UK Government ministers have investigated moving the army’s famous Black Watch battalion to Moray instead of Fife.
Memos obtained by The Press and Journal show that defence chiefs questioned whether Kinloss Barracks could become the new home of the 3 SCOTS unit.
Any move to base the Black Watch alongside the 39 Engineer Regiment at Kinloss would represent a huge boost for Moray, potentially creating the largest army barracks in Scotland, in a region which already hosts the nation’s only operational RAF base at nearby Lossiemouth.
But it would deliver a significant blow to the Fife and Tayside areas, where there have long been hopes raised for the return of the unit to its traditional recruiting area.
About 500 personnel from 3 SCOTS are currently based at Fort George, near Inverness, but UK ministers controversially ruled in 2016 that the historic barracks would close by 2032.
Emails released under freedom of information laws show that, after its closure, officials have discussed turning the 250-year-old garrison into a “hotel and serviced apartments aimed at the American/Asian market”, but that senior figures were also considering the “implications of stopping the disposal” of Fort George as recently as November and December.
Military chiefs have previously stated that the Black Watch battalion will move to another base in Scotland when Fort George closes, and Leuchars in Fife has been considered by most to be the front-runner.
As a more modern site with better facilities, Leuchars could also be considered more positive for recruitment and retention.”
In 2017, then Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said he was “considering it (Leuchars) as a possible base for the Black Watch, which would bring the Black Watch back into their traditional Tayside recruiting ground”.
Emails released to The Press and Journal confirm that the “planning assumption” at the Ministry of Defence has been that 3 SCOTS would switch to the former RAF base at Leuchars.
However, ministers appeared to be questioning the move at the end of last year.
In one email on November 28, officials were asked to answer a series of questions on the future of Fort George and the Black Watch on behalf of “Min(DP)”, thought to be the minister for defence procurement, who at the time was Anne-Marie Trevelyan.
The memo said: “Min(DP) would like to understand who is responsible for making the final decision regarding the disposal date for Fort George, and subsequent re-provision for 3 SCOTS and the lodger units?”
“DEOP (defence estate optimisation programme) factsheets states that 3 SCOTS may move to MOD Leuchars. Is this still panning assumption still valid (sic): And were there any considerations to move 3 SCOTS to Kinloss Barracks? Could 3 SCOTS move to Kinloss Barracks?”
Kinloss controversially closed as an RAF base in 2012 and was turned into an army barracks in the same year following the arrival of the 39 Engineer Regiment, but much of the huge estate is unused today.
The Foxhound armoured patrol vehicles used by the Black Watch are currently located at Kinloss, because there is no room at Fort George.
Responding to the minister’s questions on December 10 last year, officials at army headquarters said: “Any proposal to change the 3 SCOTS destination location would have to be agreed by the army.”
Army chiefs said in the email, part of which was redacted, that the planning assumption of a move to Leuchars remained “valid”, and the memos suggested an infrastructure assessment would be carried out between March and September this year.
It added: “The move would enable down-sizing, modernisation and reduction in estate running costs.
“It would also collocate 3 SCOTS with Scots Dragoon Guards; units which both sit under command of 51 Inf Brigade (HQ based in Edinburgh). Physical co-location enables the benefit of shared facilities and reduced estate running costs.
“As a more modern site with better facilities, Leuchars could also be considered more positive for recruitment and retention.”
Major Ronnie Proctor, secretary of The Black Watch Association and provost of Angus, said: “Whichever base is selected would be the best one for their tactical deployment and family back-up.
“Leuchars, if it was on the cards and was an option, would be a good place for the Black Watch, but I don’t know.”
Douglas Ross, Conservative MP for Moray, said there would be space at Kinloss Barracks for the unit.
“I hadn’t heard anything along those lines but clearly the army are not using the full capacity of Kinloss,” he said.
“At the moment they have got the P8s and the Puma helicopters in there, but there is certainly scope for more personnel to be based out of Kinloss.
“I’ve not lobbied for it but I have lobbied for an increased military presence in Moray because we have the capacity at Kinloss, and while a lot of focus is rightly on the increases we’re seeing at Lossiemouth, I would be keen to see Kinloss utilised further by the MoD and the army.”
An MoD spokeswoman said: “Defence remains committed to both the sale of Fort George and moving 3 SCOTS to an alternative location within Scotland, although a final decision on this location has yet to be made.”
Tourism future for Fort George?
The future of Fort George was discussed by officials in memos which have been released to the P&J.
The 250-year-old garrison, built near Ardersier after the Battle of Culloden, is owned by the MoD and has been put forward for inclusion in the Inner Moray Firth local development plan, potentially paving the way for the site to be redeveloped.
Scottish Development International, Historic Environment Scotland and Highland Council have also been involved in discussions about its future, although the site is considered “difficult and challenging” to address.
One official from the Defence Infrastructure Organisation wrote in June last year: “It would probably lend itself to being subdivided into a hotel and serviced apartments aimed at the American / Asian market which could link in very easily to Inverness Airport and the Castle Stuart golf course plus other local attractions such as Brodie Castle and the distillery trail.”
The memo added: “The adjoining training area should be kept. It is clearly a useful asset and quite a bit of investment has taken place to provide a variety of range facilities for live firing which would be hard to replace elsewhere.”
However, a question mark has recently been raised about whether the closure of Fort George will go ahead in 2032 as planned.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the P&J in November that he would have “further discussions with our chiefs” about Fort George and that previously announced basing decisions were now “less set in stone”.
Emails from two weeks before Mr Wallace spoke to the P&J in November show that senior figures were discussing the “implications of stopping the disposal” of Fort George, while officials were also asked to explain “what was the rationale behind the decision to dispose of Fort George” for a ministerial briefing.
However, the MoD has indicated that the briefing notes were not part of a discussion on stopping the closure of Fort George, but simply to ensure ministers had complete and accurate information.