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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The world, the hearts blood dyes my
"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-Jamess throat he sprung.
Received, but recked not of, a wound,
And locked his arms his foeman round.
Now gallant Saxon, hold thine own!
No maidens hand is round thee thrown!
That desperate grasp thy frame might feel
Throught bars of brass and triple steel!
They tug, they strain! down, down, they go.
The Gael above, Fitz-James below.
The Chieftains 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!
But hate and fury ill supplied
The stream of lifes exhausted
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 Chiefs relaxing grasp:
Unwounded from the dreadful close.
But breathless all, Fitz-James arose.
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