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On Emigration and the State of the Highlands
Chapter I


The state of commercial and regular government, to which we are accustomed in England, has been so long established, that it requires some effort of imagination, to form a distinct idea of the situation of things under the feudal system. We must look back to a distant period of time, the manners and customs of which have gradually disappeared, with the causes which gave rise to them, and have left few traces of their existence. This has also been the case, to a great degree, in the Low Country of Scotland; but the progress of society in the Highlands has been very different. It must not be forgotten, that little more than half a century has passed, since that part of the kingdom was in a state similar to that of England before the Norman conquest. When we look back to the condition of the Highlands before the year 1745, the differences which will exist between that and the Highlands before the year 1745, the differences which still exist between that the other parts of the kingdom are easily accounted for. There is much more reason to be surprised at the progress that has been made by the inhabitants in these sixty years, than that they should not have accomplished to its full to its full extent the change, which in other parts has been the work of many centuries. The feudal system has been abolished; but the customs that arose out of it are not forgotten. An act of parliament, supported by military force, could destroy the one; time only can eradicate the other: and in every peculiarity of the Highlanders, we may trace the remnants of this former state of the country, or the effects of its rapid change.

Though the conquests of Cromwell, and the issue of the rebellion of 1715, gave a check to the independence of the Highland chieftains, yet it is well known that, till after the year 1745, it was never completely overthrown. Before that period, the authority of law was too feeble to afford protection. The instructions to the execution of any legal warrant were such, that it was only for objects of great public concern that an extraordinary effort was sometimes made to overcome them. In any ordinary case of private injury, an individual could have little expectation of redress, unless he could avenge his own cause; and the only hope of safety from any attack was in meeting force by force.

In this state of things, every person above the common rank depended for his safety and his consequence on the number and attachment of his servants and dependants: without people ready to defend him, he could not expect to sleep in safety, to. preserve his house from pillage, or his family from murder; he must have submitted to the insolence of every neighbouring robber, unless he had maintained a numerous train of followers to go with. him into the field, and to fight his battles. To this essential object every inferior consideration was sacrificed; and the principal advantage, of landed property consisted in the means it afforded to the proprietor of multiplying his dependants. By allowing his tenants to possess their farms at low rents, he secured their services whenever required, and, by the power of removing any one who was refractory, maintained, over them the authority of a monarch. The sacrifice of pecuniary interest was of very inferior importance, and was not a matter of choice; for any proprietor, who should have acted on contrary principles, losing the attachment of. his people, would have been left a prey to the violence of. his neighbours.

The Highland gentlemen appear to have been so anxious on this subject, that they never ventured to raise their rents, however much the circumstances of any case might make it reasonable: the tenant in fact paid his rent not so much in money as in military services; and this explains the extraordinary difference between the apparent value of land in the Highlands, in former times, and at present. The small rentals of the estates forfeited by the rebels of 1745 have often been remarked with surprise, and have been contrasted with the great value of the same lands at present; but were the’ rent of these estates at their utmost actual value to be all laid out in employing labourers, at the rates now current in the north of Scotland, the number of men to whom they would furnish wages and maintenance would not be very different from that of the clans who came out from in the rebellion.

The value of landed property was, in these times be reckoned, not by the rent it produced, but by the men whom it could send into the field. It is mentioned indeed of one of the chieftains, that being questioned by a stranger as to the rent of his estate, he answered, that it could raise 500 men.

Under these circumstances, it was natural that every proprietor should wish to reduce his farms into as small portions as possible: and this inclination was fully seconded by the disposition of the people. The state of the country left a father no other means of providing for a numerous family, than by dividing his farm among them; and. where. two families could be placed on the land that, was previously occupied by one, the proprietor acquired a new tenant, and a new soldier. From the operation of these principles, the land seems, in a great majority of cases, to have been divided, into possessions barely sufficient for a scanty subsistence to the occupiers.

It was indeed usual for the head of a clan, possessing extensive territories, occasionally to grant more considerable farms to the younger branches of his family; but this circumstance had little effect on the general mode of agricu1turai management. The tacksmen (as the holders of such large farms were termed) were considered nearly in the same light as proprietors, and acted on the same principles. They were the officers who, under the chief, commanded in the military expeditions of the clan. This was their. employment; and neither their own dispositions, nor the situation of the country, inclined them to engage in the drudgery of agriculture, any further. than to supply the necessaries of life for their own families. A part of their land was usually sufficient for this purpose; and the remainder was let off, in small portions, to cotters, who differed but little from the small occupiers who held their lands immediately from the chief, excepting that, in lieu of rent, they were bound to a certain amount of labour for the advantage of their immediate superior. The more of these people any gentleman could collect around his habitation, with the greater facility could he carry on the work of his own farm;—the greater too was his personal safety. Besides this, the tacksmen, holding their lands from the chief at a mere quit-rent, were naturally solicitous to merit his favour, by the number of their immediate dependants whom they could bring to join his standard; and they had in fact no other means of employing to advantage the superfluity of their land, than by joining in the general system of the country, and multiplying the ultimate occupiers of the land.

These circumstances produced a state of manners, from which it is easy still to trace the most striking peculiarities of the Highlanders. The greatest part of the country was fit only for pasturage, and the small portions of arable land which fell to the share of any family, could occupy but little of their time. On two or three occasions in the course of the year, the labours of the field required a momentary exertion, to prepare the soil, or to secure the crop: but no regular and continued industry was requisite for providing the simple necessaries of life, to which their forefathers had been accustomed, and beyond which their ambition did not extend. The periods of labour were short; and they could devote the intermediate time to indolence, or to amusement, unless when their assistance was required for the defence of their chief and of their families, or for attacking some neighbouring clan. Prowess on these occasions was the most valuable quality they could possess, and that on which their pride was founded; warlike achievements engrossed their thoughts; and the amusements of their leisure hours generally consisted of active exercises, or displays of strength and agility, calculated to enhance their estimation as warriors.

This style of life, favourable as it was to the acquisition of all those qualities of mind and body which are requisite to form a good soldier, was no less adverse to habits of industry. If, indeed, the natural disposition of the Highlanders to industry had been ever so great, their situation would have allowed it but little scope. Their lands afforded few objects of commerce: the only article of which they ever had any considerable superfluity was cattle, and, from the turbulent state of the country, these could not be brought to market without the utmost difficulty. The desire of accumulating was checked by the: insecurity of property: nor indeed are those who acquire it by the sword much in the habit of hoarding with care; what may next day be replaced by the plunder of an enemy, they are disposed to lavish with careless profusion. Thus among the ancient Highlanders, the same men, who made a glory of pillage and rapine, carried the sentiments of hospitality and generosity to a romantic excess.

The meanest of the Highlanders was impressed with these sentiments; but, while he reckoned it disgraceful to shut his door against the stranger, or to withhold from him any thing which his house contained, he considered it as equally unpardonable, if he was refused, by another, any thing of which he was in want. From the chieftains in particular, the most unbounded generosity was expected; and the necessity, which they were under, of conciliating the attachment of their people, led them to follow the same conduct, whatever might be their natural disposition.

The authority of the chief, however great, was not of that absolute kind which has sometimes been imagined, and could not be maintained without an unremitted attention to all the arts of popularity. Condescending manners were necessary in every individual, of whatever rank; the meanest expected to be treated as a gentleman, and almost as an equal. nor was this all. The intimate conexion of the chief with his people, their daily intercourse, the daily dependance. they had on each other for immediate safety, the dangers which they shared, were all naturally calculated to produce a great degree of mutual sympathy and affection. If there were any of the higher ranks who did not really feel such sentiments, prudence prevented them from allowing this to appear; and the devoted attachment of their followers is described in terms of astonishment by contemporary writers.

Yet this attachment was an effect easily deducible from the general principles of human nature. Among the poor in civilized countries, there is, perhaps, no circumstance more severely felt, than the neglect they meet with from persons of superior rank, and which appears to stigmatize them, as of an inferior species: when any one attends to their distresses, they are often more soothed by the concern which they perceive they excite, than by any direct advantage that may result. When a person of rank treats his inferiors with cordiality, and shows an interest in their welfare, it is seldom that, in any country, this behaviour is not repaid by gratitude and affection. This was particularly to be expected among the Highlanders, a people naturally of acute feelings, habituated to sentiments of a romantic and poetical cast: in them the condescending manners and kindness of their chiefs, excited an attachment bordering on enthusiasm.


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