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Good Words 1860
Highlanders at Home and Abroad


Why is the mountaineer so attached to his Highland home? We do not say that the home-sickness, or mal du pays, is peculiar to the mountaineer, but only that in him it is peculiarly intense and passionate. This cannot always be accounted for by the grandeur of the scenery among which he lives. The inhabitants of most parts of Switzerland, for example, are notoriously obtuse to the beauty and magnificence which constantly surround them. From our own observation, we agree with Mr Buskin in what he says regarding the poor peasants of that glorious land :—" They do not understand so much as the name of beauty or of knowledge. They understand dimly that of virtue, love, patience, hospitality, truth. These things they know. . . . For the inhabitant of these regions the world is vapour and vanity. For him neither flowers bloom, nor birds sing, nor fountains glisten ; and his soul hardly differs from the gray cloud that lives and dies upon his hills, except in having no fold of it touched by the sunbeams." Yet these men cling with enthusiastic fondness to their mountain-home.

It is true, that the Scottish Highlander possesses much more than the Swiss peasant of that mental culture which seems necessary in order to relish the beautiful in nature or in art. His superiority in this respect is owing, probably, to the education he has acquired from the parish school, with which his country has been blessed since the Reformation; to those social habits which make the upper and lower classes mix so much together in the Highlands; to the intellectual, as well as spiritual, training of the pulpit; and to the historical traditions, the interesting moral tales, and singularly pure and beautiful poems which are recited to the groups around the fireside when shut up in their secluded valleys during winter. There is, accordingly, often found in the Scottish Highlander a keen appreciation of the natural beauty of his mountain-land; and among no people have more local poets been found who, in devout hymns, tender songs, and romantic ballads, have described the varied aspects of nature with more truth, or in more felicitous language.

But whatever other causes may be recognised as attracting the affections of the Highlander to his home, the sense of possession cannot be overlooked. in exact proportion as land in a settled country is valuable, its riches are shared by a numerous population. The peasant or the farmer then occupies but a small portion of the precious soil. The stiff hedge a little way from his dwelling bounds the narrow spot he calls his own, and on which he can tread with freedom. If he presumes to leave the beaten path, such announcements as "No road this way,"— "Trespassers will be prosecuted," meet him at every turn. A few acres thus include the field of his labour and of his associations. An existence so cramped and confined as this is still more characteristic of the inhabitant of the crowded city. He possesses but one little cell in the huge beehive of industry. His home is distinguished from others around it only by a number. He has, moreover, so often changed his abode, that he probably finds it difficult to discover, after the lapse of a few years, the house in which he was born, or in which he may have spent some of his happiest days of domestic life as a husband or a father. When the city-bred, therefore, or the inhabitant of the rich South, thinks of his country, he associates with the name not so much places as persons—abstractions like those of "the constitution," "the Church," "trial by jury," or "Habeas Corpus," rather than personal objects. But it is far otherwise with the Highlander. He has lived, and probably so have his ancestors, for several generations, in the same glen and in the same hamlet. His hut, though humble, and almost lost in the landscape, as a tuft of heather or a gray boulder, is yet associated with those who have made life dear to him. It is a record of many family births, marriages, and deaths; and, like a dial, he can mark his years by the alternate light and shade which have passed over it. The grand picture, too, around him, framed by the blue sky and wide horizon, has filled his eye and soul since infancy. Alone, and amidst the long, unbroken silence of the hills, he has gazed on those far-off peaks, as if no one but himself had ever beheld them. He has wandered at his will among their lonely glens and desolate corries. In his ear alone every wave seems to break on the shore of the inland sea, every rivulet sing, and cataract roar. His eye alone has watched every cloud gather around the mountain top, every sunbeam touch the crags with glory at morn or even, every fitful gleam of sunlight fall upon the misty moorland, or light up with silvery sheen the islands far away. All this glorious panorama of precipice and gorge, of birchwood and heath, of breezy headlands and boundless sea, have been the possessions of his soul. No one has so shared them with him as to disturb the sense of their being his own country and home! If to those fascinations which, directly or indirectly, spring out of the very wildness and sterility of the land, we add others pertaining more to his social life—such as his intimate and long acquaintance with the few inhabitants of the district; the strong ties and brotherhood of feudal clanships; the excitements and dangers connected with his hunting and fishing, and the crossing stormy friths and dreary mountains; the periods of repose and rest amidst the sleep of the hills, on the bosom of the deep, or at home during wintry storms, when the very eagle dare not leave her eyrie and battle with the gale,— we need not be surprised that the ardent and imaginative Celt should become possessed for life by the love of that home which he has thus possessed as his life from infancy. Hence the power which the great bagpipe exercises, not upon the Highland peasant only, but on minds of the finest cast and highest culture, who have been early smitten with his mountain passion. It is not as a musical instrument that the Highlander admires it or acknowledges its influence over his spirit; for, in this respect, he would no more attempt to compare it with harp or lute than he would the wild shrieks of the wintry gale among the rocks, or the beat of the giant sea wave on the tangled shore, with an opera of Mozart or Rossini. But he is subdued into tears by its wild pibroch, because of the thoughts and memories of country and home which it awakens. The very structure of its music sounds to him like the monotony of grief which repeats its cry of anguish. It is to him the music of the past; a wail for the dead and vanished; a lament for an age of feudal glory and romance which have passed away on their "dun wings from Morven." The gray cairn that marks where warriors sleep who fell in battle long ago; the lonely lake, with the wandering wind moaning through its reedy margin; the hoary hill with its coronal of mist of golden hues or snowy wreaths; the mysteries of the sounding sea, with eddying tides and the wild cries of birds; the springs where the deer drink;— "The fairy-haunted valley, "Where, 'neath the dark hills, creeps the small clear stream;" the ruined keep on the rocky promontory; the burial-place of chiefs on the isle of saints, with the old chapel and grey cross; the desolate churchyard where his own lie interred, around the old kirk in the glen; the sounds of combat and of triumph, with the wailing for the slain; the dim and impalpable visions of dark superstitions which impressed his early imagination; and mingling with every image of the past the beloved faces and forms of those who are no more—these are some of the associations which make the music of the pibroch, with its hurried and stormy notes, its piercing monotone of sorrow, or its low dirgelike plaint of grief, stir up in every Highland heart the deep passion of the hills, and his enthusiastic love for his own romantic home. To such feelings, when kindled in the day of battle, or amidst the woods or rising cities of the colonies, our country owes more than to anything which either law or logic ever taught the Highlander.

On the other hand, the very physical character of his country, which forges those bands that bind him to its bare mountains and sterile soil, gives rise to antagonisms which compel his departure, to see "Lochaber no more." Whether Highland emigration is right or wrong on the part of the landlord, who makes it necessary for his tenants, would lead us into inquiries beyond-the province of our magazine. The great fact is sufficiently patent, that a poor soil cannot support a population which unduly presses upon its utmost resources. If to this is added political changes which render the number of a elan less important to the chiefs than their rent; commercial changes which have made the only Highland manufacture —that of kelp—that could employ the population, no longer remunerative; the large bribes offered by the aristocratic sportsman for the means of recruiting energies exhausted in London, or in political life, by the excitements of the deer-forest and the moor; the higher profits to be gained by large sheep-farms rather than by small "holdings;" and a higher style of living to be consequently enjoyed by lairds trained up to English rather than to Highland habits—from such causes, we have little difficulty in understanding how glens once populous should be deserted, and how the wanderer may travel through vast inland tracts, where ruined cottages and traces of cultivated fields, silent beneath the empty sky, mark the spots where once lived a people as industrious, intelligent, hospitable, loyal, and happy, as ever adorned a country. We do not inquire into the legal right or the necessity, from a rigid and logical application of the laws of political economy, for the awful uprooting in the Highlands of the feelings of human hearts, which had so long struck deep into the soil, and had reciprocally entwined themselves by a thousand fibres into every cottage home for miles around. But as far as the Highlander himself and the world are concerned, we have no hesitation in saying that both have gained by this expatriation, whatever merit may be attached to the intentions of those by whom it has been necessitated.

This fact of Highland emigration suggests an observation, in passing, on the operation of a remarkable law in God's providence, of which it forms an illustration,—the working, namely, of those apparently opposing forces in human society, which, like the centrifugal and centripetal forces in nature, at once attract and repel masses, and thereby cause their orderly movements along the paths designed for them by an all-wise Governor. For it is obviously God's will that man should possess the earth and subdue it. But without permanent residence, on the one hand, civilisation would be impossible; while without movement and emigration, on the other, the ultimate possessions of that noble home of unoccupied lands, so richly furnished for the abode of man, would be equally impossible. These two conditions of human progress are, however, beautifully adjusted in the providence of God. For he has ordained one set of powerful forces to attract man, and fix him in a certain locality, among which the inherent love of country is not the least, and others of an opposite kind, of which physical necessity is the most urgent, compelling his departure to seek in new lands the comforts and blessings which at home are denied him and his family. And thus we see the wonderful spectacle of Providence, by means of famine lashing him with one hand from, the old home, and with the other bribing him to a new one, by the hope of gold, from newly discovered mines, or by the promise of a rich harvest from a virgin soil. With what truth may it be said of many a poor Highlander, as God said of Jacob, the lot of his inheritance: ''He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings; so the Lord alone did lead him. He made him ride on the high places of the earth, that he might eat the increase of the field." The home-nest may thus be fondly cherished, and its inhabitants may be unwilling to leave it; but God in His providence, by many severe trials, "stirs up the nest," and makes it so uncomfortable, that its inhabitants must leave it, and spread their untried pinions to a new world of action. Yet in mercy God helps them in their weakness, He ''fluttereth over the young, and beareth them on his wings." God has been thus compassionate towards the Highlanders, and has led them into places where indeed they " eat the increase of the field."

It is a sight delightful to a lover of "his people and kindred" to see how the Highlander succeeds as an emigrant in our North American colonies. We specify those colonies, merely because we have been privileged to see in them only this noble race of men flourishing. And there we never saw any evidence of the laziness and idleness for which they are unjustly blamed at home. Where these habits exist in this country, we are persuaded that they are chiefly, if not solely, the result of circumstances; of a life in which labour wants the stimulus of any hope beyond the mere possibility of securing a scanty subsistence. In the Far West these same men are the most enterprising, persevering, and successful emigrants. They form also, beyond doubt, the strongest and most enduring chains which unite the colonies to the mother country. For one of the most interesting and remarkable features of the Highlander abroad is, his undying love to the land which he still fondly calls his ''home." Most truly has Wilson expressed it in his emigrant's song—

"From the dim shieling on the misty island,
Mountains divide us and a world of seas;
But still our hearts are true, our hearts are Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides."

So true is this, that we believe the Highlander in the colonies retains more of the spirit, the associations, the peculiarities of the genuine Celt than thousands do who now inhabit " the old country."

It is "the old country" which has inspired the Highlander with those undying feelings, and stamped on his heart those impressions which, like the features of his countenance, are transmitted to his descendants who may have lost the memory of his name. No two countries on earth can be more different than British North America, and the Highlands of Scotland. The tame landscape, with the boundless forests; the roads straight as an arrow, deep in mud or dust; the sluggish rivers, with the wigwam only of the Indian, seen on their shores ; the absence of all traditions, not a tree, or stone, or stream, or hill, to tell a tale or sing a song ; springs without the songs of birds ; long and oppressively hot summers, with mosquitoes, and long and oppressively cold winters, with sledges; what a contrast does all this present to Skye or Inverness! If the absence of the romantic parts, or the grand present, is more than compensated for by the practical benefits of good harvests, fat pigs, and independence, how soon might mere material comforts produce a hard, selfish, commonplace uninteresting character, unless balanced by the strong and imaginative memories of the old romantic home! We feel persuaded that, in the event of a war with the United States, the Highland feeling will do more to rally on our side the Highland population of the colonies, than all the arguments of statesmen or political economists on one side or the other.

But let us illustrate, by a few instances, this strong nationality of our expatriated countrymen. Take, for example, their love of the Gaelic language, so ridiculed by the cockney, who makes it a point to laugh at and despise everything unknown to ''the city." This language is heard in its purity abroad, not only among those who have acquired it in Scotland, but among those who have been reared in the American wilderness. One of the most remarkable facts we know, as shewing the undying life of a language, is the existence, to this day, in South Carolina, U. S., of several congregations, making up at least one Presbytery— we believe several—which have existed there for upwards of a century, and have continued to demand and to obtain a supply of pastors, who preach every Sabbath in the Gaelic language, without any clergy being sent from the old country to fill the pulpit, or any people by emigration to fill the pews!

From our own observation, we could afford many striking instances of this constant clinging to their native tongue, in spite of all the circumstances which might be supposed capable of inducing them to substitute for it English, or a Yankee dialect. On a beautiful autumnal evening we were sailing far up the Ottawa in a small steamer, which was conveying, among other passengers, some Indians, along with a band of Highlanders, to cut down trees, and "lumber" in the distant backwoods. The sun had set, and the dark forest seemed to mingle with the dark river. The one stood in relief against the calm sky, with its glittering stars, which the other reflected from its glassy surface. While pacing the upper deck, we were suddenly startled by a full chorus of a Gaelic song which burst forth from a large group occupying the main deck, and immediately below where we happened to be standing. On joining the group we saw about twenty stalwart men (who had not hitherto attracted our attention), sitting in a semicircle, and in Highland fashion swinging their handkerchiefs passed like a rope from hand to hand, singing and keeping time to an old familiar Gaelic song. When it ceased we drew near, and asked what language they spoke. "Gaelic," was the brief reply of one of the party. "Is that a spoken language?" was the next question. "It is, and the best," was the only information returned. ''Where is it spoken?" we again asked. "In the Highlands of Scotland," said the same person, who seemed to be the interpreter; for on again requesting that a few words might be slowly and distinctly uttered, the said spokesman muttered a few epithets in Gaelic to his countrymen, expressive of contempt, and were advised in the same language to "let the ignorant fellow alone." But from courtesy he slowly asked, in his native tongue, "Pray, from what part of the world are you!" As slowly was the reply given, in Gaelic, "From the old Highlands of Scotland! It was like an electric shock to the party. Every man bounded to his feet, took off his bonnet, crowded round the speaker, and gave him a Highland welcome and hearty "God bless you." Only one of those men could speak English; all were enthusiastic Highlanders; yet all had been born in Canada, and not one had ever left it!

It was while on this journey we halted at the village of St Eustache. On entering a French auberge, to get some refreshment for the driver of our conveyance, we addressed an intelligent, black-eyed girl, first in English, then in French, and German; but, getting no reply, except a shake of a head, whose face beamed with intelligence, a last attempt was made to be understood by speaking in Gaelic, when the face shone with increased light, like sunrise breaking over a knoll of blooming heather. The girl had come the day before only from the Canadian district of Lochiel, and had not acquired any language but "her own."

It has been said, that Indians have sometimes acted as interpreters between the Highlanders and French. It is a strange and unexpected fusion of tongues. We recollect, on another occasion, during a sultry journey through one of the forests of New Brunswick, coming to a clearance in which stood a solitary hut. On entering it from curiosity, and addressing a few words of conversation to a man who seemed to be its possessor, and of a numerous herd of fat swine outside, and of a healthy group of children inside, the reply was, "No English;" yet that man had been forty years in the colony. But we must not unnecessarily multiply our illustrations.

We cannot close this paper without recalling one of the most impressive scenes it was ever our privilege to witness in connexion with public worship. It was the dispensation of the sacrament at Pictou, in Nova Scotia. The day was superb. Very early in the morning, the Highlanders from the neighbouring settlements began to arrive, and the influx continued until nearly eleven o'clock in the forenoon. The large inland harbour was dotted with boats, all directing their bows to the little capital of the district. Waggons rumbled from every village and farm for miles round. On proceeding, during the day, to a slightly rising ground which sloped in the opposite direction to the ascent, thereby concealing for a time every object on the other side, we at last reached the summit, on which a wooden pulpit was erected, from which a distinguished Highland clergyman from the old country was addressing the people in a most eloquent and impressive sermon,—a sight suddenly burst upon the view which, once seen, can never be forgotten. Several long tables, each having a hundred people or so seated by them, were pitched on the green grass, and, according to the forms of dispensing the communion in Scotland, they were covered with a pure white cloth; and bread on salvers, with cups of wine, were slowly passed down by the old "elders" who minister on such occasions. The silence when the voice of the clergyman ceased, and the communion proceeded, was profound. No sound of footsteps were echoed from the group, not a whisper, not a breath was audible, while a congregation of no fewer than four or five thousand Highlanders, old and young, sat on the grass, or stood reverently around the communicants. As we gazed upon those bronzed faces, every feature of which was Highland as the moorland heath; and watched the patriarchs, with their heads bent towards the table, and the "aged women," with their clean, old-fashioned caps, as they covered their eyes with handkerchiefs moist with tears contributed by the holiest memories of Calvary, mingled, doubtless, with those of communions long ago in the old church far away; when one beheld the young men and women who were growing up partakers of the same spirit; all seemed so home-like, so thoroughly Highland,—the language, the people, the psalm-tunes, the service,—that it required a glance at the boundless forest covering the hills, and losing itself in the distant horizon, to be brought back to the reality that all were exiles from their country, yet clinging to the language, the religious customs, and, better still, to the pure faith of their fathers. Could our readers only have seen that simple and holy communion, and heard the hymn of praise as it ascended from that multitude assembled in the mighty temple not made with hands, and witnessed the solemnised look of those humble worshippers, and felt the warm pressure from their honest hands, and listened to the expressions of deep gratitude poured forth from their full hearts, we feel assured that with us they would ever after feel an undying interest in whatever concerned the temporal or spiritual good of our noble Highlanders in the colonies of British North America.


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