Sir Charles Gordon and William Macfarlane - Lieutenant-Colonel Wheatley
Diego Gomez and Major Hugh Andrew Fraser
It was winter when my family returned to Gibraltar from our enforced WW II evacuation to Madeira - and winter even in sunny Gibraltar - is a time for blankets. Mine was a sombre affair with a mostly dark blue, black and green pattern. It was – my mother explained – the “famous” tartan of the “famous” Black Watch. Curious the silly things that stick in your mind when you are only seven years old.
Black Watch tartan blanket
It was only later that I learned that those magical words “the Black Watch” actually referred to a Highland Regiment in the British army – and only a million years after that I found out that the Black Watch was also known rather more prosaically as the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot. In fact I only got to know that a few hours ago while researching for this article. But I will skip the personal history and go for the jugular instead.
In 1825, the Black Watch was stationed in Dublin. But not for long. At the time the regiment was divided into six service and four depot companies. The latter were soon pleased to learn that they would be returning to Scotland but the six service companies were out of luck. They were being sent to the celebrated fortress of Gibraltar.
No peace for the wicked. They were marched to the Cove of Cork and sailed to the Rock aboard the Albion, the Sovereign and the Numa. On arrival they were introduced to the draughty joys of Windmill Hill Barracks built in the south and on one of the most exposed places of the Rock. Some of the officers fared even worse. They were billeted in Bleak House (see LINK) a building as remote from the town as it was possible to be and even more exposed to the elements that the Barracks.
Windmill Hill Barracks ( 1835 - H.E. Allen ) (See LINK )
After a while they were then moved to Rosia and almost certainly into South Barracks, a building that had been built in the mid 18th century – a beautiful enough building by Gibraltar military standards but not exactly the most comfortable of places to live in. They remained there until 1827.
South Barracks from Rosia Bay ( 1846 - J.M.Carter ) (See LINK)
In 1828 they were moved yet again and the regiment took possession of a wing of the Grand Casemates. As far as I can make out there was little improvement. Apparently it had been recently built on the orders of General Don (see LINK) - the Governor of Gibraltar - on top of one of town’s main sewers. As can be appreciated from a contemporary sketch below, not even the officers had too many home comforts when on duty.
Interior of the Officer's Guard Room at Ragged Staff (see LINK) ( 1824 - James Bucknall Estcourt ) (See LINK)
Their move to Casemates - where they were joined by the 43rd Monmouthshire Regiment of F - may later have been noticed by their civilian neighbours living just above them in Crutchett’s Ramp. The regiments had adopted a new system of bugle calls to remind the troops of their barrack duties. It replaced the noisy use of the drums for such purposes although it is hard to tell whether the new system was any less intrusive to civilian life than the old one. My great grandfather Diego Gomez, whose family lived in a house at the top of the Ramp, certainly wouldn’t have – he had only just been born. (See LINK)
Bugler of the 43rd – perhaps during manoeuvres ( 1824 - James Bucknall Estcourt )
Not that too many people cared - this was the year that Gibraltar was inconvenienced by yet another yellow fever epidemic (see LINK) in which it has been estimated that more than 2000 people died. In an attempt to reduce the chances of catching the fever the regiment was transferred to a camp in the Neutral Ground which was supposed to be a healthier place than in town. But it made little difference and the Regiment suffered accordingly.
Spaniards in the Campo area who had not been affected by the epidemic, suddenly became worried by the large number of people from Gibraltar entering La Linea and San Roque in the hope of avoiding the worst of it. According to James Anton in his Retrospective of a Military Life (see LINK) this forced the authorities to set up a cordon sanitaire on the front of their lines on the isthmus . . .
. . . and not a soul was permitted to pass it. Much to their credit, however, permission was given to bring every article of food, provender and fuel for the use of the inhabitants and even without the customary duties.
The British authorities also set up something similar on their side of the isthmus and any exchange of goods and money assumed a ritual dance which Anton also describes with relish and some detail.
The sellers brought their articles to the center between the cords and there arranged them in lots. While this was doing the Gibraltarians had to recede as many paces of the cord as the Spaniards had advanced towards the center. When the articles were arranged the latter withdrew behind their cord and the former advanced to theirs and made their bargains. These concluded the Spaniards retired some twenty or thirty paces and the buyers rushed forward, removed the articles and returned.
This was repeated every quarter of an hour . . . from six in the morning until ten . . . it seemed not a little astonishing how expeditiously bargains were made. . . . . Persons were appointed to receive the money from the buyers; it was put into a pail among vinegar . . .
A similar cordon sanitaire procedure was set up in the late 19th century during a cholera epidemic ( The Graphic Magazine )
The epidemic lasted from the beginning of January right up to the end of December by the end of which 60 men of the Black Watch were dead. The Gibraltar Lodge of St. Andrew’s No. 310 – of whom several men of the regiment belonged - was also affected by the epidemic. Fourteen of its members succumbed to the fever including six men from the Black Watch. The Lodge later commemorated all of them them by commissioning a Memorial Stone to be erected at the North Front Cemetery. In 1927 members of another Masonic Lodge – the District grand Lodge of the Western Mediterranean – found the original stone in a poor state and ordered a replacement. It was duly unveiled that same year.
Memorial Stone at North Front Cemetery ( With thanks to Keith Sheriff )
The regiment returned to the Casemates in January 1829 but not for long. In July most of them returned to their Neutral Ground tents. The men who had already recovered from the fever remained in the Casemates Barracks. It was now a well known fact that anybody who contacted the fever and recovered was unlikely to suffer from it again. By October, however, the men left their tents for good and returned to their barracks.
Grand Casemates – Officers’ Barracks on the right ( 1830s - William Mein Smith ) (See LINK)
From then on and during the intervening years right up to when the Black Watch received orders to leave Gibraltar and proceed to Malta the regiment continued their regimental duties with “zeal” and “considerable honour” – in other words - and according to a semi-official history of the Regiment - for about three years there is hardly anything at all of interest to say about them.
But the truth is that there was. For a start the troops were bored. Being cooped up for such a long inside the garrison they were beginning to get restless and were starting to give their officers cause for concern. Or perhaps even a bit more.
When the regiment’s commanding officer Sir Charles Gordon and his adjutant William Macfarlane were away on holiday for a year – a year! – Major Hugh Andrew Fraser of Milford took over. It proved an unmitigated disaster. According Victoria Schofield in her Highland Furies the period was known as the “reign of terror” by both officers and men:
. . . And in naming it so, was no far-fetched idea. During his command there were numerous episodes of intemperate behaviour, violent language and threats by the Major that the morale of the regiment was greatly impaired.
It was a serious setback. Before gallivanting back to his beloved Scotland, Gordon had already acknowledged that having his troops cooped up in the Rock for such a long time was not a good idea. One solution was to get the British authorities to allow his troops to cross the Spanish Lines and visit nearby towns such as San Roque and Algeciras. It would allow, he suggested, for some relief from the claustrophobia induced by being stationed for such a long time in a fortress as small as Gibraltar.
His bosses, however, were worried that the troops would take advantage of such freedom and desert in numbers. When one soldier did exactly that shortly after trial period had been put in place the military hierarchy couldn’t resist telling Gordon “I told you so”. All permissions to leave the Rock for Spain were immediately curtailed – indefinitely.
But perhaps the most intriguing episode from a social history point of view is that in which one of the sergeants of the Black Watch regiment set up his own private lending library. By 1830 with the regiment still quartered in Casemates, this fellow had collected and put at the disposal of his fellow soldiers - for a small monthly fee - a cache of books which he had purchased from that well known Gibraltarian institution - the Garrison Library. (See LINK)
The Garrison Library ( 1834 - H. A. Turner ) (See LINK)
Word of this surprising affair reached Sir Charles Gordon as he was listening to the day’s gossip in the orderly room at the end of the morning’s meetings. He was, he acknowledged, more than surprised. As far as he was aware no such a thing had ever been undertaken in any other Scottish regiment.
As soon as he left the room, the pay sergeants were instructed to find out how many soldiers would be prepared to be subscribers of a lending library if they were asked to contribute six day’s pay according to rank levied in three monthly instalments and after that a membership fee of six pence a month.
They found that more than two hundred soldiers were willing to pay and Sir Charles gave the initiative his blessing. Second-hand books were purchased from the Garrison Library, officers generously donated their own books and a large order was placed with Thomas Tegg of London.
Tegg and Co. ( Bodleian Library )
The project proved a success and membership increased accordingly. In 1832 the Black Watch left the Rock for Malta taking their library with them. The scheme continued until 1854 when it was overtaken by the advent of Government sponsored reading-rooms and libraries. By then it had accumulated about 3000 volumes.
There are several interesting omissions in the history of what must surely be Gibraltar’s very first lending libraries. One of them is that the only reason we have become aware of its very existence is because Lieutenant-Colonel Wheatley, a Black Watch officer serving in Gibraltar at the time, mentions it in his memoirs. He also makes it plain that he was the man who instigated the project and presumably had overall responsibility for it. Which begs one to ask the question - what happened to the sergeant? The fellow remains unnamed and we never find out whether he continued his little project or gave up and joined the official version.
There is also a small irony that deserves a mention. Gibraltarians who care about such matters have always been indignant at the elitism of that other famous military library on the Rock and the fact that locals were never made welcome. They tend to forget that local civilians were not the only ones to be excluded. In fact its proper name really ought to have been – The Garrison Officers’ Library.