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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XVIII. - The Parting of the Ways


OUR "Gray Egyptians," who suspected that more evil than good would come out of emotional religious revivalism, shook their old heads over the Reform Bill likewise. They were local weather seers who could read from signs in earth and sky, and the blowing of the wind, the manners of birds and animals, prophecies of coming weather, good and evil. Gloom on Coir'n Dubhaich portended a storm from the west. When the quickly circling shadow of a mist, which they called the "Fuathas," or Spirit of the Storm, was seen on the conical top of the Cairn Gorm, then very bad weather was to come from the east. As people of long personal experience and depositaries of old traditions, they assumed a modified right to make predictions in respect to the effect which innovations in Church and State would soon have on the welfare of Gaeldom. They were inconvincible Tories in their way, although they would not call themselves so. While admitting that he committed an error in making small holdings still smaller, they praised the old Marquis to the skies. They deplored his son's cruel evictions, but at the same time confessed the need for a thinning of the population on his estates, and indeed in most parts of the Highlands, since the congestion was daily increasing while the old sources of profit were daily diminishing. As for religious and civil rule, they felt sure there could never be a better one for Gaeldom than the one which had been in existence for fifty years, through the cordial co-operation of Church and State; the Church looking after morals, education, and the poor; and the landlords, as Justices of the Peace and Commissioners of Supply, looking after the preservation of civil order, roads, bridges, etc. But the Reform Bill brought Church and landlords to a parting of the ways. The harmonious co-operation was superseded by a separation which at first was reluctant and partial, but which the Disruption widened and which grew into completeness when household suffrage was extended to the country.

Old friendship was turned into incipient hostility by causes of offence which arose on both sides. Sir Walter Scott is credited with having been the first man to reveal the Highlands to the English- speaking public and the outer world. That revelation filled the heirs of Highland lords, chiefs, and lairds, who had been sent to be educated in England, with an exaggerated conceit of their own position because they took no notice of an essential condition which Scott had not overlooked, although he had failed to emphasise it sufficiently. "Shoulder to shoulder" union of Highland inhabitants of estates held on feudal tenure, with the legal individual proprietors, depended on proprietors' recognition of reciprocal duty towards their people. The idea of an unwritten compact older than and superior to feudal charters had come down to the children of the Gael from dim days of antiquity, and was the basis of their clannish readiness to follow in war, and obey in peace, the landlord who stood shoulder to shoulder with them as they did to him. As long as magnates were, through family councils of allied lairds, kept well linked with those below them, and as long as the lairds lived on their own estates most of the year, and for a change thought Edinburgh good enough for them, the idea of the unwritten compact was well kept in mind by the land-owning classes of all degrees. The new generation of land-owners in many cases lost sight of the old Celtic idea, and with that lost all the hold their elders had on the shoulder to shoulder fidelity of their inferiors. The men of the latter generation had no Gaelic, which their elders knew to be the "open sesame" for reaching Highland hearts; and many of those whose fathers were Church of Scotland men joined other religious bodies. That desertion was politically a mistake for them, whatever it might be religiously. In short with exceptions owners of Highland properties resolved after the passing of the Reform Bill to assert their full feudal rights and something more, to make their 50 tenants vote to order under the implied if not always clearly emphasised threat that if they disobeyed they would lose their farms at the end of their leases.

Throughout the long period of harmonious co-operation Highland private patrons had been doing their level best to select worthy men as presentees to their vacant charges, and with an irreducible mini- mum of inevitable mistakes their efforts were crowned with eminent success. As a matter of fact congregations had almost always a say in the selection. If there was a man they wished strongly to have for their minister they made their wishes directly known to the patron, or got some lairds or large tenants who were elders or members to speak to the patron, who generally acted on the request made to him. Patrons and congregations had both a tendency to. prefer, other things being equal, one who belonged to their district, and whose character and whose people were known to them. Local clannishness operated in all directions. As long as reasonable attention was paid to the wishes of the congregations, and patrons were fellow-worshippers, the theoretical objectionableness of patronage was veiled and almost forgotten by churchmen, and as the compromise system worked well, feudalists felt inclined to give up their fears of and hatred to the representative and essentially democratic character of Presbyterian organisation. Highland ministers took scarcely any share in party politics since the suppression of the '45 rebellion, but were great patriots, and as far as preaching went, Army and Navy recruiters at the time of the war with America, and above all during the life-and-death struggle with Napoleon. Shortly after the passing of the Reform Bill, they were hauled by their divided Lowland brethren and the hot-heads among themselves into party strife within their Church Courts ; and into fighting outside with feudalists, who wished to drive instead of lead the new voters, and with private patrons who now wished to stand on the strict right of presentation without regard to the wishes of congregations, with whom they no longer deigned to associate themselves in public worship. Blundering on the one side evoked answering blundering on the other side. In a short time the heather was on fire, and much of what would have been of inestimable value to the future welfare of Scotland perished.


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