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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LIII. - Rumbling Ethnological Remarks


ANCIENT Britons, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Norwegians, Danes, and Normans, were well shaken together and compounded to form the English nation. In rural and inland districts that composition remained substantially unaltered from the death of King Henry, the Conqueror's youngest son, in 1136, to 1800. The mixture varied in different localities. From Kent to Leith on the whole of the east coast of Great Britain, the Teutonic, Scandinavian, Frisian, and Danish element undoubtedly so markedly predominated that the aboriginal British element almost appeared to have been eliminated, which, however, could scarcely have been the case. Wessex also was pretty thoroughly Saxonised, and its kings were able to extend their sway over nearly all modern England, and to impose their language, by degrees, on their whole dominions. But Wales remained independent, and Devonshire, Cornwall, and Cumberland, and Westmoreland and Lancashire also, did not lose their native British population. On the West side, from the Channel to the rock of Dumbarton, the British element remained as predominant as the non-Celtic element was on the island's other side. How was it that the ancient Britons of the west side of the country so early adopted the language of their Saxon rulers, when they themselves continued to be the people of these districts much as they had been under the higher civilisation of Roman domination? Well, it is a characteristic of all the large branches of the Celtic stock to be able to acquire foreign languages with much facility, and to be proud of that gift of theirs, while it is otherwise with more stolid and stable descendants of the followers of Hengist and Horsa. During the Roman domination many of the ancient Britons had, no doubt, learned to speak and write the language of their rulers, and to neglect their own. A Saxonised Church was at the back of King Alfred, and of his less civilised and very truculent predecessors. But here it is to be noted that Alfred's language, once nationalised, held its ground firmly against a further overwhelming change. Although after the Conquest Norman French was, for upwards of three centuries, the language of court, feudal nobility, and legislation, Saxon stolidity, with its immovable tenacity, has to be thanked for giving the British Empire the language of Shakespeare. Upon Saxon stability, solidly resting upon limited practical aims and upon Celtic restlessness, backed by boundless imagination and initiative potentialities, the Norman Conquest deeply impressed the seal of cementing feudal order. Before, their common faith more than secular organisation, was the bond of union between badly amalgamated races with discordant traditions. The Church founded by Augustine and Paulinus was arrogant from the beginning. It absorbed the work of the lona missionaries in Northumbria, and trampled on the feelings and rights of the bishops and clergy of the old British Church, but it breathed into the races possessing England a sort of consolidating unity.

Setting aside the numerous and widely variegated incomers of recent time, and excepting the dalesmen of old Danish descent who still retain marked ancestral characteristics, there are not many among the native people of the West Riding of Yorkshire belonging to the white-skinned, fair-haired, blue- eyed type that Pope Gregory said should not be called Angles but Angels. The prevalent type everywhere is that of medium-sized, dark-eyed, brown or black-haired, alert and energetic people. This is particularly the case in the district which includes Leeds, Bradford, and Halifax, with their dependent townships, villages, and glens. Charlotte Bronte has embalmed, in her wonderful stories, the dialect of the English language which was spoken over that whole district in her time, and is yet spoken pretty largely, although board school teaching is killing it by degrees. It retained on the face of it marks of high antiquity. But language can pass from race to race like the bird from bush to bush; and, as said already, the Celtic races have always been ready learners of new languages. They have proved this in Great Britain and Ireland. Race types are a very different thing. The Brigantes of Yorkshire, who sent a colony called the "lan Breogan" to Ireland, probably in the time of Agricola, were submerged under Latin domination, Saxon rule, and Norman feudalism, but if one can judge from the looks of the native inhabitants of the West Riding, descendants of the submerged Brigantes always retained their position as the people of that part of the country, and in last century became masterfully resurgent.


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