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Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


Part I

A Sketch of the Moral and Physical Character, and of the Institutions and Customs of the Inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland

Sketches of the Highlanders

Section VII

General means of Subsistence—Filial Affection—Influence of Custom—Disgrace attached to Cowardice, &c.

In former times the population, which, as already stated, appears to have been greater than at a later period, would seem at first sight to have greatly exceeded the means of subsistence, in a country possessing so small an extent of land fit for cultivation. Their small breed of cattle throve upon the poorest herbage, and was, in every respect, well calculated for the country. In summer, the people subsisted chiefly on milk, prepared in various forms; while in winter they lived, in a great measure, on animal food: the spring was with them a season of severe abstinence. Many were expert fishers and hunters. In those primitive times, the forests, heaths, and waters, abounding with game and fish, were alike free to all, and contributed greatly to the support of the inhabitants. Now, when mountains and rivers are guarded with severe restrictions, fish and game are become so scarce, as to be of little benefit to the people, and to form only a few weeks' amusement to the privileged. [See Appendix, O]

The little glens, as well as the larger straths, were, however, peopled with a race accustomed to bear privations with patience and fortitude. Cheered by the enjoyment of a sort of wild freedom, cordial attachments bound their little societies together. A great check to population was, however, found in those institutions and habits, which, except in not preventing revengeful retaliation and spoliations of cattle, served all the purposes for which laws are commonly enforced.

While the country was portioned out amongst numerous tenants, none of their sons were allowed to marry till they had obtained a house, a farm, or some certain prospect of settlement, unless, perhaps, in the case of a son, who was expected to succeed his father. Cottagers and tradesmen were also discouraged from marrying, till they had a house, and the means of providing for a family. These customs are now changed. The system of converting whole tracts of country into one farm, and the practice of letting lands to the highest bidder, without regard to the former occupiers, and their future ruin or prosperity, occasions gloomy prospects, and the most fearful and discouraging uncertainty of tenure. Yet, as if in dispite of the theory of Malthus, these discouragements, instead of checking population, have removed the restraint which the prudent foresight of a sagacious peasantry had formerly imposed on early marriages. Having now no sure prospect of a permanent settlement, by succeeding to the farms inherited by their fathers, nor a certainty of being permitted to remain in their native country on any terms, they marry whenever inclination prompts them. The propriety of marrying when young, they defend on this principle, that their children may rise up around them, while they are in the vigour of life, and able to provide for their maintenance, and that they may thus ensure support to their old age; for no Highlander can ever forego the hope, that, while he has children able to support him, he will never be allowed to want. On the other hand, the affection of children to their parents has led to the most zealous exertions, and the greatest sacrifices in providing for their support and comfort. Children are considered less as a present incumbrance, than as a source of future assistance, and as the prop of declining age. Whatever their misfortunes might be, they believed, that, while their offspring could work, they would not be left destitute. It is pleasing to observe, that, among many changes of character, this laudable feeling still continues in considerable force. If a poor man's family are under the necessity of going to service, they settle among themselves which of their number shall in turn remain at home, to take charge of their parents, and all consider themselves bound to share with them whatever they are able to save from their wages.

The sense of duty is not extinguished by absence from the mountains. It accompanies the Highland soldier amid the dissipations of a mode of life to which he has not been accustomed. It prompts him to save a portion of his pay, to enable him to assist his parents, and also to work when he has an opportunity, that he may increase their allowance,—at once preserving himself from idle habits, and contributing to the happiness and comfort of those who gave him birth. I have been a frequent channel through which these offerings of filial bounty were communicated, and I have generally found, that a threat of informing their parents of misconduct, has operated as a sufficient check on young soldiers, who always received the intimation with a sort of horror. They knew that the report would not only grieve their relations, but act as a sentence of banishment against themselves, as they could not return home with a bad or a blemished character. Generals M'Kenzie Fraser and M'Kenzie of Suddie, who successively commanded the 78th Highlanders, seldom had occasion to resort to any other punishment than threats of this nature, for several years after the embodying of that regiment.

Honesty and fair dealing in their mutual transactions were enforced by custom [See Appendix, P.] as much as by established law, and generally had a more powerful influence on their character and conduct, than the legal enactments of latter periods. Insolvency was considered as disgraceful, and prima facie a crime. "Bankrupts were forced to surrender their all, and were clad in a party-coloured clouted garment, with the hose of different sets, and had their hips dashed against a stone in presence of the people, by four men, each taking hold of an arm or a leg. This punishment was called Toncruaidh." [The Reverend Dr M'Queen's Dissertation.]

Where courage is considered honourable and indispensable, cowardice is of course held infamous, and punished as criminal. Of the ignominy that attached to it, Mrs Grant relates the following anecdote: "There was a clan, I must not say what clan it is, [I may now mention, what the accomplished author suppressed, that this chief was the Laird of Grant, grandfather of the late estimable representative of that honourable family.] who had been for ages governed by a series of chiefs singularly estimable, and highly beloved, and who, in one instance, provoked their leader to the extreme of indignation. I should observe that the transgression was partial, the culprits being the inhabitants of one single parish. These, in a hasty skirmish with a neighbouring clan, thinking discretion the best part of valour, sought safety in retreat. A cruel chief would have inflicted the worst of punishments—banishment from the bounds of his clan,—which, indeed, fell little short of the curse of Kehama. This good laird, however, set bounds to his wrath, yet made their punishment severe and exemplary. He appeared himself with all the population of the three adjacent parishes, at the parish-church of the offenders, where they were all by order convened. After divine service they were all marched three times round the church, in presence of their offended leader and his assembled clan. Each individual, on coming out of the church-door, was obliged to draw out his tongue with his fingers, and then cry audibly, 'Shud bleider heich,' i. e. 'This is the poltroon who fled,' and to repeat it at every corner of the church. After this procession of ignominy, no other punishment was inflicted, except that of being left to guard the district when the rest were called out to battle." Mrs Grant adds. "It is credibly asserted, that no enemy has seen the back of any of that name ever since. And it is certain, that, to this day, it is not safe for any person of another name to mention this circumstance in presence of one of the affronted clan."  [Mrs Grant on the Superstitions of the Highlanders.]

Under the protection of the same principle, were placed the fidelity of domestic attachment, and the sacred obligation of the marriage vow. "The guilty person, whether male or female, was made to stand in a barrel of cold water at the church door, after which the delinquent, clad in a wet canvas shirt, was made to stand before the congregation, and at close of service the minister explained the nature of the offence." [Dr M'Queen's Dissertation.]

This punishment was, however, seldom necessary. The crime was not frequent, and the separation of a married couple among the common people almost unknown. However disagreeable a wife might be to her husband, he rarely contemplated the possibility of getting rid of her. As his wife he bore with her failings: as the mother of his children, he supported her credit: a separation would have disgraced his family, and have entailed reproach on his posterity. For the illicit intercourse between the sexes, in an unmarried state, there was no direct punishment beyond those established by the church; but, as usual among the people, custom supplied the defect, by establishing some marks of reprehension and infamy. These were often of a nature which showed a delicacy of feeling, not to be expected among an uneducated people, were it not that these established habits so well supplied the want of education, and of what is usually termed civilization. Young unmarried women never wore any close head dress, but only the hair tied with bandages or some slight ornament. This continued till marriage, or till they attained a certain age; but if a young woman lost her virtue and character, then she was obliged to wear a cap, and never afterwards to appear with her hair uncovered, in the dress of virgin innocence.

Sir John Dalrymple has observed of the Highlanders, "That to be modest as well as brave, to be contented with a few things which Nature requires, to act and to suffer without complaining, to be as much ashamed of doing any thing insolent or ungenerous to others, as of bearing it when done to ourselves, and to die with pleasure to revenge affronts offered to their clan or their country; these they accounted their highest accomplishments."


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