11 Mar 2011

Salute to The Black Watch Museum

The kilt in the glass case looks heavy, a sleeping pleated quilt. The mud that is crusted in large smears and droplets has faded to the hue of desert sand.

A black and white photo of Captain WD MacLean hangs on the wall above the cabinet.

In the photo he is seen in the same kilt, which he was wearing when he fell in Flanders in WWI. High on another wall is a cross that bears his name.

Of the ten rooms which tell the chronological story of The Black Watch, Scotland’s oldest regiment, it is this room which holds my fascination the most. I think it is the multitude of personal touches which makes the difference.

While you look around at the artefacts, the voice of veteran Gilbert Crossland follows you, his stories of life in the trenches bringing to life the silent relics of his dead comrades.

Just outside the room a life-sized model of a WWI soldier stands in a sandbagged trench, his gun poised and ready to fire. The frozen look of worry on his face and the fine details of his hands around the rifle add a sense of distant sadness to the scene. It is like a postcard for so much human regret.

The Black Watch Museum is housed in Balhousie Castle, which itself has a long and varied history, from its start in the 15th century to its use as a convent in 1926 and later as the Auxiliary Training Service as officer’s quarters during WWII. Located just outside central Perth, the grounds of the castle roll close to the banks of the River Tay.
For those with a penchant for facts and a fascination with military history, The Black Watch Museum is a gold mine of information. Starting with the regiment’s formation in 1739 through to modern warfare in the Middle East, there are endless lists of battles and dates, rows of medals and military equipment on display.

But while it may be easy to appeal to those who could happily absorb every strategic battlefield manoeuvre, it can be difficult for historical attractions like this to attract those who find it harder to maintain attention through reams of dates and facts. Most teenagers for example. Or (and I have narrowed this down in order to avoid casting any vast generalisation on my gender)…me.

What is necessary in these situations is the inclusion of story fragments. Take one day, one hour, one person, and pluck them out of the quagmire of history. Hold the spotlight on just that one moment and you will find you deepen people’s understanding of the wider narrative.
So when you sit down to view the model street scene set on the Dutch-German border in February 1945, a recording will talk you through a one-day experience of the 5th Battalion Black Watch, the sound of gun fire and small glowing lights moving your mind through the action. Small details, like the tiny burned bike leaning abandoned against the charred building, will stay with you as if they were life-sized.
Sometimes a single item is the loose thread from which a timeline of history can unfurl. On one floor a model of a piper holds a set of bagpipes that were played by Piper Smith of the 42nd Battalion The Royal Highlanders of Canada during the Retreat to Mons and at Vimy Ridge during WWI.

Later in WWII it was Canadian officer Jack McBride who played these pipes when he served as a Canadian Loan Officer with the 7th Battalion The Black Watch in Northwest Europe.

In another room behind the glass of a simple frame is the cracked black and white photo of a smiling Private W Lambton, MM 1st Battalion The Tyneside Scottish. There is so much innocent pride in his expression, telling the story of so many young men with grand ideas of war and glory.
Perth is famous for its natural beauty and outdoor lifestyle, but this unique museum offers a new understanding of Scottish history.

For £4 you can wander the halls of a castle and either pour over dates and facts or lose yourself in the stories of the men and women whose own histories are forever entwined with this famous regiment.

For more information on The Black Watch, visit the official website. Undiscovered Scotland also features an excellent article about the museum.

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