Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Mixed fortunes for Scotland's regimental museums

In Victorian times line regiments sometimes felt aggrieved when they were in a battle next to a highland regiment because the Highlanders would steal all the glory. No matter if they had done as much if not more fighting than the Scots, the kilted warriors stood out and were a favourite for news illustrators. In a period when most armies wore uniforms based on French and Prussian styles the highlanders of Scotland were unique.

By 1881 the Lowland regiments raised to fight the Jacobite highlanders two hundred years before were transformed into pseudo-highlanders with tartan trews and basket hilted broadswords. In 2006 the transformation was complete when all Scottish infantry battalions were subsumed within the Royal Regiment of Scotland which became a highland regiment. All battalions of the regiment no matter their history or traditions became Black Watch clones in Government tartan kilts.

In 21st Century Scotland it seems that a Scottish soldier equals a highland soldier. When it comes to the museums of the Scottish infantry regiments this new pecking order seems to have taken precedence over the old Regimental Order of Precedence too.

The Highlanders museum at Fort George and the Black Watch museum at Perth have recently announced ambitious and expensive plans for their museums whilst just this week the complete opposite has happened at the King's Own Scottish Borderers Museum in Berwick which has been forced to reduce its opening hours because of a spat with English Heritage (who own the Barracks in Berwick where the Museum is based).

The other two museums to Highland regiments, The Argylls in Stirling Castle and the Gordon Highlanders museum in Aberdeen seem to be doing well too. The Argylls have the benefit of being in one of Scotland's top visitor attractions and the Gordons have a relatively new and well maintained museum at the former Bridge of Don Barracks.

The Royal Scots boasts a prime location in Edinburgh castle so it is guaranteed a large number of visitors but they are the luckiest ones when it comes to the four Lowland regimental museums.

The Cameronians are included in the South Lanarkshire run Low Parks Museum in Hamilton. It is open seven days a week and is free, but because of council cuts will that remain the case? I hope so. With the museum being in the care of a local authority you'd hope the items will always be on display. The downside is there may not always be money they want to improve their displays.

We've mentioned the KOSB museum above. It is a small museum with limited visitors and funding, and it seems that their troubles are probably going to get worse. With no more handouts from English Heritage, and no weekend opening to encourage more visitors where will they get the money they need to run the museum? It seems to me that this will lead to a downward spiral. Reduced opening hours means fewer visitors, which means less income, which probably means a cut in staff, which means a further reduction in opening hours, and then fewer visitors and so on...

Is there an answer to the KOSB Museum's problems? I hope so, and I hope former KOSB's and Berwick folk rally round their regimental heritage. It may be fifty years since the regiment last had a depot in the barracks but it is their spiritual home.

Finally last, but by no means least, is the poor old Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum. It sits forlornly at the wrong end of Sauchiehall Street and has such limited opening hours it is a wonder it gets any visitors at all. Like the KOSB they seem to be moving in ever decreasing circles. Currently the museum is only open Monday to Friday between ten and four. It isn't open in the evening and it isn't open at the weekends. Do they actually get anyone going through their door?

It is a real shame because it is a cracking museum. It is based in a Rennie Mackintosh building and out of all the regiments it probably has the most interesting history. The mix of Highland and Lowland regiments. The Royal Scots Fusiliers' long service and Highland Light Infantry's battle honours. The 71st at Waterloo and Vimiero, the 74th at Assaye and on the Birkenhead. The 21st at Blenheim in 1704, Inkerman in 1854, at the Jemappes Bridge in 1914 and countless other battles and campaigns from the Earl of Mar's regiment in 1678 up to 2 Scots in Afghanistan in 2011.

I hope the powers that be in charge of the RHF museum can see sense and make their collection more accessible. The history of Glasgow's infantry regiments should make Glasgow proud. Glaswegians, and especially the former members, and the families of former members, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, Highland Light Infantry, Royal Highland Fusiliers and 2nd Bn Royal Regiment of Scotland should start supporting their local regimental museum and learn a bit about their glorious past.

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