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Old World Scotland
Chapter XII. The Cateran


THE original roles of Saxon and Celt in Scottish history cannot now be exactly determined. The annals of these early centuries are meagre, and perplex more than they enlighten. At first the Celt had probably the advantage of a superior civilisation, but it was apparently incapable of expansion and development. His romantic and rigid attachment to ancestral habits made him unfit in the long run to cope with the prosaic but practical Tenton. How far he held his own in the Lowland regions as regards the mere possession of the soil is one of the puzzles of history; but here at least his individuality, alike as regards language, customs, and institutions finally succumbed to the influence of alien races. South and east of the Grampians the Celtic civilisation became extinct ; but the wild and savage region behind—difficult of access and presenting no temptation to colonist or raider—remained the inviolate home of a race which retained its purity of descent and its primitive civility for ages.

Scenery, climate, and the rigour of his surroundings no doubt in the long rim stamped their impress on the character and habits of the Colt as on his physical frame; but if they affected his barbaric peculiarities it was chiefly to accentuate and confirm. In the world beyond his mountains he had nor lot nor part. Dim echoes of its movemens, of its wars and revolutions, may have reached his reclusion, but they were soon forgotten as "a tale that is told"; the seas brought him neither braveries nor emasculating comforts; the busy industries, the material wealth of the Sassenach, he held in scorn ; his faint con- tact with the arts of modern civilisation only caused him to cling more fondly to his pristine usages. But his mode of life had at least the merit of untainted simplicity. In diet, habit, and house he—as Buchanan, Leslie, and Lindsay of Pitscottie testify—observed "the ancient parsimony." True, in some districts the rule of the nobles had partially broken up the clan system when these authors wrote, but even then there were regions under nominal rule of the nobles where it flourished in as full vitality as ever. Wild herbs eaten raw, oatcakes baked on the immemorial "Graedeal," game or fish cooked in savage fashion in the ashes, were the customary diet. In Commissioner Tucker's report in 1656 the district north and west of Dumbarton Fyrth (the Firth of Clyde) is described as still inhabited by the " Old Scotts or Wyld Irish and speakeing theyr language, which live by feeding cattle up and downe the hills or else fishing and fowleing, and formerly, till that they have been of late restrayned " (by the energetic rule of Oliver), "by plaine downright robbing and stealeing." Over this wild region the Commissioner found the collecting of excise duties practically impossible. But in truth, so far as liquor was concerned, the proceeds of the excise would have been insignificant enough. Unlike the Lowlander, the Celt was not a drinker of ale. His chief liquor was water from the running brook, milk being something of a luxury, while usquebagh was reserved chiefly for occasions of ceremony and rejoicing.

To eke out the supplies from his native hills the Highlander, as above recorded, had recourse to "creaghds," or cattle-raids. In the case of certain of the wilder clans cattle-raiding was in truth almost the only industry. Herein the fierce delights of feud or battle being intermitted, the warrior instinct of the cateran discovered a certain mild excitement. To spoil the Sassenach was also an unalloyed pleasure in itself, and afforded some solace for the loss of the Lowland straths and the fair and fertile lands beyond Clyde and Tay. But the habit of raiding did not contaminate or lower his general morality. Apart from this inveterate eccentricity his honesty, except perhaps in degenerate modern times, was proof against well-nigh any possible temptation. Of personal robbery he was incapable; and a stranger was probably as safe from violence or wrong in his domains as in a Quaker settlement. The chief Sassenach movables which found favour in his eyes were sheep and cattle; but he limited his raiding to the latter. In his code of honour the lifting of sheep was a despicable crime; for sheep were held in peculiar, in almost sacred, estimation on account of their wool, and even in appropriating kine it was incumbent on strictly to observe the ancient methods. The larceny was permissible only oil order of the chief. And while lifting was a noble and highly-respected vocation, the cateran could not condescend to the meanness of purloining merely one head of cattle singly : this would have made him kin to the common thief, and such kinship he rejected with scorn. "Common tief! common tief! steal one cow, twa cow, dat ie common tief! Lift hundred cow, dat pe shentleman's drovers."

Like the Redskin brave, the cateran contemned all toil but that associated with war or the chase; he held in honour no craftsman save the maker of anus : all other arts were appropriate to women or Sassenachs or slaves. Yet he could scarce be charged with listlessness or sloth; he spared no pains to develop his muscular strength and to acquire true cunning in the use of his several weapons—bow, broadsword, dirk, and poleaxe. As he avoided servile toil, his apparel and his domestic arrangements were severely primitive. The belted plaid, originally his only garment (trews were an effeminate surrender to climate) was practically a savage mode; for the tailor was such an anomaly in old Celtic life that the latter-day Highlander could never allude to him but with stereo- typed apology. And the plaid, as it was the cateran's chief raiment by day, was also his covering by night. his bed was the heather, and even in wild weather the sky was often his sole canopy. When the stern colds of winter forced him to seek the shelter of his turfs he arranged the heather brush uppermost, so as to make him a soft and warm couch. The hut, with its beds of heather and its hearth in the centre surrounded by circular stones, was primarily the abode of wife, family, and domestic animals; himself was accustomed to dine in the great hail of his chief, and here he commonly spent his evenings listening to the stories and songs of the bard or sharing reels to the music of the pipes.

The government of the clan was strictly patriarchal, and to this must be ascribed the strong and sacred character of the clan sentiment. The bard (who was also the genealogist and historian) was held in peculiar honour. Originally, as in Ireland and Wales, he recited to the strains of the harp—In use in the Scottish Highlands as late as the sixteenth century. But gradually bard and harp succumbed to the bagpipes, proficiency whereon was held of such importance that special colleges were established for instruction in pipe-music under famous masters. Yet the bagpipe, it need scarce be said, is not exclusively a Celtic instrument. Possibly it may have been a legacy of the ancient Britons, and at any rate the suspension of its use in the Lowlands can be clearly traced to the interference of the Kirk-sessions on account of its association with dancing. In the Highlands its triumph over the harp appears to have indicated the decay of the clan sentiment. The tales and songs of the bard were of the past, and to the cateran the past had been much greater than the present was or the future could be. Disguise it as he might, he was subject to the Sassenach : the glories of his race had vanished; the old victories could be no more. In all likelihood the recitals were saddening rather than joyous in effect; and it may well be that the dance was gradually preferred because it helped the cateran to forget his griefs. At any rate, while the harp is now mute in every Highland hall the shrill music of the pipes has gained rather than lost in power to animate and enrapture time descendants of the clansmen.


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