Argylls in line to become TA reserve unit

ONE of Scotland's most famous regular army units is set to be turned into a Territorial Army reservist battalion as part of UK defence cuts.

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who have just returned from a tour of Afghanistan, are among the frontrunners for conversion as the British Army cuts the number of full-time battalions to cope with reduced budgets.

Despite its illustrious military history, the Argylls - currently 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (5 Scots) - could be one of the casualties in the 17,000 reduction to the number of regulars in the army announced last week by Defence Secretary Liam Fox.

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At a briefing at the Ministry of Defence on Monday, just hours before Fox made his announcement to parliament, it was made clear that the cuts to regulars would probably involve the most junior battalions in the army's regiments.

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders is under threat as the fifth and most junior by age of the regular battalions in the RRS.

Factors against its survival as a regular unit include the light armour infantry battalion being based in Kent, as it would have to be moved north of the Border to become part of the new Scottish mobile brigade which Fox also announced on Monday.

Sources have also suggested that The Highlanders, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (4 Scots), which is currently based in Germany, is also under threat of being turned into a reservist unit as the government looks to make reductions.

The battalions would not be disbanded, but they would be a target for voluntary redundancies, with other full-time soldiers who did not wish to leave the armed services deployed to fill gaps in other regular units.

They would eventually become Territorial Army (TA) units in their own right while retaining the cap badges, so deflecting accusations from veterans' groups that the battalions' heritage was being destroyed.

Last week, while announcing an increase in the size of the TA, which will make up 30 per cent of the 120,000 total size of the army, Dr Fox also told MPs privately that he is "focused on keeping cap badges" despite the cuts.

Former SAS commander Clive Fairweather, who yesterday stepped down as an honorary Colonel in The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, has said he has received briefings which point to the two battalions either being scrapped or moved over to the TA.

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"Given the increase in the TA, there is a very good chance they will turn one or two into TA battalions - thus avoiding a humongous row about the loss of famous names," he said.

Patrick Mercer, the Tory MP for Newark and a former Colonel in the army, was at the MoD briefing on Monday which discussed the reductions to the army.

He said: "It is clear to me that the most junior battalions in the regiments are the ones most at risk, given the way previous reorganisations have happened.

"It seems logical that many of them will be transferred to an increased TA.

"If the Argylls become a TA unit then they will be drawn from all of Scotland, which means that really only the name will survive."

The Ministry of Defence last night insisted work has yet to begin on the future of the army battalions. A spokeswoman said: "At the moment, any discussions on the future of individual battalions or regiments is just pure speculation."

The RRS was formed in 2006 and given new regimental colours last month by the Queen. It is made up of seven battalions comprising the Royal Scots Borderers, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, originating in 1678, the Black Watch, founded in 1725, the Highlanders, the Argylls and two existing TA battalions: 52nd Lowland and 51st Highland.

The Sutherland Highlanders date back to 1760 but amalgamated in 1881 with Princess Louise's Argyllshire Regiment to become the Argylls.

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The Highlanders originated in 1778 as the Seaforth Highlanders, raised across the Highlands and islands of Scotland and later amalgamated with the Gordon Highlanders. In 1994, what was then the Queen's Own Highlanders merged with the Gordon Highlanders. It is now also part of the 7th Armoured Brigade, mainly based in Germany.

Crimea to Kosovo

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders has a long and distinguished history of valour and first gained fame for its courage during the Crimean War.

The battalion was formed from two Highland regiments, the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders and the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in 1881. Both were renowned in their own right, with the 93rd gaining fame as the 'Thin Red Line' at the Battle of Balaclava, in the Crimean War, when it repelled advancing Russian troops.

The 93rd also won six Victoria Crosses in a single day at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny of November 1857.

In the First World War, it was involved in operations in Passchendaele, Gallipoli and Palestine, among others, while in the Second World War its 1st battalion fought in the Western Desert in Africa and the Italian Campaign. In the past decade they have deployed to Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rory Reynolds