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Old World Scotland
Chapter XIX. The Highland Chief


His office had a hoarier antiquity than that of kingship itself; he represented chieftaincy in almost its most antique form. Indeed if chieftaincy underwent a change after the break up of the larger tribes, the probability is that it was a change towards the earlier and simpler form. Also the attempt at feudalism was successful within but a very limited area of the Highlands, and even here the success was more apparent than real. The two systems could never properly commingle, for chieftaincy was independent of material considerations. Besides, most clansmen were simply hunters, or herds, or raiders, as their forefathers had been from time immemorial. The circumstances and surroundings seemed to defy change. Of the arts of civilised life they, less than two centuries ago, knew practically nothing. Their social system pointed backwards to primeval ages. To them the past alone was great; the future could be great only in so far as it resembled the past. The reverence with which the chief was regarded was neither official nor personal in the usual sense. The clansman honoured the dead more than the living, and the common ancestor above all his descendants. The chief was the representative of this common ancestor, and of an uninterrupted succession of ancestral chiefs whose achievements in war and whose prowess in the chase were the perpetual theme of the bardic songs and recitations which formed the true litany of the clan. The consideration which determined succession was nearness of relationship to the common ancestor. Hence the brother of the reigning chief was preferred to the son in the case of mental and physical fitness the elder son by concubinage or handfast marriage to the son of priestly marriage. Failing brothers or sons, the choice was limited to the Gaeilfine, or relations to the fifth degree. The successor was recognised during the chief's lifetime. That an interloper should usurp the office was almost beyond the bounds of possibility, for it was guarded as with a wall of fire, by sacred tradition; and that it could not be degraded by one unworthy or unfit was guaranteed by a privilege of veto vested in the elders of the elan. No young chieftain who had failed in the test of valour—generally the leadership of some desperate raid—was permitted to rank in the succession ; and if, after attaining the dignity, he approved himself incompetent or tyrannical, lie might be summarily removed.

The goodliness of the chieftain's heritage was truly remarkable. Does any worthier or more genuine sphere for ambition now exist? Probably no human being ever cherished a profounder sense of personal dignity—undoubtedly a most important aid to happiness. Though rude might be his dwelling and squalid his surroundings, no monarch ever received such noble homage.

"The ordinary Highlanders," wrote Burt, esteem it the most sublime degree of virtue to love their chief," for indeed " he is their idol ; and as they profess to know no king but him (I was going further), so will they say they ought to do whatever he commands without inquiry." In such circumstances the chief's duties, if he was worthy to fulfil them, could not fail to be pleasant and humanising. For the most part, also, he was untroubled of serious care, for his feuds with his neighbours and his raids on the Sassenach did but afford him a zest of excitement more exhilarating than that obtainable from the safer pleasures of the chase. As a rule, he had neither poverty nor riches, and his ambition was limited to providing for the necessities of his clan (the complete conquest of a neighbour was a very rare occurrence). The small inconveniences incident to his ignorance of the modern amenities were undergone with unruffled stoicism; they were merely external and superficial. From a long line of ancestors inured to hardship and despising every form of excess, he inherited such a, constitution as was almost a guarantee of perfect health; and when at last he went to join their company, the coronach sung by the women over his grave betokened eulogy and triumph even more than regret. The clansman's thoughts were concentrated as much on the dead as on the living; and by a more influential canonisation than that of the saints, the chief continued to live in the "songs, the conversation, the dreams and meditations" of succeeding generations.

The clan system of government was in its way an ideally perfect one—probably the only perfect one that has ever existed. Perhaps it was the very thoroughness of its adaptation to early needs that made it so hard to adjust to new necessities. lit its principles and motives it was essentially opposed to the bent of modern influences. Its appeal was to sentiment rather than to law or even reason: it was a system not of the letter but of the spirit. The clansman was not the subject—a term implying some sort of conquest—but the kinsman of his chief. The chief had no title to indicate "a distant superiority." He was simply the Macleod or Macpherson or Macshimei. But while the clansman cherished a keen sense of independence, and expected to be treated by his chief with friendly familiarity, the cold and degrading equality typified in the Parisian citizenship—child and parent of revolutions—would have had for him no charm. It was his peculiar pride to claim the relationship to a superior; and in itself the very thought of kinship was thus inspiring and ennobling. Obedience became rather a privilege than a task, and no possible bribery or menace could shake his fidelity. rIlo\var(is the Sassenach or the members of clans at feud with him he might act meanly, treacherously, and cruelly without check and without compunction, for there lie recognised no moral obligations whatever. But as a clansman to his clan lie was courteous, truthful, virtuous, benevolent, with notions of honour as punctilious as those of the ancient knight. Not only was the standard of public morality a high one, but it was impossible to evade or defy it. Most clans had a certain number of helots (descendants of captives), but pauper or criminal class there was none, for the crimes of the clansmen were committed only against his enemies, and it was by stealing from them that he relieved the stress of poverty. No code of laws—after all it may be a symptom of decay, and no proof of advance in the art of government— stood between him and the personality of his chief; and the chief's kindness, with the chief's justice and wisdom, begat a far warmer esteem for law and order than the most admirable set of rules could ever have inspired.

The difficulties were that the clan system was efficient only within a narrow area; that it gave rise to interminable feuds; and that it was inapplicable to the circumstances created by the rise of modern industry and trade. But may it not be that it was abrogated all too lightly, or at least with too little anxiety to provide for it a proper substitute? At any rate, it realised (in some degree) an ideal which, according to Carlyle, "is the wish and prayer of all human [political] hearts, everywhere and at all times": "give me a leader; a true leader, not a false, sham leader; a true leader that he may guide me on the true way, that I may be loyal to him, that I may swear fealty to him, and follow him and feel that it is well with me." And that the political machinery of modern times is adequate to, or suitable for, the attainment of this ideal is as yet by no means clear.


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