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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter V.—Character and Characteristics


IT is an invidious task to criticise the general characters of one's neighbours. "Charity thinketh no evil," but it cannot be blind to obvious faults. Sentimental predilections ought not to be allowed to warp the judgment, any more than prejudices based on first impressions or partial knowledge should be permitted to mature into dogged dislike. What a Scylla and Charybdis to steer through!

Highlanders have been over-praised by some, and unreasonably condemned by others: the truth is, they are like other races; there is of course an admixture of good and bad among them. But are the black sheep more numerous than the white ones? So far as the parish of Gairloch is concerned, I am of opinion, speaking from personal experience, that the black sheep are in a decided minority. Taking the people as a whole, they are unquestionably more disposed to honesty and morality than are the bulk of our urban populations.

In the old clan days all Highlanders were remarkable for fidelity to their chief and to their fellow-clansmen. Circumstances have abolished these ties to a great extent, though some remnants of the clan feeling still linger among the older people.

Courtesy and hospitality continue to be leading good qualities among all ranks of Highlanders, and the Gairloch folk are no exception to the rule.

That shrewd writer Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, after pointing out the faults of indolence and carelessness, adds, "With all their defects the people have numerous good qualities, which, under proper management and judicious direction, might become the source of comfort and wealth to themselves and to their superiors. In honesty and sobriety the people of the west coast are far superior to their inland neighbours."

Sir Francis Mackenzie, in his "Hints," pays the following tribute to the character of his Gairloch Highlanders:—"I can produce, I rejoice to say, from my own people individuals, totally unlettered, who shall in every amiable quality of which humanity can boast far outshine some of the common specimens of our students, either at Oxford or at Edinburgh; and this arises more from early training, and the good example of attentive parents, than from the natural goodness or depravity of dispositions. Long then may you retain your native honesty, your spirit of generosity, and noble courtesy. Long may you remember that true politeness is not servility; and may you never forget that rudeness is not only degrading, but unchristian ; and may you ever prove to surrounding countries, that a spirit of courtesy naturally springs from the freedom and independence which, as Highlanders, have ever been your inheritance."

Love of country, or perhaps more accurately attachment to home, is a salient feature in the character of the Highlander; it has always been so, and there is no sign of any diminution of the sentiment. I have received letters from absent Gairloch men speaking in the fondest terms of affection of their homes, and avowing constant and loving recollection of the wild surroundings amid which they were brought up. Is this to be wondered at? To the dweller in Gairloch the hill pasture, the rocky shore, the rough peat moss, the mountain path, the expanse of the sea loch, with the background of lordly summits, are all his own; others may have proprietary rights, the real enjoyment is his. Pining home-sickness is the immediate result of emigration, and it is often long before the practical business of life overcomes it. No blame attaches to this natural and irresistible passion for home; on the other hand, it is evidence of a valuable depth of character and an ennobling simplicity of heart; it is in fact the sentiment which is the basis of all true patriotism.

A less admirable characteristic of the Gairloch people is their cautious, "canny" disposition; it is, however, by no means confined to them. Modern curtailment of their privileges, the advent of tourists and other strangers, and a constant need for strict economy, have tended to the growth of this trait. It is evinced in a strong disinclination to reveal their views and intentions, and a grasping keenness in driving bargains. Here is an example from my personal experience:—A crofter had made known his desire to sell a heifer ; a gentleman, wanting to purchase one, came some distance to see the animal; the crofter at first denied flatly that he had anything to sell; on the gentleman turning to leave, he said he would shew him a heifer ; at length he named an exorbitant price ; then finding the possible customer was a judge of cattle, he reduced the figure but still held out for too high a sum ; no bargain was concluded that day.

Captain Burt, in his racy "Letters" (about 1730), charges Highlanders with a want of cleanliness. A similar charge, supported by evidence of the same nasty kind, is even in the present day made against some Highlanders. Here in Gairloch the charge is not generally applicable; nay, it may truly be said that the people are in their persons even more cleanly than their neighbours in our large centres of population. True the odour of stale peat "reek," and the stains it leaves on articles of dress, sometimes convey an impression of dirtiness, but there is no real filth in this, and the presence of parasites is now-a-days very rare. Let the visitor enter one of the public schools of the parish and see the clean neatly-dressed children, and the charge will at once be disposed of.

In former days, and even to the beginning of the nineteenth century, the morals of the people were far from perfect; this is shown by the minutes of the presbytery. Happily, whether from fear of the kirk-session, or from the general improvement of recent times, offences against morals are to-day less common in Gairloch than in some parts of the lowlands.

It is singular that among Highlanders, at least in Gairloch, there is a total absence of anything like jealousy between married people ; this fact by itself speaks volumes.

The principal fault of the Gairloch and other Highlanders has been variously designated indolence, lethargy, carelessness, sloth, idleness, and laziness,—all meaning much the same thing. It is often said "time is no object on the west coast," and so it would appear; nearly all meetings (except Sunday services) are from half-an-hour to an hour later in commencing than the time named; an eternal current of talk, talk, talk, accompanies every transaction, and not seldom interrupts or delays the most pressing work. It is only the male sex who are chargeable with this indolence, and amongst them it is fast giving way to greater activity; sometimes it is due to a love of dram-drinking, for which it forms an excuse; indeed it is often rightly laid at the door of whisky. All writers on the Highlands have remarked upon it, and some quotations will be given in connection with agriculture which will illustrate it. More continuous occupation is the remedy required. It is remarkable that the Highlander never displays indolence when he emigrates, and it is principally in his agricultural attempts that it is manifested. There is every reason to believe that it is gradually disappearing.

The Gairloch population cling with marvellous tenacity to old ways of doing things, and thus general improvement is slow. On the whole they are a worthy religious people. "Man made the town: God made the country," is a saying that means more than the literal meaning of the words conveys. In the pure air and unpolluted water of the Highlands, there is less that is akin to sin and moral impurity than in the filthy crowded manufacturing town. The general sobriety, honesty, and piety of these Gairloch people, seem to me to outweigh their shortcomings.

It is a pity that some of the younger people affect a certain contempt for the old Highland characteristics, and seem determined to resemble their lowland neighbours as closely as possible. The Highland dress has for several generations been laid aside, and other distinctive ways and peculiarities, some of them ennobling and goody have fallen into disuse. Surely the people would best support their demand for a national recognition of the peculiar position they claim, by maintaining the old Highland esprit, rather than by disowning the nobler characteristics that have so long distinguished the inhabitants of the " land of the hills and the glens and the heroes."

In concluding this chapter I beg leave to propose what must prove a beneficial stimulus to the people of Gairloch, if it were efficiently carried out. It is the establishment of an annual prize meeting for competitions in—

Home-spun cloth, plaids, and carpets produced within the parish;
Gairloch hose;
Vegetables, fruit, and flowers grown by Gairloch people;
Highland games and athletic sports;
Pipe music by local pipers;

Gaelic songs by Gairloch bards. Perhaps boat races might be added to the list. Substantial prizes for merit in these competitions would unquestionably tend to encourage industry and develop excellence. If sufficient funds were forthcoming, a competent committee could readily be got together to work out the details. I earnestly invite the assistance of all who visit this romantic country towards a proposal designed to promote the advancement of its Highland inhabitants.


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