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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Some Characteristics of the Highland Peasantry


I KNOW little from personal observation about the Highlanders in the far North or in the central districts of Scotland, but I am old enough to have very vivid reminiscences of those in the West; and of their character, manners, and customs as these existed during that transition period which began after "the '45," but has now almost entirely passed away with emigration, the decay of the "kelp" trade, the sale of so many old properties, and the introduction of large sheep farms, deer forests, and extensive shootings.

I have conversed with a soldier—old John Shoemaker, he was called—who bore arms under Prince Charlie. On the day I met him he had walked several miles, was hale and hearty though upwards of a hundred years old, and had no money save ten shillings, which he always carried in his pocket to pay for his coffin. He conversed quite intelligently about the olden time with all its peculiarities. I have also known very many who were intimately acquainted with the "chiefs" and "men" of those days, and who themselves had imbibed all the impressions and views then prevalent as to the world in general, and the Highlands in particular.

The Highlanders whom the tourist meets with now-a-days are very unlike those I used to know, and who are now found only in some of the remote unvisited glens, like the remains of a broken-up Indian nation on the outskirts of the American settlements. The porters who scramble for luggage on the quays of Oban, Inverary, Fort William, or Portree; the gillies who swarm around a shooting-box, or even the more aristocratic keepers—that whole set, in short, who live by summer tourists or autumnal sportsmen—are to the real Highlander, in his secluded parish or glen, what a commissionnaire in a hotel at Innspruck is to Hofer and his confederates.

The real Highland peasantry are, I hesitate not to affirm, by far the most intelligent in the world. I say this advisedly, after having compared them with those of many countries. Their good-breeding must strike every one who is familiar with them. Let a Highland shepherd from the most remote glen be brought into the dining-room of the laird, as is often done, and he will converse with ladies and gentlemen, partake of any hospitality which may be shown him with ease and grace, and never say or do anything gauche or offensive to the strictest propriety. This may arise in some degree from what really seems to be an instinct in the race, but more probably it comes from the familiar intercourse which, springing out of the old family and clan feeling, subsisted of old between the upper and lower classes. The Highland gentleman never meets the most humble peasant whom he knows without chatting with him as with an acquaintance, even shaking hands with him; and each man in the district, with all his belongings, ancestry and descendants included, is familiarly known to every other. Yet this familiar intercourse never causes the inferior at any time, or for a single moment, to alter the dignified respectful manner which he recognises as due to his superior. They have an immense reverence for those whom they consider "real gentlemen," or those who belong to the "good families," however distantly connected with them. No members of the aristocracy can distinguish more sharply than they do between genuine blood though allied with poverty, and the want of it though allied with wealth. Different ranks are defined with great care in their vocabulary. The chief is always called lord—"the lord of Lochiel," "the lord of Lochbuy." The gentlemen tenants are called "men"—"the man" of such and such a place. The poorest "gentleman" who labours with his own hands is addressed in more respectful language than his better-to-do neighbour who belongs to their own ranks. The one is addressed as "you," the other as "thou;" and should a property be bought by some one who is not connected with the old or good families, he may possess thousands, but he never commands the same reverence as the poor man who has yet "the blood" in him. The "pride and poverty" of the Gael have passed into a proverb, and express a fact.

They consider it essential to good manners and propriety never to betray any weakness or sense of fatigue, hunger, or poverty. They are great admirers in others of physical strength and endurance: those qualities which are most frequently demanded of themselves. When, for example, a number of Highland servants sit down to dinner, it is held as proper etiquette to conceal the slightest eagerness to begin to eat; and the eating, when begun, is continued with apparent indifference—the duty of the elder persons being to coax the younger, and especially any strangers that are present, to resume operations after they have professed to have partaken sufficiently of the meal. They always recognise liberal hospitality as essential to a "gentleman," and have the greatest contempt for narrowness or meanness in this department of life. Drunkenness is rarely indulged in as a solitary habit, but too extensively, I must admit, at fairs and other occasions—funerals, not then, but now happily excepted—when many meet together from a distance, with time on their hands, and money in their pockets.

The dislike to make their wants known, or to complain of poverty, was also characteristic of them before the poor law was introduced, or famine compelled them to become beggars from the general public. But even when the civilised world poured its treasures, twenty years ago, into the Fund for the Relief of Highland Destitution, the old people suffered deeply ere they accepted any help. I have known families who closed their windows to keep out the light, that their children might sleep on as if it were night, and not rise to find a home without food. I remember being present at the first distribution of meal in a distant part of the Highlands. A few old women had come some miles, from an inland glen, to receive a portion of the bounty. Their clothes were rags, but every rag was washed, and patched together as best might be. They sat apart for a time, but at last approached the circle assembled round the meal depot. I watched the countenances of the group as they conversed apparently on some momentous question. This I afterwards ascertained to be, which of them should go forward and speak for the others. One woman was at last selected; while the rest stepped back and hung their heads, concealing their eyes with their tattered tartan plaids. The deputy slowly walked towards the rather large official committee, whose attention, when at last directed to her, made her pause. She then stripped her right arm bare, and, holding up the miserable skeleton, burst into tears and sobbed like a child! Yet, during all these sad destitution times, there was not a policeman or soldier in those districts. No food riot ever took place, no robbery was attempted, no sheep was ever stolen from the hills; and all this though hundreds had only shell-fish, or "dilse," gathered on the sea-shore to live upon.

The Highlander is assumed to be a lazy animal, and not over honest in his dealings with strangers. I have no desire to be a special pleader in his behalf, notwithstanding all my national predilections in his favour. But I must nevertheless dissent to some extent from these sweeping generalisations. He is naturally impulsive and fond of excitement, and certainly is wanting in the steady, persevering effort which characterises his Southern brother. But the circumstances of his country, his small "croft" and want of capital, the bad land and hard weather, with the small returns for his uncertain labour, have tended to depress rather than to stimulate him. One thing is certain, that when he is removed to another clime, and placed in more favourable circumstances, he exhibits a perseverance and industry which make him rise very rapidly.

It must be confessed, however, that Highland honesty is sometimes very lax in its dealings with the Sassanach. The Highlander forms no exception, alas, to the tribe of guides, drivers, boatmen, all over Europe, who imagine that the tourist possesses unlimited means, and travels only to spend money. A friend of mine who had been so long in India that he lost the Highland accent, though not the language, reached a ferry on his journey home, and, concealing his knowledge of Gaelic, asked one of the Highland boatmen what his charge was. "I'll ask the maister," was his reply. The master being unable to speak English, this faithful mate acted as interpreter. "What will you take from this Englishman?" quoth the interpreter "Ask the fellow ten shillings," was the reply of the honest master, the real fare being five shillings. "He says," explained the interpreter, "that he is sorry he cannot do it under twenty shillings, and that's cheap." Without saying anything, the offer was apparently accepted; but while sailing across, my friend spoke in Gaelic, on which the interpreter sharply rebuked him in the same language. "I am ashamed of you!" he said; "I am indeed, for I see you are ashamed of your country; och, och, to pretend to me that you were an Englishman! you deserve to pay forty shillings—but the ferry, is only five!" Such specimens, however, are found only along the great tourist thoroughfares where they are in every country too common.

I have said that the Highlanders are an intelligent, cultivated people, as contrasted with that dull, stupid, 'prosaic, incurious condition of mind which characterises so many of the peasantry in other countries. Time never hangs heavily on their hands during even the long Nvintei evenings, when outdoor labour is impossible. When I was young, I was sent to live among the peasantry in "the parish," so as to acquire a knowledge of the language; and living, as I did, very much like themselves, it was my delight to spend the long evenings in their huts, hearing their tales and songs. These huts were of the most primitive description. They were built of loose stones and clay; the walls were thick, the door low, the rooms numbered one only, or in more aristocratic cases two. The floor was clay; the peat-fire was built in the middle of the floor, and the smoke, when amiable and not bullied by a sulky wind, escaped quietly and patiently through a hole in the roof. The window was like a porthole, part of it generally filled with glass and part with peat. One bed, or sometimes two, (with clean home-made sheets, blankets, and counterpane,) a "dresser" with bowls and plates, a large chest, and a corner full of peat, filled up the space beyond the circle about the fire. Upon the rafters above, black as ebony from peat-reek, a row of liens and 'chickens with a stately cock roosted in a paradise of heat.

Let me describe one of these evenings. Round the fire are seated, some on stools, some on stones, some on the floor, a happy group. Two or three girls, fine, healthy, blue-eyed lassies, with their hair tied up with ribbon snood, are knitting stockings. Hugh, the son of Sandy, is busking hooks; big Archy is pealing' willow-wands and fashioning them into baskets; the shepherd Donald, the son of Black John, is playing on the Jews' harp; while beyond the circle are one or two herd boys in kilts, reclining on the floor, all eyes and ears for the stories. The performances of Donald begin the evening, and form interludes to its songs, tales, and recitations. He has two large "Lochaber trumps," for Lochaber trumps were to the Highlands what Cremona violins were to musical Europe. He secures the end of each with his teeth, and, grasping them with his hands so that the tiny instruments are invisible, he applies the little finger of each hand to their vibrating steel tongues. He modulates their tones with his breath, and brings out of them Highland reels, strathspeys, and jigs,—such wonderfully beautiful, silvery, distinct, and harmonious sounds as would draw forth cheers and an encore even in St James's Hall. But Donald, the son of Black John, is done, and he looks to bonny Mary Cameron for a blink of her hazel eye to reward him, while in virtue of his performance he demands a song from her. Now Mary has dozens of songs, so has Kirsty, so has Flory,—love songs, shearing songs, washing songs, Prince Charlie songs, songs composed by this or that poet in the parish; and therefore Mary asks, What song? So until she can make up her mind, and have a little playful flirtation with Donald, the son of Black John, she requests Hugh, the son of Sandy, to tell a story. Although Hugh has abundance of this material, he too protests that he has none. But having betrayed this modesty, he starts off with one of those which are given by Mr Campbell, to whose adinirable and truthful volumes I refer the reader. [No man knows the Highlanders better than Mr Campbell—very few so well—and I am glad to quote his opinions. In the introduction to the "Highland Tales," he says: "I have wandered among the peasantry of many countries, and this trip but confirmed my old impression. There are few peasants that I think so highly of, none that I love so well. Scotch Highlanders have faults in plenty, but they have the bearing of Nature's own gentlemen—the delicate natural tact which discovers, and the good taste which avoids, all that would hurt or offend a guest. The poorest is ever the readiest to share the best he has with the stranger; a kind word kindly meant is never thrown away, and whatever may be the faults of this people, I have never found a boor or a churl in a Highland bothy."

The Highlander sees every year a numerous flood of tourists of all nations pouring through his lochs and glens, but he knows as little of them as they of him. The shoals of herring that enter Loch Fyne know as much of the dun deer on the hill side, as Londoners and Highlanders know of each other. The want of a common language here, as elsewhere, keeps Highlands and Lowlands, Celt and Saxon, as clearly separate as oil and water in the same glass." He remarks with equal truth regarding their stories: "I have never heard a story whose point was obscenity publicly told in a Highland cottage; and I believe that such are rare. I have heard them where the rough polish of more modern ways has replaced the polished roughness of `wild' Highlanders; and that where even the bagpipes have been almost abolished as profane. I have heard the music of the Cider Cellars in a parlour, even in polished England, where I failed to extract anything else from a group of comfortably dressed villagers."]

When the story is done, improvisation is often tried, and amidst roars of laughter the aptest verses the truest and most authentic specimens of tales, are made, sometimes in clever satire, sometimes with knowing allusions to the weaknesses or predilections of those round the fire. Then follow riddles and puzzles ; then the trumps resume their tunes, and Mary sings her song, and Kirsty and Flory theirs, and all join in chorus, and who cares for the wind outside or the peat-reek inside ! Never was a more innocent or happy group. This fondness for music from trump, fiddle, or bagpipe, and for song-singing, story-telling, and improvisation, was universal, and imparted a marvellous buoyancy and intelligence to the people.

These peasants were, moreover, singularly inquisitive, and greedy of information. It was a great thing if the schoolmaster or any one else was present who could tell them about other people and other places. I remember an old shepherd who questioned me closely how the hills and rocks were formed, as a gamekeeper had heard some sportsmen talking about this. The questions which were put were no doubt often odd enough. A woman, for example, whose husband was anxious to emigrate to Australia, stoutly opposed the step, until she could get her doubts solved on some geographical point that greatly disturbed her. She consulted the minister, and the tremendous question which chiefly weighed on her mind was, whether it was true that the feet of the people there were opposite to the feet of the people at home? and if so—what then?

There is one science the value of which it is very difficult to make a Highlander comprehend, and that is mineralogy. He connects botany with the art of healing; astronomy with guidance from the stars, or navigation; chemistry with dyeing, brewing, &c.; but "chopping bits off the rocks!" as he calls it,—this has always been a mystery. A shepherd, while smoking his cutty at a small Highland inn, was communicating to another in Gaelic his experiences of "mad Englishmen," as he called them. "There was one," said the narrator, "who once gave me his bag to carry to the inn by a short cut across the hills, while he walked, by another road. I was wondering myself why it was so dreadfully heavy, and when I got out of his sight I was determined to see what was in it. I opened it, and what do you think it was? But I need not ask you to guess, for you would never find out It was stones!" "Stones!" exclaimed his companion, opening his eyes. "Stones! Well, well, that beats all T ever knew or heard of them! and did you carry it?" "Carry it! Do you think I was as mad as himself? No! I emptied them all out, but I filled the bag again from the cairn near the house, and gave him good measure for his money!"

The schoolmaster has been abroad in the Highlands during these latter years, and few things are more interesting than the eagerness with which education has been received by the people. When the first deputation from the Church of Scotland visited the Highlands and Islands, in a Government cruiser put at their disposal, to inquire into the state of education and for the establishing of schools in needy districts, most affecting evidence was afforded by the poor people of their appreciation of this great boon.. In one island where an additional school was promised, a body of the peasantry accompanied the deputies to the shore, and bade them farewell with expressions of the most tender and touching gratitude; and as long as they were visible from the boat, every man was seen standing with his head uncovered. In another island where it was thought necessary to change the site of the school, a woman strongly protested against the movement. In her fervour she pointed to her girl and said, "She and the like of her cannot walk many miles to the new school, and it was from her dear lips I first heard the words of the blessed gospel read in our house; for God's sake don't take away the school! "Her pleading was suc cessful. Old men in some cases went to school to learn to read and write. One old man, when dictating a letter to a neighbour, got irritated at the manner in which his sentiments had been expressed by his amanuensis. "I'm done of this!" he at length exclaimed. "Why should I have my tongue in another man's mouth when I can learn to think for myself on paper? I'll go to the school and learn to write!" And he did so. A class in another school was attended by elderly people. One of the boys in it, who was weeping bitterly, being asked by the teacher the cause of his sorrow, ejaculated in sobs, "I trapped my grandfather, and he'll no let me up!" The boy was below his grandfather in the class, and having "trapped," or corrected him in his reading, he claimed the right of getting above him, which the old man resisted.

I may notice, for the information of those interested in the education of the Irish or Welsh-speaking populations, that Gaelic is taught in all the Highland schools, and that the result has been an immediate demand for English. The education of the faculties, and the stimulus given to acquire information, demand a higher aliment than can be afforded by the medium of the Gaelic language alone. But it is not my intention to discourse, in these light sketches, upon grave themes requiring more space and time to do them justice than my space can afford.

Another characteristic feature of the Highland peasantry is the devoted and unselfish attachment which they retain through life to any of their old friends and neighbours. An intimate knowledge of the families in the district is what we might expect. They are acquainted with all their ramifications by blood or by marriage, and from constant personal inquiries, keep up, as far as possible, a knowledge of their history, though they may have been out of the country for years. I marked, last summer, in the Highlands the surprise of a general officer from India, who was revisiting the scenes of his youth, as old men, who came to pay their respects to him, inquired about every member of his family, showing a thorough knowledge of all the marriages which had taken place, and the very names of the children who had been born. "I declare," remarked the general, "that this is the only country where they care to know a man's father or grandfather! What an unselfish interest, after all, do these people take in one, and in all that belongs to him! And how have they found all this out about my nephews and . nieces, with their children?" Their love of kindred, down to those in whom a drop of their blood can be traced, is remarkable enough, but not so much so as this undying interest in old friends, whether they be rich or poor. Even the bond of a common name—however absurd this appears—has its influence still in the Highlands. I remember when it was so powerful among old people as to create not only strong predilections, but equally strong antipathies towards strangers of whom nothing was known save their name. This is clanship fossilised. In the Highlands there arc other connexions which are considered closely allied to those of blood. The connexion, for instance, between children—it may be of the laird and of the peasant—who are reared by the same nurse, is one of these. Many an officer has been accompanied by his "foster-brother" to "the wars," and has ever found him his faithful servant and friend unto death. Such a one was Ewen M`Millan, who followed Col. Cameron, or Fassifern—as he was called, in Highland fashion, from his place of residence,—to whom Sir Walter Scott alludes in the lines

"Proud Ben Nevis hears with awe,
How, at the bloody Quatre Bras,
Brave Cameron heard the wild hurrah
Of conquest as he fell."

The foster-brother was ever beside his dear master, with all the enthusiastic attachment and devotion of the old clan times, throughout the Peninsular campaign. The 92d Regiment was commanded by Fassifern, and speaking of its conduct at the Nive, Napier says:—"How gloriously did that regiment come forth to the charge with their colours flying and their national music playing as . if going to review! This was to understand war. The man (Col. Cameron,) who at that moment, and immediately after a repulse, thought of such military pomp, was by nature a soldier." Four days after this, though on each of those days the fighting was continued and severe, the 92d was vigorously attacked at St Pierre. Fassifern's horse was shot under him, and he was so entangled by the fall as to be utterly unable to resist a French soldier, who would have transfixed hirn but for the fact that the foster-brother transfixed the Frenchman. Liberating his master, and accompanying him to his regiment, the foster-brother returned under a heavy fire and amidst a fierce combat to the dead horse. Cutting the girths of the saddle and raising it on his shoulders, he rejoined the 92d with the trophy, exclaiming, "We must leave them the carcase, but they will never get the saddle on which Fassifern sat!" The Gaelic sayings, "Kindred to twenty degrees, fosterage to a hundred," and "Woe to the father of the foster-son who is unfaithful to his trust," were fully verified in M'Millan's case. I may add one word about Colonel Cameron's death as illustrative of the old Highland spirit. He was killed in charging the French at Quatre Bras. The moment he fell, his foster-brother was by his side, carried him out of the field of battle, procured a cart, and sat in it with his master's head resting on his bosom. They reached the village of Waterloo, where M`Millan laid him on the floor of a deserted house by the way-side. The dying man asked how the day went, expressed a hope that his beloved Highlanders had behaved well, and that "his country would believe he had served her faithfully;" and then commanded a piper, who had by this time joined them, to play a pibroch to him, and thus bring near to him his home among the hills far away. Higher thoughts were not wanting, but these could mingle in the heart of the dying Highlander with "Lochaber no more." He was buried on the 17th by M'Millan and his old brave friend Captain Gordon —who still survives to tell the story—in the Allee Verte, on the Ghent road. The following year the faithful foster-brother returned, and took the body back to Lochaber; and there it lies in peace beneath an obelisk which the traveller, as lie enters the Caledonian Canal from the south, may see near a cluster of trees which shade the remains of the Lochiei family, of which Fassifern was a younger branch. [A very interesting memoir of Fassifern, from which these facts are taken, has been written by the Rev. A. Clerk, the minister of the parish in which the Colonel is interred. It is published by Murray & Son, Glasgow.]

It must, however, be frankly admitted that there is no man more easily offended, more thin-skinned who cherishes longer the memory of an insult, or keeps up with more freshness a personal, family, or party feud than the genuine Highlander. Woe be to the man who offends his pride or vanity!

"I may forgive, but I cannot forget!" is a favourite saying. He will stand by a friend till the last, but let a breach be once made, and it is most difficult ever again to repair it as it once was. The "grudge" is immortal. There is no man who can fight and shake hands like the genuine Englishman.

It is difficult to pass any judgment on the state of religion past or present in the Highlands. From the natural curiosity of the Highlanders, their desire to obtain instruction, the reading of the Bible in the schools, they are on the whole better informed in respect to religion than the poorer peasantry of other countries. But when their religious life is suddenly quickened it is apt to manifest itself for a time in enthusiasm or fanaticism, for the Highlander "moveth altogether if he move at all." The people have all a deep religious feeling, but that again, unless educated, has been often mingled with superstitions which have come down from heathen and Roman Catholic times. Of these superstitions, with some of their peculiar customs, I may have to speak in another chapter.

The men of "the '45" were, as a class, possessed of strong sympathies for Romanism or Episcopacy, as the supposed symbols of loyalty. I mentioned, in a former chapter, how the parish minister of that time had prayed with his eyes open and his pistols cocked. But I have been since reminded of a fact which I had forgotten, that one of the lairds who had "followed Prince Charlie," and who sat in the gallery opposite the parson, had threatened to shoot him if he dared to pray for King George, and, on the occasion referred to, had ostentatiously laid a pistol on the book-board. It was then only that the minister produced his brace to keep the laird in countenance ! This same half-savage laird was, in later years, made more civilised by the successor of the belligerent parson. Our parish minister, on one occasion, when travelling with the laird, was obliged to sleep at night in the same room with him in a Highland inn. After retiring to bed, the laird said, "O minister, I wish you would tell some tale." "I shall do so willingly," replied the minister; and he told the story of Joseph and his brethren. When it was finished, the laird expressed his great delight at the narrative, and begged to know where the minister had picked it up, as it was evidently not Highland. "I got it," quoth the minister, "in a book you have often heard of, and where you may find many other most delightful and most instructive stories, which, unlike our Highland ones, are all true—in the Bible."

I will here recall an anecdote of old Rory, illustrative of Highland superstition in its very mildest form. When "the minister" came to "the parish," it was the custom for certain offenders to stand before the congregation during service, and do penance in a long canvas shirt drawn over their ordinary garments. He discontinued this severe practice, and the canvas shirt was hung up in his barn, where it became an object of awe and fear to the farm servants, as having somehow to' do with the wicked one. He resolved to put it to some useful purpose, and what better could it be turned to than to repair the sail of "The Roe," which had been torn by a recent squall? Rory, on whom this task devolved, respectfully protested against patching the sail with the wicked shirt ; but the more he did so, the more the minister—who had himself almost a superstitious horror for superstition—resolved to show his contempt for Rory's fears and warnings by commanding the patch to be adjusted without delay, as he had that evening to cross the stormy sound. Rory dared not refuse, and his work was satisfactorily finished, but he gave no response to his master's thanks and praises as the sail was hoisted with a white circle above the boom, marking the new piece in the old garment. As they proceeded on their voyage, the wind suddenly rose, until the boat was staggering gunwale down with as much as she could carry. When passing athwart the mouth of a wide glen, which, like a funnel, always gathered and discharged, in their concentrated force, whatever squalls were puffing and whistling round the hills, the sea to windward gave token of a very heavy blast, which was rapidly approaching "The Roe," with a huge line of foam before it, like the white helmet crests of a line of cavalry waving in the charge. The minister was at the helm, and was struck by the anxiety visible in Rory's face, for they had mastered many worse attacks in the same place without difficulty. "We must take in two reefs, Rory," he exclaimed, "as quickly as possible. Stand by the halyards, boys! quick and handy." But the squall was down upon them too sharp to admit of any preparation. "Reefs will do no good to-day," remarked Rory with a sigh. The water rushed along the gunwale, which was taking in more than was comfortable, while the spray was flying over the weather bow as the brave little craft, guided by the minister's hand, lay close to the wind as a knife. When the squall was at the worst, Rory could restrain himself no longer, but opening his large boat knife, sprang up and made a dash at the sail. Whirling the sharp blade round the white patch, and embracing a good allowance of cloth beyond to make his mark sure, he cut the wicked spot out. As it flew far to leeward like a sea bird, Rory resumed his seat, and, wiping his forehead, said: "Thanks to Providence, that's gone! and just see how the squall is gone with it!" The squall had indeed spent itself, while the boat was eased by the big hole. "I told you how it would be. Oh! never, never, do the like again, minister, for it's a tempting of the devil!" Rory saw he was forgiven, as the minister and his boys burst into a roar of merry laughter at the scene.


 


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