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The Crofter in History
Decline of Feudalism


Not quite a hundred years ago, on a summer's day, a large herd of cattle might have been seen gathered in front of a Highland steading in the heart of Inverness-shire, and some seventy or eighty people—men, women, and children—congregated on the same spot. From the windows of a neighbouring manse the wife of the parish minister watched the preparations with absorbing interest.

The cattle are driven on to the road; the people, with pipers playing in front, fall into procession, and march by. As they pass, they raise their bonnets, the good lady waves her hand, and her husband, a white-haired minister, standing at the door, bids them "God speed!" On they pass towards the head of the glen, and before long a turn of the road hides them from view. Ere the sound of the music has died away, the words which follow have been penned.

"One of the great concerns of life here is settling the time and manner of these removals. Viewing the procession pass is always very gratifying to my pastoral imagination. . . . The people look so glad and contented, for they rejoice at going up; but by the time the cattle have eat all the grass, and the time arrives when they dare no longer fish and shoot, they find their old home a better place, and return with nearly as much alacrity as they went."

Thus wrote Mrs Grant of Laggan, the accomplished authoress of those "Letters from the Mountains," that have come down to us as one of the best examples of a literary style no longer in fashion. What a picture of Highland life is this! Who will not turn with pleasure from the dreary and monotonous labour of reading the five thick octavo volumes embodying the labours of a Royal Commission, appointed to inquire into the condition of the Highlanders of the present day, to those epistles which bring before us here and there vivid descriptions of a mode of life of which in many places scarcely a vestige remains? So utterly different is it from what we are familiar with, that it is hard to realise how comparatively short is the time which separates it from us. That life seems some Utopian dream. There is no mention of the grinding poverty, that semi-starvation which the advocates of Highland improvement point to as the invariable concomitant of a pastoral life. Can we wonder that the picture exerts a fascination on the mind of the people, and that, in less fortunate circumstances, they look back to the days when their ancestors went up to distant shielings and tended the herds on the mountain tops, or beguiled the hours in fishing and shooting, or singing and dancing through the long summer evenings? No monstrous sheep-farms engulfed them—apparently not even game-laws restrained their liberty. It would be strange if the traditions of such a time served not to keep alive a spark of feeling that requires but little art and knowledge of human nature to fan into a flame. Mrs Grant's testimony is not only trustworthy, but it is peculiarly valuable. To arrive at the exact truth about the condition of the people in the past is not easy. Those who are in favour of emigration and sheep-farming are apt to exaggerate the poverty and misery of the people under the old system. On the other hand, their opponents are tempted to depict in too glowing colours their former prosperity. But Mrs Grant's letters were written without any controversial object. She was under no temptation to exaggerate. The following description of the daily life on a Highland farm at the end of the last century is not without interest:—

"As they must carry their beds, food, and utensils, the housewife who furnishes and divides these matters, has enough to do when her shepherd is in one glen and her dairymaid in another with her milk cattle ; not to mention some of the children, who are marched off to the glen as a discipline, to inure them to hardness and simplicity of life. Meanwhile his reverence, with my kitchen damsel and the ploughman, constitute another family at home, from which all the rest are flying detachments, occasionally sent out and recalled, and regularly furnished with provisions and forage. . . . I shall, between fancy and memory, sketch out the diary of one July Monday. I mention Monday, being the day that all dwellers in glens come down for their supplies. Item, at four o'clock Donald arrives with a horse loaded with butter, cheese, and milk. The former I must weigh instantly. He only asks an additional blanket for the children, a covering for himself, two milk tubs, . . . two stone of meal, a quart of salt, two pounds of flax for the spinners, for the grass continues so good that they will stay a week longer. . . . All this must be ready in an hour, before the conclusion of which comes Ronald from the high hills, where our sheep and young horses are all summer, and only desires meal, salt, and women with shears to clip the lambs, and tar to smear them. . . . Before he departs the tenants who do us service come; they are going to stay two days in the oak wood, cutting timber for our new byre, and must have a competent provision of bread, cheese, and all for the time they stay." The farm is thus described elsewhere:— "We hold a farm at a very easy rent, which supports a dozen milk cows and a couple of hundred sheep, with a range of summer pasture on the mountains for our young stock, horses, &c. This farm supplies us with everything absolutely necessary: even the wool and flax which our handmaids manufacture to clothe the children, are our growth!"

It has been said that Mrs Grant's testimony is valuable because it was given with no controversial purpose. But she lived in the Highlands long enough to witness changes which she was not slow to denounce, and she raised her voice in warning against what she regarded as a danger, socially and economically. Thus in 1791 she wrote:— "The only real grievance Scotland labours under, originates with land-holders, perhaps more remotely in commerce; since the tide of wealth which commerce has poured into the northern part of the island, has led our trading people to contend with our gentry in all the exterior elegancies of life. The latter seem stung with a jealous solicitude to preserve their wonted ascendancy over their new rivals. This preeminence can only be kept up by heightening at all hazards their lands. Thus the ancient adherents of their families are displaced. These having been accustomed to a life of devotion, simplicity, and frugality, and being bred to endure hunger, fatigue, and hardship, while following their cattle over the mountains or navigating the stormy seas that surround their islands, form the best resource of the State when difficulties, such as the inhabitants of a happier region are strangers to, must be encountered for its service." Again:— "The only cause of complaint in Scotland is the rage for sheep-farming. The families removed on that account are often as numerous as our own. The poor people have neither language, money, nor education to push their way anywhere else; though they often possess feelings and principles that might almost rescue human nature from the reproach which false philosophy and false refinement have brought upon it. Though the poor Ross-shire people were driven to desperation, they even then acted under a sense of rectitude, touched no property, and injured no creature."

In the year following the date of this letter, viz., in 1792, an Englishman was an eye-witness of the trial of the "poor Ross-shire people" here alluded to. The circumstances are interesting as affording an almost exact counterpart of recent events in the Island of Skye.

"These disturbances have arisen from the sudden extermination of a number of small farmers, who have been used to maintain their families by a dairy, the rearing of a few black cattle for sale, and a little tillage, in order to give place to the establishment of extensive sheep-walks; which unite many of the old divisions of estates under the occupation of a single tenant. People here assert that thirty-seven families were lately turned adrift in the prosecution of this scheme."

"The number may have been exaggerated; and, as I am rather inclined to believe so, I should not have ventured to particularize it had I not heard it repeated without variation by different persons. But could it be affirmed that only half the number, or even but a fourth part were included, under this calamity, the evil is very great, and of such a nature as surely to merit the particular attention of Government, so long as it shall be thought conducive to national prosperity rather to have a country peopled by human creatures than by sheep. The alarming migrations, which for some years have taken place from the Highlands, are partly attributed to this innovation. That the rent-rolls of estates are augmented, and the avarice of landlords successfully gratified by it, cannot be doubted; but where individuals grow opulent by the depopulation of a country, they make more haste to grow rich than ought to be suffered by its rulers." The rioters were indicted for "riot, assault, and battery by assembling with a number of other persons and forcibly relieving from a poind fold certain cattle confined therein, and at the same time assembling and beating the gentleman and his servants who had poinded the cattle." [Lettice, "Tour in Scotland."] As it was proved that legal notice had not been given to the tenants, and that the prosecuting landlord had been guilty of violence, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Some cottars who had driven off the stock of certain proprietors fared differently. A few were sentenced to transportation for seven years, others were fined and imprisoned.

During the last century the Highlands underwent precisely the same changes in rural economy which England passed through two centuries earlier. Such changes had long been in gradual operation in the south of Scotland. In the Highlands they were suddenly brought about in consequence of the fall of the clan system which existed until the middle of the last century.

The clan system is commonly spoken of as something very different from the feudal system in England. There were no doubt social features in the clan system not to be found elsewhere in Europe; but as far as regards the tenure of land and the condition of the tillers of the soil, we shall find it is not possible to draw any sound distinction between the clan system and the feudal system in England and the Lowlands of Scotland. The former was the result, after centuries of internecine warfare, of combining with the inveterate customs of the Celt the more powerful, because more civilized, customs of southern feudalism. But wherever the iron hand of feudalism extended, it is impossible to exaggerate the misery of the lower orders of the people. Whatever was harsh in the Celtic polity was stereotyped by feudalism. Unfortunately, we cannot discover with any approach to certainty what the state of the common people was under Celtic government; but when history first begins to lift the veil, and we pass from the age of the unwritten to the written law, the first thing which strikes us is the existence of villainage, or some form of bondage throughout Scotland. Very many charters of the crown in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries set the example of conveying, along with the right of property in the soil, the right of property in those who cultivated it. "The greatest curse," says the editor of "Fragments of Scottish History," "attendant on mortals—the curse of slavery—was entailed on the ancient inhabitants of Scotland. We have most ample evidence of this. It has been said, and by an author whose opinion I highly respect, as that of the most learned historian Scotland has produced—it has been said that few instances occur of absolute villainage. It is true I have not found many. Some did exist: and I question if we are entitled to say they were uncommon. Villainage is but a superior species of slavery, yet we see examples of the most humiliating bondage. Before 1189 two brothers, their children, and their whole posterity are transferred to a person for three marks. The prior and convent of St Andrews emancipate a man, his children, and property, or rather give him permission to change his master, 1222. Malise, Earl of Strathern, grants Gilmory Gillendes, his slave, to the monks of Inchaffry; likewise Johannes Starnes, 1258. I have seen several charters cum villanis. One of the Roberts grants certain lands, 'Marić Comyn, cum licentia abducenti tenentes cum bovis suis, a terris, si non sint nativi et ligii homines. . . .'

"There were various kinds of slaves. The laws are copious respecting their state and manumission."

Another learned historian [Chalmers' "Caledonia."] tells us that during the period above mentioned, "no canon of the Church, no assize of the King, and no act of Parliament appears in favour of freedom."

Let us pass to the sixteenth century. For a century or more a great change has been in progress. The process of manumission is nearly complete, and the great bulk of the common people are in possession of personal freedom. Mr Mackintosh, in his "History of Civilization in Scotland," has, with much acuteness, questioned the soundness of the common theory that the process had been fostered and encouraged by the clergy. He sees no evidence of this, and is inclined to attribute the emancipation to the frequent wars and the anarchy they entailed. Be this as it may, it is important to note that while the people appear to have been settled in villages for mutual support, and while something like a system of rural economy is developed, the rights of the feudal lords are gradually strengthened. The decline of feudalism has always been accompanied by grievous hardships to the cultivators of the soil. The law survives, while the social fabric dissolves. Power arises independently of law. The position of a villain in the thirteenth century was infinitely preferable to that of a free tenant in the fifteenth. Of this the Scottish Statute-book supplies abundant evidence. First, let us note that the "nativi" had definite means of escaping from servitude; e.g., if they remained for one year and a day in a Royal burgh. But the law did more than this for them. It secured them from being capriciously removed from their native dwelling and the land which they had cultivated around it. The words of the charter, "Mariae Comyn," which are italicised above, have reference to this custom. There is extant a charter of Malcolm Caenmore which runs as follows: "Malcolmus Rex., &c, Sciatis me concessisse et fermiter precipisse ut Prior et monachi de Colling-ham secundum voluntatem suam adducant suos proprios homines ubicunque maneant in terra sua ad habergandum villain de Collingham" ["National MSS. of Scotland," No. xxxi. Introduction, page 10.] The royal prerogative is thus found dispensing with the law or custom for certain public objects. But as we proceed we find all this changed. It is true the Statute-book is full of Acts designed to protect the poor against the exactions and oppressions of the rich; but the arm of the law is too short to reach the offenders. The "Landlords, on the most frivolous pretences, turned the tenants out of their holdings, and the labourers out of their cottages. Parliament tried to check this, but in vain. ... In 1401 an Act was passed which declared all such resumptions by the overlord to be null unless lawful excuse was shown; and it was provided that the tenants turned out of their land should not lose it until after the lapse of a year, if they repledged their lands within 40 days." [Mackintosh's "History of Civilization in Scotland," vol. i.]

The Parliament of James I. enacted that, "no man rydand or gangand in the countrie lead nor have maa persons with him nor may suffice him nor till his estate, and for quhom he will make readie payment."

In 1449 it was enacted, "for the safetie and favour of the puir people that labouris the ground, ' that purchasers should keep the tacks set by the vendors.' "In 1457 the setting of lands in feu is expressly declared to be a practice favoured by the king. [This was re-enacted in 1503.]

The practice, under the feudal law, which held possession by the tenant to be equivalent to possession by the lord, and made the tenant's effects liable to be seized in payment of the lord's debts, was found to bear so hardly on the people that in 1469 it was enacted that the liability of the tenant should extend only to the amount of the rent. In 1491 it became necessary to forbid any lord, baron, freeholder, or gentleman, to compel any of the king's tenants to perform any service "by exaction or dread," under pain of being punished as oppressors of the king's lieges.

To this time belongs the poet Henryson, who speaks of "ravenous wolves who have enough and to spare, yet so greedy and covetous they will not suffer the poor to live in peace. Over his head his rent they will lease, though he and his family should die for want."

The third Parliament of Queen Mary passed an Act, the preamble of which clearly shows that evictions had been violently carried out throughout the country, and as violently resisted. The Act forbids any convocation "for putting and laying furth of ony tennenter," or "ony convocation or gaddering for resistance to the lords of the ground." In the "Complaynt of Scotland," we read, "i hef sene nyne or ten thousand gadyr to gidder vitht out ony commissone of the kingis letteris, the quhilk grit conventione has been to put their nychtbours furtht of their steding and takkis on vytson veddyinsday, or ellis to leyde awaye ane puir manis kynd in heruyst."

In 1563 Parliament passed an Act for securing possession for five years to tenants of Kirklands, who were threatened with eviction from their "lawful and kindly possessions" by feuars and tacksmen. It is unnecessary to adduce more in proof of the misery of the people, both while feudal institutions were unimpaired and during their decline. [Pinkerton divides the Feudal System into—I. The Feudal System ; 2. The Corrupted Feudal System—the latter commencing with the nth and ending with the 15th century. From a pure state in which "nobility and estates annexed were not hereditary," it passed to one "of aristocratic tyranny and oppression."—Dissertation on the Goths, Part ii. chap. iv.]

There is an exact parallel to the changes which the Highlands of Scotland underwent in the last century. Green, in his "History of the English People," has given a description of a social revolution which, if we substitute Highland tenant for English yeoman, will serve as a description of the changes in Scotland that followed the '45.

"But beneath this outer order and prosperity a social revolution was beginning which tended as strongly as the outrages of the baronage to the profit of the crown. The rise in the price of wool was giving a fresh impulse to the changes in agriculture which had begun with the Black Death and were to go steadily on for a hundred years to come. These changes were the throwing together of the smaller holdings and the introduction of sheep farming on an enormous scale. The new wealth of the merchant classes helped on the change. . . . The land indeed had been greatly underlet, and as its value rose with the peace and firm government of the early Tudors, the temptation to raise the customary rents became irresistible. . . But it had been only by this low scale of rent that the small yeomanry class had been enabled to exist."

What the Wars of the Roses accomplished for the English yeoman, the Rebellion of '45 did for a class whose history it is proposed to sketch in the following pages.


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