As we continued our journey, we were at leisure to
extend our speculations, and to investigate the reason of those peculiarities by which
such rugged regions as these before us are generally distinguished.
Mountainous countries commonly contain the original, at least the oldest race
of inhabitants, for they are not easily conquered, because they must be entered by narrow
ways, exposed to every power of mischief from those that occupy the heights; and every new
ridge is a new fortress, where the defendants have again the same advantages. If the
assailants either force the strait, or storm the summit, they gain only so much ground;
their enemies are fled to take possession of the next rock, and the pursuers stand at
gaze, knowing neither where the ways of escape wind among the steeps, nor where the bog
has firmness to sustain them: besides that, mountaineers have an agility in climbing and
descending distinct from strength or courage, and attainable only by use.
If the war be not soon concluded, the invaders are dislodged by
hunger; for in those anxious and toilsome marches, provisions cannot easily be carried,
and are never to be found. The wealth of mountains is cattle, which, while the men stand
in the passes, the women drive away. Such lands at last cannot repay the expence of
conquest, and therefore perhaps have not been so often invaded by the mere ambition of
dominion; as by resentment of robberies and insults, or the desire of enjoying in security
the more fruitful provinces.
As mountains are long before they are conquered, they are likewise
long before they are civilized. Men are softened by intercourse mutually profitable, and
instructed by comparing their own notions with those of others. Thus Caesar found the
maritime parts of Britain made less barbarous by their commerce with the Gauls. Into a
barren and rough tract no stranger is brought either by the hope of gain or of pleasure.
The inhabitants having neither commodities for sale, nor money for purchase, seldom visit
more polished places, or if they do visit them, seldom return.
It sometimes happens that by conquest, intermixture, or gradual
refinement, the cultivated parts of a country change their language. The mountaineers then
become a distinct nation, cut off by dissimilitude of speech from conversation with their
Thus in Biscay, the original Cantabrian, and in Dalecarlia, the old
Swedish still subsists. Thus Wales and the Highlands speak the tongue of the first
inhabitants of Britain, while the other parts have received first the Saxon, and in some
degree afterwards the French, and then formed a third language between them.
That the primitive manners are continued where the primitive
language is spoken, no nation will desire me to suppose, for the manners of mountaineers
are commonly savage, but they are rather produced by their situation than derived from
Such seems to be the disposition of man, that whatever makes a
distinction produces rivalry. England, before other causes of enmity were found, was
disturbed for some centuries by the contests of the northern and southern counties; so
that at Oxford, the peace of study could for a long time be preserved only by chusing
annually one of the Proctors from each side of the Trent. A tract intersected by many
ridges of mountains, naturally divides its inhabitants into petty nations, which are made
by a thousand causes enemies to each other. Each will exalt its own chiefs, each will
boast the valour of its men, or the beauty of its women, and every claim of superiority
irritates competition; injuries will sometimes be done, and be more injuriously defended;
retaliation will sometimes be attempted, and the debt exacted with too much interest.
In the Highlands it was a law, that if a robber was sheltered from
justice, any man of the same clan might be taken in his place.
This was a kind of irregular justice, which, though necessary in
savage times, could hardly fail to end in a feud, and a feud once kindled among an idle
people with no variety of pursuits to divert their thoughts, burnt on for ages either
sullenly glowing in secret mischief, or openly blazing into public violence. Of the
effects of this violent judicature, there are not wanting memorials. The cave is now to be
seen to which one of the Campbells, who had injured the Macdonalds, retired with a body of
his own clan. The Macdonalds required the offender, and being refused, made a fire at the
mouth of the cave, by which he and his adherents were suffocated together.
Mountaineers are warlike, because by their feuds and competitions
they consider themselves as surrounded with enemies, and are always prepared to repel
incursions, or to make them. Like the Greeks in their unpolished state, described by
Thucydides, the Highlanders, till lately, went always armed, and carried their weapons to
visits, and to church.
Mountaineers are thievish, because they are poor, and having neither
manufactures nor commerce, can grow richer only by robbery.
They regularly plunder their neighbours, for their neighbours are
commonly their enemies; and having lost that reverence for property, by which the order of
civil life is preserved, soon consider all as enemies, whom they do not reckon as friends,
and think themselves licensed to invade whatever they are not obliged to protect.
By a strict administration of the laws, since the laws have been
introduced into the Highlands, this disposition to thievery is very much represt. Thirty
years ago no herd had ever been conducted through the mountains, without paying tribute in
the night, to some of the clans; but cattle are now driven, and passengers travel without
danger, fear, or molestation.
Among a warlike people, the quality of highest esteem is personal
courage, and with the ostentatious display of courage are closely connected promptitude of
offence and quickness of resentment. The Highlanders, before they were disarmed, were so
addicted to quarrels, that the boys used to follow any publick procession or ceremony,
however festive, or however solemn, in expectation of the battle, which was sure to happen
before the company dispersed.
Mountainous regions are sometimes so remote from the seat of
government, and so difficult of access, that they are very little under the influence of
the sovereign, or within the reach of national justice. Law is nothing without power; and
the sentence of a distant court could not be easily executed, nor perhaps very safely
promulgated, among men ignorantly proud and habitually violent, unconnected with the
general system, and accustomed to reverence only their own lords. It has therefore been
necessary to erect many particular jurisdictions, and commit the punishment of crimes, and
the decision of right to the proprietors of the country who could enforce their own
decrees. It immediately appears that such judges will be often ignorant, and often
partial; but in the immaturity of political establishments no better expedient could be
found. As government advances towards perfection, provincial judicature is perhaps in
every empire gradually abolished. Those who had thus the dispensation of law, were by
consequence themselves lawless. Their vassals had no shelter from outrages and
oppressions; but were condemned to endure, without resistance, the caprices of wantonness,
and the rage of cruelty.
In the Highlands, some great lords had an hereditary jurisdiction
over counties; and some chieftains over their own lands; till the final conquest of the
Highlands afforded an opportunity of crushing all the local courts, and of extending the
general benefits of equal law to the low and the high, in the deepest recesses and
While the chiefs had this resemblance of royalty, they had little
inclination to appeal, on any question, to superior judicatures. A claim of lands between
two powerful lairds was decided like a contest for dominion between sovereign powers. They
drew their forces into the field, and right attended on the strongest. This was, in ruder
times, the common practice, which the kings of Scotland could seldom control.
Even so lately as in the last years of King William, a battle was
fought at Mull Roy, on a plain a few miles to the south of Inverness, between the clans of
Mackintosh and Macdonald of Keppoch. Col. Macdonald, the head of a small clan, refused to
pay the dues demanded from him by Mackintosh, as his superior lord.
They disdained the interposition of judges and laws, and calling
each his followers to maintain the dignity of the clan, fought a formal battle, in which
several considerable men fell on the side of Mackintosh, without a complete victory to
either. This is said to have been the last open war made between the clans by their own
The Highland lords made treaties, and formed alliances, of which
some traces may still be found, and some consequences still remain as lasting evidences of
petty regality. The terms of one of these confederacies were, that each should support the
other in the right, or in the wrong, except against the king.
The inhabitants of mountains form distinct races, and are careful to
preserve their genealogies. Men in a small district necessarily mingle blood by
intermarriages, and combine at last into one family, with a common interest in the honour
and disgrace of every individual. Then begins that union of affections, and co-operation
of endeavours, that constitute a clan. They who consider themselves as ennobled by their
family, will think highly of their progenitors, and they who through successive
generations live always together in the same place, will preserve local stories and
hereditary prejudices. Thus every Highlander can talk of his ancestors, and recount the
outrages which they suffered from the wicked inhabitants of the next valley.
Such are the effects of habitation among mountains, and such were
the qualities of the Highlanders, while their rocks secluded them from the rest of
mankind, and kept them an unaltered and discriminated race. They are now losing their
distinction, and hastening to mingle with the general community.