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Social History of the Highlands

The removal of the court by Malcolm Canmore to the Lowlands was an event which was followed by results very disastrous to the future prosperity of the Highlands. The inhabitants soon sunk into a state of poverty, and, as by the transference of the seat of government the administration of the laws became either inoperative, or was feebly enforced, the people gave themselves up to violence and turbulence, and revenged in person those injuries which the laws could no longer redress. Released from the statutory control of monarchical government, the Highlanders soon saw the necessity of substituting some other system in its place, to protect themselves against the aggressions to which they were exposed. From this state of things originated the great power of the Chiefs, who attained their ascendancy over the different little communities into which the population of the Highlands was naturally divided, on account of their superior property, courage, or talent. The powers of the chiefs were very great. They acted as judges or arbiters in the quarrels of their clansmen and followers, and as they were backed by resolute supporters of their rights, their property and their powers, they established within their own territories a jurisdiction almost independent of the kingly authority.

From this division of the people into clans and tribes under separate chiefs, arose many of those institutions, feelings and usages which characterised the Highlanders. "The nature of the country, and the motives which induced the Celts to make it their refuge, almost necessarily prescribed the form of their institutions. Unequal to contend with the overwhelming numbers, who drove them from the plains, and, anxious to preserve their independence, and their blood uncontaminated by a mixture with strangers, they defended themselves in those strongholds which are, in every country, the sanctuaries of national liberty, and the refuge of those who resist the oppressions and the dominion of a more powerful neighbour. Thus, in the absence of their monarchs, and defended by their barrier of rocks, they did not always submit to the authority of a distant government, which could neither enforce obedience nor afford protection."

The various little societies into which the Highland population was, by the nature of the country, divided, having no desire to change their residence or to keep up a communication with one another, and having all their wants, which were few, supplied within themselves, became individually isolated. Every district became an independent state, and thus the Highland population, though possessing a community of customs and the same characteristics, was divided or broken into separate masses, and placed under different jurisdictions. A patriarchal system of government, "a sort of hereditary monarchy founded on custom, and allowed by general consent, rather than regulated by laws," was thus established over each community or clan in the persons of the chiefs.

As a consequence of the separation which was preserved by the different clans, matrimonial alliances were rarely made with strangers, and hence the members of the clan were generally related to one another by the ties of consanguinity or affinity. While this double connection tended to preserve harmony and good will among the members of the same clan, it also tended, on the other hand, to excite a bitter spirit of animosity between rival clans, whenever an affront or injury was offered by one clan to another, or by individuals of different clans.

Although the chief had great power with his clan in the different relations of landlord, leader, and judge, his authority was far from absolute, as he was obliged to consult the leading men of the clan in matters of importance - in things regarding the clan or particular families, in removing differences, punishing or redressing injuries, preventing lawsuits, supporting declining families, and declaring war against, or adjusting terms of peace with other clans.

As the system of clanship was calculated to cherish a warlike spirit, the young chiefs and heads of families were regarded or despised according to their military or peaceable disposition. If they revenged a quarrel with another clan by killing some of the enemy, or carrying off their cattle and laying their lands waste, they were highly esteemed, and great expectations were formed of their future prowess and exploits. But if they failed in their attempts, they were not respected; and if they appeared disinclined to engage in hostile rencontres, they were despised.

The military ranks of the clans were fixed and perpetual. The chief was, of course, the principal commander. The oldest cadet commanded the right wing, and the youngest the rear. Every head of a distinct family was captain of his own tribe. An ensign or standard-bearer was attached to each clan, who generally inherited his office, which had been usually conferred on an ancestor who had distinguished himself. A small salary was attached to this office.

Each clan had a stated place of rendezvous, where they met at the call of their chief. When an emergency arose for an immediate meeting from the incursions of a hostile clan, the cross or tarie, or fiery-cross, was immediately despatched through the territories of the clan. This signal consisted of two pieces of wood placed in the form of a cross. One of the ends of the horizontal piece was either burnt or burning, and a piece of linen or white cloth stained with blood was suspended from the other end. Two men, each with a cross in his hand, were despatched by the chief in different directions, who kept running with great speed, shouting the war-cry of the tribe, and naming the place of rendezvous, if different from the usual place of meeting. The cross was delivered from hand to hand, and as each fresh bearer ran at full speed, the clan assembled with great celerity. General Stewart says, that one of the latest instances of the fiery-cross being used, was in 1745 by Lord Breadalbane, when it went round Loch Tay, a distance of thirty-two miles, in three hours, to raise his people and prevent their joining the rebels, but with less effect than in 1715 when it went the same round, and when 500 men assembled in a few hours, under the command of the Laird of Glenlyon, to join the Earl of Mar.

Every clan had its own war-cry, ( called in Scottish slogan ), to which every clansman answered. It served as a watch-word in cases of sudden alarm, in the confusion of combat, or in the darkness of the night. The clans were also distinguished by a particular badge, or by the peculiar arrangements or sets of the different colours of the tartan, which will be fully noticed when we come to treat of the history of the clans.

When a clan went upon any expedition they were much influenced by omens. If they met an armed man they believed that good was portended. If they observed a deer, fox, hare, or any other four-footed beast of game, and did not succeed in killing it, they prognosticated evil. If a woman barefooted crossed the road before them, they seized her and drew blood from her forehead.

The Cuid-Oidhche, or night's provision, was paid by many tenants to the chief; and in hunting, or going on an expedition, the tenant who lived near the hill was bound to furnish the master and his followers a night's entertainment, with brawn for his dogs. There are no sufficient data to enable us to estimate correctly the number of fighting men which the clans could bring at any time into the field; but a general idea may be formed of their strength in 1745, from the following statement of the respective forces of the clans as taken from the memorial supposed to be drawn up by the Lord President Forbes of Culloden, for the information of the government. It has to be observed, however, that besides the clans here mentioned, there were many independent gentlemen, as General Stewart observes, who had many followers, but being what were called broken names, or small tribes, are omitted.

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