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Scots Humour and Heroism
Chapter XI - The Clans and their Home


The clan was the Highland unit. It was an extended family, ruled by a chief in the true patriarchal manner. Under the chief were the chieftains; and under each chieftain were a number of taksmen. It was quite a feudal arrangement on a small scale.

These clans were very numerous. Though often at war with each other, they were ready to unite against the Lowlands. They were always in good fighting trim both by sea as well as land, for the Island men made splendid sailors. Long ago all had reached a high standard of endurance and physical strength; and that standard has scarcely declined to the present day.

A few years since there was a certain coasting vessel manned by Lowlanders. One of the crew, however, was a Highlandman; and when they came to a certain port he gave trouble. The captain ordered him to leave the ship. The Highlander refused. The captain then sent two men, and afterwards six, to remove the objectionable seaman. But the seaman held on to the woodwork, and could not be moved. The captain then bethought himself of a plan.

They were in port, and the donkey-engine was going. He got the chains wound round the obstinate hillman, and then set the machine to work. The idea was to hoist him in triumph over the side.

But Mac was not so easily disposed of. He took hold of a little deck-house and defied the engine. At last something gave way. - But it was not the Highlander's grip. It was the woodwork of the deck-house! And, whisk! there was Mac hanging in mid-air, carrying with him two thirds of the deck-house and its furniture in his arms. The captain had smashed his own vessel; yet Mac had kept his purpose, at least so far as not to let go.

The story - which of course sounds like an exaggeration - was told us for truth by a Lowland engineer who witnessed the whole proceeding. This engineer - a kind of small Samson himself - admitted he was as a baby beside Mac.

The traveller in North Scotland is not always prepared for the bodily prowess and the tenacity of purpose he may suddenly encounter. The people he meets address him with a ready politeness, self-respecting and refined; and he hears all around him a pleasant murmur of soft speech. There is not a harsh or discordant voice. How sensitive these good folk are, he thinks; and how full of delicate feeling! How considerate and deferential they can be, and how stately, towards the stranger, towards one another ! It is all quite true. But there are strong forces underneath; and the clansman, who is so courteous towards others in speech and manner, expects to be treated with a like consideration in turn.

Here again the result is much personal independence, and a keenly developed clan-consciousness. When you visit Scotland, take care not to jumble up in your mind all the clans in one homogeneous mass! There were great differences between them formerly, and these are not yet obliterated. Legend and history are by no means forgotten. The very tartans they wear show that each clan is proud of its old traditions. Many were the distinctive titles, too, that they went by. There were Gay Gordons and Royal Stuarts. There were MacLeans and MacNeils in the Islands. There were Frazers and Camerons on the Mainland.

The MacPhersons enjoyed the appellation of the "red MacPhersons", from their bright complexion and brilliant hair. An Englishman leaving the train hurriedly at Braemar missed his waterproof; and, as the train had not left the station, he raced back to the carriage to look for it. The compartment was full.

"What do you want?" said half a dozen voices.

"I beg you pardon," he said, "but did you happen to see a black mackintosh here anywhere?"

"Go awa, man, go awa," they said indignantly, "there's no black MacIntosh here. We're all red MacPhairsons".

The Mackays were distinguished for the number of soldiers they sent forth into other lands in early and in later times.

In the wars of Gustavus Adolphus they were very much to the fore; for the Mackays could produce organizers and statesmen, and they carried the fame of their house far through Europe.

Stout Protestants they were, and many of them came to the Netherlands in the ranks of the well-known Scottish Brigade that helped Holland in her wars with Spain. The Regiments comprising this Brigade were constantly recruited North of the Tweed and remained in the service of the States General for about two centuries. Their long presence in the Low Countries accounts for the Highland names one finds there to the present hour.

Then there were the MacFarlanes and the Macaulays, who were famous in other fields. The MacDonalds were the Lords of the Isles, and exercised a kind of independent sovereignty there. The Macleods occupied the Hebrides to the North of the MacDonalds, and had wonderful traditions.

On account of their fierce rebellions and unconquerable spirit the MacGregors were deprived of their name for centuries. During that time no member of the clan was allowed to conduct any legal business, as it were in propria persona. Whenever he bought or sold, he was obliged to do so under an assumed name, or else run the risk of having all he had done considered null and void. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, however, this clan was reinstated in its rights.

Some clans, like the Campbells, knew the Lowlands well, and assimilated Southern culture as soon as it came. But in the Western Isles culture entered by way of France, before it reached them on the East.

Norway had held possession of the Islands for a long period previous to this, and had made its influence felt through the Highlands. Thus, both France and Norway were the mediums through which European thought made itself felt in the more mountainous districts. Of course the Lowlands were closely enough in touch with England, and they traded even from the earliest times with all parts of the Continent.

The singular thing is, that the isolated glens remained very much apart from the rest of the country; and, indeed, before 1745 they were deemed to be almost inaccessible. The effects of this seclusion were very marked. The clansmen of these remote regions long retained their primitive simplicity and superstition.

Naturally, when they followed their chief elsewhere they found much that was astonishing, especially in the cities. But one thing a mountaineer never did - and that was, to show surprise.

In that charming volume, "A summer in Skye," Alexander Smith tells us that no Islander will admit that any sight is new to him. In Glasgow, for instance, they assumed the immobility of a Red Indian at all the marvels of the port. To wonder at any Saxon machinery or contrivance or arrangement of social life, would be bad form. It would disgrace their clan and themselves. So, though astounded beyond words, they remain cool, casual and self-possessed, - like a Highland Regiment when it is commanded to halt under a rain of bullets. As the Highlander won't ask the meaning of anything, he makes mistakes. A certain Donald and Dugald were once walking in the streets of Glasgow. It was Dugald's first time. A watering-cart passed, with water briskly squirting out behind. Dugald shouted: "Man, there's a hole in your cart. You're losing it all."

Donald interrupted him: "Whisht", he said, "that's only to keep the wee laddies frae climbing up behind."

But these are things of the past; they belong to that period described in the moving stories of Neil Monro's "Lost Pibroch." Neil Munro's "Lost Pibroch" tells of war and love and chivalry and the whole inner life of the little Princedoms into which the country was divided. It lays moreover a just emphasis upon that faithfulness and jealous loyalty of the clansmen, which really has never been surpassed. Then Gaelic was universal. Now English is understood almost everywhere.

The struggle with nature was hard; for the ground was mostly unproductive and the climate severe. Thus, cradled in adversity and loneliness, these Highlanders grew up stoical, and strong, - but, withal, singularly sensitive and shy, and with a heart open to every one of nature's moods.

One phase of this self-possession we have seen in their refusal to express astonishment. But another extraordinary feature is their calmness under calamity. They have iron nerves.

News was brought to a Highland woman that her two sons were drowned. She was very quiet and said little. "But what did she do?" asked a neighbour. "There wass naething to do", was the reply. "She chust gaed out ant milket the cows."

Every clansman has a long pedigree. The ups and downs of fortune don't matter so much in the Land of Mist as elsewhere.

After 1745 so many noble houses were ruined that the humblest crofter may really be the descendant of kings. A Campbell was once reproaching a Maclean for some neglect. Maclean held his head high and argued irrelevantly, with somewhat elastic logic, that his clan was the oldest in the world.

"O yes," said the Campbell ironically. "Before the Flood, I suppose."

"What flood?" said Maclean.

The Campbells are good Presbyterians, and may be assumed to be versed in Scripture History. "The Flood!" said he, "why the time when everybody was drowned, except Noah and his family."

If the Campbells are good churchmen, however, the Macleans are pre-eminent as sailors. "Dinna talk nonsense to me," said Maclean, "about your flood. Wha ever heard of a flood where ta Macleans hadna a boat of their ain?"

There is a primeval force about all this, - childish, if you will; but it has the charm of a strong temperament.

No wonder that Donald thinks his ancestral tongue the finest in the world. Not ta Saxon but ta Gaelic. He delights in his language with its soft rolling assimilations, its smooth assonances, the recurring subtle shadings of long musical vowels, broken, when he wants it, by a crash of reduplicated consonants. The language goes with the scenery. You have the sleeping loch, placid and waveless, gleaming like burnished steel, and reflecting the giant mountains, where the silver birches scarcely rustle in the evening breeze.

You have, too, the jagged storm-cloud rolling inland, with far flashing dazzle of lightning, and distant reverberations echoed on from peak to peak - followed by a deluge of rain, as if the fountains of the great deep were opened. You have the cold, crisp, falling of the first flake of noiseless snow in the clear January air, when the soft leagues of downy cloud thicken on the heights and stealthily advance; and you look out, some morning, on a great white world twenty feet deep beside your garden-wall. You have it in the slow tender Spring, such as Burns loved, or that valley in Skye which Scott describes.

But here above, around, below,
On mountain or on glen,
Nor tree nor shrub nor plant nor flower,
Nor aught of vegetative power
The weary eye may ken.
For all is rocks at random thrown,
Black waves, bare crags and banks of stone.

Contrast this with the soft, undulating straths, that slope out, hill-sheltered, to the summer sea, from which you can view the shadowy outlines, delicately faint and far, of some of the storied Hebrides, a fairy scene. Or the red sunset flooding such a valley with its golden splendour, or that strange mystic twilight, when the moon rises on a vale rich with forest trees, dyed with the thousand tints of the declining year.

Little wonder if the mystery and charm of the many moods of nature grips the Highlander by the heart! And when he goes away, and wherever he goes, you hear the wail of regret: "Ha til mi tulidh"- "we return no more". - With such passionate patriotism is mingled an obstinate devotion to religion. Parts of the Highlands cling to the Old Faith, but most of it is Protestant.

Yet, whether he be Protestant or Roman Catholic,. the Mountaineer has ever been tenacious of his creed.. At once fervid and profound, that religion of his is a moving force - an ideal - a spiritual atmosphere. Conjoined to a brooding insight into nature and some. weird heritage of the hills, this religious temperament is prone to melancholy. So, ever and again the Hillman has "the gloom" - an obscure depression associated with introspection, forebodings and second sight, and charged with vague strivings, whose only expression is music - or the wild west wind - or sleet and hail - or the hollow breaker on the reef.

The bagpipes fit the great Highland glens; and nothing can rouse men's blood like "ta sound of ta pipes." Proud of their piping they are, too; and some of the most exciting contests in the world are between rival musicians.

A certain Royal Duke said he would get another piper like Donald.

"Another like me!" said the Highlander in indignation. "She can get plenty of Royal Dukes whatever. But there are no more pipers like me!"

Every nobleman has a staff of pipers to play on state occasions. The Royal Commissioner had two at Holyrood some years ago. Someone asked if they would play: "The Bonnie House o' Airlie."

"I don't think they'll do it," said the Commissioner; "for one is a Campbell; and that is a tune of a rival clan." However, the message was sent. But the Campbell piper replied that he would not play the air his master asked him." I'll see him drooned first," he answered.

Neil Munro tells, in the "Lost Pibroch", of pipers that came to a certain quiet village in a remote glen. Their tune sounded like a call from the Great World. "Come, come away for adventure." Young hearts heard it and would not stay at home. First one, then another, went away; till in a year's time all the men were gone. The sense of Fate is far stronger here than in the Lowlands where men daily see how much can be done with the powers of Nature. In the Highlands there, is, as we see in Ossian, a deep sensitiveness to the Unseen, older than the world, older than the sun, or the great void "into which all things shall fall." But it must not be supposed that the Highland spirit is tame or readily submissive even to Destiny.

In the "Lady of the Lake," Sir Walter Scott shows us this in the character he has drawn of Rhoderick Dhu. This chieftain led the disguised king, Fitz James, safe through the perilous pass, running all risks to fulfil the duties of hospitality to an enemy and keep his word.

With so chivalrous and honourable a foe the king had no mind at all to fight.

He begged the chieftain to waive the promised duel. Had it not been agreed that Fate should give the sign of victory? Whichever party first slew a man, should gain the day. And Fate had decided against Rhoderick; for the Highlanders had lost Red Murdoch. On his own theory of signs and tokens, then, Rhoderick ought to have yielded. The reply was characteristic.

Dark lightning flashed from Rhoderick's eye -
"Soars thy presumption, then, so high,
Because a wretched kerne ye slew,
Homage to name to Rhoderick Dhu?
He yields not, he, to man or Fate!
Thou add'st but fuel to my hate.
My clansman's blood demands revenge. -
Not yet prepared? - By heaven, I change
My thought, and hold thy valour light
As that of some vain carpet-knight.
Who ill deserved my courteous care,
And whose best boast is but to wear
A braid of his fair lady's hair!" -

"Now, yield thee, or by Him who made
The world, the heartís blood dyes my blade"
"Thy threats, thy mercy, I defy!
Let recreant yield who fears to die."
Like adder darting from his coil,
Like wolf that dashes through the toil,
Like mountain-cat, that guards her young.
Full at Fitz-Jamesís throat he sprung.
Received, but recked not of, a wound,
And locked his arms his foeman round.
ó
Now gallant Saxon, hold thine own!
No maidenís hand is round thee thrown!
That desperate grasp thy frame might feel
Throught bars of brass and triple steel!
ó
They tug, they strain! ó down, down, they go.
The Gael above, Fitz-James below.
The Chieftainís gripe his throat compressed.
His knee was planted in his breast:
His clotted locks he backward threw;
Across his brow his hand he drew,
From blood and mist to clear his sight.
Then gleamed aloft his dagger bright!
ó
But hate and fury ill supplied
The stream of lifeís exhausted tide,
And all too late the advantage came,
To turn the odds of deadly game:
For, while the dagger gleamed on high,
Reeled soul and sense, reeled brain and eye,
Down came the blow! But in the heath
The erring blade found bloodless sheath.
The struggling foe may now unclasp
The fainting Chiefís relaxing grasp:
Unwounded from the dreadful close.
But breathless all, Fitz-James arose.


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