by Monk Theodore
Saint Andrew the First-Called is beloved and revered by millions of Orthodox Christians as the patron saint of their homeland. From the dusty Mediterranean climes of Greece to the densely-forested mountains of Romania, and from the vast steppe of Russia to the rain-sodden hills of Scotland, Saint Andrew’s name is praised by those who have been under his protection for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Devotional hymns to Saint Andrew are no longer heard by the majority of Scots. During the Reformation, iconoclast zealots destroyed the apostle’s relics at what was once the biggest church in Europe, in the city that bears his name, St Andrew’s. This desecration was a tangible sign of the spirit of the age, which did away with the veneration of the apostle’s memory. Nevertheless, there are still some connections between modern Scotland and the old faith that the mists of time cannot keep shrouded.
One such connection, or relationship to be more precise, one which is not simply a footnote in the history of our two respective nations, but rather is alive today and even serves as many Scots’ first – and maybe even only – encounter with the Orthodox faith. It is in this relationship — guarded and protected by a small number of men located in a small corner of Fife — that we can see the ancient and pious traditions of Holy Rus’ and the Russian Empire still alive and practiced in modern day Scotland. Who are these men? They are the Birdcatchers.
The Birdcatchers, known officially as the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys), are Scotland’s only cavalry regiment, their nickname being derived from their capturing an imperial eagle from Napoleon’s army at Waterloo. The regiment was previously known as the Royal Scots Greys and, being raised in 1678, it has had connections with Russia from the beginning. Its first colonel, Thomas “Tam” Dalyell, had previously served in the army of Tsar Alexei I during the wars against the Turks and Poles in the latter half of the seventeenth century. It is in the regiment’s later history that our interest lies, however. From the day of his marriage in 1894 until his tragic martyrdom in 1918, His Imperial Highness, Tsar Nicholas II was Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment, a dignity that was bestowed upon him by his grandmother-in-law, Queen Victoria. Colonel-in-Chief is not an operational appointment; instead, it is a ceremonial role usually given to a member of the royal family or, in the case of Tsar Nicholas II, a member of an allied royal family. The role of the Colonel-in-Chief is to assist in raising the morale of the troops by taking an interest in their traditions, life, and welfare.
Tsar Nicholas II certainly took an interest in his regiment. Having been very impressed by them after their first and only official visit to the Russian Empire in 1895, where they visited Tsarskoe Selo and were met by the Russian Imperial Guard, the Tsar wore their full dress uniform at a number of official occasions of state importance, including during a two-week visit to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle in Scotland in 1896. During this time, the Imperial escort was comprised of men and officers of the Royal Scots Greys, who met the Tsar when he disembarked at the port of Leith and when he arrived at Ballater railway station. The Tsar commented during this trip that “Scotland is a beautiful place, but it seems to be raining everyday.”
It was during this rainy visit that the regiment’s adoption of certain Russian customs began: Tsar Nicholas gifted the regiment with several white bearskin hats of Russian style, which are worn to this day by members of the regimental pipes and drums, namely the Drum Major, who wears his white bearskin while mounted upon one of the regiment’s distinctive grey horses. In honor of their beloved Russian Colonel-in-Chief, the regimental band began playing the Imperial Russian Anthem, “God Save the Tsar” at the end of all official functions in the officers’ mess, along with the British national anthem. Even now, over a century later, the stirring tones of this prayer for the Autocrat of All Russia and defender of the Orthodox Christian peoples is heard in the officers’ mess of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, while a beautiful portrait of the Tsar still hangs in a prominent place, watching over the men of his regiment, who continue to toast him at every formal mess function.
It was in his martyric death, however, that the Tsar has had his greatest effect on the traditions of the regiment. Devastated by the loss of their Colonel-in-Chief at the hands of the bloodthirsty Bolsheviks, the regiment entered a period of mourning, which entailed the wearing of black backing behind the regimental cap badges worn with all uniforms. This period of mouring has never ended. Even today, the regiment’s distinctive grey berets and “zig-zag” peaked caps are never worn without the black patches, in perpetual mourning for the Tsar-Martyr.
After the regiment sent a delegation that included its then-commanding officer Colonel Andrew Phillips to the burial service of the Holy Royal Martyrs at the Peter and Paul fortress in Saint Petersburg in 1998, a friendship developed which led to the 2001 presentation to the regiment of an icon of Tsar Martyr Nicholas, specially commissioned by the Moscow Caledonian Club. This icon, in the words of the club director, Vitaly Mironov, was given to the regiment
not on our own behalf, but on behalf of ALL RUSSIAN PEOPLE. This is extremely important for us because we considered the very fact of painting this icon and its presentation to the glorious Scottish regiment as an act of the deepest repentance of ALL OF OUR PEOPLE of the greatest evil that our ancestors did to the Tsar, his family and members of the household… it is our history and our common historical memory.
The icon was received from the Russian delegation at Edinburgh Castle by the Colonel of the Regiment, Brigadier Melville Jameson, who noted that “The Tsar is a revered figure in the regiment. In the officers’ mess and at regimental dinners we play his national anthem before our own.” Also present at the ceremony was the then-oldest sitting Member of Parliament, Tam Dalyell, a descendent of the aforementioned founding colonel of the Royal Scots Greys.
The icon accompanies the regiment wherever it is based, be it Germany, where the regiment spent several decades, or back in Scotland since its recent return to the regiment’s mother country. Echoing the pious customs of the Orthodox Christian warriors of Holy Rus’, this very icon is also carried into battle by the troopers of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. To date, the icon has accompanied and protected them on deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was in Iraq in 2003 that the icon led the men into combat for the first time. Being placed in the leading tank at the head of the formation, the Tsar-Martyr’s icon was present at the battle of Az Zubayr, during which the tanks of the regiment dramatically destroyed all fourteen tanks of the opposing force, with no losses of their own. It also accompanied them to Afghanistan in 2012, when the regiment was deployed to the embattled Helmand Province. Another former commanding officer of the regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Dominic Coombs said:
It’s been to Kosovo, it’s been to Iraq twice, it’s been to Afghanistan twice, and then anywhere we go in the future. Whenever we go on operations it comes with us and goes and sits next to me wherever I am. We look after it. We cherish it. It’s a great link. And now it’s in Fife, it’s in Leuchars. And we are very proud to have it here.
Representatives of the regiment returned to Russia in 2017 when Brigadier Jameson, the now-retired Colonel Phillips, and two others visited Tsarskoe Selo in order to present the museum there with a gift: a replica of a Colonel-in-Chief’s full dress uniform, much like that worn by Tsar Nicholas. Another return took place that same year when the regiment departed from its previous garrison in Germany and returned to Scotland, bringing the icon with them. The regiment, this unwitting bearer of ancient Orthodox traditions, is now based at Leuchars in the “Kingdom of Fife,” to which the closest town is, of course, Saint Andrew’s, thus bringing us full circle.
It is here in this small corner of Scotland that the first Apostle to visit the Russian lands is prayerfully united with the last Tsar to rule over them. It is by the intercessions of these two great saints — the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called and the Holy Tsar-Martyr Nicholas — that we hope to see the true faith, the Orthodox faith — the ancestral faith of the Scots — continue to spread through the nation. It is our hope that the prayers of the last Orthodox Christian Roman Emperor may win over that land that his pagan predecessors of antiquity could not conquer and bring the prodigal son of Saint Andrew back to the household of faith, along with the faithful sons of the Orthodox Churches of Russia, Greece, Romania, and all those that are under the patronage and protection of the great Apostle.
Holy Apostle Andrew, pray to God for us!
Holy Tsar-Martyr Nicholas, pray to God for us!