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The Crofter in History
Powers of a Chief under the Clan System


A LOW scale of rent was a necessary part of the old system in the Highlands. Lord Selkirk observed: "The sacrifice of pecuniary interest was of very inferior importance, and was not a matter of choice; for any proprietor who should have acted on contrary principles, losing the attachment of his people, would have been left a prey to the violence of his neighbours." This is undoubtedly true in the main; but this writer goes too far when he says the Highland gentlemen never ventured to raise their rents.

Amongst the MSS. in the possession of the British Museum, there is one entitled, "Some Remarks on the Highland Clans, and Methods proposed for Civilization." The writer investigates the "trew and genuine reasons why theft and depredations which above all things cherish the spirit of Jacobitism and rebellion are more luxuriant of growth amongst the Highland clans than some of their neighbours." He draws his information, he says, from the "honester sort of natives." The first reason, he mentions, is the exorbitant lawless power exercised by the gentry over the commoners. He proceeds to describe the tenure by which the gentry held their lands:— "Their holdings of land are either free or leases, so much for ordinary as can accommodate themselves and great numbers of their tribes and dependants, generally bad people entirely devoted to their service. Some of them have mortgages in the lands they have a lease of, yet this, till of late, did not hinder the chief to remove from one possession to another, or quite out of the land, if any way disobedient to his irresistible orders and decrees—the unhappy situation of the poor people at all times under the chief and inferior gentry, so that the inferior gentry, as well as the commoners, were constantly kept in a state of slavery and dependance, which they bore with equal constancy. . . . The commoners are cunning, lazy, and vindictive as the gentry are. They never get leases, but constantly depending on the good pleasure of their masters, who thereby have it in their power to fleece them, as they do their sheep, and keep them in the most abject state of slavery and dependance. I have asked many of them why they did not choose to have better houses, and the answer I had was commonly much the same: that the building of good houses or making any other improvement was a sure way to get themselves removed ; as for a shilling or two more rent, the master would give the preference to the first that offered, so that it seems every kind of industry was studiously discouraged, and that laziness, that delusive mother of vice, and source of dependancy, were the chief things aimed at." [This MS. bears no date, but, from internal evidence, it appears to have been written about 1718.]

Captain Burt painted vividly the lights as well as the shadows of the clan system. He tells us of chiefs freeing the necessitous from arrears of rent, and maintaining the decayed. He tells us that if the tribe increased, and there was in consequence a want of land, farms were split up, "because all must be somehow provided for." He records a curious instance of an agrarian outrage, when a minister's hut was fired into because he had taken a small farm—an outrage which, he says, arose from the "dread of innovations, and the notion they entertain that they have a kind of hereditary right to their farms, and that none of them are to be dispossessed, unless for some great transgression against their chief, in which case every individual would consent to their expulsion."

This passage has attracted much attention. It has been regarded as "the solitary contemporaneous testimony to a custom unknown to the Statute book, but which may have been practically embodied in the reciprocal necessities and affections of chief and clansmen, as long as those relations remained a reality." [Report of the recent Royal Commission.]

But a curious confirmation of Burt's testimony is to be found in the first page of Spalding's account of the Troubles in which allusion is made to the Revolt of the Clan Chattan in 1624.

"After the death and burial of Angus M'Intosh of Auld Tirlie, alias Angus Williamson (which was a little before Whitsunday in the year of God 1624), his kin and friends of Clanchattan, whom he in his time held under rule and in peace by his power and policy, began to call to mind how James, Earl of Murray, their master, had casten them out of their kindly possessions, whilk past memory of man, their predecessors and they had kept for small duty, but for their faithful service, and planted in their places, for payment of a greater duty, a number of strangers and feeble persons, unhabile to serve the Earl their master, as they could have done, by which means those gentlemen were brought through necessity to great misery, and therewith considering their young chief, the laird of M'Intosh was but a bairn, who (according to the common band) might not be answerable to their misdeeds; and thinking and calling to mind how oft and how humbly they had craved their kindly possessions from the said Earl, but could not be heard, nor find favour, which grieved them in the highest degree; they therefore finding the time proper, partly through infancy of their young chief, and partly through the death of this worthy chieftain (who, by his wit and policy, held them still under awe and obedience), desperately resolve by force of arms, either to recover their own kindly possessions, or otherwise cast the samen waste, and none should labour the ground or pay any duty to the Earl; and to that effect, about the said feast of Whitsunday 1624 there brake out in arms about the number of two hundred of the principal gentlemen of that race and lineage of Clanchattan under the leading of Lachlan M'Intosh, alias Lachlan Oyle (uncle to this now laird of M'Intosh), and Lachlan M'Intosh or Lachlan Angusson (eldest son to the said umquhile Angus Williamson) their captains. They keeped the fields in their Highland weed upon foot, with swords, bows, arrows, targets, hag-buts, pistols, and other Highland arms, and first began to rob and spuilzie the Earl's tenants, who laboured their possessions, of their haill goods, gear, insight plenishing, horse, holt, sheep, cows, and cattle, and left them nothing that they could get within their bounds, syne fell in sorning throughout Murray, Stratherick, Urquhart, Ross, Sutherland, Brae of Mar, and divers other parts, taking their meat and food per force where they could get it willingly, frae friends as well as frae their foes, yet still kept themselves from shedding of innocent blood. Thus they lived as outlaws, oppressing the country, besides the casting of the Earl's land waste, and openly avowed they had taken this course to get their own possessions again, or then hold the country waking. The Earl of Murray, mightily grieved at the Clanchattan to break out in such disorder, himself being dwelling in Murray, sends shortly and brings out of Monteith and Balquidder about three hundred Highlandmen armed after their own custom. This people, with the Earl himself, came through Murray to Inverness in battle rank; they stayed there that night, and the Earl was, with his good brother the Earl of Enzie, in the castle well entertained. This people stayed a while in the country upon the Earl's great expences, without seeing or seeking the Clanchattan; therefore the Earl sent them all back the gate they came; always the Earl returned frae Inverness back to Elgin, and provided another company to go against the Clanchattan; but they also did little service, and so returned without finding of the enemy first or last, albeit they made a pretext of seeking them through the country.

"But the Clanchattan, nothing dismayed, became more furious and enraged, to rob and spoil every man's goods, wherever they came, whether friend or foe, to the great hurt and skaith of the King's lieges. The Earl, seeing he could hardly get them suppressed by force of arms, resolves upon another course to bear them down, which was, he goes down to London to King James, and humbly shews the rising of their Clanchattan, and that he could not get them overcome and subdued without an lieutenantry in the North, which the King graciously granted to him for some few years, and to sit, cognosce, and decern upon some capital points allenarly, specially set down thereintill. The Earl returns home, causes proclaim his lieu-tenantry (whereat it was thought the house of Huntly was somewhat offended, thinking none should be lieutenant in the North but themselves, albeit he was his own goodson who had gotten it, to wit, the Marquis's son-in-law, who had married his eldest daughter), proclaims letters of intercom-muning against the Clanchattan at the head burghs of sundry shires, that none should receipt, supply, or intercommune with them, under great pains and peril. After publication of which letters, the Clanchattan's kin and friends who had privately promised them assistance before their breaking out, begins now to grow cold, fearing their estates, of whom sundry was wealthy in lands and goods, and simpliciter refused them help, receipt, or supply, for fear of the laws.

"The Clanchattan seeing this, by expectation begin now to repent their breaking out, and seek the Earl's peace, whilk, by intercession of friends, was granted, provided they should the Earl information who did receipt or supply them after publication of the letters of intercommuning, and to give up their names and prove the same. Upon this condition the Earl forgives them and takes them by the hand, and shortly begins to hold justice courts within the burgh of Elgin. Some slight lowns, followers of the Clanchattan, were execute, but the principal outbreakers and malefactors were spared and never troubled." [See also Shaw's "Historical Memoirs of the Clan," vol. ii. p. 303.]

We are not told that the Clan Chattan were restored to their "kindly possessions," and the argument deducible from the facts related by Spalding obviously cuts both ways. They consist with a notion of hereditary right in the people, but cannot be cited in proof that arbitrary eviction was unknown during the period when the clan system was in vigorous operation.

But there are passages in Burt which could not have been penned had he not too been deeply impressed with the arbitrary powers of the chief. He was personally acquainted with a chief who, he says, systematically impoverished the people. "This chief does not think the present abject disposition of his clan towards him to be sufficient; but entertains that tyrannical and detestable maxim, that to render them poor will double the tye of their obedience, and accordingly he makes use of all oppressive means to that end. To prevent any diminution of the number of those who do not offend him, he dissuades from their purpose all such as show an inclination to traffic. . . . This he does (when downright authority fails) by telling them how their ancestors chose to live sparingly and be accounted a martial people, rather than submit themselves to low and mercenary employments like the Lowlanders. ... It may for aught I know be suitable to clanish power, but in general it seems quite contrary to reason, justice, and nature, that any one person from the mere accident of his birth, should have the prerogative to oppress a whole community for the gratification of his own selfish views and inclinations; and I cannot but think the concerted poverty of a people is, of all oppressions, the strongest instigation to sedition, rebellion, and plunder."

Burt relates that on one occasion he had employed labourers at sixteenpence a day. The same men were required by the chief to work at sixpence a day, and complained that they lost by it. "I very well remember," says Burt, "he then told me that if any of those people had formerly said as much to their chief, they would have been carried to the next rock and precipitated." This writer says the advantage of enclosing was a "mighty topick" with the Highlanders, but he asks, "Where is the Highland tenant that can lay out ten shillings for that purpose? And what would he be gainer by it in the end, but to have his rent raised or his farm divided with some other?" Other passages might be quoted from Burt's letters to show the "arbitrary authority" exercised by the chief.


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