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Home Life of the Highlanders 1400 - 1746
The Social Life of the Community
By W. C. MacKenzie, F. S. A. (Scot.)


PRIOR to 1746, the structure of society in the Highland township is not defined with the precision that one would desire, but its salient features are made sufficiently clear by various sources of information. Probably in certain respects, there has been no fundamental change during the last four centuries. In some of the outlying districts, particularly in the Islands, there are phases of life that have apparently remained unaltered since the Middle Ages. They are typified by the black houses," many of which are still to be found in the Long Island, though the type is gradually disappearing.

The commencement of the period under review was marked by unusual unrest in the Highlands. The clans were quarrelling among themselves, and they had a quarrel with the Central Government. These circumstances were normal, it is true, but the disorders at this period were abnormally widespread. The life of the townships must necessarily have been affected by such conditions. We know how easy it is to disorganize corporate life at the present day: how a comparatively unimportant event will throw the affairs of a village out of gear for a week or longer. In a much greater degree, the life of the Highland townships was disorganized by constant’ drains for clan service in the neighbourhood of the tribal lands, and still more, for service at a distance from home. These interruptions, while varying in their frequency as in their power of dislocation, continued throughout the period covered by the years 1500 to 1746, and exercised considerable influence on the social development of the people.

The social development did not proceed on lines of unbroken continuity. There were periods of retrogression as well as normal progression; and some of the changes were permanently for the worse. The gradual alteration that took place in the relations between the chiefs and their clansmen was a modifying factor of considerable weight. As the power of the chiefs increased, the independence of the townships diminished. This shifting of tribal influence necessarily affected the economic balance; and where a disturbance of economic equilibrium takes place, social changes are sure to follow. Religious agencies also came into play. The tide of the Scottish Reformation reached the hills slowly, and then only partially, yet it left its mark on village life in no uncertain way. But it was education that finally transformed, very gradually, but none the less effectively, the outlook of the villages; and education was in its swaddling-clothes before Culloden was fought. The collapse of the ‘45 changed everything. Neither in the castle, nor the farm, nor the cottage were things ever quite the same again.

In gauging the normal trend of township life, we must beware of placing too much faith in general statements. For example, one reliable account describing social conditions at the end of the seventeenth century, mentions cases of death from famine having occurred; and well-authenticated cases of "exposing" newly-born children would appear to point in the same direction. But another equally reliable account, written a few years later, makes the positive assertion that provision had to be made somehow for every member of the clan. At the first glance, these statements appear to be contradictory, for, obviously, in normal circumstances, no clansman could be allowed to die of starvation, had there been a fixed principle that provision must be made for every unit of the tribe, however humble. On looking more closely into the matter, however, it would appear that the apparent discrepancy in these accounts does not offer a real difficulty. The cases of famine occurred in a district where the majority of the people bore different names from that of the proprietor and his kin; and the clan obligation is thus excluded. Also, deaths from famine may have taken place in exceptional circumstances (such as a complete failure of crops), which no ordinary care could have averted. A principle is not vitiated by exceptions, and it is certain, as shown by concrete cases, that, whether general in the Highlands or not, the principle to which allusion has been made was actually in operation. This was perhaps the most beneficent aspect of the clan system; and thus, although in some ways the system directly contributed to the impoverishment of the country, it provided a counterpoise of substantial value.

Evidences of general poverty prior to the middle of the eighteenth century are not wanting, but as will be shown, they admit of qualification. Bleeding cattle occasionally for the purpose of mixing the blood with meal does not necessarily furnish proof of poverty, though the custom seems to point that way. Spenser noticed precisely the same custom among the Irish peasantry of the sixteenth century. There were, of course, periods of temporary abundance after cattle forays, or successful campaigns in the Low Country, or affairs like the raid on the Whigs by the Highland Host in the seventeenth century. On those occasions, all ranks of the community necessarily shared, directly or indirectly, in the plunder. But periods of abundance were followed by periods of equally accentuated scarcity. There were no steadily remunerative industries to maintain an even standard of comfort. There were no manufactures to employ the willing and able-bodied retainers, or the lazy hangers-on to the tribal skirts. Conspicuously lacking, in short, were all the elements that enter into the composition of material prosperity. Of the laws of moral and spiritual welfare, the clansmen had a code of their own. The ethics of cattle-stealing troubled them not at all. "The animals," they said, "were made by God; they derive their food direct from God’s pastures, on which man has expended neither labour nor money; therefore the animals are the common property of mankind." The argument has since become fairly familiar in other forms, but the Highlanders of the clan days had an uncomfortable way of putting their theories into practice, thus distinguishing them from most of their law-abiding doctrinaire successors. Therefore, when we see the word "thieves" applied to the pre Culloden Highlanders (the most common epithet of Whig writers), we must accept the word with some reservation. Undeniably they were thieves according to Statute. In their own view, however, they were political economists, giving logical expression to their tenets. Incidentally, these tenets conflicted with the law of the land, and the practice of civilized peoples; but they defied the law of the land and they despised the practice of civilized peoples. In certain conceivable states of society, they might have passed for social reformers, but in Stuart and Guelph times their doctrines met with little appreciation, and their practices with no favour at all. They were strong believers in reciprocity as a factor in balancing accounts. "If," they argued, "we steal our neighbours’ cattle to-day, our neighbours will steal ours tomorrow, and so we are quits; and as for the Sasgunnaich (Lowlanders), well, their country belonged to our forefathers, so it is a land where every Highlandman can take his prey."

But if they stole cattle, they also bred them. Breeding cattle was their main industry, and it cannot be called an altogether reliable source of revenue. The villages emptied themselves in summer into the shielings on the moors, where the cattle were fed on the juicy herbage, and fattened for the markets of Crieff, or Falkirk, or Stirling, or even the North of England. Good prices were sometimes obtained for cattle and horses sent to the southern markets, but the middleman (the drover), took care to skim the cream off the profit.

There was not much profit from agriculture, for reasons which will appear. The main crops were barley and oats, with occasional patches of rye. In spring there was activity in the clachan preparing the soil for the crops. The long-continued use of the cas-chrom (literally "crooked foot"), a spade-plough of the most primitive kind, typified the backward state of agriculture generally, though in some districts it was quite well adapted to the shallow nature of the soil. The treatment of the crops after harvesting was not less primitive. The wasteful custom of "graddaning"—i.e. burning off the husk and thus recovering the berry—lingered in some parts long after the middle of the eighteenth century, in spite of the belated provision of mills. Potatoes, now so important an article of food in the Highlands, did not come into general use until the second half of the eighteenth century, though they were known in some parts as early as the seventeenth century. When there was a general failure of crops, the condition of the people was sometimes desperate.

The food of the township varied with the seasons. Bread and brochan (i.e. oatmeal porridge), with occasionally a little meat, formed the staple dish in spring. In summer, when life in the village was more or less a sleepy holiday, with exciting interludes, milk and whey mixed together was the main diet, though in the Isles the fare was usually more substantial. Winter brought a fuller diet. Butter and cheese were brought out of the stores; the flesh of cattle, sheep, or goats—varied, in the Isles, by whale and seal-steaks—also formed part of the general fare, together with the staple food of bread and brochan. Fish were, of course, plentiful on the coast, and most of the rivers were well stocked with salmon and trout.

An Englishman, the critical Burt, remarked on the fact that some of the great men in the Highlands showed at once their pride and their poverty by dining, when by themselves, on pickled herrings, though their tables were loaded with good things when they had guests. Perhaps they liked pickled herrings; why not? They must have had a surfeit of salmon. In any case, it would have been strange hospitality to give their guests the pickled herrings that they disliked, and keep for their own use the salmon that their guests wanted. Remembering that poverty is a relative term, we must make allowance for the fact that, when used about the Highlanders by well-fed Englishmen like Burt (who obviously liked a good dinner), the word may bear an interpretation wholly different from that which would be placed upon it by the natives themselves. If, as was undoubtedly the case, the clansmen found themselves sometimes short of even the necessaries of life, it does not follow that the extreme simplicity of their normal diet betokened poverty in the strict sense of the word. Perhaps they liked the simple diet, just as their masters may have liked pickled herrings. But whether they liked it or not, they were probably as little the worse for it (when they had enough to satisfy their hunger) as their gentry were for eating herrings, pickled or fresh.

Herrings might have been a highly lucrative source of revenue to the villages on the coast, had the natives received proper instruction and encouragement. The Scots taught the Dutch how to fish scientifically, and the Dutch proved such apt pupils as to excel their teachers. They invaded the Scottish fisheries, and were sometimes emboldened to trespass within the prescribed limits until James the Fifth taught them a severe lesson. A number of Dutch trespassers caught iii the Firth of Forth were promptly decapitated, and a barrelful of their heads, with cards bearing their names affixed to their foreheads, was sent to Holland as a warning to their compatriots. This was discouraging, but it did not prevent the Dutch from discovering and profiting by the rich harvest of fish in the West Highlands and Isles. They reaped the reward of their enterprise, and to do them justice, they showed a greater readiness to impart their knowledge and to share their profits with the natives than did their rivals of English and Lowland Scottish nationality, who were jealous of the Dutch and contemptuous towards the natives. The latter showed their resentment by hampering the operations of their countrymen, and harassing them at every opportunity. The retaliation that followed widened the breach still further. had cordial co-operation been established between them, instead of a deep-seated mutual hostility, the social and economic conditions of the villages on the West Coast would have been vastly improved during the seventeenth century. Whatever good was accomplished, was due mainly to the Dutch, who did something to promote the prosperity of Stornoway, the principal town on the western seaboard— a place, it may be remarked, that owed its origin as a burgh to a chartered gang of Fife filibusters.

Those towns in the Eastern Highlands that were endowed with the privileges of Royal Burghs, had at one time a monopoly of trade in the North, Inverness, particularly, having grown wealthy on exports of corn and fish. But when the privileges of the Royal Burghs of Scotland were curtailed, the trade of those in the North, equally with those in the South, was crippled, and the commercial prosperity of the Highland villages generally was correspondingly enhanced. The Isles commenced to ship produce to the markets direct, chiefly to Glasgow, Morayshire, and Aberdeenshire, the two latter places being reached by horseback from the West Highlands.

More corn could have been spared locally for bread, or for export, had the people continued to be the water-drinkers they are reported to have been in the sixteenth century. But there is no evidence of their sobriety in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the contrary, indeed, is emphatically the case. Much of their corn was used for brewing ale and distilling whisky. Large quantities of wines, mainly claret, were imported from France, and the cheapness of this wine is apparent from the fact that it was largely consumed, not merely by the chiefs and gentry, but by the common people as well. Usquebaugh (aquavitae)—a word that was afterwards abbreviated and Englished as "whisky "—gradually displaced wine and ale (including the ale brewed from the young tops of the heather), as the drink of the Highlands and Isles. The much-quoted Martin tolls us of a fearsome "stop-the-breath" whisky, four times distilled from oats, that was used in the Isles at the end of the seventeenth century; its strength was such that it was a danger to life if taken neat. A milder brand, thrice distilled, was called trestarig, a compound word which I have never seen explained. It appears to have been of Teutonic origin, meaning, literally, "protection-spirit" (Dan. and Sw. trost—comfort or protection, and Dan. arak—distilled spirit). Arrack, a word with which everyone who has lived in the East is familiar, is thus found with a like signification in the Outer Hebrides. The climate was certainly damp, and so the Hebrideans sought a counteracting agency in trestarig. The excuse, though not the word itself, is still heard.

During the whole of the period covered by this review, it is evident that hard drinking was the rule in the Highlands and Isles. The instructive Statutes of lena throw a clear light on the prevalence of this habit, which was widespread and deep-seated at the beginning of the seventeenth century. A few years later, the Privy Council of Scotland took the problem in hand, and tried to solve it by a succession of repressive Acts. According to these Acts, much of the destitution among the common people, and the prevalence of theft to relieve the bare necessities of life, were directly attributable to excessive drinking. The reduced scale of consumption laid down by the Council for the principal chiefs in the West, i~ so liberal as to indicate a capacity for liquor that seems abnormal at the present day; but it must be remembered that the scale of hospitality was equally generous. Feasts lasted for days at a time. In some respects, they show a striking similarity to those described in the Sagas of Northern Europe. But I have nowhere observed that the highland chiefs and their dependants followed the example of the fierce Vikings in being addicted to the playful habit of breaking one another’s heads by throwing knuckle-bones about promiscuously. The Privy Council finally prohibited the importation of wines to the Isles and their consumption by the people, subject to the scale laid down by the Council for the chiefs and the gentry. This prohibition stimulated the increased distillation of whisky, which thus firmly established itself as the "wine of the country."

In the eighteenth century, feasts were less protracted and originated fewer disorders. But the employment of men whose special function it was to bear off inebriated guests to bed, in chairs to which short poles were attached, is a fact that does not encourage the belief that the era of temperance had arrived, even a century after the passing of the Council’s drastic Acts. And yet the people seem to have lived to a good old age; in some cases, indeed, to an exceptional age. An English visitor (Captain Dymes) to Lewis at the middle of the seventeenth century, tells us that the inhabitants had "lustie and able bodyes," and declares, on the authority of the inhabitants, that some of their number were centenarians; others had reached the age of one hundred and twenty; while there was one person then living who was "a hundred and fower-score yeares of age." More than a century and a half later, Martin relates similar instances of longevity in the Island of Jura. Allowing for the exaggeration of local patriotism, it would certainly appear that in spite of drink, dirt, the absence of doctors and medical comforts, and the frequency of sudden and violent death, the "expectation of life, in actuarial language, was high. That the people of the townships had their share in the festivities of the gentry can easily be shown, though the claret probably had a way of remaining at the head of the table, while the less favoured guests at the foot regaled themselves on small ale. But if the chiefs as a body possessed the diplomatic skill of the celebrated Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, in managing their humbler dependants, neither questions of precedence (a delicate point), nor discrimination in liquors can have presented difficulties. The soothing word "cousin," diplomatically employed, was sufficient to place every guest on an equality with his neighbour.

But amusements of a more intellectual character than eating and drinking, normally occupied the evenings of the townships, especially in the Isles. The ceilidh is an institution as old as human society. By its nature, it is peculiarly adapted to isolated communities, tenacious of tradition, and fond of social intercourse. Round the peat fire in the Highland cottage were gathered on winter nights the tellers of traditional tales, and the singers of ancient songs, and the askers of cunning riddles. Nightly, in the Isles more particularly, the heroic age was lived over again by a recital of the deeds of Fionn and the Feen. Grey-haired men, ordinarily reticent of speech and prosaic of manner, quoted Ossian with an eloquence and a fulness and a certainty that would have abashed Stern and rejoiced the heart of Blair. To the people gathered round the fire, fairies and giants had a real existence (far from being euhemerists, they were fantasts), and they fervently believed in witchcraft with the rest of the nation. They had a genuine taste for poetry; a gift of humour that amused, and a gift of satire that was dreaded. The crop of bards, good and bad, was prolific. As they dreaded satire, so the people liked praise,—like the rest of us. Those of their ministers of religion and their schoolmasters who studied human nature were, in later times, able to turn to good account the sensitiveness of the people, alike to ridicule and encouragement. Thus they passed their evenings in the township, not merely harmlessly, but profitably, unless indeed the "tales of old" had a tendency to create a superfluously pugnacious atmosphere.

The music of the clarsach, or harp, and at a later period, the bagpipe, the fiddle, and the Jew’s harp—an instrument of quite respectable antiquity—varied the proceedings at the ceilidh, and the young people danced whenever there was an opportunity of dancing. Nor were the listeners to the sgeulachdan merely passive participants in the proceedings. They followed the story with keen interest, and afterwards discussed its merits intelligently. While they listened, those of the men who were industrious employed themselves in making baskets, or mending nets, or twisting thatch ropes, while the hands of the women (then, as now, the better workers of the two sexes) were never idle: they were spinning, or carding, or mending, or knitting. The faint click of their needles mingled with the suppressed giggles of the couple in the corner, telling one another the old tale that is always new. As an offset against this picture, we have others of men whose faces were blackened by brooding for hours over the peat fire, and the general trend of whose lives was on no higher plane, apparently, than that of the cattle dwelling under the same roof. In this, as in other respects, the life of the township must be measured by an average standard. Some villages were gayer than others, and some villagers were more intelligent than others. Always there were these distinctions, as always there will be, but a broad view induces the belief that the ordinary and average life of the people, notwithstanding their hardships, was fuller of joyousness in the first half, than it was in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The sons of the chiefs and their near relatives were frequently sent out to fosterage, a custom common to Celts and Teutons alike. The origin of the custom is lost in the mists of history, but its main purpose is sufficiently clear. The lad’s education was undertaken by a man, usually of rank, but always of renown, with whose characteristics it was hoped that he would be imbued, and whose example it was desired that he should emulate. The Northern Sagas arc full of the custom, and its sacred and binding character is amply illustrated by the literature of Scandinavia. Both there and in’ the Highlands, the mutual attachment of foster-brothers was a synonym for faithful devotion; and in both countries the compact entered into by foster-brothers was sealed by the commingling of their blood. "Another for Hector "—to use the words of the seven devoted brothers at the battle of Inverkeithing, who sacrificed themselves to save young MacLean—" Another for Hector" is a formula that represents fosterhood at its highest in the Highlands. To be sure, it was sometimes a sufficiently commonplace bond, as shown by some deeds of fosterage that are extant. The education and upbringing of the boy were entrusted for a specific consideration, duly set forth in a contract, by a family that may have wished to avoid the trouble and expense of his training, to a family that conceivably would have preferred, had they dared, to decline the honour of undertaking the task. But undoubtedly, both in the Highlands and in Ireland, where the same custom was observed, it was generally a prized privilege to have the fosterage of the son of a great chief, or even of a chieftain (or lesser chief), if of good lineage; and the advantages that accrued to fosterers and fostered alike were considered to be substantial.

Fosterage, at any rate, served the purpose of binding the different classes of the community together in a way that was mutually serviceable, both in peace and war. When the heir to the chiefship was called upon to display his prowess in the creach, or open foray, the young men who accompanied him were frequently the village lads whose athletic prowess he had tested in many a friendly contest at running, and leaping, and swimming, and fencing, and wrestling.

The marriage customs in the Highlands had some features in common (e.g. "Penny weddings ") with those in the Lowlands, but certain of them were distinctively heather-bred. "Hand-fast" marriages, which gave the bridegroom, for well-defined reasons, the option of discarding his bride after a twelvemonth’s union, did not originate in the highlands, but the custom lingered there after it had disappeared elsewhere. The gift of a band of lusty young men, who became incorporated in the husbands clan, was a frequent addition to the dowry of a chieftain’s daughter; and a later provision was "half of a Michaelmas moon," an acceptable marriage portion in the Border country, as well as in the Highlands— wherever, indeed, the night plunder typified by the Michaelmas moon was a marketable commodity.

The betrothal of a village couple was accompanied by much formality, the closing phases of which, mellowed by a cask of whisky, took place on the Hill of Betrothal possessed by every self-respecting parish. The strikingly unconventional mode of courtship known elsewhere as "bundling" was frequently followed in the Highlands. Wedlock was held in high esteem, and early marriages were the rule. Wedding presents of a mixed character were given to the young couple with a lavish hand. The guests brought their own eatables and drinkables to the wedding feast. The marriage ceremony was followed by riotous rejoicings, prolonged to a late hour. Dancing outside to the skirl of the bagpipes, and inside to the scraping of the fiddle, was kept up until morning and exhaustion brought the revelry to an end, only to be renewed frequently on the following day. Some of the Highland chiefs were professional match-makers who found husbands for disconsolate widows and wives for lonely widowers, probably with excellent results. But few of the people could have been so ingenuous as the native of Rona who commissioned a well-wisher to buy for him a wife in Lewis for a shilling!

The grief that followed a death in the clachan was never allowed to interfere with the exercise of hospitality towards the neighbours. Hospitality, of course, was a virtue not peculiar to the Highlands; and it has generally been found in an accentuated form among nations segregated from the rest of the world. In spite of its frequent abuse by corners (in slang English, "spongers"), it withstood in the Highlands the deadening tendency of commercialism longer than in any other part of the kingdom. The sympathetic friends who sat up at a "wake" were never stinted in food or drink,—.especially drink,—and they danced through the night, the ball being opened by the nearest relative of the deceased. Tears and laughter were mingled together: sorrow and mirth mixed with a sensuous celebration of the virtues of the dead. The coronach,—a lament, combined with an eulogium, wailed by women-mourners at the funeral of a person of distinction—was a posthumous mark of respect that was much coveted. Heavy drinking (and heavy speeches in the case of the gentry) after a funeral was common, and until the nineteenth century it occasionally happened that some of the mourners, helplessly drunk, were carried home on the bier. The chiefs frequently profited by the death of their tenantry, one of the many forms of exaction being the system of caips, which was a sort of death-duty, the chief taking possession of the best cow, or ox, or horse, of the dead tenant.

In the Isles, ancient customs and traditions persisted after they had died out on the mainland. This was due to their greater isolation, although before roads were made in the mainland, Lewis was more accessible than Lochaber. When General Wade planned his roads after the risings of 1715 and 1719, he put the clock of civilization ahead for a full century. Primarily designed for military and police work, and their construction at first resented by the people, these roads became the channel of intercourse between clan and clan, township and township. By dissipating suspicions, they welded together, slowly but surely, the Highland ‘communities into a coherent nation. Gradually, too, they helped to change the whole face of the country by becoming alike the allies and the avenues of religious and secular instruction. By linking the Highlands with the Lowlands, and the parishes in the Highlands with one another, roads played a great part in removing the isolation which had previously accentuated clan characteristics, fostered clan antipathies, restricted the scope of marriage, and stereotyped local habits, customs, and prejudices. Before roads were made, the physical difficulties alone that confronted warring clans could only have been surmounted under the stimulus of a double-distilled dose of original sin, which expressed itself in a pugnacity that was uncurbed and uncurbable. The periodical fairs held at Inverness and other burghs were only rendered possible by the exhilarating prospect they offered of a bonnie tuilzie to enliven the proceedings. When the clans got to know one another better by means of the Stuart risings, Wade’s roads, and other agencies, they discovered the common possession of hitherto unsuspected virtues and hitherto misunderstood sympathies. There were frequent lapses from the bonds of amity signed by the chiefs and the declarations of friendship Sworn by their followers; but the atmosphere was divested of a good deal of its sulphur, in consequence of a better knowledge of one another and a fuller comprehension of common aspirations.


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