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Characteristics
A Chapter Extracted From ‘Travellers Tales of Scotland’ (1913) By Robert Hay Coats, M.A. (1873, Paisley - 1956)


If we would understand fully the characteristics of Scotland and Scotsmen to which travellers have so frequently alluded, and of which the preceding pages have given abundant evidence, we must go back some way into the story of the country's past, to see how those characteristics have come to be evolved. The ancient Scots were a people in whom Pictish, Norse, Celtic, and Teutonic elements combined to produce a free, hardy, vigorous, and independent race, stubbornly attached to the rude uncultivated country they had made their home. It was the aim of the Norman and Plantagenet kings to subdue this nation in the interests of a vast empire that should be continental as well as English, and of which Scotland should be a remote and unimportant province. But in so dreaming, the English showed that they "knew not the stomach" of the people with whom they had to deal. Scotsmen were resolutely determined from the first to resist this southern aggression, and throw off this foreign yoke. It was the national policy for three centuries to court a French alliance, to promote the independence of both France and Scotland, and to curb the ambitions of England abroad by a watchful and provocative enmity at home. The war of independence, the ancient league with France, the incessant border raids, the conspiracies of the Reformation, the struggle with Episcopacy, the opposition to the Union, and the enterprises of Jacobitism were all of them inspired by one animating principle, an inveterate hostility to the usurping power of England. As William, Earl of Douglas, put it to the French warrior De Vienne in 1385, "The Scottish people will endure pillage, and they will endure famine, and every other extremity of war; but they will not endure an English master."

The national sentiment on this subject is thus vigorously expressed by an old writer in The Complaynt of Scotland, Paris, 1549:

"There is nocht twa nations undir the firmament that ar mair contrar and different fra uthirs nor is Inglis men and Scottis men, quhoubeit that they be vitht in ane ile, and nychtbours, and of ane langage. For Inglis men ar subtil, and Scottis men are facile. Inglis men ar ambitius in prosperite, and Scottis men are humain in prosperite. Inglis men are humil quhen thai ar subjeckit be force and violence, and Scottis men are furious quhen thai ar violently subjeckit. Inglis men ar cruel quhen thai get victorie, and Scottis men are merciful quhen thai get victorie. And to conclude, it is onpossibil that Scottis men and Inglis men can remane in concord undir ane monarch or ane prince, because there naturis and conditions are as indifferent as is the nature of scheip and wolvis."

Before the Scottish character could be fully matured, the nation had to pass through many cleansing fires. The fourteenth century was one of misery and violence. The population was decimated by the ravages of the Black Death, and the country laid waste and the national strength exhausted by continual wars with England. In the fifteenth century the conflict became internal, and a tragic succession of murders, conspiracies, regencies, and royal minorities involved the Scottish crown in a fierce struggle with the nobility, and gave the country over to feuds, anarchy, and intrigue. It culminated, however, in the brilliant reign of James IV. Under that monarch, trade and commerce flourished; justice and law prevailed: a university was founded; a navy came into being; and a group of distinguished writers, Henryson, Dunbar, Douglas, Lyndsay, Major, and Boece, showed that the new light of the European Renaissance could penetrate even to the darksome regions of the north.

The sixteenth century saw the decay of feudalism, the emergence of a middle class, and the arrival of the Reformation. It was an age in which Scotland may be said to have awaked, morally and intellectually, to the consciousness of its high destiny as the champion of a thoroughgoing Protestantism, and in which the scale was to turn in favour of an English rather than a French alliance.

In the seventeenth century Scotsmen were permitted to rejoice at the elevation to the throne of England of their own hereditary line of kings. Yet their passion of loyalty and enthusiasm was to be cooled when they discovered more and more clearly how fundamental was the incompatibility between the policy of the Stuarts and their own most deeply rooted aspirations and ideals. Presbyterianism during this period climbed to its height of power in the Solemn League and Covenant and the prestige of the Westminster Assembly, but it was to receive a severe check and humiliation in the battle of Dunbar. During the latter part of the century, the most pitiful in our annals, Episcopalian and Covenanter were locked in a fury of theological and bloody strife. The Revolution of 1688 came as a welcome relief, and enabled an exhausted and distracted nation to turn with inexpressible thankfulness from religious wranglings to the pursuit of secular affairs. The period of repose, however, was destined to be short-lived. The massacre of Glencoe and the Darien disaster opened afresh the old rankling wound of resentment against England. And if anything was calculated to rub salt into that wound, it was the negotiations, in 1706, for a Union of the Kingdoms, which was to deprive Scotsmen of their Parliament and their Privy Council, and so call upon them to surrender the last vestiges of their independence.

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that strenuous efforts should be made during the first half of the eighteenth century to revive the Stuart cause, and to set upon the throne a prince whom many believed to be the hundred and tenth of a line of Scottish kings, who had reigned without a break since days when Christianity itself had not been born. Scottish affairs soon took a different turn, however, when the risings of 1715 and 1745 came to nothing, and the indisputable advantages of the Union began to be apparent. Then, for the first time after centuries of warfare, a period of security and settled peace supervened, and the genius of the people could come to its own at last. Trade, industry, and agriculture expanded on every side; art, literature, and philosophy attained to their golden age; and the spirit of the race blossomed to a late spring in Hume, Blair, Robertson, and Adam Smith, in Ramsay, Burns, Raeburn, and Sir Walter Scott.

While Scotsmen were thus contending with stubborn foes without, difficulties of another kind were facing them within. Nature in Scotland has ever been a stern foster-mother to her sons, and a cold unfriendly climate, a scanty population, and a stiff and churlish soil, have rendered impossible that rich and varied civilization which both France and England have been able to enjoy. It was long before Highlanders could look with favour upon agriculture, or even think of the pursuit as worthy of being followed by a gentleman. Even in the Lowlands, feudal territorial jurisdictions, and a system of short leases and high and rising rents, imposed vexatious burdens on industry and enterprise. The result was that, by the end of the seventeenth century, two-thirds of the country was still given over to barren moorland. Cabbages were unknown in Inverness till introduced by Cromwell's soldiers; potatoes in the eighteenth century were a recently discovered luxury; and even turnips were regarded as a delicacy and served in the form of a hors d'oeuvre. Certain favoured districts, indeed, such as Angus, Moray, Clydesdale, and the Carse of Gowrie, were noted for their crops, but those were mostly oats, beans, or barley. The only manure available consisted of lime or seaweed; and the hungry farmer would sometimes endeavour to extract six to seven crops from the same impoverished soil, since he could afford neither to enrich it nor to let it lie fallow. Save in the estates of the nobility, there was a remarkable absence of trees in Scotland. To grow them was considered unprofitable, and enclosures to protect them were unknown. In general, the face of the country was so bleak and poverty-stricken that Johnson was constrained to enquire jocularly of Boswell whether it was possible to bring the sloe to perfection in Scotland.

Few things are more surprising in the tales of former travellers than their failure to appreciate the glories of Scottish scenery, and the impression they seem to have had of being in quite a foreign country. Defoe found everything so different in the very first town he came to on Scottish ground, that he thought himself a hundred miles beyond Edinburgh. It should be remembered that an incredible ignorance formerly prevailed in England as to the features and peculiarities of its northern neighbour, and a still more incredible indifference. Clarendon tells us in his History of the Rebellion that "when the whole English nation was solicitous to know what passed weekly in Germany and Poland and all other parts of Europe, no man ever inquired what was doing in Scotland, nor had that kingdom a place or mention of one place of any gazette."

Even in the eighteenth century it was a kind of terra incognita, difficult to get at, which people like Miss Tabitha Bramble thought could only be reached by sea. Johnson occupied more time in travelling from London to Edinburgh than we should now take in journeying from Liverpool to New York. On arriving there he found that "to the southern inhabitants of Scotland the state of the mountains and of the islands was equally unknown with that of Borneo and Sumatra;" and when he returned to the metropolis again, he "was addressed as if he had made a voyage to Nova Zembla, and had suffered five persecutions in Japan."

Those who did venture into the Highlands brought back the most fearsome stories of their rude and frowning terrors. Camden thought that Argyll-shire was "a most unpleasant place, what with rocks and what with barren blackish mountains." Another traveller in 1740 spoke of the mountains of Loch Ness as "those hideous productions of nature," and maintained that if a southerner were to be brought blind-folded into the midst of such "horrid prospects," and were then to have his bandage taken off, he would “be ready to die with fear, as thinking it impossible he should ever get out and return to his native country." To Pennant, Glencoe was "the seat of melancholy," and to Johnson, Mull was "a most dolorous country," and the mountains of Skye appeared "malignant." It is hardly credible that so great a difference should have come over men's appreciation of Scottish scenery as the result of a change of sentiment, the advent of good steamers and comfortable hotels, and the wand of that wizard of the north, Sir Walter Scott.

One almost inevitable consequence of Scotland's troubled history on the one hand, and its climate on the other, has been its comparative poverty. Not that the country has been always poor. At one time Berwick-on-Tweed, the capital, took rank with Ghent, Rotterdam, and the other great cities of the Low Countries, and was almost the rival of London in mercantile enterprise. Stately edifices, baronial and ecclesiastical, still stood, testifying to a people equal in wealth to the English when they were built. But ruinous and costly wars soon drained Scotland of its resources. A vicious economic system survived from the Middle Ages which set town against town and burgh against burgh. Trade was everywhere hampered by authoritatively fixed prices, a want of bullion, and the debasement of the currency. Then the removal of the court of King James from Edinburgh to London took money out of the country, and seriously crippled the old trade with France. By the year 1630 Scotland's exchequer was almost empty, but the grant of free trade with England by Oliver Cromwell inaugurated a brief season of commercial prosperity.

In the reign of Charles II., however, this privilege was withdrawn, and not only was Scotland taxed at the rate of 40,000 annually for the support of the crown, but its trade with Holland was seriously interfered with as well. By the Revolution settlement the country hoped to recover some ground that had been lost, but the ill-fated Darien scheme impoverished it still more to the extent of 400,000, with the result that when the Bank of Scotland came to be founded in 1695, the capital forthcoming was less than a million sterling, whereas the Bank of England had been established in the year previous, by a Scotsman named Paterson, with a capital of over five millions. In such circumstances as these, the Union could not long be resisted by Scotsmen who wished to thrive. While sentiment held out for a continued independence, commercial advantage and a policy of self-interest pointed emphatically to an immediate partnership with the country from which Scotland had been unnaturally and too long separated.

Scotland's commercial backwardness, then, has been owing to no lack of enterprise or industry on the part of its sons, but rather to climatic conditions and insufficient capital. "Nothing is scarce here but money", wrote a French traveller in 1552, and the same might have been said till far on into the eighteenth century. Scotsmen had always worked diligently at such trades as they could follow with advantage. Coal was discovered and worked as early as the twelfth century. Fish, salt, hides, and woollen cloth have always been staple exports, and by 1684 as many as 12,000 persons were engaged in the manufacture of linen, that industry being stimulated two years later by an enactment that all persons were to be buried in linen winding-sheets made from materials that had been grown, spun, and woven within the kingdom. But even when comparative prosperity did visit Scotland, the evidence of it was confined chiefly to the larger towns. In the country districts food was varied and abundant, but not delicate. The gentry might drink French wines, and indulge in flesh meat frequently. Tea and wheaten loaves would occasionally be found in the locked-up cupboards of ladies of good position. But with the common people it was broth and barley bannocks and poor ale. Johnson was not far wrong when he said that "oats is the food of horses in England, but in Scotland supports the people." At any rate it sufficed, and the result justified Lord Elibank's reply, "Where will you find such horses or such people?"

Accompanying this national poverty, a rusticity and even boorishness of manners was very noticeable. Previous to the Union, Scotland was far behind England in the refinements, and even in the decencies, of civilized life. How offensive to southern visitors was Edinburgh's habit of emptying its domestic filth into the street nightly at ten o'clock, we have already seen. The poet Gray wrote of the Scottish metropolis that it was "the most picturesque (at a distance) and the nastiest (when near) of all capital cities." And if such was the state of things in Edinburgh, the condition of the country districts may easily be imagined. Johnson said what he could for Scotland, for he was everywhere civilly and hospitably entertained in the best houses. But he gathered enough during his travels to establish him in the opinion that "until the Union made Scotsmen acquainted with English manners, the culture of their lands was unskilful, and their domestic life unformed; their tables were coarse as the feasts of Esquimaux, and their houses filthy as the cottages of Hottentots."

Finding no adequate scope for his energies at home, and denied that natural outlet which England might have been expected to provide, the enterprising Scotsman of a former age looked to wider fields in which his aspirations might be realized. As merchant, as poor scholar, or as wandering adventurer and soldier of fortune, he found his way to every European country, and wherever he went he showed a remarkable capacity for making himself at home. As many as ten thousand Scotsmen served the cause of France in the Hundred Years' War, and fought stubbornly against the English in the battles of Bauge, Crevant, and Verneuil. For help given in this campaign the Earl of Buchan was made High Constable of France, and the Earl of Douglas was rewarded with the dukedom of Touraine. A hundred others, with two hundred archers to boot, formed the Scots Guard of King Louis XI., and twenty-four stalwart Scotsmen were appointed to keep watch over the King's own private apartments, and to surround his person and his throne. Thirteen regiments of Scotsmen fought for Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years' War, and many another corps of his great army was officered by men of the same nation. It was a Scotsman who filled the position of Field Marshal to the Emperor Frederick of Prussia, and another who did more than anyone else to consolidate the Russian Empire of the Czar, Peter the Great.

When the Union of the Crowns was consummated in 1603, the way seemed opened up for conquests nearer home, and a herd of famished Scotsmen followed King James to London in the hope of picking up some lucrative offices and rewards. Unfortunately, many of these were needy creditors of James, and their clamours for the payment of old debts was "of all forms of importunity the most unpleasing to his Majesty." The better class of Scotsmen, too, proved themselves to be proud, quarrelsome, and irascible in the extreme, and the King was obliged to command that proclamation should be made at every market cross in Scotland, forbidding all Scotsmen to travel into England without express permission from the Privy Council. Foiled in their hopes of English plunder, Scotsmen had to seek their natural expansion elsewhere. Some overflowed into Nova Scotia in 1624, some to the Isthmus of Darien in 1696. Cromwell deported five thousand of them to the American Colonies in 1650, after the battle of Dunbar; some followed Prince Charlie into exile in 1745; others were placed in high positions under the Indian Government by Lord Dundas. Thus at different times and in different ways, Scotsmen have been driven and allured, in peace and in war, to seek their fortune elsewhere than in their native land.

It cannot be said that Scotsmen have always made themselves popular in the countries they have made their own. The English disliked them exceedingly when they came in the train of King James, and complained bitterly of their success, their ‘pushfulness’, their haughty spirit. As an old song of the period expressed it:

"Thy blue bonnet, when thou came hither,
Would scarcely keep out the wind or weather;
But now it is turned to a hat and a feather
The bonnet is blown the devil knows whither.
The sword at thy haunch was a huge black blade,
With a great basket-hilt, of iron made;
But now a long rapier doth hang by his side,
And huffingly doth this bonny Scot ride."

Still more violent did this anti-Caledonian rage become when, after the Union of the Kingdoms, Scotsmen overran England like a swarm of locusts, and one of them, Lord Bute, both climbed himself and advanced his fellow-countrymen to some of the highest offices of state. So keen was the resentment felt at this minister's partiality, that Smollett tells us "all the windows of all the inns northwards were scrawled with doggerel rhymes in abuse of the Scotch nation." The causes of this unpopularity are not difficult to discover. For one thing, the Scotsman was that disagreeable kind of person, a poor relation, and a poor relation, moreover, who was smarting under a sense of former injuries and resolved to make up for previous ill-treatment by getting more than his share of the good things going. Another objectionable feature in all Scotsmen was their clannishness, an inveterate habit of standing by one another through thick and thin, to the contempt and undoing of every one else. Johnson complained that Scotsmen showed a marked disposition "to tell lies in favour of each other," and stated that if ever a Scotsmen produced a play in London, his fellow-countrymen would turn up "in droves" to applaud it. Especially insufferable was a Scotsman's sensitiveness and pride. He took it as a personal affront if his country was jibed at in any way, or even impartially described as it really was, and he had a racial incapacity to see the point of any joke directed against himself. But a Scotsman's pride has not always been querulous and provocative. There is often about it a quiet reserve of assurance and superiority, as of one who knows he has the future in his hands, and only bides his time for worth and solid merit to be recognised.

J. H. Burton, The Scot Abroad, p. 70 writes,

"On the brow of the industrious crofter on the slopes of the Grampians we may see the well-becoming pride and self-respecting gravity that, in the fifteenth century, took the honours and distinctions of France as a natural right. Whence comes his pride? He has no rank he is poor and he is no representative of an illustrious house. No, but he is founding a house. He rises up early, and late takes rest, that his son may go to college and become a gentleman; and when he reads contemporary history in the public press, he knows that the grandfather of the eminent law lord, or of the great party leader, or of the illustrious laboured like himself in the fields close at hand."

The effect of these wanderings and migrations has been to make the Scotsman a citizen of the world, less insular and more cosmopolitan by nature than his English brother. Particularly has this been the case with the French alliance. France gave Scotland some of its most characteristic features in law, custom, language, architecture, manners, parliamentary and ecclesiastical institutions. In these things, as well as in the pronunciation of the Latin language, and in the democratic character of its universities, it has transmitted to Scotland influences and traditions which directly perpetuate the life of the older Roman Empire. And Scotland has given back as much as it has received. If it has in past times been a comparatively poor country, and has added but little to the world's material wealth, it has been a fruitful mother of men of genius and of spirit who have vastly enriched mankind in other ways. In proof of this let the words of an Englishman be quoted. G. Birkbeck Hill in Footsteps of Dr. Johnson, p. 40, writes,

"In philosophy, in history, in law, in science, in poetry, in romance, in the arts of life, in trade, in government, in war, in the spread of our dominions, in the consolidation of our Empire, glorious has been the part which Scotsmen have played. Her poet's prayer has been answered, and in “bright succession” have been raised men to adorn and guard not only herself but the country which belongs to Englishmen and Scotsmen alike."

There are two influences to which the ascendancy of Scotsmen in history may principally be traced, and to which, in conclusion, we may now briefly allude. These are a love of education and a genius for religion. Both rose to their full strength in the conflicts of the Reformation. Previous to that great upheaval, the learning of the country was chiefly confined to the Universities and a few monastery and burgh schools, where mediaeval Latinity and scholasticism were mostly studied. It was the aim of John Knox to devote the revenues of the old Church to the establishment of a system of popular education throughout the country, in order that every class might benefit by the blessings of knowledge, and especially the Scriptures, which by the recent invention of printing had been made accessible to all. But the avarice of the Scottish nobles and the troubles of the time prevented the realization of these hopes, and made a distinctively Scottish culture and literature in the seventeenth century impossible. The ideals of the Book of Discipline, however, were not suffered to be forgotten, and both in 1616 and in 1696 acts were passed which provided that schools should be erected and maintained in every parish. But it was not till a century later that this goal was fully reached. In the meantime, the national zeal for learning was bearing abundant fruit. When Bishop Burnet and five other Episcopal divines set out to teach religion to the people in Covenanting times, "we were indeed amazed," he wrote, "to see a poor commonalty so capable to argue on points of government, and on the bounds to be set to the power of princes in matters of religion: upon all these topics they had texts of Scripture at hand, and were ready with answers to anything that was said to them. This measure of knowledge was spread even among the meanest of them, their cottagers, and their servants." Wesley was impressed by the same characteristic a century later. His hearers already knew everything about religion he proposed to tell them. Johnson, too, was surprised to find that he "never wanted books" whilst staying in the wildest parts of Skye. The people showed a marked affinity to the liberal rather than to the manual arts, and "excelled in ornamental knowledge while they wanted the conveniences of life." Nor was this state of things confined to the lower classes or the common schools. The gentry whom Defoe met showed those unmistakable signs of breeding and education which only foreign travel could bestow, and John Wesley's burgess ticket at Aberdeen was couched in a classical and graceful Latin that would have done credit to any college in Oxford or in Cambridge. This love of sound learning was a thing ingrained. It was an instinct, a tradition, with the whole people, cherished since the days when Duns Scotus, "the Subtle Doctor," dominated the scholasticism of Italy, or George Buchanan, as a Latinist, won European fame, or the "Admirable Crichton” disputed in twelve languages at the College of Navarre. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the influence which this love of education has had upon the Scottish people. It has trained their intelligence and liberalized their minds, and given them a decided advantage in the competition for the prizes and honours of the world.

The other great influence moulding Scottish character, the chief dominating force, indeed, in the entire national development, has been religion. Few have been the periods of Scottish history in which some knotty problem or other in theology or Church government has not engrossed the speculations, and determined the activities, of great masses of the people. In the Reformation struggle, the dispute was with Catholicism, a dispute which was not settled till Morton's capture of Edinburgh Castle in 1573 for ever put an end to the hopes of Mary. But if Popery was bad, Prelacy proved little better; and no sooner had Protestantism won its victory over Catholicism than Presbyterianism was called on to take up the challenge of Episcopalianism. Which was to determine the religion of Scotland, Laud's Liturgy or the people's National Covenant? This was the question that rent the country in twain for fifty troubled years. Religious passions subsided somewhat in the eighteenth century, and both parties sought relief from controversy in that more secular and accommodating spirit which showed itself within the Church as Moderatism. Yet even then the peace and harmony of Zion were to be disturbed by the "Marrow" controversy, and the various secessions, with Auld Lichts and New Lichts, and Burgher over against Anti-Burgher. At a later day, Scotland was stirred to the depths by the Disruption controversy, then by the Robertson- Smith heresy case, and then by the fateful decision of the House of Lords as to the rights and privileges of the Free Church.

This continual preoccupation with the gravest problems of religion could not do other than leave a deep mark on the character of the people. Scotland has out-Calvined Calvin in its zeal for reformation. It embraced his principles with a devotion, and carried them out with a consistency, that were not to be attempted in any other nation. The result has been that a certain unsympathetic hardness has been imparted to religion in Scotland from which it is only beginning to shake itself free. The Presbyterian ministers of the seventeenth century were the real masters of the country, and exercised over both the souls and the bodies of the people a harsh and rigid discipline which came nigh to intolerable tyranny. But at least they were learned and self-sacrificing men, for the most part, of blameless and holy lives, whose moral character was on a much higher level than that of the corrupt clergy whom they displaced. If sometimes they were autocratic and intolerant in the exercise of power, these qualities may have been required in the interests of that Protestantism they were raised to save, for their enemies aimed at being as despotic as themselves. There has been much that is narrow and bigoted in Scottish religious history, but Calvinism, perhaps because of its very rigour, has been a rare maker of men and nations, a stern nursing-mother of civil and religious freedom. Scotland owes much, more than it perhaps knows, to Knox and Melville, to Peden and James Renwick, to the Book of Discipline and the Shorter Catechism, to the Bass Rock, the Grassmarket, and the stakes in the Solway Firth.

We close with the weighty words of an impartial modern historian, P. Hume Brown. In his History of Scotland, vol. iii., pp. 433, 434, he writes "Proportionately to her population and her natural resources, Scotland has made her full contribution to the material and spiritual building up of the Empire of which she is a constituent part. In trade and commerce and in all modern industries, her people have displayed the vigour and the aptitudes demanded in the international struggle for the markets of the world. Of individual men, whose destiny it is to lead their fellows, it is acknowledged that Scotland has been a prolific nurse. In every department of national activity, Scotsmen have played even more than their proportionate part. At home more than their proportional share has fallen to them of public trust and responsibility; and still more noteworthy has been their participation in the fortunes of the Empire beyond the seas. Nor in the ideal domain of thought and imagination, where is found the ultimate test of national greatness, has Scotland been barren. In the same first half of the nineteenth century, two of her sons spoke to the world as no other writers of the time spoke. Of Sir Walter Scott it has been said that his work has given more wholesome pleasure to a greater number of readers than the work of any other writer; and within their same age the most inspiring word uttered to his generation was that of another Scot, Thomas Carlyle. As co-partners in the destinies of Britain's Empire, Scotland may fairly claim to have borne her own burden, and to have made her own contribution to the well-being of the nations."


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