Private Farquhar Shaw - the best, worst soldier
Today we remember all the men, woman and children who have lost their lives to war, but especially those remarkable people who knew just what they were sacrificing, and willingly went to war to protect their country and their country’s freedoms. I am grateful everyday.
Black Watch Memorial, Aberfeldy
This beauty stands in a public park overlooking the historic Wade's Bridge over the River Tay in Aberfeldy, Perthshire. I took the photo two weeks ago, when the trees were magnificent with autumn colour. The statue is sited very intelligently: at this time of remembrance, the leaves make a striking symbols of all dear lives lost.
While the memorial itself is to all the soldiers of the Black Watch Regiment (the Royal Highlanders) it is a depiction of Private Farquhar Shaw and his story is a sad one. Unlike most military monuments, the subject died not as a war hero but was executed in the Tower of London, after being court-martialled, tried by the government and sentenced to death for desertion.
As you learn about his story, the statue becomes a powerful memorial to every Black Watch soldier’s life and sacrifice as Private Farquhar Shaw acted with courage and a sense of right, even if history proved him technically to be wrong.
In 1743, The Black Watch was given the unusual order to march from Scotland to London. Until this point, the regiment had only patrolled in Scotland. They were told they were to be inspected by the King, but when they reached London, they were inspected by Field-Marshal Wade instead.
Rumour spread that they were to be transported to the West-Indies. The Highland Clearances were already was already dispersing Highlanders from across Perthshire and the highlands and islands of Scotland. Ultimately thousands and thousands of families would be displaced, ‘cleared’ off land, and (through desperation) ‘willingly’ joining boat loads of emigrees. Thousands more were punished, sold or tricked onto boats. At this point in history, the destination of the West-Indies was though to be synonymous with inevitable disease and likely death.
A large number of soldiers were so alarmed that they left London, intending to march back north to Scotland. They were stopped after just 2 days (imagine 139 soldiers in kilts and speaking Gaelic all heading North, trying not to be seen).
The Black Watch soldiers who remained in London set sail to fight in Flanders, and not the rumoured West-Indies. Even though the 'deserters' had made their decision based on false rumours, all were tried by court martial and sentenced to death.
In the end, only three men were executed, including Private Farquhar Shaw. The other two were likely singled out as their families had allegiance with the Jacobites. It is said that Private Farquhar Shaw was singled out as he was known to have been the best shot, and so he was made an example of: he died both for being outstanding as a soldier and for failing to be a soldier on duty. As a scapegoat, he took bullets for all the other 136 men who had also made their decision to leave.
Historians argue whether any Black Watch soldiers of his time had ever signed up for overseas duty even if politically, it is what his regiment evolved into doing. The British Museum has a print depicting the three men's execution. In it we can see three men kneeling blindfolded, encircled by 100 fellow prisoners and 300 Scotch guards. A firing squad of around 20 men all taing aim. You can view it here.
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