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The Highlanders of Scotland
Part I - Chapter IV


The Northern Picts called themselves Gael, spoke the Gaelic Language, and were the real Ancestors of the modern Highlanders.

IN the preceding chapter it has been shewn that the revolution in 843, generally termed the Scottish conquest, made no alteration whatever in the state of the inhabitants of the northern or mountainous part of Scotland, but that its effects were confined exclusively to the southern and lowland districts. This important point being established, we come now more immediately to the question of the origin of the modern Highlanders, or that Gaelic race at present inhabiting these mountains. From the remarks which have been previously made on the early history of Scotland, it is plain the Highlanders must have been either the descendants of the northern Picts, or of the Scots of Dalriada who conquered the southern Picts, or else we must suppose them to have been a different people from either of these nations, and to have entered the country subsequently to the Scottish conquest; for these three suppositions manifestly exhaust all the theories which can be formed on the subject of their origin. The second of these theories is the one which has generally been maintained by historians, and the traditions at present current among the Highlanders themselves would rather support the latter. In another part of this work, the descent of the modern Highland clans from the Gaelic race which inhabited the Highlands of Scotland in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, will be fully shewn. But the present chapter will be devoted to the proof of the simple fact, that the Gaelic race were the descendants of the inhabitants of the same district in the ninth century, and consequently of the northern Picts. It would be inconsistent with the limits of this work to enter into any examination of the other two hypotheses, and it would also be unnecessary, for it is evident that if I am successful in establishing this great fact, the reputed origin of the Highlanders from the Scots, whether of Dalriada or of Ireland, as well as all the other systems which have been maintained, must be equally false.

      The descent of the Highlanders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries from the northern Picts of the ninth, may be proved in two ways: – First, by shewing that the northern Picts spoke the same language and bore the same national appellation as the Highlanders, and when we add to this the fact, that they inhabited the same territories at no very great distance of time, the presumption will be very strong that they must have been the same people. Secondly, by tracing the Highlanders up to the northern Picts, and  by shewing such a connexion between these two nations as to render it impossible that any foreign people could have settled in the Highlands between these periods.

      In the first place, they spoke the same language, and were known among themselves by the same national name. It is well known that the language spoken by the Highlanders of Scotland is a dialect of that great branch of the Celtic languages termed the “Gaelic,” and that the people using that language have always termed themselves Gael, while the Highlanders as belonging to that branch of the Celtic race designate themselves sometimes ad Gael and sometimes Albaniach or Gael Albanaich. These facts are admitted by every one.

      The first proof which I shall bring that the Picts were a Gaelic race, and spoke a dialect of the Gaelic language, is from the Welsh Triads The Triads appear distinctly to have been written previous to the Scottish conquest in the ninth century, and they mention among the three usurping tribes of Britain the “Gwyddyl Ffichti,” and add immediately afterwards, “and these Gwyddyl Ffichti are in Alban, along the shore of the sea of Llychlyn.” In another place, among the treacherous tribes of Britain, the same Triads mention the “Gwyddyl coch o’r Werddon a ddaethant in Alban,” that is “the Red Gwyddyl from Ireland, who came into Alban,” plainly alluding to the Dalriads, who were an Irish colony, and who have been acknowledged by all to have been a Gaelic race. It will be observed from these passages that the Welsh Triads, certainly the oldest and most unexceptionable authority on the subject, apply the same term of Gwyddyl to the Picts and to the Dalriads, and consequently they must have been of the same race, and the Picts a Gaelic people. Farther, the Welsh word “Gwyddyl,” by which they distinguish that race, has been declared by all the best authorities to be exactly synonymous with the word Gael, the name by which the Highlanders have at all times been distinguished, and the Welsh words “Gwyddyl Ffichti” cannot be interpreted to mean anything else than “ the “GAELIC PICTS,” or “PICTISH GAEL.” [It may be mentioned that these passages are taken from the originals in Welch, as published in that invaluable work the Welsh Archaeology.]

      Besides the passage above quoted, the Triads frequently mention the Picts, and at all times with the word “Gwyddyl” prefixed. Caradoc of Nantgarvan, a Welsh writer of the twelfth century, also frequently mentions the Picts by this title of “Gwyddyl Ffichti,” or Gaelic Picts.

      But the Welsh writers are not the only authorities who prove the Picts to have spoken Gaelic, for a native writer of the seventh century, and one who from his residence in the north of Scotland must have been well acquainted with their language, furnishes the most incontrovertible evidence that that language was a dialect of the Gaelic. Adomnan, it is well known, wrote the Life of Saint Columba in the seventh century, at a time when the Picts were at the height of their power. On one occasion he mentions that when Columba was in Skye, a Gentile old man, as he always terms the Picts, came to him, and having been converted, was baptized in that island. He then adds this passage: “qui holieque in ora certitur maritima fluviusque ejusdem loci in quo idem baptisma acceperat ex nomine ejus DOBUR Artbranani usque in holiernum nominatus diem ab accolis vocitatus.” [Adomnan, b. 1, c. 33] It so happens, however, that “Dobur” in Gaelic means “a well,” and that it is a word altogether peculiar to that language, and not to be found in any other. It has been fully proved in a preceding chapter, in discussing the extent of the Pictish territories, that the inhabitants of Skye must at that time have been Picts, and consequently it will follow of necessity from this passage that they used the Gaelic language.

      It may be proper here to notice an argument which has been frequently drawn from Adomnan, that the Picts and Scots must have spoken languages very different from each other. It has been urged as a conclusive argument by those who assert the language of the Picts to have been a Teutonic dialect, that on several occasions when Columba, who was an Irish Scot, addressed the Picts, he is described by Adomnan as using an interpreter. Now, although Columba is very frequently mentioned as conversing with the Picts, there are but two occasions on which any such expression is used, [Adomnan, b. 2, c. 33, 12.] and in both passages the expression of Adomnan is exactly the same, viz.: – “

Verbo Dei per interpretatorem recepto.” It will be remarked, that Adomnan does not say that Columba used an interpreter in conversing with the Picts, but merely that he interpreted or explained the word of God, that is, the bible, which being written in Latin, would doubtless require to be interpreted to them; and the very distinction which is made by Adomnan, who never uses this expression when Columba addresses the Picts, but only when he reads the word of God to them, proves clearly that they must have understood each other without difficulty, and that there could have been but little difference of language between the two nations of Picts and Scots.

      The third proof which I shall adduce to show that the Picts spoke a Gaelic dialect, and perhaps the strongest of all, is derived from the topography of the country. The territories of the Picts, as we have shewn in a preceding chapter, consisted of the whole of Scotland north of the Firths of Forth and Clyde, with the exception of the southern parts of Argyll. It has never been disputed that the names of the places in general throughout this territory can admit of being derived from some Celtic dialect only, and that those in the Highlands are exclusively Gaelic; even Pinkerton has confessedly failed altogether in his attempt to discover Teutonic etymologies for the topography of the country. It would therefore be but a waste of time to prove an assertion which has been so generally admitted; and it will only be necessary here to notice two objections which have been made to the conclusion to which we are naturally led by this fact, viz.: – that the Picts, who at all times inhabited the greater part of the north of Scotland, must have been a Gaelic people.

      In the first place, it has been said that there is a clear distinction perceptible between the names of places in the Highlands and those in the eastern or Lowland part of the country, and that while the former are unquestionably Gaelic, the latter can be traced to the Cymric or Welsh dialect only. From this supposed distinction, one author [Pinkerton.] concludes that the country must have been inhabited by British tribes before the arrival of the Caledonian or Picts, who are considered by jim as of Teutonic origin; and another author [Chalmers.] infers, from the same fact, that the Picts themselves were of Cymric or British descent. Nothing, however, can be more erroneous than the premises from which these conclusions are drawn; for an attentive examination of the topography of the two divisions of the country will shew that there is no difference whatever between the elements which compose the names of the natural features in both, and that those in the Lowlands are as purely Gaelic as those in the Highlands.

      The words which are principally dwelt upon as affording proof of a Welsh derivation are those syllables, Aber, For, Pit, Lan, Strath, & c., which so frequently enter into the composition of the names of places in Scotland. Now, nothing more will be requisite than to refer to the best Gaelic dictionaries, in order to shew that all these words are as purely Gaelic as they are Welsh; and a map of the Highland will prove distinctly that they are to be found as constantly occurring in the one part of the country as in the other. [The first of these words is the one which has been principally made use of in this argument, and it has been always assumed that Aber is a Welsh word corresponding exactly with the Gaelic word Inver, and that they are used synonymously in the different parts of Scotland. The best mode of ascertaining to what language a word properly belongs is by reducing that word to its primitives, and in whatever language the primitives are formed. It is from that dialect that the word must be held to have sprung. Now the Gaelic word inver is well known to be composed of the preposition ann and the primitive word bior, signifying water; but it is quite plain that that word bior also enters into the composition of the word aber, which is formed by the addition of the Gaelic word ath, signifying a ford, and consequently, according to the rules of philology, we must consider aber to be a Gaelic word; a fact which is asserted in the latest and best Gaelic dictionaries. With regard to all these disputed words, reference is made to the excellent Gaelic Dictionary published by the Highland Society of Scotland.]

      The second objection which has been made to the conclusion is a more serious one, for it has been asserted by one writer with great confidence, that the topography of Scotland has changed, and that the Gaelic names so universal over the country were introduced by the Scottish conquest in the ninth century. Of such a change of nomenclature he has, after much research, produced one solitary example. To this it might be a sufficient answer to remark, that history shews us that a change of population rarely if ever produces any change in the topography of the country, and that in particular no change is perceptible in Scotland during the last eight centuries, although the Lowlanders, a Teutonic race, have been in possession of the country which was previously inhabited by a Celtic race. But a still stronger answer will be found in the fact that a considerable number of the names of places in the Pictish territories previous to the Scottish conquest, have come down to us in the ancient chronicles, and that these names are invariably retained in the present day, and are of pure Gaelic origin. A remarkable instance of this occurs in the Pictish Chronicle. That ancient chronicle, in mentioning the foundation of the Church of Abernethy, describes the boundaries of the territory ceded to the Culdees by the Pictish king as having been “a lapide in Apurfeirt usque ad lapidem juxta Cairfuil, id est Lethfoss, et inde in altum usque ad Athan.” It is plain from the style of this passage that these names were used at that very time. and it is a remarkable fact that the same places are still known by these names, although slightly corrupted into those of Apurfarg, Carpow, and Ayton, and that the words are unquestionably Gaelic. It may also be remarked that the “Cairfuil id est Lethfoss” is exactly parallel to the instance so triumphantly adduced by the author above alluded to, [Inverin qui fuit Aberin.” – Chalmers.] and shews that a place may from various circumstances have two names, both of which can be traced to the same language. It will be unnecessary to produce other instances in proof of the fact that the names of places have almost universally remained unaltered to the present day from a very early period. A perusal of Adomnan’s life of St. Columba will of itself be sufficient to establish the fact in respect of Scottish topography, and numerous examples will be found in other sources. These three proofs then which we have brought forward suffice to shew that the Picts must have spoken a Gaelic dialect, and form a body of evidence much stronger than any which can generally be adduced regarding the language of a nation of which no written memorial has come down to us.

      With regard to their national appellation, it may be remarked that besides the evidence of the Welsh Triads, the Pictish Chronicle shows that they were known in the ninth century by the name of Gael. That chronicle mentions, in the reign of Donald, the brother and successor of Kenneth Mac Alpin, the following circumstance: – “In hujus tempore jura ac leges regni Edi filii Eadachi fecerunt Goedeli cum rege suo in Fothuirtabaict.” The kingdom of Edus or Edfin was, it is well known, the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada prior to the conquest. Now, if by the word Goedeli the Scots are meant, it is impossible to conceive how they could come to enact laws which were already the laws of their kingdom. The manner in which the passage is expressed plainly indicates that the Goedeli were different altogether from the regnum Edi, and that the Goedeli were enacting the laws of a kingdom different from their own. The transaction has also plainly the appearance of a species of treaty or compact between the Goedeli on the one hand and the king of the other. We know that the regnum Edi was the Scottish kingdom, and that Donald, at that time king, was of Scottish lineage, and a descendant of Edfin. The only mode by which an intelligible construction can be put upon his passage, is to suppose that the Goedeli here refers to the Picts, and that the Pictish Chronicle is describing a solemn agreement between the Picts and the Scottish king, by which they submitted themselves to him, and adopted many of the laws of the Scottish kingdom. Besides the general name of Gael, the Picts also, as well as the Highlanders, used the name of Albani or Albanaich; and an instance of this will be found in the descriptions given by the ancient Saxon writers of the Battle of the Standard in the year 1136, where the Picts of Galloway, who were placed in the front of the army, are mentioned, in charging the enemy, to have shouted as their war-cry, “Albanich, Albanich!”

      When we consider that the northern Picts have been proved to have inhabited the whole of the Highlands, with the exception of southern Argyll, even as late as the end of the ninth century, and that the Scottish conquest did not produce any change either in their situation or in their territories; and that it has also been proved that these northern Picts spoke the Gaelic language, and bore the appellation of Gael and Albanich as well as the Highlanders, the presumption is very strong indeed that they must have been the same people, and one which it would require evidence of no ordinary force to overturn. But in the second place, there is still another proof which remains to be adduced in order to show that the Highlanders were the descendants of the northern Picts, and that is, to trace the Highlanders as in possession of the Highlands as far back as we can, until we arrive at a period in which we had previously found the northern Picts inhabiting the same country; and thus the impossibility of the Highland clans having been descended from any other nation, would be evident.

      During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the north of Scotland, which at that time was unquestionably inhabited by a Gaelic race, was divided into several great districts; the principal of which were the districts of Athol, Moray, Ross, Garmoran, Mar, and Buchan. During this period also, we find, in the ancient chronicles, and in the Irish Annalists, very frequent mention made of certain persons bearing the title of Maormors, and generally acting an important part in the various events of Scottish history. It is of the greatest consequence for the due understanding of the history of this period, as will appear in the sequel, to ascertain exactly the nature of that title, and of the territorial divisions of Scotland at the time; and fortunately these ancient authorities have left us sufficient materials for that purpose. A comparison of the different facts recorded regarding that office, will lead to the following results.

      First. – The office of Maormor appears to have been next in dignity and power to that of the king; thus, the Annals of Ulster, in describing one of the numerous battles which took place between the Scots and the Danes in the tenth century, add “that many of the Scot were killed, but that neither king n or Maormor of them were lost in the conflict. [An. Ult. ad an. 917.] Besides this, the Pictish Chronicle frequently records the death of some of the Maormors as well as that of the king.

      Second. – We always find the title of Maormor associated and connected with one or other of the great districts into which Scotland was at that time divided; thus, the Annals of Ulster mention the Maormor of Moray, – the Pictish Chronicle, the Maormors of Angus, Atholl, &c. – the Annals of Innisfallen, the Maormor of Mar; and that connexion was apparently so close and intimate, as to enable them at times to wage independent war with the king of Scotland himself.

      Third. – Every notice regarding the succession of the Maormors which has reached us, proves that they observed a rule of succession strictly hereditary. Of this many examples might be given, but perhaps the strongest will be found in the succession of the Maormors of Moray.

      In 1032, the Annals of Ulster mention the death of Gilcomgain Mac Maolbride, Maormor of Mureve. Here we see that although one of the Maormors of Moray had obtained possession of the throne of Scotland, yet on his being driven from that prominent station, his son appears as Maormor of Moray. The history of the same family also shews very clearly that the succession to the dignity of Maormor was strictly a male succession, for in the beginning of the eleventh century, we find Malcolm Mac Maolbride, the Maormor of Moray, in possession of the throne of Scotland; and although it appears from the Sagas, that Sigurd, earl of Orkney, married Malcolm’s daughter, and that on Malcolm’s death. Thorfinn, earl of Orkney, his grandson, was his nearest heir according to feudal principals, yet we find that he was succeeded in Moray by his brother Gilcomgan Mac Maolbride, to whose posterity also his claim to the throne of Scotland descended.

      Fourth. – Not only were the Maormors so intimately connected with the great districts of Scotland as to shew that they must have possessed in them considerable power and extent of territory, but they also appear as the hereditary leaders of great tribes, as well as the hereditary governors of these districts. For in the year 1020, Tighernac mentions the death of Finlay Mac Ruairi, Maormor of the Clan Croeb, or sons of Croeb, by the children of his brother Maolbride. This id a very important fact, for it shews that the Gaelic population of the north of Scotland was divided into great tribes, corresponding to the great territorial division of the country; and that over each of these tribes, the Maormor of the district was hereditary lord, and consequently it follows from this fact, that the Maormors were of the same race with the people whom they governed.

      Fifth. – Further, this title of Maormor was quite peculiar to the Gaelic people, who at this period inhabited Scotland. It is impossible, on examining the history of this early period, to avoid being struck with this fact, and the remark has accordingly been very generally made by the later historians. It was altogether unknown among the Irish, although they were also a Gaelic people; for although Tighernac frequently mentions Maormors of Alban as being engaged in many of the feuds in Ireland, yet we never find that title given by any of the Annalists to an Irish chief. In Britain the title was confined to the north of Scotland, and although many of the Saxon and Norman barons and other foreigners obtained extensive territories in Scotland, and even at an early period not infrequently succeeded by marriage to the possessions and powers of some of the Maormors, yet we never find them appearing under that title. From this it is plain, that whenever we find a person bearing the title of Maormor, we may conclude that that person was chief of some tribe of the Gaelic race which inhabited the northern districts of Scotland at this period.

      Sixth. – The great territorial divisions of Scotland, the chiefs of which were termed Maormors, appear in the Norse Sagas under two names, Riki and Iarldom, of which the former was more peculiarly and exclusively applied to them. Thus, on one occasion it is said, that Sigurd had these Rikis in Scotland, Ros, Sutherland, Moray, and Dala. But Sigurd was also in possession of Caithness, which having belonged to the Norwegians for a long time, was not governed by a Maormor, and as that district is not included under the term Riki, it is plain that that term was applied only to the Maormorships, if I may so call them. With regard to the other term, Iarldom, the Orkney-inga Saga mentions, that Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, died possessed of the Hebrides, a great extent of territory in Ireland, and nine Iarldoms in Scotland; by these Iarldoms, the Maormorships only can be meant, and it will be observed, that in narrating the possessions of Thorfinn, that term is applied to the districts on the mainland of Scotland only. The Maormors themselves appear in the Norse Sagas under one name only, that of Scotajarl, and there is good reason for thinking that that title was applied to them exclusively.

      From the preceding observations upon the nature of the title of Maormor, and of the territorial divisions of Scotland in the eleventh century, we see that at that period the Gaelic inhabitant of the north of Scotland were divided into several great tribes, which corresponded exactly with the great territorial divisions of the country. We also see, that the Maormors of the different districts were the hereditary and native chiefs of these great tribes, and that that title was altogether peculiar to the Gaelic inhabitants of Scotland. The history of these Maormors, then, becomes a very important medium for ascertaining the earlier history of the Highlanders; for, whenever we find any of the northern chiefs mentioned in the history of Scotland as having this title, we may conclude with certainly, that the northern districts were at that time inhabited by the same Gaelic race whom we find in possession of them in the eleventh century. Independently of this, the particular history of some of the Maormors affords distinct evidence that the Highlanders inhabited the north of Scotland as far back as the middle of the tenth century, for the line of the Maormors of Moray can be distinctly traced as in possession of that district from the end of the eleventh century up to that period. The Maormors of Atholl also can be traced as far back, though not by such strong evidence as those of Moray, and likewise those of Mar.

      In the preceding chapter, it has been seen that there is distinct evidence of the possession of the Highlands by the northern Picts as late as the conquest of Thorstein, in the year 894; there is consequently a period of but fifty-six years between the last notice of the northern Picts and the earliest period to which the line of the particular Maormors can be traced, and any revolution by which the Highlanders, if they were a foreign race, could have obtained possession of the north of Scotland, must have taken place during that short period of fifty-six years. But we find mention made of the Maormors of Scotland at a much earlier period than even this; for the annals of Ulster mention them as holding the rank next to the king in the year 917. It is quite impossible to suppose, that during the short space of twenty-three years so very great a change could have taken place in the population of the northern districts, and that the northern Picts, who are found in almost independent possession of that part of Scotland, could have, during so short a time, been driven out of their territories, and a new race have come in their place; or that such an event, if it could have happened, would have escaped the notice of every historian. And this conclusion is also very strongly corroborated by the circumstance, that the Norse Sagas and the Irish Annals, which at all times mutually corroborate each other, and which together form the only authentic history of Scotland from the conquest of Thorstein in 894 down to the eleventh century, contain no hint whatever of any change in the population of the north of Scotland; and a perusal of the Sagas, which commence to narrate events in the north of Scotland in the very year in which we find the last mention of the northern Picts, will be sufficient to shew that no event of so very formidable a nature could have occurred without its having been mentioned by them.

      The history of the Maormors of Scotland then, forms a clue by which the Highlanders of the eleventh century can be distinctly traced up to the northern Picts of the ninth century, and when we add to this the facts that the northern Picts spoke the same language, bore the same national appellation, and inhabited the same territories as the Highlanders did, it is impossible that we can come to any other conclusion than that they were the same people.

      Having now concluded the chain of argument by which the true origin of the Highlanders of Scotland has been demonstrated it will be improper here to recapitulate shortly the different leading facts which have been established, and by which that origin has been determined.

      In the first place. – It has been shewn, that from the earliest period down to the end of the first century, that part of Scotland which extends to the north of the Firths of Forth and Clyde, was at all times inhabited by a single nation, termed by the Romans at first Caledonians, and afterwards Picts.

      In the second place. – It has been proved, that in the beginning of the sixth century, an Irish colony arrived in Scotland, and obtained possession of the southern part of Argyll, and that during a period of 340 years, the territorities [sic] and relative situation of the two nations of the Picts and Dalriads remained unaltered.

      In the third place. – It has been proved, that during this period the Picts were divided into two great nations, the Dicaledones, Cruithne, or northern Picts, and the Vecturiones, Piccardach, or southern Picts; that the northern Picts inhabited the whole of the mountainous part of the country, with the exception of the Dalriadic territories, consisting of southern Argyll alone, while the southern Picts occupied the plains; that in the year 843, the Dialradic Scots conquered the Piccardach or southern Picts, but that their conquest was confined to that branch of the Pictish nation alone; and that while the northern Picts probably assisted th Dalriadic Scots in that conquest, their situation was, at all events, not in any respect altered by it, but on the contrary, that they remained in full possession of the north of Scotland.

      In the fourth place. – We have proved that the northern Picts occupied the whole of the Highlands as late as the end of the ninth century; – we have shewn that they spoke the same language, and bore the same national name as the Highlanders did; – and lastly, we have traced the Highlanders as in possession of the Highland districts, up to the very period in which we had previously found these districts inhabited by the northern Picts.

      These facts then, supported as they are by evidence of no ordinary description, lead us to this simple result, that the Highlands of Scotland have been inhabited by the same nation from the earliest period to the present day. And that while the tribes composing that nation have uniformly styled themselves Gael or Albanich, they have been known to the numerous invaders of the country under the various appellations of Albiones, Caledonii, Picti, Dicaledones, Cruithne, Northern Picts, Reddschankes, Wild Scottis, and Highlanders.


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