Island Clans During Six Centuries
Chapter VII. -
The Passing of the Old Order
IN THE ISLANDSEDUCATION, TRADE, ESTATE MANAGEMENTCROFTERS THE CLAN
SYSTEM IN FORCE UP TO 1745DESTROYED IN 1747LOVE OF PEOPLE FOR
CHIEFSPATRIARCHAL SYSTEM DESTROYED ABOUT 1770THE RESULTS.
While the events described
in the last two chapters were taking place throughout the West Highlands,
the Reformation was proceeding in the South of Scotland. The Roman
Catholic Church was practically overthrown in the days of Queen Mary and
John Knox, but a struggle almost immediately commenced in the Reformed
Church between the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians.
We are so accustomed to
think of Scotland as a purely Presbyterian country, that we forget the
strength of Episcopacy in the seventeenth century. At least half the
population were Episcopalians, possibly more than half, and the influence
they possessed is indicated by the fact that for something like sixty
years in that century, the Episcopalian form of religion was the
Established Church of Scotland.
But the Presbyterians were
also strong, and at times they completely overcame their rivals. In 1592,
Presbyterianism was established as the National Religion of Scotland. In
1606 the Bishops were restored, and in 1610 Episcopacy entirely triumphed
; in 1638 it again fell, but was once more restored about 1662, only to
fall again finally after the Revolution. It is probable that the
Reformation did not come to the Islands till after Episcopacy had become
the form of religion established in the country. Some of the Chiefs clung
to the old religion, notably Clan Ranald, but most of them became
It is clear that at this
period Episcopalian clergy were ministering to the spiritual needs of the
people. Among the papers at Dunvegan is an appointment by the Bishop dated
in 1631 to the parish of Oynert in Skye, and some tacks of tiends
beginning in 1623 from the Bishops of Argyle and the Isles.
There is very ample
evidence that the West Highlanders were sincerely attached to their
Episcopal Mother Church. This became very obvious when Episcopacy was
abolished and Presbyterianism set up as the national form of religion
after the Revolution of 1688. During the following years many Episcopalian
clergymen were forcibly ejected, and Presbyterians installed in their
places. These proceedings aroused the bitterest resentment, and it was
only slowly and by degrees that the West Highlanders became reconciled to
the Presbyterian form of worship. It is a curious fact that they have now
completely forgotten that they were once Episcopalians.
It is possible that the
attachment of the West Highlanders to the Episcopal Church may have had
something to do with their devotion to the Stuart Kings. When James VI.
was asked to give his reason for supporting the Episcopal Church, he gave
it in one short pithy sentence"No Bishop, no King." There was clearly the
idea in his mind that the Monarchical and Episcopalian systems were based
on similar principles, and he may not have been entirely mistaken. At all
events, it is certainly the case that the enemies of Charles I. and of his
successors were generally Independents or Presbyterians, while the
Royalists and Jacobites were either Roman Catholic or Episcopalian.
There is ample evidence
that the clergy met with considerable success in raising the people from
the semi-heathen state into which they had fallen in the previous century.
The West Highlanders are naturally a religious people, and when the
dreadful spirit of hatred and revenge, which had been engendered by the
clan feuds, passed away, religion gradually reassumed its power. Martin
Martin describes them as saying grace after meals, and adding to their
grace a petition for their Chief's welfare. None but a genuinely religious
people would do this.
Turning from ecclesiastical
matters to secular, we find that in the first half of the 17th century, as
time went on, fresh developments were taking place in many directions. One
of the Statutes of Iona had ordered that the Chiefs, and every man who
owned 60 cows, should send their children to be educated in the South.
Among the bills at Dunvegan are several for the "buird and entertainment"
of the Chief's sons at Glasgow, where they were being educated at the
University. The earliest of these is dated in 1622. Possibly a little
later, the Chieftains began to send their sons to schools in the South,
and, by the middle of the century, the gentlemen of the Isles were a
well-educated class. Possibly this accounts for their having become the
well-bred, courteous set of men that they certainly were during the latter
half of the seventeenth century.
I repeat here a quotation
in which Macaulay gives a description of them:"It must in fairness be
acknowledged that the patrician virtues were not less widely diffused
among the Highlanders than the patrician vices. There was no other part of
the Kingdom where such men had in such a degree the better qualities of an
aristocracy, grace and dignity of manner, self-respect, and that noble
sensibility which makes dishonour more terrible than death. A gentleman of
Skye or Lochaber would do the honours of his home with a lofty courtesy
worthy of the splendid circle of Versailles."
The education of the
humbler classes came later, but it began much earlier in Scotland than it
did in England. In 1696 and 1708, Education Acts were passed; in 1701 the
newly-founded S.P.C.K. took up the work of education. Prom early in the
century I find in the estate accounts payments to schoolmasters. The
estate contributed about £5 a year towards the salary of each teacher, and
every tacksman was bound under the conditions of his lease to make a
certain payment for the same purpose. S.P.C.K. paid salaries to teachers
of £10 to £20 a year. Other teachers only received from £6 to £11 2s 2d.
I imagine that girls shared
in these educational advantages, but Martin, whom I have so often quoted,
says " that women were anciently denied the use of writing in the Islands
to prevent love intrigues ; their parents believed that nature was too
skilful in that matter, and needed not the help of education, and
therefore writing would be of dangerous consequences to the weaker sex."
Both Parliament and S.P.C.K.,
up to 1767, insisted that English should be the language in which the
teaching was to be given. It is difficult to understand how efficient
instruction could be given in a language of which the children were
Gaelic was undoubtedly the
language of the people. In the report on Harris, dated 1772, to which I
have so often referred, it is expressly stated that out of the 1993
inhabitants, only one hundred could speak English.
No doubt the Chiefs and
tacksmen spoke both languages-Most of the Chiefs, however, lost their
Gaelic in the eighteenth century, as they were educated in the South, but
some of them appear to have been anxious that their children should learn
Gaelic. Sir A. Macdonald says, in a letter written in 1744, that his "son
Jamie is getting more Gallick at Kingsburgh than tongue can tell."
It is worthy of note that
from the census return of 1921 it appears that 48 per cent. of the people
of the County of Inverness still speak both Gaelic and English, and that
4443 persons speak no other tongue than Gaelic.
Trade with the outside
world was beginning to flourish. The most important exports were the great
droves of cattle which were annually sent South from every estate in the
country. The cattle from the Outer Isles must certainly have performed
part of the journey by sea, but those from Skye were taken to Kyleakin or
Kyle Rhea, ferried across the Sound, and went by land to Falkirk. This
implies that fairly peaceable conditions prevailed at this period on the
mainland. An old account book shows that the cost of sending a drove of
cattle South in 1670 was £13 18s 0d. This included the expenses of eleven
men and horses from Skye to Falkirk and back, a sum of £7 for "customs and
otherwise" probably the auctioneer's charges for selling the cattle, and
the wages of the men employed.
It is likely that other
commodities, such as cloth, blanketing, butter and cheese, began to be
exported at the same time. On the other hand, the bills in the Muniment
Room at Dunvegan, which begin about 1600, show that clothes and many other
articles were being bought in Glasgow, and no doubt these imports were
paid for by the exports.
During this period some
changes in estate management were taking place It is a moot question
whether the tenants on West Highland estates held tacks or leases of their
holdings in early days. Some seannachies think that they did, but I am not
aware that any tack is in existence of an earlier date than the
seventeenth century. It is, however, certain that some tacks were granted
at that period, but probably at that time the farms were not universally
held on leases. Whereas there are scores of eighteenth century tacks in
the Dunvegan Muniment Room, there are only two dated in the previous
century, and only two are given in the history of the Clan Donald.
In all the seventeenth
century tacks the duration of the lease is for the "life of the grantee,
and the life of his eldest lauchful son, and for nineteen years after the
death of his said son." In the eighteenth century the tacks only endured
for a term of years, varying from nine to fifteen. It was then the custom
that all the tacks should terminate at the same time, when the estate was
again "sett" for another term of years.
The earliest of the four
tacks to which I have referred was granted by Clanranald in 1625 "to the
parson of Finnen." The extent of the farm is 4½ marklands, a grassum is to
be paid in four annual instalments of 1100 merks; after this is paid, the
rent is to be 40 merks. Besides the rent, the tenant and his successors
are to "give thair personal service and presens to me and my airis in all
our oasting, hunting, and convening, as all the remanent possessoris sall
do and perform."
In 1626 a tack was granted
by MacDonald of Sleat to Neil MacDonald of Boreray, in North Uist. The
rent was to be £40 a year and 10 merks for teinds; no grassum was payable,
but a provision for service is inserted, "the said Neil owand service to
me by sea and land, as use and wont is."
This service was
undoubtedly military service. The word "oasting" is hosting, that is,
gathering the host of the clan together for war.
It should be noted that a
grassum is a sum of money paid by a tenant when his lease is renewed.
In the two later tacks
preserved at Dunvegan, the tack of Strond, in Harris, dated 1657, and the
tack of Gesto, in Skye, dated 1674, this clause as to service is omitted.
This marks the great change which had taken place in the condition of the
country. On the mainland desperate clan battles continued to be fought up
to almost the end of the seventeenth century. The last of these was the
battle of Mulroy, between the Macdonalds of Keppoch and the Mackintoshes,
in 1688, but in the Islands the last was the attack made in 1625 by
several clans, acting under orders from the King, on the MacIans of
In 1625 the possibility of
attack by a hostile clan was still present in men's minds, and this
provision was inserted in the tack. By 1657 it had passed away. "Oasting"
might still be necessary to raise men to fight for the Kings of the house
of Stuart, but the existence of a clan no longer depended on it, and the
devoted loyalty of the clansmen to the King made any such provision
superfluous, so it was omitted. In one later tack, however, which is dated
1707, Clanranald, after reciting the terms on. which certain lands were
let to his bard, McVurich, says:"I also oblige me and my heirs to warrand
the said lands to any one of his heirs, who shall be capable of serving in
the station and office he now serves me in, of bard and seannachie."
Whether the tenants on West Highland estates had ever in earlier times
held tacks of their farms or not, they had never, as I believe, been
called tacksmen. They now became known by that name, but, beyond the fact
that their name was altered, there was no change in the position they
They still held the same
farms on which their forbears had been settled from time immemorial. It is
likely that some of the onerous services, which they had previously
rendered to their Chiefs, gradually ceased to be demanded. They were no
longer expected to attend on him as gentlemen in waiting, to give him and
his numerous train of followers unlimited hospitality, or to receive as
guests any sorners whom he might choose to quarter on them; but in other
respects things went on as they had done before until after the '45.
Whether military service was stipulated for in their tacks or not, the
tacksmen still continued to render it; they still commanded their people
in war, and governed them in peace. In a word, they still remained far
more than tenants, as we understand the word.
The eldest son of a
tacksman almost invariably succeeded his father. As I have pointed out, it
was frequently provided for in the tack that he should do so. In early
days the younger sons had generally remained at home. When the clan feuds
were raging their services as leaders of the fighting force of the clan
were all-important, but when these ceased, it is probable that an
increasing number of the young men of this class went abroad, and took
service under foreign potentates. Some, at all events, joined Mackay's
Regiment, and went to Sweden, and there were many Highlanders engaged in
the wars in Germany.
In the Dunvegan rent roll
of the Skye estate, dated 1664, twenty-four farms appear as being held by
104 small tenants. I think it is probable that these were the farms which
the Chief had originally kept in his own hands, and which had been
cultivated for him by his own immediate dependents. I surmise that, at
some period before 1664, he had ceased to keep any land in his own hands,
and had divided these farms amongst the men who had formerly worked them
for him, thus creating a new class of tenants, a class which we know at
the present day as crofters.
But a reference to the
rental shows that these small holdings were much larger than the crofts
Taking the merk in those
days as roughly equivalent to the pound sterling of to-day, two or three
are rented at £45, though some are as low as £11. The average is about
£20, and these sums do not include the additional rent paid in kind.
Probably these holdings have been sub-divided in later times. This, I
believe, is the real origin of the crofting system.
But these changes were
trivial. Down to the middle of the eighteenth century the clan system was
still in full force, alike for purposes of peace and war. The Chief,
assisted by the tacksmen, still continued to rule over his people. I find
several instances, which show that they did so, in letters from Sir
Alexander Macdonald. In 1743, he writes that a man from the MacLeod estate
had come over into his country in order to court a girl, that a quarrel
had arisen between the MacLeod and a MacDonald rival, and that the former
had cut off the ears of the latter. Sir Alexander asks MacLeod to punish
the delinquent. In another, dated March 1744, Sir Alexander tells how
there has been "a small invasion from Knoydart," and how three cows had
been carried off. He describes the steps which he is taking to recover the
cattle, and to punish the offenders. And it was not only in small matters
that they exercised this authority. Tradition says that a man was hanged
at Dunvegan for murder in the year 1728 by the order of the Chief.
Between 1625 and 1745 the
Western clans were only occasionally engaged on active service, but they
still continued to be organised for military purposes. No doubt, many
changes had taken place. Gradually the clans ceased to be naval powers,
and no longer possessed fleets of birlinns; muskets began to be used
instead of bows and arrows; defensive armour was no longer worn, and it is
probable that the smaller claymore was the weapon employed instead the
great two-handed broadsword, with which the clansmen had been previously
It is possible that the
very strenuous military training which I described in Chapter IV. may have
been somewhat relaxed when the clan feuds came to an end, and the very
existence of a clan no longer depended on its efficiency for war ; but to
a very great extent it must have been maintained. The Highlanders who
fought at Prestonpans, Falkirk, and Culloden showed no falling off, either
in valour or efficiency, from the high standard as fighting men to which
their fathers had attained, and up to 1745 the supply of arms must have
been a matter of great importance, and the training of a clan's manhood in
their use a duty which could not be neglected.
But after 1745 the whole
system was entirely changed. The English Government had been greatly
alarmed by the measure of success which the Highland army under the Prince
had attained, and drastic measures were taken, which were calculated to
make it impossible that such a thing should ever happen again. These I
shall briefly describe.
Many Highland properties
were confiscated on account of the share their owners had taken in the
rising. These estates were not sold, but vested in the hands of
commissioners. who used the profits for purposes of public utility.
Large-grants were made from these funds for making roads in the Highlands.
One might have expected that these forfeitures would have had a great
permanent effect on the ownership of land in the West Highlands, but,
except in a very few cases they did not do so, for these estates were
restored to the owners, or to their descendants, before many years had
elapsed. Clan Ranald recovered his estate about 1770. In his attainder he
had been called Donald MacDonald, whereas his real name was Ranald. Thus
his attainder was void. General Fraser received a grant of the Lovat
estates in 1774. Lochiel recovered his in 1784 under the general Act of
In the interval, however,
though their clansmen made most self-sacrificing efforts to help them, and
though the French Government did something to assist, the exiled Chiefs
were in a state of great poverty, and endured terrible hardships.
Other measures taken by the
Government were more permanent in their results. In 1746 the Disarming Act
was passed. By this Act the Highlanders were forbidden to possess any
arms, and all those which they had were seized and taken away; the
military service which the tenants had previously rendered to their Chiefs
was no longer to be paid, and the "oasting, hunting, and convening,"
stipulated for in the tack of 1625, were made illegal. Thus the military
side of the clan system was entirely destroyed.
To this Act was added yet
another clause"No man or boy shall, on any pretence whatsoever, wear or
put on the clothes, commonly called the Highland clothes, that is to say,
the plaid, phillabeg, or little kilt, trousers, shoulder belts, or any
part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland garb, and no
tartan, or party coloured plaid, shall be used for great coats, or upper
coats." The Act came into force on August 1, 1748.
A great many people at the
time thought that this was a very harsh and severe measure, for which
there was no real necessity. The Lord President Forbes was one of them. In
a letter to Brodie of Brodie, he expressed a very strong opinion on the
subject; but he did not succeed in his attempts to get the Bill modified.
The results of this measure
were most far-reaching and important. While a clan remained a military
organisation, the energies of its men were devoted to war, or to
preparation for war. After the passing of this Act, their main occupation
in life was taken away, and from this time dates the difficulty of finding
employment for the Highlanders in their own country.
In the following year an
Act was passed which brought to an end the clan system on its civil side.
"The heritable jurisdictions," which the Chiefs had hitherto possessed and
used, were taken away, and henceforth the people were governed under the
laws of the realm. The administration of justice was put into the hands of
Sheriff-Substitutes, who were then appointed all over Scotland. What we
should call local government was exercised by the Justices of the Peace.
From the minutes of a meeting held at Sconser in 1788 we get an idea of
what matters they dealt with, and the methods they employed. Attendance at
the meetings was compulsory, and absentees were fined; they were the
Highway Authority for Skye; they made provision for the hiring of
servants, and fixed the wages which were to be paid; no one was allowed to
pay more than the amount fixed. They made rules about such things as the
maintenance of march dykes, the pounding of strayed sheep and cattle, the
certificates of beggars, the liability of people keeping dangerous beasts
for any damage, the use of properly stamped weights and measures. There
are provisions that no man shall be intoxicated at a funeral, or attend
without an invitation, and that no one shall leave Skye during harvest
time without the leave of two Justices of the Peace. This leave the
Justices are not to give until they have tried to get the applicant work
in the island.
In theory the changes made
by the Act of 1747 were very great. In practice they were probably small.
The same people, who had previously acted under the authority of the
Chief, were now Justices of the Peace acting under the authority of the
King, and they probably carried out their duties in much the same way as
Thus the Clan system was
completely destroyed. The Chiefs, who had been all-powerful, became no
more than the owners of large estates; the Chieftains, who had ruled over
their people for centuries, became mere tenant-farmers; the clansmen,
whose pride it had been that they belonged to a gallant and
well-disciplined fighting force, became no more than peasants, whose
occupation in life had been taken away, and whose national dress had been
There was only one thing
which no Act of Parliament could destroy, and that was the devotion of the
people to their Chiefs. There is ample evidence that this feeling of
personal regard and affection lived on in spite of the Act; indeed, to
some extent it made the ordinance of Parliament a dead letter, for the
people continued to obey the Chiefs, not because they were obliged to do
so, but because they loved them. It is on record that many clansmen paid
their rents twice over, once to the Commissioners for forfeited estates,
and once to their beloved Chiefs, who were in exile. In an earlier chapter
I described the self-sacrificing devotion of the clansmen on the MacLeod
Estate to their Chief in the year 1777. Many other instances of the warm
affection with which his people continued to regard a Chief might be
cited, and, as I said in an earlier chapter, it is by no means dead
amongst clansmen at the present day.
Up to about the year 1770,
the old tacksmen remained on their farms, and still continued to work them
on the patriarchal principle. They gave their servants no wages, but they
regarded them as members of their families, and recognised that it was
their duty to support them, whether they could find any work for them to
do or not, though the difficulty of employing all the people was
constantly becoming greater.
But about 1770 the old
tacksmen began to emigrate, and leave the Highlands. At that time a great
increase in rents was taking place all over the country. Prices were
rising very rapidly, and probably, if the value of farm produce is taken
into consideration, the new rents were not more burdensome than the old
ones had been. But many of the farmers thought that it would be impossible
to pay these higher rents.
The tacksmen on Lord
Macdonald's estate formed a sort of company, bought 100,000 acres of land
in South Carolina, and emigrated in a body, taking many of their people
with them. On other estates considerable numbers of tacksmen left the
country. The exodus, which began about 1770, continued during the next 40
or 50 years, until few of the old class of tacksmen remained on their
farms, and their places were taken by men from other parts of Scotland.
This change killed the
patriarchal system. The new tenants were bound to the people on their
farms by no ties of blood, or of long standing affection. Farming had
become a business based on commercial considerations. The farmers employed
the men whose services they required, and paid them wages, but it was no
business of theirs to support people merely because they lived on their
Fortunately, as will appear
in the next chapter, during the next fifty on sixty years, there was a
good deal of employment for the people in the country, but they had lost
one most important assetthey were no longer certain that, whether work
could be found for them to do or not, they would be maintained by their
They also lost masters who,
I am convinced, had been uniformly kind to them. The author of a report,
which was rendered to the British Fishery Society about the state of
affairs at Stein towards the end of the eighteenth century, says that the
tacksmen had been "most tyrannical and cruel in dealing with their
people." This may have been true in isolated cases, but I do not believe
that it was generally true. When, in 1772 and 1811, some of the tacksmen
proposed to emigrate and take their dependants with them, it seems
incredible that people who had been so cruelly treated should be willing
to accompany their tyrants when they went away. They certainly were
willing to do so, and, in a good many cases, they actually did so.
By the time this report was
written a good many new tenants were settled in the country, and I think
it likely that, if any of the farmers had been cruel to their dependants,
it was among the new-comers, and not among the old tacksmen, that this
cruelty was found.
The passing away of the
patriarchal system brought about another change in the conditions under
which the people lived. The family ceased to be a self-sufficing unit in a
clan. The workers, having become the whole-time servants of their masters,
had less leisure in which to work for themselves, and having money, or the
equivalent of money, they were able to pay others to do the work for them,
which they had formerly done for themselves.
As time went on labour
began to be specialised. Weavers, tailors, shoemakers, and other tradesmen
were found in every township, and, finally, though not for a long time,
shops were opened, at which the people could buy the goods which they had
formerly made for themselves.
Thus, before the dawn of
the 19th century, the clan and the patriarchal systems had been entirely
destroyed, the conditions of life in the West Highlands had been
completely altered, and "the old order had passed away, giving place to
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