said that the Battle of Gully Ravine in 1915 left my great-grandmother in Glasgow a widow with two young children. Well, it turns out my grandfather had a sister he never mentioned to me. Robina, or Ruby as she was known, died in 1925 at the age of 14 from TB, a disease which claimed the life of her step-sister Mary.
Fortunately, I’ve been given the chance to put the record straight: Scottish Military Disasters has just been released as an e-book. The error probably wouldn’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book but it’s been bugging me since I learned about it three or four months ago.

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