Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed.
Glenora Single Malt Whisky

Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.
Scottish Review

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

The Island Clans During Six Centuries
Chapter III. - The Clansmen


"One of the first objects of an enquirer, who wishes to form a correct idea of the state of a community at a given time, must be to ascertain of how many persons that community then consisted" (Macaulay: History, Chapter III.)

In the Highlands this is not easy, for no census was there taken till 1851. In the following estimate I have confined my attention to Skye, Harris and Glenelg, where I have some data to go on, but, probably, the same causes which increased or decreased population were equally at work all over the Highlands.

In early times there is no evidence of what the population was. The force which a clan could put into the field at any given time affords no clue to the population living on the Chief's estate, for that was more a question of arms than of men. It is not till 1772 that we find any definite statements. There is a report of that date on Harris, preserved at Dunvegan, which gives the population of that island at 1993, and in the same year Pennant fixes the population of Glenelg at 700, and that of Skye at from 12,000 to 13,000, but he says that about 1750 it may have been 15,000. This drop is probably accounted for by some emigration which took place about 1769, the first reference I find to emigration in any of the papers at Dunvegan.

There is no reason to suppose that in earlier days the population was greater than it was about 1770. It was probably smaller. For centuries the clans were engaged in warfare, external or internal. These wars were carried on with ruthless ferocity, and the loss of life which they involved would alone suffice to keep down the numbers of the people.

Other causes were also at work. I have not been able to ascertain when small-pox first visited the Highlands, but it is certain that the disease made fearful ravages in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are many references to small-pox in letters preserved at Dunvegan, and the word Breac (spotted), which is added to the names of quite a number of people living in old days, implies that they were pitted with small-pox.

The disease in one outbreak carried off the whole population of St Kilda, except three men. One autumn these men were taken over to Boreray, one of the St Kilda group of islands, and left there to catch birds, it being arranged that a boat should return to fetch them in a week's time. The week passed, a month passed, the whole winter passed, and no boat came. They must have suffered great privations, but somehow they managed to exist during these weary months. At last they saw the factor's vessel arrive on its annual visit to St Kilda. They lit a fire, the smoke was seen, and a boat was sent for them. Then they learned what had happened. A few days after they had left the main island a ship had been wrecked, on which was a man suffering from small-pox. One by one, all the inhabitants of the island contracted the disease and died. That was the reason the three men had not been fetched, and death from small-pox was, in all human probability, the fate they had escaped. For these reasons I am convinced that the estimates which have been formed of a teeming population which inhabited our glens in ancient days are much exaggerated.

It was not until a much later period that the numbers of people living in the country became much greater. In the first half of the nineteenth century the population increased by leaps and bounds. The Duke of Argyle says, in his book, "Scotland As It Was And Is," that people whose food consists mainly of potatoes are usually very prolific, and, if this is the case, it may account for the great increase in population, both in Ireland and in the Highlands.

From some figures in a Gazeteer of Scotland, published in 1845, from a memorandum by the late MacLeod, about 1846, which gives approximately the population on different estates in the Highlands, and from the numbers Pennant gives, I have constructed the following table, which gives the population at different periods:—

  1772 1801 1831 1845 1911
Skye 13,000 13,728 22,796 29,500 13,319
Harris 1,993 2,996 3,900 8,500 4,974
Glenelg 700 2,834 2,874 1,800 481

I cannot account for the figures in Glenelg, but I imagine that Pennant put the numbers too low in 1772, and that there was emigration between 1831 and 1845. The kelp industry probably caused the increase in Harris, but I have reason to believe that the number given in 1846 was too high. The rise between 1801 and 1831 took place in spite of the fact that in 1811 a great many tacksmen emigrated, taking some of their farm labourers with them. But there was no wholesale emigration till after the potato famine, when it became necessary that more than half the people should seek a livelihood in other lands. This emigration accounts for the great drop between 1845 and 1911. The subject of emigration will be further dealt with in Chapter VIII.

In the following pages I shall very frequently refer to Martin Martin. In 1707 he published an "Account of the Western Isles," which is a mine of information on the manners and customs of the Islanders, their methods of government, the dress they wore, and their personal characters. He was himself a Highlander; he was governor to the Laird of MacLeod's children, and lived for many years at Dunvegan. He was a keen observer, and deeply interested in his subject. He is the earliest, and in many ways the most instructive, of all those who have written on the Western clans, and the reader will find that I have made many quotations from his book.

There were no doubt many gradations of rank in a Highland clan, as in other communities, but, broadly speaking, we may divide the clansmen into two classes, the gentlemen "quhilkis labouris not the ground," as the report of 1590 calls them, and the humbler classes, who did labour the ground. The first class included the Chiefs, the Chieftains, the members of their families, and the more important office-bearers in the Chief's household, the harpers, pipers, bards, seannachies and standard bearers.

They were the aristocracy of the Islands. Though they did no manual work, they certainly did not lead inactive lives. Some of them were educated for the priesthood. The MacKinnons, who appear to have been the most ecclesiastically-minded family in the Isles, produced more than one Bishop, and one or two Abbots of Iona. One of the MacLeod Chiefs, having intended to take Holy Orders, is always spoken of as "an cleireach," the clerk, and the names of many dignitaries of the Church, who belonged to one or other of the leading families in the Highlands, are mentioned in history.

Even in those early days the management of a farm required some knowledge of how the land should be tilled, and of how live stock should be treated. Moreover, the operations of those who actually "laboured the ground" had to be directed, and the sons of a Chieftain must have received some instruction on such matters during their youth, and devoted some time to such avocations as they grew older.

But undoubtedly war was the main occupation pursued by members of this class. From their earliest childhood they were trained in the use of arms ; as they grew up they became the officers who instructed the youth of the clan in the art of war, and led them out to the field of battle. On their valour and efficiency the safety of a clan often depended ; and, though they did not labour the ground, it cannot be denied that they played a very important part in securing the welfare of the clan to which they belonged.

But the existence of a purely military class in any community is always a danger, and it is likely that the influence of these men brought about many of the disastrous feuds in which the clans were plunged at one time in their history.

It is not easy to ascertain what percentage of the population belonged to this class. If all the descendants of early gentlefolk claimed the privilege through the centuries, their numbers must have been very large; but I imagine that they did not generally do so. The Banatyne MS. mentions several families which "had been once powerful, but the members of which, while they retained their pride of birth, had become no more than peasants." Moreover, the gentlemen of a clan took part in every war, and as the officers of an army always lose more heavily in a campaign than the rank and file, losses on the field of battle must have kept down their numbers. It is also certain that some of the gentlemen of the Isles sought an outlet for their energies in foreign lands. About 1390 a younger son of the Dunvegan Chief migrated to Lorraine, where he founded a family of some distinction, representatives of which are still living in Canada. A little later some West Highlanders were to be found in the Scottish Guards of the French King. Later still, when employment in warlike enterprises was no longer to be found at home, large numbers of them took service in Holland, Sweden, Germany, and wherever mercenary troops were employed in the wars of the time. I incline to the opinion that between eight and ten per cent. of the population were of gentle birth.

A very important class in every clan was that to which the seannachies and bards belonged. These men were historians and genealogists. There were hereditary seannachies in the household of every Chief, and it was their business to learn from their fathers all the records of the past, to recite them at the banquets in their Lord's hall, and to hand them down to their descendants. Their knowledge was very rarely committed to paper until comparatively recent times, and some writers hold that the traditions, which have come down to us, are without any value for historical purposes.

But three circumstances are worthy of consideration. In the first place, the seannachies were trained men. It appears that there were colleges in Ireland, where history and genealogy were taught, and that many of our Highland bards and seannachies had been educated at these seats of learning. Secondly, just as John Barbour put his history of "the Brus" into metrical form, so the old Highland traditions were put into the form of poems. This made it easier to remember them, and though it did not prevent a fraudulent bard from interpolating spurious matter of his own, it made it less likely that he should do so accidentally. In the third place, the bards and seannachies not only had to recite their effusions before chiefs and clansmen, who would be unlikely to detect any errors they might make, but also in the presence of other bards and seannachies, who would be perfectly capable of doing so, and who, as there was a great deal of jealousy amongst these men, would certainly not allow them to pass unchallenged.

These considerations induce me to believe that, in the old traditions which have come down to us, we have more or less trustworthy records of events which really did take place in the past.

The upper classes in the West Highlands possessed many great and remarkable virtues, but they suffered from one very serious failing. They were much addicted to strong drink. Their Norse ancestors had certainly not been averse to deep potations, and they probably inherited from them the taste for strong drink. We know that in the seventeenth century great quantities of wine and brandy were being brought into the country, and that the drinking was very heavy. So serious was the evil that the Secret Council had to interfere, and limit the amount of wine which each Chief might import. It is quite likely that, in earlier centuries, the same custom prevailed, and that wine and brandy were imported from France. Possibly then also there may have been the same excessive drinking among the Chiefs and Chieftains, who could afford to buy these expensive refreshments.

But there is no evidence that there was any drunkenness among the poorer classes. They certainly could not afford to drink imported wine or brandy. They brewed some ale or mead from barley for their own use, but, my informant tells me, it was non-intoxicating. Spirits were not distilled in the country till some time in the seventeenth century. Martin Martin says that in his time "their drink was water," and I think it more than likely that they had been equally abstemious in earlier days.

I imagine that the upper classes were well and plentifully fed. Each autumn, "marts," as the beasts used for this purpose were called, were killed and salted down for use in the winter, so they had plenty of beef. But Martin Martin tells us that the humbler classes "ate very little meat. Their food was butter, milk, cheese, brochan (porridge), colworts, and bread." Colworts are a kind of cabbage, and this implies that they grew these vegetables. The bread was probably either oatcake or barley cakes, perhaps both. This can scarcely be called luxurious fare, but they seem to have thriven on it very well. Martin goes on to say that they were "healthy and vigorous, and capable of strenuous and prolonged exertion by land and sea," and in a report concerning the men whom the Lord of the Isles took to Ireland in 1545 to co-operate with the troops of Henry VIII. in a campaign in that country, they are described as "very tall men."

It is somewhat curious that fish is not included among the articles of food which, according to Martin, the Islesmen ate. They were certainly not ardent fishermen, but I imagine that they did catch and consume fish in the old days.

They were clad in the same dress as the one their ancestors had worn from time immemorial. The extreme antiquity of the costume is absolutely proved by the fact that Highlanders are to be seen wearing such a dress on many old crosses and tomb-stones in different parts of the country. Among these are the crossses at Dupplin and Nigg, both of which probably date from the ninth century, MacMillan's cross at Kilmory in Knapdale dating from the fourteenth century, and a MacLeod tomb-stone at Iona, probably of the same date. It may be noted also that Magnus, King of Norway, got the surname of "Barefoot," because, after he returned from his expedition to the Isles in 1093, he adopted the dress which was then being worn by his Hebridean subjects.

Three early writers describe the dress as it was worn in their own times—John Major (1512), Bishop Leslie (1578), and Martin Martin (1707). From their accounts of it I shall try to obtain a clear idea concerning the evolution of the kilt as we know it.

Its earliest form was the "lenicroich." In this, kilt, waistcoat and coat were combined in one. It was a strip of linen 18 yards long ; the breadth is not mentioned ; the portion which went round the waist was "stitched in many folds," and secured in its place by a belt. Like our kilt, it fellas far as the knees. The rest of the garment was draped round the body, and fastened on the breast with a "bodkin of bone or wood." The lenicroichs worn by the gentlemen were yellow in colour, being dyed with saffron ; those worn by the humbler classes were "painted or daubed with pitch." This was probably the only garment worn by all classes in summer.

The lenicroich, being made of linen, was not very warm, so in cold weather the common people covered it with deerskin, while the gentlemen wore "a mantle" over it. This was undoubtedly the garment which we call a plaid. It is described by Bishop Leslie in 1578 as "long and flowing, but capable of being neatly gathered up at pleasure into folds." Bishop Leslie also says that in his time "both nobles and common people wore mantles of one sort, except that the nobles preferred those of different colours," probably tartans. I gather from this that by his time the common people had given up covering their linen garment with deerskin, and had taken to wearing plaids, but theirs, it is clear, were not tartan plaids. Such was the Highland dress down to the end of the 16th century.

Martin tells us that about the year 1607 a new form of the costume was evolved. Wool was the material used instead of linen. This being much warmer, it was unnecessary to wear anything over it, even in winter, and the mantle or plaid became the upper part of the one garment which was now worn. This was called the "breakan or plaid." The plaid does not mean here the robe we call by that name, but the single garment, which included kilt, coat, waistcoat, and plaid in one. Martin thus describes it: "It was made of fine wool of divers colours, its length is commonly seven double ells. It is tied on the breast with a bodkin of bone or wood; it is pleated from the belt to the knee very nicely." I gather from this that it was a reproduction of the lenicroich in cloth, a good deal heavier, because the material was thicker, and including four parts of the modern dress instead of three. The division of the one garment into four probably took place in the 18th century.

The descriptions given by different authorities as to what our forefathers wore on their heads, legs and feet, differ a good deal. "D'Arteille, the French Ambassador, who accompanied James V. on his Hebridean voyage in 1540, says "they go with their heads bare, and allow their hair to grow very long, and they wear neither stockings nor shoes, except some who wear buskins, made in a very old fashion, which come as high as their knees." But Martin says, "the shoes anciently worn were pieces of the hide of a cow, horse or deer, with the hair on, being tied behind and before with a piece of leather. The generality now wear shoes having only one thin sole." In 1618 John Taylor says that "they wore shoes with but one sole a-piece, and stockings which they call short hose, made of warm stuff of divers colours, which they call tartans, with blue, flat caps on their heads." I fancy that both bonnets and shoes were occasionally worn, but not always. They were possibly worn by the gentlemen, but not by the common people.

No mention is made of a sporran, but I think it likely that one was worn, as there was no pocket in any part of the old Highland dress.

Martin says that in his time the "trowis" were frequently worn in the West Highlands. The dress was introduced from Ireland in the 16th century. The main peculiarity of the costume was that the tight-fitting breeches and the stockings were united in one garment, which was secured round the waist by a belt. These were called long hose, the short hose were stockings.

All the authorities agree in saying that the dress of the women, which was called the "arisad" in ancient times, was very picturesque. It was designed on the same principle as the men's. It consisted of one garment made of white material, striped with red, black or blue. It was longer than the men's, reaching to the ankles. The lower part, which was pleated all round, was fastened by a leather belt. The upper part was draped round the body. Red sleeves of scarlet cloth were worn, which had on them silver buttons set with fine stones. The head-dress was a linen kerchief. Large locks of hair hung down in front over their cheeks. A great many ornaments were worn; both necklaces and bracelets are mentioned by Bishop Leslie. Martin tells us that on the belt which fastened the skirt was a piece of plate, curiously engraven, about eight inches long by three broad, the end of which was adorned with fine stones or with pieces of red coral.

Out of doors over this dress a plaid was worn, similar to that of the men. "This was fastened on the breast with a buckle of silver or brass, according to the quality of the wearer. It was broad as an ordinary pewter plate, and curiously engraved with animals and other devices."

"A lesser buckle was worn in the middle of the larger one, about two ounces in weight. It had in the centre a large piece of crystal, or some fine stone, and it was set all round with several finer stones of a lesser size."

There has been much controversy as to whether the clan tartans, as we know them, are really ancient or not. It is certain that Highland gentlemen began to wear plaids of divers colours over the lenicroich at a very early period, and that, as Martin says, "a great deal of ingenuity was required in sorting the colours so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy." From these words one might argue that the colours employed were merely matters of individual taste, but a little further on he says—"Every Isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the stripes, or breadths, or colours. This humour is equally different throughout the mainland of the Highlands, in so far that they who have seen those places, are able, at the first view of a man's plaid, to guess the place of his residence."

Martin, I think, cannot mean that Islands which were divided between two or three clans had only one tartan. They must certainly have been divided into districts just as the mainland was.

It will be observed that he does not say that each clan had its own tartan, but that each island had its own distinctive pattern. He was probably thinking of those clans which, like the Macdonalds of Clanranald and the MacLeods, were in possession of several islands or districts. The former owned South Uist, the Small Isles, and great estates in Garmoran; the latter possessed Harris, a large part of Skye, and Glenelg.

From Martin's words I infer that, while those clans whose territory was in a ring fence had only one tartan, those whose possessions were widely scattered had several tartans, one for each island or district which they owned, so that an observer could not only tell to what clan a man belonged by viewing the plaid which he wore, but, as Martin says, the "place of his residence."

If this was the case, I think that probably these island tartans were modifications of the one worn by the Chief of the Clan, just as the tartans, which were worn by the different branches of the Clan Donald were modifications of the one worn by the Lord of the Isles. This is clearly seen in the coloured plates which appear in Mr Mackay's book on the subject.

Whether this interpretation of Martin's meaning is true or not, I think that his words clearly prove that distinctive tartans were being worn in the 17th century, and the quotation from Bishop Leslie's statement, which is given above, makes it probable that they were in use a hundred years earlier, when the gentlemen of a clan wore mantles over their saffron shirts.

But all this, I think, applies to the gentlemen. It is extremely doubtful whether the rank and file of a clan ever wore tartans at all. Bishop Leslie implies that their mantles were plain, and when we consider the amount of skill and labour involved in weaving tartans, it is unlikely that it would have been possible to supply the whole clan with such plaids.

None of the early writers give any details as to the patterns worn by particular clans, and with this important branch of the question I have not attempted to deal. I have only striven to show that on the evidence before us it is certain that in ancient times distinctive clan and district tartans were worn by our ancestors, at all events by the gentlemen in each clan.

The character and disposition of the West Highlanders have been described in very varying terms by different writers. The author of the early seventeenth century "Historie of King James the Sixth" gives the following account of them:— "Trew it is," he writes, "that thir Islandish men are of nature verie proud, suspicious, avaritious, full of decept and evill intentionn each aganis his nychtbour, be what way soever he can circumvin him. Besydis all this, they are sa crewell in taking of revenge that neither have they regard to person, age, tyme or caus; sa are they all sa far addicted to their owin tyrannical opinions that, in all respects, they exceid in creweltie the maist barbarous people that ever has bene, sen the begynning of the warld."

No doubt this account was written by an extremely prejudiced Lowlander, who had no first-hand knowledge of the Islanders at all, and who based his account of them on the vague, and probably exaggerated stories of Highland barbarities which were flying about the Scottish capital. Still, it is quite possible that there may be some element of truth in his description of what the people were in the sixteenth century. The country was at that time in a terrible state, and it is quite conceivable that, having lived for more than a century in such an atmosphere of cruelty and revenge, they may have lost the kindliness and goodness of heart which was natural to them.

We shall get a far more correct idea of their real character from the testimony of men who wrote after this dreadful time had passed away. Martin Martin, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, gives the following description of the West Highlanders:— "They are a very sagacious people. They have a great genius for music and mechanics. There are many of them who invent tunes. Some are very dexterous in engraving trees, birds, dogs, etc., on bone, horn or wood, without any other tool than a sharp-pointed knife. They have a quick vein of poesy, and compose pieces which powerfully affect the fancy. They are happily ignorant of many vices that are practised in the learned and polite world. They have a great respect for their Chiefs, and they conclude grace after every meal with a petition to God for their welfare."

I am convinced that Martin has faithfully described to us the true character of the West Highlanders in his time. Not one word does he say about their being cruel, treacherous, or revengeful. He describes them as possessing many excellent and attractive qualities, and we, who know and love their descendants at the present day, realise that his account of them continues to be true now.

It cannot be denied that they had their faults. They had an inordinate pride of race, and despised with whole-hearted but ignorant contempt the Sassenachs, whose methods of life were different to their own. They imagined that there was something degrading in the pursuits of trade and commerce, and thought that warfare, hunting, and athletic sports were the only occupations worthy of a man's attention; they disliked strenuous and sustained exertion, and they threw on the shoulders of the weaker sex the manual labour, which, in other countries, was performed by the men.

In his history (Chapter 3), Macaulay describes in the following words this unfortunate trait in their character:—"An observer, who was qualified to judge the people fairly, would have been struck by the spectacle of athletic men basking in the sun, while their aged mothers and tender daughters were reaping the scanty harvest of oats. Nor did the women repine at their hard lot. In their view it was quite fit that a man, specially if he assumed the aristocratic title of "Duine Uasal," and adorned his bonnet with an eagle's feather, should take his ease, except when he was hunting, fighting or marauding, and in their opinion a high-born gentlemen was much more becomingly employed in plundering the land of others than in tilling his own." Macaulay's pictures are often overdrawn, but I think that it is certain that chivalry towards women was not a virtue of the mediaeval Highlanders. These were serious shortcomings, but our forefathers had many good qualities to set against their faults.

They were essentially a manly people. They delighted in such sports as wrestling, throwing the hammer, putting the stone, and tossing the caber. The Chiefs used often to organise great athletic meetings for their clansmen. To these they invited their brother Chiefs to come and bring with them the finest athletes in their clans to compete with the champions of other clans. These meetings were marked features in the lives which our forefathers lived, and immensely stimulated the keenness for athletic sports amongst the clansmen. A young man thought no effort too great if he could but win the honour of representing his clan at such a gathering.

Hunting the deer was another favourite sport. Great gatherings were held for this purpose, primarily for the amusement of the Chief and his friends, or sometimes to afford an opportunity for the discussion of treasonable designs against the King, but large numbers of the humbler classes were employed at these meetings, and took the greatest delight in them.

Hundreds of men were employed to drive all the deer in a vast tract of country to some given point, where the Chief and his guests awaited them. Numbers of deer-hounds were held in leash till the deer appeared. These were then loosed, the deer were attacked with bows and arrows, in later times with arquebuses; those that the dogs had pulled down, or those which had been wounded by the sportsmen, were dispatched with dirks and daggers, and it often happened that seventy or eighty deer would be killed in a single drive. The venison so obtained was distributed amongst the people in the neighbourhood.

But athletic sports and hunting were tame things in the eyes of our ancestors compared with the great game of war. They loved the joy of battle for its own sake. They were extraordinarily brave, very hardy, capable of bearing the severest privations, and, as they rendered implicit obedience to their Chiefs, extremely well disciplined. Probably they were and are the finest soldiers in the world.

But mingled with the love of sport and war were very different tastes and qualities which raised them far above the level of savage soldiers, or of men who only lived for pleasure and amusement. They had in them a very real love of music, and their music was not the beating of tomtoms practised by savages, but the high-class music of a refined people. I quote some of Skene's remarks on the subject (Scottish Highlanders, page 140):—"The style of the Highland airs is singular, being chiefly remarkable for its great simplicity, wildness, and pathos of expression. The scale used is different from the ordinary or diatonic scale, and is defective, wanting the fourth and the seventh, but this very defect gives rise to the pleasing simplicity and plaintiveness of the Highland melody, and imparts to their music a character peculiarly adapted to the nature of their poetry."

The scale Skene refers to is called the pentatonic. One can play it on the piano by starting on F sharp and only playing the black notes. Much old Highland music is in this scale, but in some the diatonic scale, or an approach to it, appears to have been used.

Harps and "clarishas" were the instruments used in early days. The strings of the former were made of sinews, those of the latter were made of brass wire. "These strings they strike either with their nails growing long, or with an instrument appointed for that use. They take great pleasure to decke their harps and clarishas with silver and precious stones, and poor ones who cannot attayne hereunto decke them with Chrystall." (Certayne curious matters touching Scotland, 1797, quoted by Skene). An old Highland harp has been preserved in the family of Lude.

On some ancient stones dating from the ninth century, or even earlier, are carved representations of harps exactly similar to the one at Lude; therefore it is certain that the harp was used in very early days. Two of these stones reveal the fact that a horn was also used at remote periods for purposes of hunting.
The bagpipes came into use at a later time. Dr MacBain says:—"It came to Scotland in the fourteenth century, and reached the Highlands in the sixteenth century." Major (1521) does not mention it among Highland musical instruments, but Buchanan, 50 years later, says "the Highlanders used it for war purposes. They also improved it by adding the big drone Hence the "piob mhor." It is thoroughly non-Gaelic in origin."

A tradition says that Alasdair, who was the Chief at Dunvegan from 1480 to 1547, gave to the MacCrimmons, the famous pipers of his clan, the lands of Boreraig, where they afterwards founded their college. This tradition may possibly imply that there had not been a family of hereditary pipers attached to the clan before Alasdair's time, and in this way supports Dr MacBain's statement. It is certain that, after this time, pipers, as well as harpers, were attached to the household of every ruler of a clan, and occupied positions of great dignity and importance.

Both classes of men were held in great esteem by the Chiefs, and were highly honoured among all classes of the community. In the seventeenth century accounts at Dun-vegan, I find entries for the payment, not only of the Chief's own pipers, the MacCrimmons, but of pipers in all the districts into which the estate was divided. Probably these men were not merely placed in the positions they held to play to the people, but also to instruct the most promising young folk among them in the art of music.

Besides the harpers and pipers who belonged to every clan, bands of wandering minstrels used to traverse the country. They found a cordial welcome alike in the castles of the Chiefs, and in the houses of the people, for they ministered to the love of music which was so strong in all classes.

Fortunately, an immense quantity of the music, which was the delight of the people in the old days, has been preserved. The composers never wrote it down. They could not have done so, for it is probable that they did not know their notes, but their music had the stamp of genius on it, and it has lived on in the memories of the people.

Pipers are still maintained in the households of some Highland families, and a band of pipers is attached to every Highland regiment. These men have preserved a rich store of the old music, the pibrochs, the laments, the salatus, the marches, the strathspeys, the reels, and all the varieties of music which the old composers developed. This music is now safe, it is printed in numerous volumes, though, as might be expected in music which has been handed down by memory from generation to generation, it is not easy to be sure which rendering of any given tune may be the one originally intended by the composer.

Vocal music was no less popular than instrumental among the Highlanders. Now, unhappily, the young people no longer learn the old songs from their elders, and for this reason there was a very great danger that, as the older generation of people died out, these would be forgotten. Fortunately, enthusiastic collectors, who could speak Gaelic, and who possessed good ears for music, have been hard at work. They have visited the people in their homes, they have won their confidence, they have listened to the old songs, they have taken down both words and tunes, they have arranged accompaniments, and the songs, like the old pipe music, are safe for all time. One of the most indefatigable of these workers was Miss Frances Tolmie, who only passed to her rest in December 1926. I had the great privilege of knowing her well in her later years. To Miss Tolmie, Mrs Kennedy Fraser owes several of the songs included in her invaluable collection.

Careful study of these songs makes one fact clear; the people used to sing at their work. There are songs to be sung when they were spinning, knitting, weaving, "walking the cloth" and rowing. Perhaps there is no stronger proof than this that they had a real love of music in their hearts.

The fact that amongst the pipe music which remains are many reels implies that the people loved dancing. Dance music could only have been composed to meet a demand for it, and I think that the dancing, which forms a part of all Highland meetings, is a survival of the old love of that amusement, which has been to a great extent killed in modern times by the strict rules of the Church.

Our forefathers took a keen and intelligent interest in history. At the banquets of the Chiefs the assembled guests loved to listen to the tales of the bards and sennachies, which, in the absence of books, were the only records of the past.

Among the humbler classes the "ceilidhs" were a never-failing source of joy in the long winter evenings, as, indeed, they still are. At a ceilidh they gathered together in each other's houses to tell and listen to old traditions. It is a remarkable fact that, while these old stories, which we so highly value now, have been completely forgotten by the well-to-do classes, they have been remembered and handed down from one generation to another in the homes of the poor. We may be thankful that so many have been preserved by ardent enthusiasts, who deserve our warm gratitude as much as those others who have saved the music of the past from oblivion. I know of no more zealous workers in this direction than Miss Tolmie, previously mentioned, and Mr John Mackenzie, the factor at Dunvegan.

But old traditions concerning the history of bygone days were not the only subjects dealt with at the ceilidhs. The people also loved tales of fairies, water-kelpies, gruagachs, witches, and all kinds of supernatural occurrences. Mr John F. Campbell of Islay has published a large collection of these in his "Popular Tales of the West Highlands," and I have been told a great many of them by Mr Mackenzie. A number of these old stories will be found in Chapter X.

Our fathers were great lovers of poetry, and among them were found many composers of excellent verse. Macaulay's words about the genius of Highland poets are worth quoting. "It is probable that at the Highland banquets minstrels, who did not know their letters, sometimes poured forth rhapsodies in which a discerning critic might have found passages such as would have reminded him of the tenderness of Otway, or of the vigour of Dryden."

The works of many West Highland poets are preserved in the book of James MacGregor, Dean of Lismore (1512), and of Duncan Macrae (born about 1635). Among them are poets in all ranks of life. The second Earl of Argyll, his daughter Isabel, and Sir John Stewart of Appin appear side by side with labourers and farm servants among the poets. Ian Lorn (1620-1710), Robert Kirk (1641-1693), Lachlan Mackinnon (died about 1734), Murdoch Matheson, John Mackay (1666-1754), Alexander MacDonald, who was the poet of the Forty-five, are a few whose works have come down to us. Dr George Henderson says that "Clan Ranald's Galley," by the last-named poet, is the finest sea-song in any language. Not very many people can read Gaelic poetry, for many, who can speak the language fluently, cannot read it, but those who can invariably speak in the highest terms of its merits.

One of these fortunate people writes of Angus-a-Eneis, a native of Harris, who lived toward the end of the sixteenth century:—"He was renowned for the richness of his imagery and the depth of his thought." Another writes of Mary MacLeod, the most distinguished of all, who was born in 1615, and lived to the great age of 105, as being "the inimitable poetess of the Isles, and the most original of all our poets." Another writer says:—"Her versification is like a mountain stream running over a smooth bed of granite." The date generally given for Mary's birth is 1588. Professor Henderson shows good reason for believing that the date given above is probably the correct one, but it is impossible to be quite certain.

A race must have a strong vein of poesy in its nature which can produce so many bards, famous in their time, even though, owing to the language in which they expressed their thoughts being a sealed book to most of the world, they and their works are alike forgotten except by a few fortunate people.

It is impossible to conceive that a people possessing such musical, artistic, and poetic tastes can have been the monsters of cruelty, hatred, and revenge, described in the history of King James.

It is not easy to ascertain the religious condition of the people in early days. There can be little doubt that their Celtic ancestors, who had been converted to Christianity by Columba, were sincerely attached to their Church, and there is evidence that the organisation of that Church, though great changes took place in the twelfth century, continued on into later times.

It is difficult to form a decisive opinion as to whether or not the Monastic system had been established at an early period on a large scale in the West Highlands. Personally, I think it probable that it had been so established. St Columba's influence was the great vital force in religious matters throughout the Islands. It is certain that he regarded the foundation of monasteries as the best possible means of spreading Christianity, and of maintaining the zeal of his converts. Before he left Ireland he founded monasteries at Derry, Durrow, and at a great many other places. His first act when he arrived at Iona was to found a monastery there, and I think it is more than likely that he pursued the same policy when he set to work to evangelise the Western Isles, and that wherever he and his disciples went they founded a monastery.

There is some evidence that this theory is correct. There were certainly monastic establishments at Applecross, on the mainland, and at Eigg, where the community included fifty-two persons when they were murdered in 617. The ruins which remain at Columcille, in Skye, and at Sgor nam Ban-'naumha (the Skerry of the Holy Women), in Canna, indicate that in early days there were monasteries or nunneries at both places. The Report of the Royal Commission describes the former as "a cashel or monastery," and says of the latter that "the remains may be those of a cashel or monastic settlement of the Celtic type."

It is quite possible that there may have been a monastery at Rodel, in Harris, as, indeed, tradition asserts. Mackenzie says, in his History of the Outer Hebrides, page 519, on what authority I do not know, that St Clement's was the Church of a priory dependent on the Abbey of Holyrood, and that its foundation is variously attributed to MacLeod, of Harris, and to David I., King of Scotland. If it was really a priory dependent on Holyrood, the latter is the more probable assumption, and the splendour of the Church, which, after Iona, is the finest ecclesiastical building in the Hebrides, points in the same direction. Dean Munro, writing in 1549, describes it as "ane monastery with ane steipil, quhile was foundit and biggit by M'Cloyd of Herray." The Report of the Royal Commission says:—"The Dean seems to be using monastery like minster, as equivalent to a church." I incline to the opinion that the Dean meant what he said, and that, though there is no evidence that there was a monastery at Rodel in Culdee days, there really was one there in the Middle Ages.

On the whole, the evidence which indicates that the monastic system was really established throughout the Western Isles in the days of Columba, and that it continued down to the time of the Reformation, appears to be very strong.

The greatest of all the monasteries was St Columba's own foundation at Iona. I have not attempted to give an exhaustive list of all the religious houses in the Western Isles, and there were many others which I have not mentioned. The monks in all these sacred establishments must certainly have exerted a great influence over the people who lived around them.

Side by side with the Monastic system, the parochial system was flourishing. In Skye there were twelve parishes ; the ruins of three or four of the churches remain. In these we find very few signs which indicate the date when they were built. At Trumpan there is a pointed arch which may be of any date between the thirteenth century and the fifteenth, and it is probable that most of the churches are ancient buildings. They are all very small, and none could have accommodated a large congregation.

Besides the parish churches, there were a great many small chapels. None of them are more than 22 feet long. These may have been attached to outlying townships, and they were possibly served by monks from the monasteries. Only a few ruins remain, but it is certain that they were once very numerous, and they indicate that the people felt the need of religious ministrations, and recognised the duty of worshipping God.

There are some indications that this was really the case. The first Lord of the Isles made generous grants to the Church. These may have earned for him the title "the good Lord John," by which he is known in ancient chronicles. He and a great many other Chiefs were buried at Iona, and the desire to lie in holy ground is a sign that religious feeling was to some extent alive in them.

Tradition says that Alexander Macleod of Dunvegan was a sincerely religious man. An entry in the Lord Treasurer's accounts shews that in 1498 he had a chaplain attached to his household. The entry runs as follows:— "Given to Rory MacAlexander Mak-Cloydis chapellain iiij ellis of Rissolis blak, price of the eln xxxv S, summa vii £1." It is certain that the same Chief built and endowed two churches in Harris, and it is said that, towards the end of his life, he gave over the government of his clan into the hands of his son, retired into the monastery of Rodel, and spent his closing years in penitence and prayer.

Even in the sixteenth century, when religion was certainly at a very low ebb, there are one or two hints in some of the old stories that it was not altogether dead. When the clan Ranald MacDonalds invaded the MacLeod country, about the year 1580, they found that all the people were worshipping in the church, but they do not seem to have felt any reverence for a sacred building, for they burnt the church and slaughtered the whole congregation.

I am under the impression that the islanders had at that time almost entirely lost all sense of their religion, and the first statute of Iona implies that most of the churches were in ruins, that there were very few clergy, and that those few were treated with the greatest contempt.

Of book learning our fathers knew nothing. Even the Chiefs could not write their names down to the end of the 16th century. There are many documents in existence signed by them, "with my hand led at ye pen of ye notar because I can writ not." But, if they could neither read nor write, they had wonderful memories. By oral tradition they preserved all the records of the past, the epic poems of their bards, the tales which illustrate their daily life, and handed them down to future generations. I think that it was Plato who deplored the invention of writing, because he thought that it had weakened the powers of the human memory, and possibly people who have no knowledge of books may be really no less well educated than others who have all the advantages that learning can give, and may be, as Martin says of our own ancestors, "ignorant of many vices which are practised in the learned and polite world."

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus