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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 VIII.

Love of Country—Social Meetings—Traditional Tales and Poetry.

It has often been remarked, that the inhabitants of mountainous and romantic regions are of all men the most enthusiastically attached to their country. The Swiss, when at a distance from home, are sometimes said to die of the maladie du pays. [During last war a Swiss soldier, confined in the French prison at Perth was long in a lingering sickly state, from no other cause that the surgeon could discover but a constant longing and sighing for his native country. I have frequently met with instances of the same kind among Highland recruits.] The Scotch Highlanders entertain similar feelings. The cause of this attachment to their native land is the same in all. In a rich and champaign country, with no marked or striking features, no deep impression is made on the imagination by external scenery. Its fertility is the only quality for which the soil is valued; and the only hope entertained from it is realized by an abundant crop. In such a country, the members of the community do not immediately depend for their happiness on mutual assistance or friendly intercourse; and thus an exclusive selfishness is apt to supplant the social affections. Hence, too, in the ordinary tenor of life, we seldom find amongst them any thing calculated to catch the imagination, to excite the feelings, or to give an interest to the records of memory;—no striking adventures—no daring or dangerous enterprises. Amongst them we seldom hear

"Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth 'scapes i' th' imminent deadly breach."

To the Highlanders such scenes and subjects were congenial and familiar. The kind of life which they led exposed them to vicissitudes and dangers, which they shared in common. They had perchance joined in the chase or in the foray together, and remembered the adventures in which they all had participated. Their traditions referred to a common ancestry; and their songs of love and valour found an echo in general sympathy. In removing from their homes, such a people do not merely change the spot of earth on which they and their ancestors have lived. Mercenary and selfish objects are forgotten in the endear-inc associations entwined round the objects which they have abandoned. Among a people who cannot appreciate his amusements, his associations, and his taste, the expatriated Highlander naturally sighs for his own mountains. Even in removing from one part of the Highlands to another, the sacrifice was regarded as severe.

[A single anecdote, selected from hundreds with which every Highlander is familiar, will show the force of this local attachment. A tenant of my father's, at the foot of Shichallain, removed, a good many years ago, and followed his son to a farm which he had taken at some distance lower down the country. One morning the old man disappeared for a considerable time, and being asked on his return where he had been, he replied, "As I was sitting by the side of the river, a thought came across me, that, perhaps, some of the waters from Shichallain, and the sweet fountains that watered the farm of my forefathers, might now be passing by me, and that if I bathed they might touch my skin. I immediately stripped, and, from the pleasure I felt in being surrounded by the pure waters of Leidnabreilag, (the name of the farm), I could not tear myself away sooner."]

The poetical propensity of the Highlanders, which indeed was the natural result of their situation, and their peculiar institutions, is generally known. When adventures abound they naturally give fervour to the poet's song; and the verse which celebrates them is listened to with sympathetic eagerness by those who have similar adventures to record or to repeat. Accordingly, the recitation of their traditional poetry was a favourite pastime with the Highlanders when collected round their evening fire. The person who could rehearse the best poem or song, and the longest and most entertaining tale, whether stranger, or friend, was the most acceptable guest. [When a boy I took great pleasure in hearing these recitations, and now reflect, with much surprise, on the ease and rapidity with which a person could continue them for hours, without hesitation and without stopping, except to give the argument or prelude to a new chapter or subject. One of the most remarkable of these reciters in my time was Duncan MacIntyre, a native of Glenlyon in Perthshire, who died in September 1816, in his 93d year. His memory was most tenacious; and the poems, songs, and tales, of which he retained a perfect remembrance to the last, would fill a volume. Several of the poems are in possession of the Highland Society of London, who settled a small annual pension on MacIntyre a few years before his death, as being one of the last who retained any resemblance to the ancient race of Bards. When any surprise was expressed at his strength of memory, and his great store of ancient poetry, he said, that in his early years, he knew numbers whose superior stores of poetry would have made his own appear as nothing. This talent was so general, that to multiply instances of it may appear superfluous.

A few years ago, the Highland Society of London sent the late Mr Alexander Stewart (He was grandson to the man who bathed in his native waters.) through the Southern Highlands to collect a few remains of Gaelic poetry. When he came to my father's house, a young woman in the immediate neighbourhood was sent for, from whose recitations he wrote down upwards of 3000 lines; and, had she been desired, she could have given him as many more. So correct was her memory, that, when the whole was read over to her, the corrections were trifling. When she stopped to give the transcriber time to write, she invariably took up the word immediately following that at which she stopped. This girl had peculiar advantages, as her father and mother possessed great stores of Celtic poetry and traditions. Several specimens are in possession of the Highland Society of London.] When a stranger appeared, after the usual introductory compliments, the first question was, "Bheil dad agud air na Fian?" Can you speak of the days of Fingal? If the answer was in the affirmative, the whole hamlet was convened, and midnight was usually the hour of separation. At these meetings the women regularly attended, and were, besides, in the habit of assembling alternately in each other's houses, with their distaffs, or spinning-wheels, when the best singer, or the most amusing reciter, always bore away the palm.

The powers of memory and fancy thus acquired a strength unexampled among the peasantry of any other country, where recitation is not practised in a similar way, and where, every thing being committed to paper, the exercise of memory is less necessary. It is owing to this ancient custom that we still meet with Highlanders who can give a connected and minutely accurate detail of the history, genealogy, feuds, and battles of all the tribes and families in every district, or glen, for many miles round, and for a period of several hundred years. They illustrated these details by a reference to any remarkable stone, cairn, [A heap of stones was thrown over the spot where a person happened to be killed or buried. Every passenger added a stone to this heap, which was called a Cairn. Hence the Highlanders have a saying, when one person serves another, or shows any civility, "I will add a stone to your cairn;" in other words I will respect your memory.] tree, or stream, within the district; connecting with each some kindred story of a fairy or ghost, or the death of some person who perished in the snow, by any sudden disaster, or by some accidental rencounter, and embellishing each with some tradition or anecdote. Such topics formed their ordinary subject of conversation. In the Lowlands, on the other hand, it is difficult to find a person, in the same station of life, who can repeat from memory more than a few verses of a psalm or ballad, and who, instead of giving an historical detail of several ages, and changes of families, is generally dumb, or perhaps answers with a vacant stare of surprise when such questions are asked. The bare description, however, of such rencounters or accidents, among a people merely warlike, how impetuous and energetic soever in character, would have proved exceedingly monotonous, or fit only to amuse or interest persons possessed of few ideas and obtuse feelings; but in the graphic delineations of the Celtic narrator, the representation of adventures, whether romantic or domestic, was enlivened by dramatic sketches, which introduced him occasionally as speaking or conversing in an appropriate and characteristic manner. This, among people accustomed to embody the expressions of passion and deep feeling in a powerful and pathetic eloquence, gave life and vigour to the narratives, and was, in fact, the spirit by which these narratives were at once animated and preserved. [Martin, speaking of the Highlanders of his time, says, "Several of both sexes have a quick vein of poesy; and in their language (which is very emphatic) they compose rhymes and verse, both of which powerfully affect the fancy, and, in my judgment, (which is not singular in this matter), with as great force as that of any ancient or modern poet I ever yet read. They have generally very retentive memories."']

By this manner of passing their leisure time, and by habitual intercourse with their superiors, they acquired a great degree of natural good breeding, together with a fluency of nervous, elegant, and grammatical expression, not easily to be conceived or understood by persons whose dialect has been contaminated by an intermixture of Greek, Latin, and French idioms. Their conversations were carried on with a degree of ease, vivacity, and freedom from restraint, not usually to be met with in the lower orders of society. The Gaelic language is singularly adapted to this colloquial ease, frankness, and courtesy. It contains expressions better calculated to mark the various degrees of respect and deference due to age, rank, or character, than are to be found in almost any other language. These expressions are, indeed peculiar and untranslatable. A Highlander was accustomed to stand before his superior with his bonnet in his hand, if so permitted, (which was rarely the case, as few superiors chose to be outdone in politeness by the people,) and his plaid thrown over his left shoulder, with his right arm in full action, adding strength to his expressions, while he preserved a perfect command of his mind, his words, and manners. He was accustomed, without showing the least bashful timidity, to argue and pass his joke (for which the language is also well adapted) with the greatest freedom, naming the person whom he addressed by his most familiar appellation. [If the individual was a man of landed property, or a tacksman of an old family, he was addressed by the name of his estate or farm; if otherwise, by his. Christian name or patronymic. From these patronymics many of our most ancient families, such as the Macdonalds, Macdougals, Macgregors, and others of the western and southern clans, assumed their names, as well as the more modern clans of the southern Highlanders, the Robertsons and Farquharson, the latter changing the Celtic mac to the Scottish son, as the Fergusons have done, although this last is supposed to be one of the most ancient names of any, as pronounced in Gaelic, in which language the modern name Ferguson is totally unknown. The last instance I knew of a person assuming the patronymic as a surname, was the late General Reid, who died Colonel of the 88th regiment in 1806, and whom I shall have occasion to mention as an officer of the 42d regiment, and as one of the most scientific amateur musicians of his time. He was son of Alexander Robertson of Straloch, whose forefathers, for more than three centuries, were always called Barons Rua, Roy, or Red. The designation was originally assumed by the first of the family having red hair, and having got a royal grant of a barony. Although the representative of the family was in all companies addressed as Baron Rua, and as I have said, was known by no other name, yet his signature was always Robertson, all the younger children bearing that name. General Reid never observed this rule; and being the heir of the family, was not only called Reid, but kept the name and signature of Reid: why he added the letter i to Red I know not. The celebrated Kearnach, Robert Rua Macgregor, sometimes signed Rob Roy, or Red Robert. (See Appendix, Q.)] Feeling thus unembarrassed before his superior, he never lost the air of conscious independence and confidence in himself, which were acquired by his habitual use of arms; "a fashion," as is observed by a celebrated writer, "which, by accustoming them to the instruments of death, remove the fear of death itself, and which, from the danger of provocation, made the common people as polite and as guarded in their behaviour as the gentry of other countries." [Sir John Dalrymple's Memoirs of Great Britain.]


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