|The removal of the court by Malcolm Canmore
to the Lowlands was an event which was followed by results very disastrous to the future
prosperity of the Highlands. The inhabitants soon sunk into a state of poverty, and, as by
the transference of the seat of government the administration of the laws became either
inoperative, or was feebly enforced, the people gave themselves up to violence and
turbulence, and revenged in person those injuries which the laws could no longer redress.
Released from the statutory control of monarchical government, the Highlanders soon saw
the necessity of substituting some other system in its place, to protect themselves
against the aggressions to which they were exposed. From this state of things originated
the great power of the Chiefs, who attained their ascendancy over the different little
communities into which the population of the Highlands was naturally divided, on account
of their superior property, courage, or talent. The powers of the chiefs were very great.
They acted as judges or arbiters in the quarrels of their clansmen and followers, and as
they were backed by resolute supporters of their rights, their property and their powers,
they established within their own territories a jurisdiction almost independent of the
From this division of the people
into clans and tribes under separate chiefs, arose many of those institutions, feelings
and usages which characterised the Highlanders. "The nature of the country, and the
motives which induced the Celts to make it their refuge, almost necessarily prescribed the
form of their institutions. Unequal to contend with the overwhelming numbers, who drove
them from the plains, and, anxious to preserve their independence, and their blood
uncontaminated by a mixture with strangers, they defended themselves in those strongholds
which are, in every country, the sanctuaries of national liberty, and the refuge of those
who resist the oppressions and the dominion of a more powerful neighbour. Thus, in the
absence of their monarchs, and defended by their barrier of rocks, they did not always
submit to the authority of a distant government, which could neither enforce obedience nor
The various little societies into which the Highland
population was, by the nature of the country, divided, having no desire to change their
residence or to keep up a communication with one another, and having all their wants,
which were few, supplied within themselves, became individually isolated. Every district
became an independent state, and thus the Highland population, though possessing a
community of customs and the same characteristics, was divided or broken into separate
masses, and placed under different jurisdictions. A patriarchal system of government,
"a sort of hereditary monarchy founded on custom, and allowed by general consent,
rather than regulated by laws," was thus established over each community or clan in
the persons of the chiefs.
As a consequence of the separation which was preserved by
the different clans, matrimonial alliances were rarely made with strangers, and hence the
members of the clan were generally related to one another by the ties of consanguinity or
affinity. While this double connection tended to preserve harmony and good will among the
members of the same clan, it also tended, on the other hand, to excite a bitter spirit of
animosity between rival clans, whenever an affront or injury was offered by one clan to
another, or by individuals of different clans.
Although the chief had great power with his clan in the
different relations of landlord, leader, and judge, his authority was far from absolute,
as he was obliged to consult the leading men of the clan in matters of importance - in
things regarding the clan or particular families, in removing differences, punishing or
redressing injuries, preventing lawsuits, supporting declining families, and declaring war
against, or adjusting terms of peace with other clans.
As the system of clanship was calculated to cherish a
warlike spirit, the young chiefs and heads of families were regarded or despised according
to their military or peaceable disposition. If they revenged a quarrel with another clan
by killing some of the enemy, or carrying off their cattle and laying their lands waste,
they were highly esteemed, and great expectations were formed of their future prowess and
exploits. But if they failed in their attempts, they were not respected; and if they
appeared disinclined to engage in hostile rencontres, they were despised.
The military ranks of the clans were fixed and perpetual.
The chief was, of course, the principal commander. The oldest cadet commanded the right
wing, and the youngest the rear. Every head of a distinct family was captain of his own
tribe. An ensign or standard-bearer was attached to each clan, who generally inherited his
office, which had been usually conferred on an ancestor who had distinguished himself. A
small salary was attached to this office.
Each clan had a stated place of rendezvous, where they met
at the call of their chief. When an emergency arose for an immediate meeting from the
incursions of a hostile clan, the cross or tarie, or fiery-cross, was immediately
despatched through the territories of the clan. This signal consisted of two pieces of
wood placed in the form of a cross. One of the ends of the horizontal piece was either
burnt or burning, and a piece of linen or white cloth stained with blood was suspended
from the other end. Two men, each with a cross in his hand, were despatched by the chief
in different directions, who kept running with great speed, shouting the war-cry of the
tribe, and naming the place of rendezvous, if different from the usual place of meeting.
The cross was delivered from hand to hand, and as each fresh bearer ran at full speed, the
clan assembled with great celerity. General Stewart says, that one of the latest instances
of the fiery-cross being used, was in 1745 by Lord Breadalbane, when it went round Loch
Tay, a distance of thirty-two miles, in three hours, to raise his people and prevent their
joining the rebels, but with less effect than in 1715 when it went the same round, and
when 500 men assembled in a few hours, under the command of the Laird of Glenlyon, to join
the Earl of Mar.
Every clan had its own war-cry, ( called in Scottish slogan
), to which every clansman answered. It served as a watch-word in cases of sudden alarm,
in the confusion of combat, or in the darkness of the night. The clans were also
distinguished by a particular badge, or by the peculiar arrangements or sets of the
different colours of the tartan, which will be fully noticed when we come to treat of the
history of the clans.
When a clan went upon any expedition they were much
influenced by omens. If they met an armed man they believed that good was portended. If
they observed a deer, fox, hare, or any other four-footed beast of game, and did not
succeed in killing it, they prognosticated evil. If a woman barefooted crossed the road
before them, they seized her and drew blood from her forehead.
The Cuid-Oidhche, or night's provision, was paid by many
tenants to the chief; and in hunting, or going on an expedition, the tenant who lived near
the hill was bound to furnish the master and his followers a night's entertainment, with
brawn for his dogs. There are no sufficient data to enable us to estimate correctly the
number of fighting men which the clans could bring at any time into the field; but a
general idea may be formed of their strength in 1745, from the following statement of the
respective forces of the clans as taken from the memorial supposed to be drawn up by the
Lord President Forbes of Culloden, for the information of the government. It has to be
observed, however, that besides the clans here mentioned, there were many independent
gentlemen, as General Stewart observes, who had many followers, but being what were called
broken names, or small tribes, are omitted.