THE Duke of Wellington once said a man might as well write the story of a dance as write the story of a battle because too much is happening at once, but here's one man worth listening to.

He was called John Dickson and he was a weaver from Paisley who was in the middle of the blood and the death at Waterloo exactly 200 years ago.

He looked into the face of the Little Corporal.

He was there when the Scots Greys charged and cried "Scotland Forever!"

And he was right at the heart of one of the most significant and controversial moments of the battle.

But John Dickson's story comes with a warning, delivered 200 years after the battle by Dr Stuart Allan, a historian based at the National Museums of Scotland.

As he shows me round the military collection at Edinburgh Castle, Dr Allan points out some of the items connected with John Dickson but asks me to remember that there are no certainties in his story.

"The certainties that people look for in the past, about glory or unity - or the opposite - do not exist," he says, "it's never as simple as that."

Dr Allan is taking me round the collection at the castle mainly to look at two items directly connected with the soldier ahead of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo next week.

The first item is his sword, which the 26-year-old Scotsman used to slash and hack at the enemy in the middle of a crowd of 200,000 men packed into two square miles.

"I can hear the Frenchmen yet," he once wrote, "crying when I struck at them and the long-drawn hiss through their teeth as my sword went home."

On the anniversary itself, the village of Crail in Fife would turn out to do honour to him and a crowd would gather to hear his stories of joining the Scottish cavalry regiment the 2nd North British Dragoons - otherwise known as the Royal Scots Greys.

Today, Dr Allan and I are going through the weaver's story again, partly to explore what it was like to be an ordinary soldier during the Napoleonic Wars, but also to explore some of the lessons of Waterloo as well as some of the striking similarities between then and now.

Waterloo was 200 years ago, but it is not a distant battle.

We start at the beginning of his story, which is included in a BBC Scotland documentary The Scots at Waterloo.

John Dickson was born in April 1789 and joined the army when he was 17, for much the same reason that many teenagers join up now.

He had been working as a weaver but the industry in Scotland was in a perilous state thanks to the war with the French and so he joined the army as a private.

Then as now, there would have been a large contingent in the British army of men from poorer backgrounds who saw security in the military; it was a way out economically.

By the time of Waterloo, he had been in the army for nine years and was an experienced cavalryman in the Greys, so named because of their famous grey horses.

In his old age, on one of those nights in the pub, he recalled the eve of the battle and how he and his comrades waited for action.

They sat around a campfire and could hear a loud, rumbling noise about a mile away which they knew to be the French artillery and wagons coming up.

"About 11 o'clock that night, a fearful storm burst over us," he said.

"It was a battle royal of the elements, as if the whole clouds were going to fall on us. We said it was a warning to Bonaparte that all nature was angry at him."

On the morning of the battle, their blood was up and John Dickson was in an excitable mood, which helps explain what happened next.

The armies of Britain and Prussia were railed against the 124,000 followers of Napoleon and the Allies were not expected to win the day. Napoleon was so convinced he could beat Wellington that on the morning of the battle he told his staff they would be dining in Brussels by evening. But then the Allies turned and faced the French at Waterloo.

He recalls being ordered to charge the massive French infantry.

"It was a grand sight to see the long line of giant grey horses dashing along with flowing manes and heads down," he said.

"All of us were greatly excited and began crying 'Scotland forever'."

The charge of the Scots Greys has since become one of the most famous incidents of Waterloo, mainly because during it, one of their number, Sergeant Charles Ewart, seized the French Eagle of the 45th Regiment du Ligne, known as the Invincibles.

Many years later, when the Victorians were romanticising and idealising Waterloo, the incident was portrayed in a painting by Richard Ansdell called The Fight for the Standard, which now hangs in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle.

The Eagle is also kept at the castle, although it is currently at the National Museums as the centrepiece of its Waterloo exhibition.

Dr Allan explains that the Eagles were not of any practical use, but had great symbolic importance so the capture of one by the Scots Greys was of huge significance.

"The eagles were conferred by Napoleon himself with the injunction that they had to be defended with their lives so the capture of standards is a big deal," says Dr Allan.

"It wasn't the first time, but two were captured at Waterloo and sent back with Wellington's despatch as evidence of the victory.

"They were taken to the Prince Regent and laid at his feet by an officer who still had his battlefield uniform on. The eagles embodied the honour of the regiment - the eagle was Napoleon as emperor, it was his symbol and it had all the symbolism of ancient Rome.

"It was an injunction for regiments to stand their ground. And once captured, they were used as propaganda weapons."

John Dickson also talked about being beside Ewart when he captured the eagle and his words, although almost certainly exaggerated, do something to summon up the real horror of a Napoleonic Battle. Paintings such as The Fight for the Standard make battle look almost elegant and bloodless but the reality was the opposite: violent and ugly, a sea of men slashing and hacking at each other, many killed instantly, many losing limbs and dying more slowly.

He describes how he charged up to six Frenchmen who were trying to escape with the standard. "Ewart had finished two of them," he says, "and was in the act of striking a third man, who held the eagle; the next moment I saw Ewart cut him down and he fell dead.

"I was just in time to thwart a bayonet thrust that was aimed at the sergeant's neck.

"Almost single handed, Ewart had captured the Imperial Eagle of the Invincibles."


The Scots who fought Napoleon - Sir John Moore:

John Moore was born in Glasgow in 1761 and brought up in the Trongate.

He began his military career when he was 15 and served as a captain-lieutenant in the Duke of Hamilton's regiment in America.

He then rose through the ranks and earned a reputation as one of the greatest trainers of infantrymen in military history.

His talent and skill was particularly on show during the Peninsular War of 1807-1814, a conflict between Napoleon and the allied powers of Spain, Britain and Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars.

Sir John was sent to the peninsula in 1808 to combat Napoleon and succeeded in defeating the French army at the Battle of Corunna in 1809. However, he was killed by a cannon shot.

A statute of Sir John was erected in Glasgow in 1819 and now stands in George Square. And it's not the only tribute the city has paid to its famous son - there is also a pub named after him.