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


Fencible Regiments

Clan Alpine
1799

This regiment was commanded by Colonel Alexander Macgregor Murray. As the clan of Macgregor are supposed to be descendants of the ancient Alpine kings, who, for so many centuries, ruled the mountains of Scotland, the "Clan Alpine" was an appropriate name for a corps commanded by a Macgregor, and having a great proportion both of officers and men who bore that name. The history of this unfortunate clan is pretty generally known, as well as the acts of Parliament passed for suppressing the name; and the proscriptions and oppressions they suffered in consequence, form a part, and not an uninstructive part, of the history of Scotland. If "oppression maketh a wise man mad," no wonder that the relentless ferocity, with which this unfortunate race were for so many ages pursued, should have rendered them desperate. Even the patient inoffensive steer may be driven to madness by frequent goading; and as the descendants of this race of ancient Albion are not supposed to have had more patience than was necessary, under their sufferings, the law of retaliation was not forgotten, and being a brave and warlike race, with arms in their hands, and with hearts not afraid to use them, they were not slow in taking their revenge. It has been said by friends of the clan, that many of their misfortunes originated from the circumstance of their being surrounded by powerful and ambitious neighbours, not always over scrupulous about the means by which they accomplished their purposes, or increased their property; and hence the encroachments which rendered the Macgregors desperate, and led to those acts of violence which caused the interference of the legislature, and the suppression of the name. In turbulent times, when law sometimes confirmed what the sword had acquired, it acted as an encouragement to spoliations, and to the hopes of obtaining permanent possession of a neighbour's property; but it should be observed, that there were many other clans and families similarly situated with the Macgregors, possessing estates in the heart of the territories of powerful neighbours, who yet neither suffered from their oppressions nor from legal proscriptions, but retained their estates entire through a succession of centuries sufficiently turbulent. Thus the family of Stewart of Appin preserved their estate entire for four centuries, although nearly surrounded on all sides by the lands of the great Clan Campbell.

[In this case there was more than common incitement to rivalry. The first Laird of Appin was a natural son of Lord Lorn, the last of the name of Stewart who possessed that title and estate. Lord Lorn having no legitimate son, his estate went to his three daughters, as coheiresses. The eldest daughter married the Earl of Argyle, who by her got the lordship and estate of Lorn. The second daughter married Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy, uncle to Argyle, and ancestor of the Breadalbane family, who by her got the lands on the north side of Lochowe, and part of Nether Lorn. The third married Camp-bell of Ottar, and dying without children, her share of the Stewarts' estate went to the children of her sister, the Countess of Argyle.

It was said that Lord Lorn intended to marry the mother of his son, and thus legitimate him, but the marriage was prevented by his sudden death; not without suspicions that it was hurried to prevent the proposed marriage. The son, seeing his hopes destroyed, seized on a portion of his father's estate, and, as disputes were not in those times often referred to legal decisions, he resorted to the law of the sword, and being supported by some of his father's tenants, sent for assistance to his mother's friends. She was of the Maclarens, a tribe at that time numerous in Balquhidder, in Perthshire. They joined Stewart their kinsman in Argyllshire, and in a pitched battle beat off the forces of his brothers-in-law, and thus established his right by the sword to the lands he claimed, and settled them on his posterity, who kept possession of them till sold by the last Laird of Appin, in the year 1765. Tradition says that the Maclarens lost 130 men killed in this battle, besides the loss among Stewart's own men. It was fought at the foot of Bendouran, at a short distance from the present high road passing through Glenorchy.]

The Clans of Maclachlan and Macnaughton, also, quite in the neighbourhood of Inveraray, suffered nothing from feudal turbulence and rapacity. In the same manner the Clan Macnab have preserved what remained of their estates since the reign of Robert Bruce, although completely surrounded by the lands of the Campbells of Glenorchy, to whom the Macnab estates would have been a great and tempting acquisition; but the thing was never tried.

[The estates of this family were greatly reduced from another cause. The Macnabs joined the party of John Baliol against Robert Bruce, and were with Macdougal of Lorn when he fought and vanquished Robert Bruce at Dalree, in Breadalbane, in 1306. Having thus supported the views of Edward the First, who wished to usurp the crown of Scotland, it is rather matter of surprise that either Macdougal or Macnab should have been allowed to retain any part of their lands, and that the whole were not forfeited as after the Rebellions of 1715 and 1745. In the retreat from Dalree, the king was hotly pursued by one of the Macdougals, who got hold of his cloak, or plaid, which was fixed across his breast by a large brooch. The king turned round and killed the man with his battle-axe, but in his haste left the mantle and brooch, which were torn off by the dying grasp of Macdougal. This highly-prized trophy was preserved till destroyed when the castle of Dunolly, the family residence, was burnt in the seventeenth century. But a remarkable piece of antiquity still remains. This is a small bronze equestrian figure of a Chief of Macdougal. It is of elegant workmanship, and both figures, particularly the horse, are executed with great spirit and taste; and, if the tradition be correct as to the period, with skill altogether extraordinary. The Chief is called by the country people Ian Bachach, or John the Lame. He is represented in the statue as affected with a remarkable degree of lameness, his leg and thigh being apparently without bones, or locomotive power, and instead of hanging down the horse's side, are laid across, and fixed on the pommel of the saddle. The exact period when this Chief lived cannot now be ascertained, as the family papers, and all the ancient records and documents, were destroyed by fire. This figure being of bronze, and lying in a small press, or recess in the wall, was not injured. Tradition gives a period of 325 years, or thirteen generations, at the rate of twenty-five years for each, for the age of this equestrian figure. In these traditionary calculations the Highlanders reckon a generation twenty-five years, and in this manner calculate the dates of past events with tolerable accuracy.]

From these and many other instances which might be adduced, it is clear that those smaller proprietors suffered no material in-jury from the spoliations or conquests (if I may so call them) of their more powerful neighbours, and, therefore, it may be supposed, that there must have been some pre-existing cause—some violence on the part of the Macgregors - in short, although they were not perhaps so fierce as their enemies represented them, they must yet have been guilty of frequent violations of, and encroachments on, the peace property, and persons of their neighbours,—practices greatly too common in those turbulent times. But whatever may have been the actions or character of this proscribed clan, an ample punishment was inflicted on them. As early as 1563, the Parliament of Scotland passed an act of attainder and forfeiture against the Laird of Macgregor, then in possession of the estate of Glenstrae, in Glenorchy. Other severe enactments succeeded the first, and in 1633 an act was passed, declaring it unlawful for any man to bear the name of Macgregor; that no signature bearing that name, no act or agreement entered into with a Macgregor, was legal; that to take the life of a man of that clan was not an act of felony, or any way punishable; and that no minister or preacher should at any time baptize or christen any male child of the Macgregors : And, to facilitate their extirpation, they were hunted with blood-hounds, taught to follow on the tract, and thus discover the haunts and hiding-places of the unfortunate clan.

[Blood or slough-hounds were not in that age confined to the Macgregors. In a commission dated the 29th of November 1619, granted by Sir Wilfred Lawson and Sir William Hutton; knights, two of the commissioners for the middle marches, to John Musgrave, Provost Marshal, he is directed to provide slough-hounds as a protection against the lawless Scotch, the number of dogs for each parish being stated, and an assessment on the inhabitants ordered for their expenses.]

But this species of Algerine law, with all its severities, did not destroy, or apparently influence in any manner, that spirit of loyalty so characteristic of the Highlanders, which the Macgregors evinced in the great rebellion. All of them who could carry arras joined Montrose (although under other names), and through his whole campaigns proved themselves loyal and true; always ready to bear a part in the execution of his most daring attempts; and, after the establishment of the Commonwealth, they would not submit, and were ever annoying the troops stationed in the country to keep down the people. Of the value of their services to himself and his father, Charles II. was fully sensible; and one of the first acts of Parliament, after his restoration, was passed to repeal that of 1633, and re-establish the name of Macgregor, with all its natural and legal rights; "considering," as the act expresses, "that those who were formerly designed by the name of Macgregor had, during the troubles, carried themselves with such loyalty and affection to his Majesty, as might justly wipe off all memory of their former miscarriages, and take off all mark of reproach put upon them for the same."

But this relief was not permanent; for, in King Wil-liam's reign (in 1693), the original act was renewed, and the Macgregors placed in the same state as in 1633 and the following years 5 and this law, although not enforced was allowed to remain on the statute-books till the year 1775. [In the session of 1774-5, a bill was brought into Parliament by William Adam, Esq., now Chief Commissioner of the Jury Court, for restoring the name, rights, and immunities of the clan Macgregor. The bill, founded, as is stated in this act, "on the humble petition of Gregor Drummond, Esq. and many others," passed, as might be expected, without a dissenting voice, and the clan were placed in the same situation as the rest of his Majesty's subjects. I have already had occasion to mention this gentleman as being the handsomest Highlander in a corps said to have been composed of very handsome men, and as such presented to George II. in 1743.] But however calamitous the state to which they were reduced, we still find the Macgregors a numerous clan. The law itself was so savage, that it was not strictly enforced. The persecuted clan found protection and friendship among their countrymen; and though few remained in Glenorchy, where, as we have just stated, the last Laird of Macgregor's estate of Glenstrae lay, there are many of the name in Breadalbane, Glenlyon, Monteith, and other parts of Perthshire and the neighbouring counties. They are now reviving and increasing in numbers and respectability. Much of this prosperity is owing to the fostering and zealous friendship of Sir John Macgregor Murray, the elder brother of the respectable officer who was placed at the head of the Clan Alpine regiment.

In December 1798, Colonel Alexander Macgregor Murray received Letters of Service for raising a regiment of Fencible Highlanders; and in May 1799 the men, amounting to 765, were assembled at Stirling, and inspected by Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby, who expressed in handsome terms his approbation of the appearance of the men, and of the exertions of the officers.

This regiment was raised on terms of service extending to any part of Europe, and, like other corps of the same description, one of the field-officers was to have permanent and progressive army rank. Captain Alexander Macgregor Murray of the 90th regiment (son of the Colonel, and Major-General in 1825), was appointed Major, with the permanent step of promotion. To the soldiers, also, their service jn this corps was to count as if in the regular army, should they afterwards enter it; thus, if a soldier did duty in the Clan Alpines for three years, and at any future period enlisted in a regiment of the line, and served there fourteen, seventeen, or twenty years, the three he had been in the Fencibles strengthened his claim to a pension.

This regiment was ordered for Ireland, and quartered there in the usual manner, occupying different stations; and, in 1800, Colonel Macgregor Murray received instructions to augment the strength of the corps to 1050 men. To accomplish this was no easy undertaking, at a period when so many men had been raised, particularly in the Highlands, and required no small share of zeal and address. It would seem that both were, in this instance, successfully exerted. But two considerable detachments having volunteered into the regular regiments, it was necessary to recruit again. This was also successful, and thus there were, in all, 1230 men in the ranks of this regiment. Of these, about 780 were Highlanders, 30 English and Irish, and the others Lowland Scotch; a lesser proportion of Highlanders than might have been expected in an Alpine regiment, had it been raised in other years than 1799 and 1800, when there had been such a drain from the Highland population for the army; [In 1799 and 1800 were raised north of the Forth (three-fourths being from the north of the Tay), the Clan Alpines, the Regiment of the Isles, the Lochaber, Banffshire, Argyle, the 93d, or Sutherland Highlanders, Ross and Cromarty Rangers, Macleod Fencibles. In 1798 had been embodied the Fife, Perth, Stirling, Argyle, Inverness, and Aberdeen regiments of militia.] as also to supply the great and unprecedented demand for labourers in the Lowlands, exclusive of an extensive emigration; but still recruiting, when conducted with address, was successful, as we find in the case of Colonel Macgregor Murray, and his officers.

As there was a considerable difference in the character and habits of the one portion of this regiment compared with the other, the commanding officer made a judicious distinction in his preventives and punishments. Those men who had little sense of shame (and they were few), and to whom personal fear, or the dread of painful punishments, was the only check, he kept in restraint by an endeavour to deprive them of the means and opportunity of committing crimes; but when no preventive was sufficient, he then punished with exemplary severity. There was another small portion in the regiment whose character was not absolutely bad. Among them several misdemeanours of a slight description occurred; and although these were not of a very criminal nature, checks were necessary. After a short confinement, these men were generally given in charge to their comrades, who, under certain conditions, were to become answerable for them. While such was the system established for two sorts of character in the corps, there was a third, and fortunately the most numerous class, for it composed nearly nine-tenths of the whole, for whom there was hardly any check necessary beyond admonition and a representation of the disgrace they would bring on themselves and their kindred, by discreditable conduct. In this easy manner, punishing with severity, however, when necessary, the duty of this regiment was carried on: the officers were respected, and the men contented, and prepared to show themselves good soldiers if called to meet an enemy. But this was not their fortune; and however desirous a true soldier may be to distinguish himself in the field, happily for this country, our internal defence corps have never had that duty to perform. War having been long at a distance, its miseries were only known by report. To keep war at a distance from our own doors, and to know of its miseries only through the reports of others, an army of such men as the Clan Alpines, when weeded by the volunteering of supernumeraries into other regiments, is not a bad, if it be not one of the best and most certain securities. Among these volunteers were included the bad and suspicious characters, leaving the regiment with 850 men of good moral habits, efficient, obedient, and attached to their officers. Respectful to their superiors, they were prepared to be loyal and devoted to their King and country's service.

When officers and men were thus united by mutual confidence, the former might always calculate on the support of the latter, and that in the day of trial they would not fail. In their days of trial no men had more occasion for support than the old chiefs and chieftains of the Macgregors. From their own people they always found it; and although at last overpowered by oppression and persecution, they were always true to each other. Had the chieftains and gentlemen of the clan kept at a distance from their people, and assumed the cold distant manner towards the lower orders, which is called the habits of civilized life, it may be doubtful if they could have so well secured the attachment and support of their adherents, nor could they have expected the same fidelity as was exhibited towards the "Captain of Clan Chattan," after an inroad of that clan into the Lowlands of Moray. This happened in the reign of James V., and was accompanied by the usual ravages and pillage of the times. The Earl of Moray, exasperated at the frequency of these forays, immediately raised his people and followed the freebooters, who, incumbered with their spoil, were overtaken, and a desperate conflict ensued. The Clan Chattan (the Mackintoshes and Macphersons) were overpowered, and 200 prisoners taken. The number of prisoners was a remarkable occurrence among the light-footed Highlanders; but in this case they made a longer stand to enable their chief, who was said to be aged and corpulent, to get to a place of safety, which had been named as the rendezvous after the battle. Lord Moray, with a view of striking terror into his troublesome and lawless neighbours, determined to take a terrible revenge, and ordered 130 of the prisoners to be hanged on the spot; but, anxious to discover the chief's hiding-place, he directed that the Highlanders should be taken out singly for execution, and when at the foot of the gallows, to be told that, if they would disclose the secret of their chief's retreat, their lives would be saved. All refused life on such; terms, and declared that no reward or punishment should induce or force them to be unfaithful to a man to whom they all owed so much. Some denied all knowledge of the chief's retreat, but added, that, if they did know, they would rather sacrifice their own lives than bring that of their chief into danger. The whole were executed.

Fearful lest I should have already given too many anecdotes of incorruptible fidelity, I have ventured on this as the last, out of a great many more I could give of the same nature. This anecdote is noticed by Leslie, in his book "De Origine, Moribus, &c. Scotorum," with little variation from the traditional account of the country. He states the prisoners and those executed to have been more numerous than is given in the traditional account which I have in this instance followed.

The Highlanders are now in a rapid progress to a state of civilization, with which such feelings and principles as guided them formerly are said to be incompatible. How high-minded principles, incorruptible fidelity, and a sense of honour, so strong as to make death preferable to a breach of faith or of trust, can be incompatible with civilization and a state of society, in which education and knowledge among the people are so much encouraged, is a point which must be decided by philosophers and political economists. As a plain soldier, I must acknowledge a preference of old feelings and dispositions; and, as I said in speaking of the superstitions of the Highlanders, I fear I must be accused of improper prejudices, when I lament the extinction or dormancy of those ancient feelings, and of that confidence, those conciliating manners, and that mutual support which subsisted between the higher and lower orders; even although my countrymen may be better educated, and what is called more enlightened than in former days. This enlightening of the people, as practised in the Highlands, instead of improving and preserving their principles, (the best parts of them required no improvement), appears to have a perfectly different effect. Old principles are getting obsolete and forgotten, attachment to superiors, chivalrous fidelity to honour and to each other, which laid an admirable foundation for good morals, are derided as the remains of feudal manners; ridiculed often by Highland gentlemen, who may yet suffer severely from that change in the character of their people, for which they seem so anxious; and who, from too eager a desire to appear enlightened and liberal-minded, and to introduce the more approved habits of the South, overlook the necessary discrimination, and instead of an attempt to preserve the better part of ancient habits and character, make a clean sweep of the whole, trusting to chance, to the introduction of strangers, and their example for the adoption of new manners, more becoming a civilized state of society; although it may be asked, what state of civilization has produced better traits of character, than have been found among the ancient habits, superstitions, and mental recollections of the Highlanders, even in their uncultivated state? To prepare the Highlanders for this change, and to cure the evils of superstition, I hope better means will be adopted than that of the Lancasterian system, which teaches to read by rote, and neglects the religious and moral principles on which all education ought to be founded. The simple art of reading does not prove, by experience, to be effectual in the Highlands. If the number of schoolmasters were increased, the number of scholars in each school lessened, and the teachers directed to instruct their pupils in good morals and religious duties, as well as in the mechanical art of reading, the blessings of education would be full and complete, and a few traits of the old-fashioned Highland feeling might be preserved along with the improved education.

Perhaps such observations as these may be considered as out of place, in giving an account of the service of a fencible regiment; I shall therefore only observe farther, that, as human nature is the same now as when the Highlanders were true to their word, faithful to their superiors, contented with their lot, and loyal to their King, (for the ebullitions of 1715 and 1745 were in the very spirit of loyalty), may I not ask whether the same condescending and conciliating manners on the part of the higher orders, a kindly regard to the interest of the lower class, (although they may not possess a capital equal to others more fortunate, or skill equal to those who have had better opportunities), would not meet with a corresponding and kindred return of fidelity and support in the day of need? And as the day of need may come, perhaps, such considerations as these may occupy a Highland chief and landlord's spare time as much to his ultimate profit, and with more true happiness and honour, than in consultations with land-agents and doers, on the best means of augmenting a rent-roll.

I now return to the Clan Alpine. As the Macgregors were of old a warlike race, it is unfortunate that this regiment had not an opportunity of meeting an enemy, and of maintaining that character for courage which had so long distinguished their ancestors. In 1802 the regiment was ordered from Ireland, and on the 24th of July reduced at Stirling.


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