FORTY years on from the bloodiest year of the Northern Ireland conflict, a new book examines the role of Scottish troops in the Troubles.
Royal Highland Fusilier John McCaig was only 17 and barely out of school when he was sent to serve in Northern Ireland. On March 9, 1971, he headed into Belfast city centre on a four-hour pass with his older brother, Joseph, and their friend, Dougald McCaughey.
Later that evening, their bodies were discovered by children on a quiet lane in Ligoniel in the north of the city. Two of them had been shot in the back of the head, one in the chest; beer glasses were lying close by.
It soon became clear the soldiers, from Ayr and Castlemilk, Glasgow, were victims of a honeytrap. Girls had lured them from the city centre on the promise of a party. The deaths (they were the fourth/fifth and sixth British soldiers to be killed in the Troubles, but the first to be executed while off-duty) sent shock waves across the country, as pictures of their smiling faces under their regimental glengarries dominated the front pages of newspapers.
Almost a year earlier, the Commanding Officer of the Royal Scots, Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Richardson, had celebrated St Patrick’s Day with a drink in a bar in the Lower Falls, a Republican stronghold. Now, however, the atmosphere had changed. Later, Harry McCallion, a young Catholic from Glasgow, who was part of 2 Para preparing for deployment, remembered being told of the murders.
“I looked at the faces of the older soldiers around me. I read on them the same thing: ‘Just wait until we get across.’ For me and everybody at the table that was the major turning point. There would be no more disco tours.”
For author and historian Ian S Wood, too, it was a seminal moment. “It really brought it home to the public in Scotland and Britain as a whole the situation was on a downward spiral,” he says. “If the Republicans were capable of doing that there wasn’t a lot else they would flinch from.”
The atrocity is one of those recounted in Times of Troubles, a new book by Wood, a retired Napier University lecturer, and fellow Scottish academic Andrew Sanders. Published 40 years after the bloodiest year of the conflict, it looks at the experiences of Scottish soldiers who served in Northern Ireland and who accounted for 63 of an overall death toll of 500. The book examines how the Republican movement exploited fears that soldiers recruited from Orange heartlands in central Scotland would bring their loyalist sympathies to bear on local Catholics. But it also highlights the role Scots regiments played at many of the pivotal moments in the Troubles.
The Royal Scots and Black Watch regiments, for example, were at the heart of events which led to the enforcement of an impromptu curfew on the Lower Falls Road in 1970, an event said to have hardened the Republican stance towards the Army.
Tipped off that there was a cache of weapons at a house on Balkan Street, soldiers from a Royal Scots support company moved in to conduct a search, but, as they tried to manoeuvre their way out after finding 19 guns, they came under attack and retaliated with their batons.
As rioting spread, grenades and petrol bombs were thrown, CS gas was used and a fierce gun battle ensued. Reinforcements from the Black Watch, newly-arrived in Belfast, and other regiments were drafted in – and at 10pm the decision was made to impose a curfew, with the instruction given to clear and dominate the area.
The curfew, which lasted three days, was broken when women marched into the Falls Road waving shopping bags, loaves of bread and milk; by then four people – three Catholic civilians and a visitor from England – had died, 75 people (including 15 soldiers) been injured, 337 people were arrested and a huge cache of firearms, grenades and ammunition recovered. In the aftermath, there were allegations that soldiers from the Scottish regiments had used excessive force, destroying the religious objects in the homes they searched. As the book points out, the highest ranking soldier to die in the course of the Troubles was also a Scot, the commanding officer of the Queen’s Own Highlanders Lt Col David Blair. Blair was among 18 soldiers killed in the ambush at Warrenpoint on August 27, 1979, the same day as Lord Louis Mountbatten, his 14-year-old grandson and a 15-year-old boatman were killed in a separate bomb attack in Mullaghmore harbour, County Sligo.
Six soldiers died when an 800lb bomb was detonated as members of the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment were passing Narrow Water Castle. Those who survived radioed for help, prompting Blair and some of his men to fly to the scene in a helicopter. Shortly after his arrival, a second bomb was detonated, killing 12, including Blair.
Though his death was overshadowed by Mountbatten’s, Blair was given an impressive funeral at the Canongate Church in Edinburgh. The events of that day are said to have caused Margaret Thatcher to have considered reintroducing internment, although the then newly-elected prime minister ultimately backed away from the idea.
Like soldiers from other parts of the UK, Scots squaddies had a range of perspectives on the Troubles. Some did undoubtedly have Orange sympathies. According to Wood and Sanders, one member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders made contact with the UDA while on duty in Northern Ireland and on leaving the Army began to co-ordinate fundraising activities for the loyalist paramilitary group in west central Scotland. But others – who shared the same urban or rural backgrounds as their supposed enemies – could empathise with them. “Once, on the basis of RUC intelligence reports, we arrested a dairy farmer very early in the morning before he had milked his cows,” Brigadier Ian Gardiner, who grew up in rural Ayrshire, later wrote. “He was in a great state about that and his wife was distraught. My father was a farmer and I could see what we had done. We left a family traumatised. I don’t even know if he was a player or was ever charged with anything.”
There is no doubt Scots soldiers were guilty of some terrible acts. However, pointing out that up to 30 per cent of some Scottish battalions were Catholics, the authors believe this had more to do with the relentless pressure soldiers were under and their experience of previous campaigns, than with their religious affiliations.
Those who were veterans of colonial conflicts were schooled in aggressive counter-insurgency tactics. Some of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had served with Lt Col Colin Mitchell, AKA Mad Mitch, who, in July 1967, marched his men into the Crater area of Aden (from where they’d been driven by insurgents) as 15 regimental pipers played Scotland the Brave. The strong-arm methods he used to keep the peace there were so notorious one offical referred to the regiment as “those Glasgow thugs.”
After two sergeants from the Argylls, John Byrne and Stanley Hathaway, were found guilty of murdering two Catholic men, Michael Naan and Andrew Murray, on a farm at Newtonbutler, in 1972, a former comrade pointed out the events were not so long after Aden and that a hard core within the battalion still talked freely about the things they had done there.
The soldiers also lived in a state of terror caused by the sheer venom directed towards them and the constant danger they were exposed to. The impact of this pressure is, perhaps, best captured by a former marine from 45 Commando, as he describes his third tour in the Province in 1981. “The days and nights began to merge into an adrenalin-fuelled nightmare of incidents, reaction, fear and fatigue. There was no let-up. Sleep became rarer, it was hard to stay alert. What had at first been exciting, had simply become ugly and dangerous,” he wrote.
The most significant lesson learned during the Troubles – Wood and Sanders say – was the need to understand the geographical and political context of each new conflict. “[The Army] learned you can’t take one model and plonk it down wherever you like, you have to really understand the local dimension,” says Sanders, who is John Moore Newman research fellow at University College Dublin. “Soldiers were coming fresh from Aden where they’d basically been allowed to bash people over the head. In Northern Ireland they were dealing with British people. That meant the role they had to adopt was one of community policing not counter-insurgency. They learned you can’t keep fighting the previous war.”
• The publication of Times of Troubles (Edinburgh University Press) will be marked at an event in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh on Thursday.