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Social History of the Highlands
Relation of the Clans to their Chiefs


There is nothing so remarkable in the political history of any country as the succession of the Highland chiefs, and the long and uninterrupted sway which they held over their followers. The authority which a chief exercised among his clan was truly paternal, and he might, with great justice, have been called the father of his people. We cannot account for that warm attachment and the incorruptible and unshaken fidelity which the clans uniformly displayed towards their chiefs, on any other ground, than the kind and conciliatory system which they must have adopted towards their people; for, much as the feelings of the latter might have been awakened, by the songs and traditions of the bards, to a respect for the successors of the heroes whose praises they heard celebrated, a sense of wrongs committed, or of oppression exercised, would have obliterated every feeling of attachment in the minds of the sufferers and caused them to attempt to get rid of a tyrant who had rendered himself obnoxious by his tyranny.

The division of the people into small tribes, and the establishment of patriarchal government, were attended with many important consequences affecting the character of the Highlanders. This creation of an imperium in imperio was an anomaly, but it was, nevertheless, rendered necessary from the state of society in the Highlands shortly after the transference of the seat of government from the mountains. The authority of the king, though weak and inefficient, continued, however, to be recognised, nominally at least, except indeed when he interfered in the disputes between the clans. On such occasions his authority was utterly disregarded, "His mandates could neither stop the depredations of one clan against another nor allay their mutual hostilities. Delinquents could not, with impunity, be pursued into the bosom of a clan which protected them, nor could his judges administer the laws in opposition to their interests or their will. Sometimes he strengthened his arm by fomenting animosities among them, and by entering occasionally into the interest of one, in order to weaken another. Many instances of this species of policy occur in Scottish history, which, for a long period, was unhappily a mere record of internal violence.

The general laws being thus superseded by the internal feuds of the clans, and the authority of the sovereign being insufficient to repress these disorders, a perpetual system of warfare, aggression, depredation, and contention existed among them, which, during the continuance of clanship, banished peace from the Highlands. The little sovereignties of the clans "touched at so many points, yet were so independent of one another; they approached so nearly, in many respects, yet were, in others, so distant; there were so many opportunities of encroachment, on the one hand, and so little of a disposition to submit to it, on the other; and the quarrel of one individual of the tribe so naturally involved the rest, that there was scarcely ever a profound peace, or perfect cordiality between them. Among their chiefs the most deadly feuds frequently arose from opposing interests, or from wounded pride. These feuds were warmly espoused by the whole clan, and were often transmitted, with aggravated animosity, from generation to generation."

The disputes between opposing clans were frequently made matters of negotiation, and their differences were often adjusted by treaties. Opposing clans, as a means of strengthening themselves against the attack of their rivals, or of maintaining the balance of power, also entered coalitions with friendly neighbours. These bands of amity or manrent, as they were called, were of the nature of treaties of offensive and defensive alliance, by which the contracting parties bound themselves to assist each other; and it is remarkable that the duty of allegiance to the king was always acknowledged in these treaties,- "always excepting my duty to our lord and king, and to our kindred and friends," was a clause which was uniformly inserted in them. In the same manner, when men who were not chiefs of clans, but of subordinate tribes, thus bound themselves, their fidelity to their chiefs was always excepted. The smaller clans who were unable to defend themselves, and such clans or families who had lost their chiefs, were included in these friendly treaties. Under these treaties the smaller clans identified themselves with the greater clans; they engaged in the quarrels, followed the fortunes, and fought under the greater chiefs; but their ranks, as General Stewart observes, were separately marshalled, and led by their own subordinate chieftains and lairds, who owned submission only when necessary, for the success of combined operations. Several instances of this union will be found in the history of the clans.

As the system of clanship, by ignoring the authority of the sovereign and of the laws, prevented the clans from ever coming to any general terms of accommodation for settling their differences, their feuds were interminable, and the Highlands were, therefore, for ages, the theatre of a constant petty warfare destructive of the social virtues. "The spirit of opposition and rivalry between the clans perpetuated a system of hostility, encouraged the cultivation of the military at the expense of the social virtues, and perverted their ideas of both law and morality. Revenge was accounted a duty, the destruction of a neighbour a meritorious exploit, and rapine an honourable occupation. Their love of distinction, and their conscious reliance on their courage, when under the direction of these perverted notions, only tended to make their feuds more implacable, their condition more agitated, and their depredations more rapacious and desolating. Superstition added its influence in exasperating animosities, by teaching the clansmen that, to revenge the death of a relation or friend, was a sacrifice agreeable to their shades; thus engaging on the side of the most implacable hatred, and the darkest vengeance, the most amiable and domestic of all our feelings - reverence for the memory of the dead, and affection for the virtues of the living."

As the causes out of which feuds originated were innumerable, so many of them were trivial and unimportant, but as submission to the most trifling insult was considered disgraceful, and might, if overlooked, lead to fresh aggression, the clan was immediately summoned, and the cry for revenge met with a ready response in every breast. The most glaring insult that could be offered to a clan, was to speak disrespectfully of its chief, an offence which was considered as a personal affront by all his followers, and was resented accordingly.

It often happened that the insulted clan was unable to take the field to repel aggression or to vindicate its honour; but the injury was never forgotten, and the memory of it was treasured up till a fitting opportunity for taking revenge should arrive. The want of strength was sometimes supplied by cunning, and the blackest and deadliest intentions of hatred and revenge were sought to be perpetrated under the mask of conciliation and friendship. This was the natural result of the inefficiency of the laws which could afford no redress for wrongs, and which, therefore, left every individual to vindicate his rights with his own hand. The feeling of revenge, when directed against rival tribes, was cherished and honoured, and to such an extent was it carried, that there are well authenticated instances where one of the adverse parties has ben exterminated in the bloody and ferocious conflicts which the feuds occasioned.

As the wealth of the Highlanders consisted chiefly in flocks and herds, "the usual mode of commencing attacks, or of making reprisals, was by an incursion to carry off the cattle of the hostile clan. A predatory expedition was the general declaration of enmity, and a command given by the chief to clear the pastures of the enemy, constituted the usual letters of marque. These Creachs, as such depredations were termed, were carried on with systematic order, and were considered as perfectly justifiable. If lives were lost in these forays, revenge full and ample was taken, but in general personal hostilities were avoided in these incursions either against the Lowlanders or rival tribes. These predatory expeditions were more frequently directed against the Lowlanders, whom the Highlanders considered as aliens, and whose cattle they, therefore, considered as fair spoil at all times. The forays were generally executed with great secrecy, and the cattle were often lifted and secured for a considerable time before they were missed. To trace the cattle which had been thus carried off, the owners endeavoured to discover their foot-marks in the grass, or by the yielding of the heath over which they had passed; and so acute had the habit rendered their sight, that they frequently succeeded, in this manner, in discovering their property. The man on whose property the tract of the cattle was lost was held liable if he did not succeed in following out the trace or discovering the cattle; and if he did not make restitution, or offer to compensate the loss, an immediate quarrel was the consequence. A reward, called Tasgal money, was sometimes offered for the recovery of stolen cattle; but as this was considered in the light of a bribe, it was generally discouraged. The Camerons and some of the other clans, it is said, bound themselves by oath never to accept such a reward, and put to death all who should receive it.

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