An' wha' daurs meddle wi' this?

NEMO me impune lacessit. Wha daur meddle wi’ me. No one will touch me with impunity. Whichever language you translate it into, the Royal Scots’ defiant regimental motto sounds a little ironic this week.

After nearly 400 years of fighting wars against foreign foes around the world, from Napoleon to Saddam Hussein, the famous Edinburgh infantry regiment is reportedly set to be brought down - by its own side.

Speculation is rife that Chancellor Gordon Brown’s imminent budget announcement will lead to defence cutbacks which will wipe out the oldest surviving infantry regiment in the British Army.

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The long-awaited and much-feared decision is due to be made by the Ministry of Defence "within days" of the Chancellor’s speech next Monday.

For the 471 Royal Scots soldiers, recruited mainly from Lothian and Borders, whose livelihoods are at stake, the importance of the outcome is obvious.

And critics of the reported move claim it will weaken the British Army at what is a critical time, due to ongoing troop commitments in Iraq.

Tory MSP Brian Monteith says: "At a time when it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that our troops are over-stretched, that we should be considering weakening our forces by scrapping not just any regiment, but our oldest and probably most famous regiment, would be a fundamental error of huge proportions and should be resisted by everyone interested in peace."

And a former Royal Scots regimental colonel, Brigadier Charles Ritchie, says: "Naturally one would be absolutely devastated if any decision was made to disband the Royal Scots, who have been serving the country continually since 1633." Ritchie adds that he fears the Royal Scots and the remaining five infantry units in Scotland will be merged either into one large Scottish regiment or two - a Lowlands and a Highlands regiment.

But if they or any other Scottish soldiers are simply deployed elsewhere in Britain, perhaps even in a "super-regiment" created by merging units, does it matter if individual infantry regiments are lost?

Royal Scots chiefs and regimental soldiers past and present are adamant that it does. They say that if the Royal Scots regiment goes, so too will the fighting spirit which has won so many battles over the centuries.

Dick Mason, regimental secretary of the Royal Scots, says: "It is like Rangers, Celtic or Scotland. You play for the team. That team is the regiment. You live with, work with, fight with, do virtually everything with a group of people, and it is a fact that you are more likely not to let your friends down if you are part of that team.

"The fact that you all come from the same sort of area, wear the same uniform and have the same history makes you family. It is that which inspires loyalty. It is that which makes a fighting unit."

Neil Griffiths, spokesman for the Royal British Legion Scotland, agrees: "The regimental unit is the building block of the British Army and the esprit de corps. If you take that away, you are in big trouble."

He adds: "If you can unite men with a single vehicle of unity and pride, you will reap the benefits. Almost everyone will have had someone who will want to join because their father or grandfather was in the Royal Scots, and who will think: ‘Yes, our regiment fought against Napoleon.’

"If your regiment has got a proud record of excellence, you will always want to live up to that. Once you take away that aspiration you are losing a valuable military tool."

Looking at the history of the Royal Scots it is not hard to see why young people would aspire to be a part of it.

It was created in 1633 under a Royal Warrant from King Charles I, when one Sir John Hepburn recruited 1200 men in Scotland for service in France.

The Royal Scots have been called to arms in virtually every war which Britain has taken part in since.

In 1661, the regiment was summoned to Britain to bridge the gap between the disbandment of the New Model Army and the creation of a regular army - becoming a model of excellence for all future units.

Its performance on the battlefield soon proved its worth. Its first battle honours were won in Tangier in 1680, and on return to Britain in 1684 the title The Royal Regiment of Foot was conferred by the then king, Charles II.

In 1743, the 1st Battalion went to Germany to take part in the War of the Austrian Succession, and the next year, the 2nd Battalion became involved in the fight against Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, which culminated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the regiment increased from two to four battalions, a number which shot up to 35 during the First World War, including 15 active frontline units.

More than 100,000 men passed through those battalions, of whom 11,000 were killed and more than 40,000 wounded. Seventy-one battle honours and six Victoria Crosses were awarded to the regiment.

At the start of the Second World War, the 1st Battalion embarked for France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, but was forced into the retreat which was to end at Dunkirk, and few escaped. The 2nd Battalion, based in Hong Kong, also saw action when the Japanese attacked in December 1941. At the end they had just four officers and 98 others left to be taken prisoner.

Since 1945, the regiment has continued to serve in many parts of the world, including Germany, Korea, Cyprus, Suez, Aden and Ireland. In 1949, the two regular battalions amalgamated, the first time since 1686 that the regiment had been without a 2nd battalion.

The regiment has also acquired an odd-sounding nickname along the way, Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard.

Robert Paterson, a retired Army officer who wrote a book on the history of the regiment entitled Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard: A History of the First or the Royal Regiment of Foot The Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment), explains: "It refers to a legend that goes back to 1640, when it is alleged that the Royal Scots claimed precedence over the senior regiment of the French Army.

"In order to discredit them, a French officer accused the Royal Scots of being asleep at their posts, and called them Pontius Pilate’s bodyguards. Their reply: ‘We couldn’t possibly have been Pontius Pilate’s bodyguards. If we had been, the body would never have left the sepulchre’."

Griffiths has an alternative explanation: "It was long rumoured that Pontius Pilate was born in Kirkcaldy, where his father was a centurion, and the Royal Scots were founded as Pontius Pilate’s bodyguards."

The pride which people in Lothian and Borders - and Peebles, where soldiers are also recruited - feel in relation to the Royal Scots’ legendary fighting is evident from numerous towns granting the regiment their freedom.

Haddington, Linlithgow, Musselburgh, Penicuik and Peebles have all done so over the years. But times have changed. Some, like Griffiths, would argue that the current state of the world has brought about an unprecedented need for soldiers.

But where once there were tens of thousands of Royal Scots and dozens of battalions, now there is just one battalion with only 471 soldiers. Like Scotland’s other five regiments, the Royal Scots is undermanned - it should have 527 men.

And, although it is clearly short-staffed, the financial situation at the Edinburgh regiment is so dire that it currently has a six-month ban on recruiting new soldiers.

As a result, the remaining soldiers are stretched to the limits. For the past four Christmases, almost every single one has been posted overseas, away from their family.

And with the unit expected to go back to Iraq this winter, soldiers face another Christmas away from their loved ones.

The stress is taking its toll, with more and more said to be leaving - which doesn’t make the regiment’s future any brighter. Griffiths says: "Cutting numbers now defies belief. These soldiers have never had so much to do. To start thinking of cutting back is military madness.

"Nobody works harder than these young soldiers. They lose their weekends, they are away from home for months at a time, they could be shot or maimed, and all for the same pay as a traffic warden. [The average 18-year-old private earns around 13,000].

"Many are leaving after just three years now because they are fed up.

"If it transpires that their biggest enemy is a politician at home, it will be no surprise."

ASENIOR British Army source admits that morale is low, adding: "They have served in Iraq, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and they have been on standby for the firefighters’ dispute as well.

"We aspire towards tour intervals of 24 months - at the moment, it is seven to ten months. In these circumstances, I cannot believe that anyone is going to cut the size of the infantry."

Griffiths is under no illusion that the threat to abolish the Royal Scots is real.

He adds: "It appears that the MoD is being controlled by the Treasury. The MoD wants to spend billions on technical hardwear, not manpower, so it would appear that it [merging regiments] is inevitable."

While Mason and his colleagues refuse to comment on "speculation" about the regiment’s future, insiders fear the worst.

The senior source says: "I don’t know whether the speculation [that the Royal Scots will be axed] is right or wrong, but someone knows something and there must be some truth in the speculation.

"And what is annoying is that it seems to be driven by money and not by operational need.

"I don’t know when we will hear - we have not been given a date - but I understand that it is likely to be just before the parliamentary recess. Being cynical, I would expect them to release something controversial and then go off and hope it has been forgotten about when they return."

Meanwhile, the MoD stresses that nothing will be finalised until after the Chancellor’s announcement.

A spokesman for the MoD says: "Since our White Paper last December we have been undertaking a pretty thorough review of all MoD capacity and overheads. That is ongoing. We have always said that that could mean some difficult decisions.

"I don’t know why Scotland’s regiments have been pulled out for speculation, but at the moment it is just that [speculation]."

He adds that a decision on the future of regiments, including those in Scotland, will be made "within days" of the Chancellor’s budget statement.

And then the real fight for the Royal Scots may well begin.