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Social History of the Highlands
Cearnachs


Besides those who took part in the Creachs there was another and a peculiar class called Cearnachs, a term of similar import with the Catherans of the Lowlands, the Kernes of the English, and the Catervœ of the Romans. The Cearnachs were originally a select body of men employed in difficult and dangerous enterprises where more than ordinary honour was to be acquired; but in process of time, they were employed in the degrading and dishonourable task of levying contributions on their Lowland neighbours, or in forcing them to pay tribute or black mail for protection. Young men of the second order of the gentry who were desirous of entering the military profession, frequently joined in these exploits, as they were considered well fitted for accustoming those who engaged in them to the fatigues and exercises incident to a military life. The celebrated Robert Macgregor Campbell, or Rob Roy, was the most noted of these freebooters.

The cearnachs were principally the borderers living close to and within the Grampian range, but cearnachs from the more northerly parts of the Highlands also paid frequent visits to the Lowlands, and carried off large quantities of booty. The border cearnachs judging such irruptions as an invasion of their rights, frequently attacked the northern cearnachs on their return homewards; and if they succeeded in capturing the spoil, they either appropriated it to their own use or restored it to the owners.

It might be supposed that the system of spoliation we have described, would have led these freebooters occasionally to steal from one another. Such, however, was not the case; for they observed the strictest honesty in this respect. No precautions were taken - because unnecessary - to protect property; and the usual security of locks, bolts, and bars, were never used, nor even thought of. Instances of theft from dwelling- houses were very rare; and, with the exception of one case which happened so late as the year 1770, highway robbery was totally unknown. Yet, notwithstanding the laudable regard thus shown by the freebooters to the property of their own society, they attached no ideas of moral turpitude to the acts of spoliation we have alluded to. Donald Cameron, or Donald Bane Leane, an active leader of a party of banditti who had associated together after the troubles of 1745, tried at Perth for cattle-stealing, and executed at Kinloch Rannoch, in 1752, expressed surprise and indignation at his hard fate, as he considered it, as he had never committed murder nor robbery, or taken anything but cattle off the grass of those with whom he had quarrelled. The practice of "lifting of cattle" seems to have been viewed as a very venial offence, even by persons holding very different views of morality from the actors, in proof of which, General Stewart refers to a letter of Field-Marshal Wade to Mr. Forbes of Culloden, the Lord Advocate, dated October 1729, describing an entertainment given him on a visit to a party of cearnachs. "The Knight and I," says the Marshal, "travelled in my carriage with great ease and pleasure to the feast of oxen which the highwaymen had prepared for us, opposite Lochgarry, where we found four oxen roasting at the same time, in great order and solemnity. We dined in a tent pitched for that purpose. The beef was excellent; and we had plenty of bumpers, not forgetting your Lordship's and Culloden's health; and, after three hours' stay, took leave of our benefactors, the highwaymen, and arrived at the hut at Dalnachardoch, before it was dark.

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