Graham Jack is the current Regimental Sergeant Major of the Atholl Highlanders, Europe’s only private regiment, based at Blair Castle in Perthshire
Ijoined the Atholl Highlanders in 1977. Like many Highlanders I worked on Atholl Estates from 1971 until 1980, before joining the police. When I joined the force I had to ask my Chief Constable’s permission to carry on with the Highlanders and I was lucky that he always granted me time off to march.
The vast majority of Highlanders are recruited locally and many join to carry on a family tradition. Names are put forward by current Highlanders; in the past we’ve had Highlanders’ sons at six or seven years old, marching up and down outside the castle carrying wooden rifles, so we’re always pretty sure they’ll follow in their fathers’ footsteps.
I’m the eighth Jack to be an Atholl Highlander, so my family history is long. I didn’t know this until I joined in 1977 and the RSM at the time told me about the involvement of my greatgrandfather, his brother and their relatives before. I worked my way up through the ranks. I was the right marker for many years and I took over the role of RSM six years ago.
There are roughly 100 Atholl Highlanders at the moment, including officers, a full pipe band and rank and file. We march at Blair Castle on the last Saturday in May every year. On the day of the parade we gather at one o’clock and we all help each other get dressed. You cannot dress yourself. At one time you had to lay the plaid on the ground then you would lie down and roll into it. But now it is put on in a specific way.
When we are dressed we assemble on the lawn with our rifles. We encourage everyone to look after their kit. I have a bit more bling as I’m the RSM. I still have the original silver buttons on the front of my jacket, but most people have ones that stay bright, so they don’t have to polish them as much. We want everyone to take a real pride in their kit and make sure their shoes are shining. One of the officers will pick the best dressed Highlander and he will receive an award and a bottle of whisky.
Then we head up to the back of the castle, out along the top of the Cannon Brae where the field gun will be waiting for four guys to pull them down the hill on ropes. They take it into position, opposite a tree on the other side of the drive, while we assemble and they follow us down. The pipe band and the Atholl Highlanders march off on my command. We come down the Cannon Brae, around the parade square, into position, wait until the pipe band get into their position and when they stop playing, I will then get the men in line. The field gun is fired at three o’clock and the colours are paraded for the Duke.
Aside from the annual parade we do lots of other things throughout the year. We’re about to embark on a tour to France and Belgium to commemorate those who lost their lives in the First World War. The seventh Duke’s second eldest son, Lord George Stewart Murray, was killed at the Somme, as were six registered Highlanders. We’ve been to the USA three times, to a town called Athol in Massachusetts. The last time we were there we also visited Bermuda, so we’re quite well travelled.
The regiment has a long history. My ancestors were part
“The Atholl Highlanders provided guards of honour and a guard on the castle for Queen Victoria
of the original Atholl Highlanders that were founded by the fourth Duke of Atholl to fight in the American War from 1777. There were 1,200 soldiers recruited but by the time they set off the war had ended, so they were redeployed to Ireland, where they served for six years. The regiment was disbanded in 1783 until Lord Glenlyon, later the sixth Duke of Atholl, recruited a number of men to take with him to The Eglington Tournament where he was jousting.
On the occasion of a visit to Blair Castle by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in July 1842, Lord Glenlyon wanted to impress and called on the Highlanders to guard and entertain the Queen at Dunkeld. And it worked: following the birth of her second child in 1844 Victoria stayed at Blair Castle for three weeks. While she was there the Atholl Highlanders provided guards of honour, a guard on the castle and even accompanied her on fishing trips along with the Scots Greys. She was so taken with the Highlanders that in September 1845 she granted us colours and the right to bear arms, an honour that continues to this day.
We still parade with the same rifles. We have Lee Metford and Lee Enfield rifles. The uniform that we wear today is almost exactly as the uniforms made for the Eglinton tournament. The plaid that I wear is original too, I know this because
it has a leather tag with the number of the Highlander who first owned it. Originally they were all made with linen and vegetable dyes, so the remaining plaids can’t be replaced. Nowadays they are all wool, but they don’t look exactly the same. We have an ex-military tailor who lives in Perth, so he knows exactly what we need. The leather and belts are made by a Highland outfitter called Margaret Morrison in Perth and our kilts are made by a lady who lives in Blair Atholl, Nancy Cameron. Her husband was a Highlander and she and the previous tailoress were made honorary Highlanders. So we do have a couple of ladies in the Highlanders.
The Atholl Highlanders continued to parade until the outbreak of the First World War. Many men served in the Scottish Horse and Black Watch units. It wasn’t until 1966, that the tenth Duke of Atholl revived the Highlanders. He invited eight men who worked on the estate to march and seven of them accepted. They paraded on 8 April at Blair Castle for the first time in 33 years and have done so ever since.
Being a Highlander means more than just an annual march. As well as the tours we continue to form guards of honour for royalty, attend Highland games, military tattoos and the weddings and funerals of Highlanders.
Right: Graham Jack in his full uniform in the library at Blair Castle. Above: Keith Todhunter, the Highlanders’ Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant, helps Graham put on his plaid.
Above: Graham is surrounded by portraits of the Dukes of Atholl in the castle ballroom.Below: The Atholl Highlanders Pipe Band lead the parade.
Above left: Portrait of Iain Murray, the 10th Duke of Atholl. Above left: Graham positions his glengarry. Below: Graham braves the sunshine in his plaid outside Blair Castle.