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Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


Part I

A Sketch of the Moral and Physical Character, and of the Institutions and Customs of the Inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland

Sketches of the Highlanders

Section X.

Abolition of Hereditary Jurisdiction— Suppression of the Highland Garb.

The alarm occasioned by this insurrection, determined government to dissolve the patriarchal system in the Highlands, the nature, as well as the danger of which, had the power of the clans been properly directed, was now exhibited to the country. It would appear that it was considered impracticable to effect this dissolution of clanship, fidelity, and mutual attachment, between the Highlanders and their chiefs, by a different and improved modification of the system and state of society; and, unfortunately, no course was pursued short of a complete revolution. For this purpose, an act was passed in 1747, depriving all chiefs and landholders of their jurisdictions and judicial powers; and in August of the same year, it was also enacted, that any person in the Highlands, possessing or concealing any kind of arms, should be liable in the first instance, to a severe fine, and be committed to prison without bail till payment. If the delinquent was a male, and unable to pay the fine, he was to be sent to serve as a soldier in America, or, if unfit for service, to be imprisoned for six months; if a female, she was, besides the fine and imprisonment till payment, to be detained six months in prison. Seven years' transportation was the punishment for a second offence.

The Highland garb was proscribed by still severer penalties. It was enacted, that any person within Scotland, whether man or boy, (excepting officers and soldiers in his Majesty's service,) who should wear the plaid, philibeg, trews, shoulder belts, or any part of the Highland garb; or should use for great coats, tartans, or party coloured plaid, or stuffs; should, without the alternative of a fine, be imprisoned, on the first conviction, for six months without bail, and on the second conviction be transported for seven years. [Considering the severity of the law against this garb, nothing but the strong partiality of the people could have prevented its going entirely into disuse. The prohibitory laws were so long in force, that more than two-thirds of the generation who saw it enacted had passed away before the repeal. The youth of the latter period knew it only as an illegal garb, to be worn by stealth under the fear of imprisonment and transportation. Breeches, by force of habit, had become so common, that it is remarkable how the plaid and philibeg were resumed at all.]

The necessity of these measures is the best apology for their severity; but, however proper it may have been to dissolve a power which led to such results, and to deprive men of authority and their followers of arms, which they so illegally used, the same necessity does not appear to extend to the garb. "Even the loyal clans," says Dr Johnson, "murmured with an appearance of justice, that, after having defended the king, they were forbidden to defend themselves, and that the swords should be forfeited which had been legally employed. It affords a generous and manly pleasure, to conceive a little nation gathering its fruits and tending its herds, with fearless confidence, though it is open on every side to invasion; where, in contempt of walls and trenches, every man sleeps securely with his sword beside him, and where all, on the first approach of hostility, come together at the call to battle, as the summons to a festival show, committing their cattle to the care of those, whom age or nature had disabled to engage the enemy; with that competition for hazard and glory, which operate in men that fight under the eye of those whose dislike or kindness they have always considered as the greatest evil, or the greatest good. This was in the beginning of the present century: in the state of the Highlanders every man was a soldier, who partook of the national confidence, and interested himself in national honour. To lose this spirit, is to lose what no small advantage will compensate, when their pride has been crushed by the heavy hand of a vindictive conqueror, whose severities have been followed by laws, which, though they cannot be called cruel, have produced much discontent, because they operate on the surface of life, and make every eye bear witness to subjection. If the policy of the disarming act appears somewhat problematical, what must we think of the subsequent measure of 1747, to compel the Highlanders to lay aside their national dress? It is impossible to read this latter act, without considering it rather as an ignorant wantonness of power, than the proceeding of a wise and a beneficent legislature. To be compelled to wear a new dress has always been found painful." [Dr Johnson's Journey to the Highlands.] So the Highlanders found; and it certainly was not consistent with the boasted freedom of our country, (and in that instance, indeed, it was shown that this freedom was only a name) to inflict, on a whole people, the severest punishment short of death, for wearing a particular dress. Had the whole race been decimated, more violent grief, indignation and shame, could not have been excited among them, than by being deprived of this long inherited costume. This was an encroachment on the feelings of a people, whose ancient and martial garb had been worn from a period reaching back beyond all history or even tradition.

[Some opinion may be formed of the importance which Government attached to the garb by the tenor of the following oath, administered in 1747 and 1748 in Fort William and other places where the people were assembled for the purpose; those who refused to take it being treated as rebels: "I. A. B., do swear, and as I shall answer to God at the great day of judgment, I have not, nor shall have, in my possession any gun, sword, pistol, or arm whatsoever, and never use tartan, plaid, or any part of the Highland garb; and if I do so, may I be cursed in my undertakings, family and property,—may I never see my wife and children, father, mother, or relations,—may I be killed in battle as a coward, and lie without Christian burial in a strange land, far from the graves of my forefathers and kindred; may all this come across me if I break my oath." The framers of this oath understood the character of the Highlanders. The abolition of the feudal power of the chiefs, and the disarming act had little influence on the character of the people in comparison of the grief, indignation and disaffection occasioned by the loss of their garb.]

The obstinacy with which the law was resisted, proceeded no less from their attachment to their proscribed garb, than from the irksomeness of the dress forced upon them. Habituated to the free use of their limbs, the Highlanders could ill brook the confinement and restraint of the Lowland dress, and many were the little devices which they adopted to retain their ancient garb, without incurring the penalties of the act, devices which were calculated rather to excite a smile, than to rouse the vengeance of persecution. Instead of the prohibited tartan kilt, some wore pieces of a blue, green, or red thin cloth, or coarse camblet, wrapped round the waist, and hanging down to the knees like the fealdag. [The fealdag was the same as the philibeg, only not plaited. The mode of sewing the kilt, into plaits or folds, in the same manner as the plaid, is said to have been introduced by an Englishman of the name of Parkinson, early in the last century, which has given rise to an opinion entertained by many, that the kilt is modern, and was never known till that period. This opinion is founded on a memorandum left by a gentleman whose name is not mentioned, and published in the Scots Magazine. To a statement totally unsupported, little credit can of course be attached; and it may, surely with as much reason, be supposed, that breeches were never worn till the present cut and manner of wearing them came into fashion. As the Highlanders had sufficient ingenuity to think of plaiting the plaid, it is likely they would be equally ingenious in forming the kilt; and as it is improbable that an active light-footed people would go about on all occasions, whether in the house or in the field, encumbered with twelve yards of plaid, (to say nothing of the expense of such a quantity), I am less willing to coincide in the modern opinion, founded on such a slight unauthenticated notice, than in the universal belief of the people, that the philibeg has been part of their garb, as far back as tradition reaches.

Since the publication of the former editions, several friends have represented to me, that a more decided contradiction ought to be given to the story of Parkinson and his supposed invention of the kilt, which, they say, is totally unfounded. The truth is, the thing is not worth contradicting. If the story were true, which it is not, the whole would amount to this,—that in the reign of George II. the Highlanders began to wear four yards of tartan instead of twelve, as was their practice in former reigns. This is one of the arguments brought forward by some modern authors, to prove that the Highland garb is of recent introduction.]

The tight breeches were particularly obnoxious. Some who were fearful of offending, or wished to render obedience to the law, which had not specified on what part of the body the breeches were to be worn, satisfied themselves with having in their possession this article of legal and loyal dress, which, either as the signal of their submission, or more probably to suit their own convenience when on journeys, they often suspended over their shoulders upon their sticks; others, who were either more wary, or less submissive, sewed up the centre of the kilt, with a few stitches between the thighs, which gave it something of the form of the trowsers worn by Dutch skippers. At first these evasions of the act were visited with considerable severity; but at length the officers of the law seem to have acquiesced in the interpretation put by the Highlanders upon the prohibition of the act. This appears from the trial of a man of the name of M'Alpin, or Drummond Macgregor, from Breadalbane, who was acquitted, on his proving that the kilt had been stitched up in the middle. [This very strong attachment to a habit which they thought graceful and convenient, is not singular among an ancient race, proud of their independence, manners, customs, and long unbroken descent. It is in every one's memory, that a dangerous mutiny was produced at Vellore, in the East Indies, by insisting on an alteration in the dress of the native troops, in the adjustment of their turbans, and in the cut of their whiskers. There was, perhaps, a religious feeling mixed with this opposition; yet whiskers and turbans seem of less importance than a whole garb, such as that the use of which the Highlanders were prohibited.] This trial took place in 1757, and was the first instance of relaxation in enforcing the law of 1747. [Although the severity of this "ignorant wantonness of power" began to be relaxed in 1757, it was not till the year 1782 that an act, so ungenerous in itself, so unnecessary, and so galling, was repealed. In the session of that year, the present Duke of Montrose, then a member of the House of Commons, brought in a bill to repeal all penalties and restrictions on the Celtic garb. The motion was seconded by the Earl of Lauderdale, then Lord Maitland, and passed without a dissenting voice.]

The change produced in the Highlands, by the disarming and proscribing acts, was accelerated by the measures of government for the abolition of hereditary jurisdictions, and  the consequent overthrow of the authority of the chiefs. This was the last act of government which had any influence upon the Highland character. Subsequent changes are to be traced to causes, which owe their existence chiefly to the views and speculations of private individuals. Into the order of these causes, and their practical operations and effects, I shall now shortly inquire.


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