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Social History of the Highlands
Character of the Ancient Highlanders


The early history of the Highlanders presents us with a bold and hardy race of men, filled with a romantic attachment to their native mountains and glens, cherishing an exalted spirit of independence, and firmly bound together in septs or clans by the ties of kindred. Having little intercourse with the rest of the world, and pent up for many centuries within the Grampian range, the Highlanders acquired a peculiar character, and retained or adopted habits and manners differing widely from those of their lowland neighbours. "The ideas and employments, which their seclusion from the world rendered habitual, - the familiar contemplation of the most sublime objects of nature, - the habit of concentrating their affections within the narrow precincts of their own glens, or the limited circle of their own kinsmen, - and the necessity of union and self-dependence in all difficulties and dangers, combined to form a peculiar and original character. A certain romantic sentiment, the offspring of deep and cherished feeling, strong attachment to their country and kindred, and a consequent disdain of submission to strangers, formed the character of independence; while an habitual contempt of danger was nourished by their solitary musings, of which the honour of their clan, and a long descent from brave and warlike ancestors, formed the frequent theme. Thus, their exercises, their amusements, their modes of subsistence, their motives of action, their prejudices and their superstitions, became characteristic, permanent, and peculiar.

"Firmness and decision, fertility in resources, ardour in friendship, and a generous enthusiasm, were the result of such a situation, such modes of life, and such habits of thought. Feeling themselves separated by Nature from the rest of mankind, and distinguished by their language, their habits, their manners, and their dress, they considered themselves the original possessors of the country, and regarded the Saxons of the Lowlands as the strangers and intruders."

Like their Celtic ancestors, the Highlanders were tall, robust, and well formed. Early marriages were unknown among them, and it was rare for a female who was of a puny stature and delicate constitution to be honoured with a husband. The following observations of Martin on the inhabitants of some of the western islands may be generally applied to the Highlanders :- "They are not obliged to art in forming their bodies, for Nature never fails to act her part bountifully to them; perhaps there is no part of the habitable globe where so few bodily imperfections are to be seen, nor any children that go more early. I have observed several of them walk alone before they were ten months old: they are bathed all over every morning and evening, some in cold, some in warm water; but the latter is most commonly used, and they wear nothing strait about them. The mother generally suckles the child, failing of which, a nurse is provided, for they seldom bring up any by hand: they give new born infants fresh butter to take away the meconium, and this they do for several days; they taste neither sugar, nor cinnamon, nor have they any daily allowance of sack bestowed on them, as the custom is elsewhere, nor is the nurse allowed to taste ale. The generality wear neither shoes nor stockings before they are seven, eight or ten years old; and many among them wear no nightcaps before they are sixteen years old, and upwards; some use none all their life-time, and these are not so liable to headaches as others who keep their heads warm."

As a proof of the indifference of the Highlanders to cold, reference has been made to their often sleeping in the open air during the severity of winter. Burt, who resided among them and wrote in the year 1725, relates that he has seen the places which they occupied, and which were known by being free from the snow that deeply covered the ground, except where the heat of their bodies had melted it. The same writer represents a chief as giving offence to his clan by his degeneracy in forming the snow into a pillow before he lay down. "The Highlanders were so accustomed to sleep in the open air, that the want of shelter was of little consequence to them. It was usual before they lay down to dip their plaids in water, by which the cloth was less pervious to the wind, and the heat of their bodies produced a warmth, which the woollen, if dry, could not afford. An old man informed me, that a favourite place of repose was under a cover of thick, overhanging heath. The Highlanders, in 1745, could scarcely be prevailed on to use tents. It is not long since those who frequented Lawrence fair, St. Sair's, and other markets in the Garioch of Aberdeenshire, gave up the practice of sleeping in the open fields. The horses being on these occasions left to shift for themselves, the inhabitants no longer have their crop spoiled, by their 'upthrough neighbours', with whom they had often bloody contentions, in consequence of these unceremonious visits."

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