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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 3 - Habits, Habitations, and Arts of the First Settlers


We see these emigrants from the land of Armenia arriving on our shore, but the moment they pass within the confine of our island the curtain drops behind them, and for ages they are completely hidden from our view. What passed in our country during the centuries that elapsed between the period when it was taken possession of by the sons of Gomer and the advent of Caesar with his fleet, we can only dubiously conjecture.

As regards one important particular, we have tolerable grounds, we apprehend, for the conclusion we are now to state. These emigrants brought with them the essentials of Divine revelation. When they left their original dwelling, the world’s first Christianity, the Edenic to wit, had not been wholly obscured by the rising cloud of nature-worship. The first idolatrous temple had already been reared, and the earliest form of idolatrous worship, that of the sun and the heavenly bodies, had been instituted,; but the dispersion which immediately followed had removed the Japhethian emigrants, whom we now see on their way to the far north, from contact with the rites of the rising idolatry, and from those corrupting and darkening influences. Which acted powerfully, doubtless, on those who remained nearer the seat of the Nimrod instituted worship. Besides, the heads of this emigration had conversed with the men who had been in the ark with Noah, and stood beside the altar whereon the Common Father offered his first sacrifice to Jehovah after the flood It is not conceivable that Japhet had joined in the rebellion of Nimrod, or ever worshipped in the great temple on Shinar. From Japhet they had learned the knowledge of the one true God, and the promise of a Redeemer, who was to appear in after ages, and in some not yet clearly understood way, though dimly foreshadowed in the victim on the Patriarchal Altar, was to accomplish a great deliverance for the race. This great Tradition would journey with them, and some rays of the primeval day would shine on the remote shores of Britain. We have been taught to picture the earliest condition of our country as one of unbroken darkness. A calm consideration of the time and circumstances of its first peopling warrants a more cheerful view. Believing in a God, invisible and eternal, and knowing that He heareth those in every land who pray unto Him, who can tell how many "devout fearers" of His name there may have been among the first inhabitants of our country? How many lives may this knowledge have purified, and how many death-beds may it have brightened! The Patriarchs themselves had not much more that was possessed by those whom we behold setting out towards our distant shore.

Our idea that the earliest ages of all nations were the purest, and that as time passed on mankind receded ever the farther from the knowledge of the true God and sank ever the deeper into Idolatry, is corroborated by the fact that the oldest known Egyptian manuscript, and of course the oldest known manuscript in the world, contains no traces of Idolatry, and does not mention the name of one Egyptian god.1

These settlers found the climate of their new country more temperate—its summers less hot, and its winters less cold—than that of the continental lands over which they had passed on their way thither. Its plains wore a covering of luxuriant grass, and afforded ample pasturage for their flocks and herds. Forests covered the mountain sides, and in places not a few stretches down into the valleys and straths. These would furnish in abundance materials for the construction of dwellings, one of the first requisites of the emigrant. The new-comers go about this task in the following wise. They clear a space in the forest, or on the jungly plain, felling the trees with a stone hatchet. On the open area they plant stakes of timber, intertwine them with wattles, and roof them with straw. There rises a little cluster of huts. A wall of palisades is run around the hamlet to defend it from the beast of prey, for as yet, human foe they have none to dread.

In at least one instance, if we mistake not, we come upon the traces of these aboriginal settlers, and the memorials, disclosed after so long an interval, touchingly attest the truth of the picture we have drawn. The relics in question occur as far north as Loch Etive, Argyleshire. Under a black peat moss, one the banks of the loch just names, are found, here ant there, patches of stone pavement of an oval form. These pavements, on being dug down to are found strewed over the wood-ashes, the remains of first long since extinguished; and around them lie portions of decayed hazel stakes, the relics of the palisading that once formed the defences of the encampment. Here stood a cluster of log huts, and at a period so remote that the moss that now covers the site to a depth of eight feet has had time to grow above it.2 It is touching to think that in these memorials we behold the oldest known "hearths" in Scotland. We picture to ourselves the forms that sat around their fires. They may not have been just the savages we are so apt to fancy them. They had their joys and their sorrows as we at this day have ours. The human heart is the same whether it beats under a garment of ox-hide or under a vesture of fine linen. It ever goes back into the past, or forward into the future, in quest of the elements of hope and happiness. These settlers cherished, doubtless, as their most precious treasure, the traditions which their fathers had brought with them from their far-off early home. They will not let them die even in this rude land. And when the winter draws on, and the storm lowers dark on the hill, and the winds roar in the fir wood, or lash into fury the waters of the lake, beside which they have raised their huts, the inmates gather in a circle round their blazing hearth, and the patriarch of the dwelling rehearses to ears attent the traditions of an early day and a distant land. Tales of the flood and of the ark, who knows, may here have had their eloquent reciters and their absorbed listeners. The "glorious hopes" carried to our island by the first pilgrim settlers would be clung to by their descendants. The knowledge of them alone kept their head above the darkness. To part with them was to obliterate by far the brightest traces by which to track their past. But gradually, veiled in legend, or disfigured and darkened by fable, these "hopes" died out, or, rather, were crystallized in the ritual of the Druid.

The sons of Gomer, who erected these frail structures on the shores of Loch Etive, were probably coeval with the Sons of Ham, who were the first builders of the pyramids on the banks of the Nile. The monuments of the workers in granite, thanks to the durability of the material, still remain to us. The perishable edifices of the workers in wattle and sod have also been preserved by the kindly moss which, growing with the centuries, at least covered them up for the benefit of future ages. We can now compare them with the huts in which their brethren of the Gomer race, on the other side of the German Ocean, were found still living in times not so very remote. Simple, indeed, in both style and material, was the architecture of these Cymric houses, whether on German plain or on Scottish moor. A circular row of wooden piles formed their wall. The roof was of straw; the fire was kindled on the stone floor, and the smoke made its escape by an opening left for that purpose in the centre of the roof.

The habits of the inmates were simple. They were compelled to accommodate their life to the conditions of the country in which they found themselves. A humid atmosphere, the necessary accompaniment of a swampy soil, would darken the sky with a frequent haze, and diminish the sun’s power to ripen the grain. Corn they did not grow. Their long devotion to the shepherd’s life had made them unfamiliar with the art of tillage. What of the husbandman’s skill they had known and practices in their ancestral homes had been unlearned on their long journey. It hardly matters, for their wants are supplied by the milk of their flocks, by the game in which their forests abound, and the fish with which their rivers are stocked, which they spear with sharpened stakes. Their hardihood is maintained by the daily combats in which they are compelled to engage with the beast of prey. The weapons with which they do battle against these depredators of their herds, and, at times, assailants of their villages, are simple indeed. The club, the stone hatchet, the bow, the spear tipped with flint or bone, the snare, the sling, are the instruments they wield being the only ones then known to them.

Invention sleeps when the wants of man are few. Necessity rouses the dormant faculties, and impels to the cultivation of the arts, slow and tardy at the best. It is easier transforming the shepherd into a warrior than training him into an artizan; the wild freedom of the hills is not easily cast off for the minute diligence and close application of the workshop. Yet were there handicrafts which these pilgrim-shepherds were compelled to learn, we find them expert at canoe-building. They had frequent occasion to practise this are on their long journey, and the friths and lakes of their new home were too numerous to permit their skill in this important department to rust. New needs as they arise prompt to new devices. A tent may suffice as a dwelling on the plains of Asia, but not on the bleak Caledonian moor. The inhabitants of the latter must dig a chamber in the earth, or erect a hut above ground of dry sods, or of unhewn stones, would they protect themselves from the rains and frost. Garments of some sort they must needs have; for though some historians have pourtrayed the Caledonian as running nude on his mountains, or covering his person with paint instead of raiment, we submit that this was incompatible with existence amid the snow and ice of a Scottish winter. A succession of rigorous seasons, such as are incident to our high latitude, would have wound up the drama of the race before it had well begun, and instead of flourishing in stalwart vigour for centuries, the Caledonian would have perished from the land, and left it as desolate and silent as when he first set foot on it. It is the historian, we suspect, who has painted.

If the Caledonian dispensed with clothing, it was only at times. He stript himself that he might give greater agility to his limbs when he chased the roe, or greater terror to his visage when he grappled with his enemy in battle; or he disencumbered himself to wade his marshes and swim his rivers. Raiment he not only needed, but raiment of a very substantial kind. The hoar frosts of Caledonia were so famous as to be heard of at Rome, and the light fabrics woven on the looms of later days would have afforded but small protection from the haars and icy blasts of the then Scotland.

The skin of sheep or the hide of ox formed a substantial and comfortable garment for the native. This was his winter covering. The stitching of it together taught him a little tailoring. He used a needle of bone with a sinew for a thread. His summer robe was lighter, and, moreover, admitted of a little gaiety in the way of colour, which would bring out in bright relief the figure of the wearer as he was seen moving athwart brown moor or blue hill. This was fabricated from the wool of his flock or the hair of his goats. The manufacture of these homely stuffs initiated the Caledonian into the useful arts of carding, spinning, and weaving.

The aboriginal dwelling merit a more particular description. They are commonly known by the name of weems. These weems have been discovered in groups in almost every county of Scotland, more particularly in Aberdeenshire, in Buchan, in Forfarshire, and even in the wildest districts of the Highlands. They are nearly as common as the sepulchral cairn. Generally the surface of the ground gives no clue to the existence of these underground dwellings. The moor or heath looks perfectly level and unbroken, and the traveller may pass and repass a hundred times without once suspecting that underneath his feet are houses that were constructed thousands of years ago, still containing the implements and utensils of the men who lived in them—the quernes in which they ground their corn, the bones and horns of the animals they hunted, the relics of their meal, and the ashes of the fire on which they cooked it.

These weems their construction show both ingenuity and labour. Those found in Aberdeenshire are built of blocks of granite more than six feet long, and from eight to nine feet wide. The walls converge as they rise, and the roof is formed in the same way as in the cyclopean edifices of early Greece and the colossal temples of Mexico and Yucatan, whose builders would appear to have been ignorant of the principle of the arch. The great slabs have been made to overlap each other; the intervening space is reduced at each successive row, and at last the opening a-top is so narrow as to be covered in by a single block, and the vault completed. Not unfrequently small side chambers are attached to the main chamber. These are entered by passages not above three feet in height, and as a proof of the inefficiently of the tools with which these primitive builders worked, the stones in the wall forming the partition between the two chambers, though placed flush in the side which present itself to the great chamber, project their narrow ends in the side turned to the small apartment. The workmen evidently lacked metal tools to dress and smooth the was formed of two upright slabs; the width between being sufficient for the occupant to stones. If one may judge from the indications in the case of the best preserved of these weems, the doorway glide in, and by a slanting passage find his way to the chamber below. It was in many cases the only opening, and served the purpose of door, window, and chimney all in one. In some instances however, a small aperture if found at the farther end, which might give egress to the smoke, or permit the entrance of a little light.3 On the approach of an enemy, the entire population of a district would make a rush to these narrow apertures, and vanish as quickly and noiselessly as if the earth had swallowed them up, or they had melted into thin air, leaving the intruder partly amazed and partly awed by their sudden and complete disappearance.

These underground massy halls were the winter adobes of their builders. Once safely below, a little fire to dispel the darkness, their larder replenished from the spoils of the chase or the produce of the flock, they would make a shift to get through the long months, and would not be greatly incommoded by the fiercest storms that raged above ground. But we can imagine how glad and joyous the occupants would be when the winter drew to a close, and spring filled the air with its sweetness, and the beauty of the first green was seen on strath and wood, and the early floweret looked forth, to exchange these dreary vaults in the earth for the huts above ground, built of turf and the branches of trees, in which they were wont to pass the warm days of their brief summer.

When at last, after centuries had passed by, the Phoenician navigator, penetrating the recesses of the North Sea, moored his bark beneath the white cliffs of Albion, or under the dark rocks of Caledonia, the ingenuity and resource of the natives were quickened afresh. The Invention of the Caledonian was set to work to create new forms of art which might tempt the distant trader to re-visit his barbarous shore. New artists designs, some of them of rare ingenuity and exquisite beauty, arose in an after-age on our soil, all of them native to the land. Shut in by their four seas, these early artists had no foreign models to copy from. Nevertheless, though they had studied in no school of design, and despite the farther disadvantage under which they labored of being but ill-served by the tools with which they worked, the products of their home-born art surprise and delight us by their purity, their ingenuity, their elegance, and the finish of the workmanship. More graceful designs were not to have been seen in the famous studios of Phoenicia, or even in the more celebrated workshops of Greece.

As their numbers grew other necessities dawned upon them. The pilgrim-bond, so strong when they arrived in the country, now began to be relaxed and to loose its hold. They felt the need of laws and of a stronger authority than the Parental to govern them. First came the chief, whose rule extended over a tribe. When quarrels broke out between tribe and tribe, a higher authority still—a chief of chiefs—was felt to be needed for the government of the community, and the administration of the laws. Now came the king. This brings us to that long procession of august personages which Fordoun and Boethius make to defile past us, and which they dignify with the title of monarchs. These far-off and dimly-seen potentates may not be mere shadows after all; they may have had an actual existence, and exercised a rude sovereignty in those obscure times; but it does not concern us to establish their historic identity, and celebrate over again the glory of those valorous and worthy exploits which they have been made to perform on the battle-field, and which, doubtless, if ever they were achieved, received due laud from the age in which they were done


FOOTNOTES

1. This is the manuscript known to Egyptologists as the Prisse Papyrus. It was found at Thebes, and is now in the library of Paris. Its author was Ptah-hotep, son of King Tatkara Assa of the Vth dynasty, of Elephantine. It contains moral maxims and admonitions to the practice of virtue, and most remarkable of all, mentions not one Egyptian god.—Harkness, Egyptian Life and History, p. 18.

2. Wilson, Pre-historic Annals of Scotland, p. 76, Edin. 1851.


 

 


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