THE names of two famous Scottish regiments are set to be merged in a bid to mask cuts to the army, The Scotsman has learned.
The names of the Black Watch and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are to be brought together under a plan from Downing Street designed to ensure they are not lost as a result of cuts to the army.
The Scotsman has also learned that the government is considering scrapping another famous Scottish regimental name – the Scots Guards – because of its poor recruitment record.
The plan will see The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, known as 5 Scots, abolished when the restructuring of the army is announced – probably in June – because it is the most junior battalion of the five in the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
However, its name will then be attached to the third battalion, the Black Watch in a bid to keep the traditions of the historic regiment alive and lessen the fury of its loss.
The new Black Watch and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders battalion will be part of a wider reorganisation of the army as it is reduced by 20,000 and the 17,000 troops in Germany are brought home.
The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a tank regiment currently based in Germany will also be scrapped, whilst the Lowland Gunners 40 Regiment have already been disbanded.
Under plans approved in 2004, Scotland’s five regiments became battalions under the Royal Regiment of Scotland – allowing them to save their historic names.
Now, The Scotsman has been told that the Scots Guards in the Household division are seriously under threat because, according to a Ministry of Defence source, it “has the worst recruitment record of the five Guards battalions”.
It is understood, though, that with an independence referendum around the corner, the government is unwilling to scrap four of the ten Scottish raised battalions. That means the Coldstream Guards, the most junior of the battalions and which recruits in the north of England, is still believed to be more likely to get the axe.
The merger of two famous Scottish names is not unprecedented in recent history with one of the battalions left untouched – the Highlanders, fourth battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, is an amalgamation of the Gordons, Camerons and Seaforths.
An MoD source said: “This will be presented as a way of saving the names and if there are any objections then critics will be told ‘it’s happened with the Highlanders so why not the Black Watch and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders?’”
Senior Tory MP Patrick Mercer, a former army officer, has also been briefed on the plans.
He said: “It is clear that the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders have gone. But what now appears to have been decided is that the MoD will add the name of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to that of the Black Watch because the MoD sees it as 3 Scots battalion.
“This will be an effort to minimise the damage but will probably just end up annoying everybody instead.”
The government is acutely aware of the protests which the reorganisation of the army was met with in 2004 which included a march outside parliament and a petition with thousands of signatures.
The compromise then was to merge the old regiments into the Royal Regiment of Scotland leaving their regimental names with the new battalions. However, there are fears that the row over names in Scotland and in English regiments will mask a greater problem over what is happening to the UK’s defence.
The government has been faced with much criticism of its Strategic Defence and Security Review published in 2010 which effectively unveiled huge cuts to the armed forces.
Clive Fairweather, a former senior commander in Scotland and ex-honorary Colonel in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, warned that the problem is that the issue will become “too focused on names”.
The former second in command for the SAS said: “The real issue here is a loss of capability and a reduction in the size of our forces. The trouble is, as Libya showed us last year, you never know what is around the corner and these changes mean the UK will be ill-prepared to deal with it.”
As well as provoking anger among former soldiers, the move is expected to become a major issue in the Scottish independence referendum with the SNP hoping to garner support from veterans.
SNP Westminster leader and defence spokesperson Angus Robertson MP said: “This is a flimsy attempt to mask the latest cut to our historic Scottish units that won’t fool anyone. Adding the names together does not change the fact that we are effectively losing yet another historic unit.”
The move is also likely to be opposed by Labour.
Former armed forces minister and former Labour MP for East Kilbride Adam Ingram said: “It is an outrageous way to treat men and women who serve in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.”
Last night an MoD spokeswoman described the claims as “speculation”. She added: “Work is ongoing on the review and no decisions have been made yet.”