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General History of the Highlands
The Living Conditions in the Highlands prior to 1745 (Part 2)

Almost the only fuel used by the Highlanders, not only in the early part but during the whole of last century, was peat, still used in many Highland districts, and the only fuel used in a great part of Orkney and Shetland. The cutting and preparing of the fuel, composed mainly of decayed roots of various plants, consumed a serious part of the Highlander’s time, as it was often to be found only at a great distance from his habitation; and he had to cut not only for himself but for his land, the process itself being long and troublesome, extending from the time the sods were first cut till they were formed in a stack at the side of the farmer’s or cottar’s door, over five or six months; and after all, they frequently turned out but a wretched substitute for either wood or coal; often they were little else than a mass of red earth. It generally took five people to cut peats out of one spot. One cut the peats, which were placed by another on the edge of the trench from which they were cut; a third spread them on the field, while a fourth trimmed them, a fifth resting in the meantime ready to relieve the man that was cutting.

As would naturally be expected, the houses and other buildings of the Highlanders were quite in keeping with their agricultural implements and general mode of life. Even the tacksmen or gentlemen of the clan, the relations of the chief, lived in huts or hovels, that the poorest farmer in most parts of Scotland at the present day, would shudder to house his cattle in. In most cases they appear to have been pretty much the same as those of the small farmers or cottars, only perhaps a little larger. Burt mentions such a house belonging to a gentleman of the clan, which he visited in one of his peregrinations round Inverness. He says it consisted of one long apartment without any partition, "where the family was at one end, and some cattle at the other." The owner of this rude habitation must have been somewhat shrewd and sensible, as he could not only perceive the disadvantages of this mode of life to which he was doomed, but had insight and candour enough to be able to account for his submission to them. "The truth is," Captain Burt reports him to have said, "we are insensibly inured to it by degrees; for, when very young, we know no better; being grown up, we are inclined, or persuaded by our near relations, to marry—thence come children, and fondness for them but above all," says he, "is the love of our chief, so strongly is it inculcated to us in our infancy; and if it were not for that, I think the Highlands would be much thinner of people than they now are." How much truth there is in that last statement is clearly evidenced by the history of the country after the abolition of the hereditary jurisdictions, which was the means of breaking up the old intimate relation between, and mutual dependence of, chief and people. Burt says elsewhere, that near to Inverness, there were a few gentlemen’s houses built of stone and lime, but that in the inner part of the mountains there were no stone-buildings except the barracks, and that one might have gone a hundred miles without seeing any other dwellings but huts of turf. By the beginning of last century the houses of most of the chiefs, though comparatively small, seem to have been substantially built of stone and lime, although their food and manner of life would seem to have been pretty much the same as those of the tacksmen. The children of chiefs and gentlemen seem to have been allowed to run about in much the same apparently uncared for condition as those of the tenants, it having been a common saying, according to Burt, "that a gentleman’s bairns are to be distinguished by their speaking English." To illustrate this he tells us that once when dining with a laird not very far from Inverness—possibly Lord Lovat—he met an English soldier at the house who was catching birds for the laird to exercise his hawks on. This soldier told Burt that for three or four days after his first coming, he had observed In the kitchen ("an out-house hovel") a parcel of dirty children half naked, whom he took to belong to some poor tenant, but at last discovered they were part of the family. "But," says the fastidious English Captain, "although these were so little regarded, the young laird, about the age of fourteen, was going to the university; and the eldest daughter, about sixteen, sat with us at table, clean and genteelly dressed."

There is no reason to doubt Burt’s statement when he speaks of what he saw or heard, but it must be remembered he was an Englishman, with all an Englishman’s prejudices in favour of the manners and customs, the good living, and general fastidiousness which characterise his own half of the kingdom, and many of an Englishman’s prejudices against the Scotch generally and the turbulent Highlanders in particular. His letters are, however, of the utmost value in giving us a clear and interesting glimpse into the mode of life of the Highlanders shortly before 1745, and most Scotchmen at least will be able to sift what is fact from what is exaggeration and English colouring. Much, no doubt, of what Burt tells of the Highlanders when he was there is true, but it is true also of people then living in the same station in other parts of Scotland, where however among the better classes, and even among the farmers, even then, there was generally a rough abundance combined with a sort of affectation of rudeness of manner. It is not so very long ago since the son of the laird, and he might have been a duke, and the son of the hind were educated at the same parish school; and even at the present day it is no uncommon sight to see the sons of the highest Scottish nobility sitting side by side on the same college-benches with the sons of day labourers, ploughmen, mechanics, farmers, and small shop-keepers. Such a sight is rare in the English universities; where there are low-born intruders, it will in most cases be found that they belong to Scotland. We do not make these remarks to prejudice the reader in any way against the statements of Burt or to depreciate the value of his letters; all we wish the reader to understand is that he was an Englishman, rather fond of gossip, and perhaps of adding point to a story at the expense of truth, with all the prejudices and want of enlightenment and cosmopolitanism of even educated Englishmen of 150 years ago. He states facts correctly, but from a peculiar and very un-Scottish point of view. His evidence, even when stripped of its slight colouring, is invaluable, and, even to the modern Highlander, must prove that his ancestors lived in a very miserable way, although they themselves might not have realised its discomfort and wretchedness, but on the contrary, may have been as contented as the most well-to-do English squire or prosperous English farmer.

Even among the higher members of the clans, the tacksmen and most extensive farmers, the fare does not seem to have been by any means abundant, and generally was of the commonest kind. For a few months in the end of the year, when the cattle and sheep were in condition to be killed, animal food appears to have been plentiful enough, as it must also have been after any successful cattle-foray. But for the rest of the year, the food of even the gentlemen in many places must have been such as any modern farmer would have turned up his nose at. In other districts again, where the chief was well-off and liberal, he appears to have been willing enough to share what he had with his relations the higher tenants, who again would do their best to keep from want the under tenants and cottars. Still it will be seen, the living of all was very precarious. "it is impossible for me," says Burt, "from my own knowledge, to give you an account of the ordinary way of living of these gentlemen; because, when any of us (the English) are invited to their houses there is always an appearance of plenty to excess; and it has been often said they will ransack all their tenants rather than we should think meanly of their housekeeping: but I have heard it from many whom they have employed, and perhaps had little regard to their observations as inferior people, that, although they have been attended at dinner by five or six servants, yet, with all that state, they have often dined upon oatmeal varied several ways, pickled herrings, or other such cheap and indifferent diet." Burt complains much of their want of hospitality; but at this he need not have been surprised. He and every other soldier stationed in the Highlands would be regarded with suspicion and even dislike by the natives, who were by no means likely to give them any encouragement to frequent their houses, and pry into their secrets and mode of life. The Highlanders were well-known for their hospitality, and are so in many places even at the present day, resembling in this respect most people living in a wild and not much frequented country. As to the everyday fare above mentioned, those who partook of it would consider it no hardship, if indeed Burt had not been mistaken or been deceived as to details. Oatmeal, in the form of porridge and brose, is common even at the present day among the lower classes in the country, and even among substantial farmers. As for the other part of it, there must have been plenty of salmon and trout about the rivers and lochs of Inverness-shire, and abundance of grain of various kinds on the hills, so that the gentlemen to whom the inquisitive Captain refers, must have taken to porridge and pickled herring from choice: and it is well known, that in Scotland at least, when a guest is expected, the host endeavours to provide something better than common for his entertainment. Burt also declares that he has often seen a laird’s lady coming to church with a maid behind her carrying her shoes and stockings, which she put on at a little distance from the church. Indeed, from what he says, it would seem to have been quite common for those in the position of ladies and gentlemen to go about in this free and easy fashion. Their motives for doing so were no doubt those of economy and comfort— not because they had neither shoes nor stockings to put on. The practice is quite common at the present day in Scotland, for both respectable men and women when travelling on a dusty road on a broiling summer-day, to do so on their bare feet, as being so much more comfortable and less tiresome than travelling in heavy boots and thick worsted stockings. No one thinks the worse of them for it, nor infers that they must be wretchedly ill off. The practice has evidently at one time been much more common even among the higher classes, but, like many other customs, lingers now only among the common people.

From all we can learn, however, the chiefs and their more immediate dependants and relations appear by no means to have been ill-off, so far as the necessaries of life went, previous to the rebellion of 1745. They certainly had not a superfluity of money, but many of the chiefs were profuse in their hospitality, and had always abundance if not variety to eat and drink.

Indeed it is well known, that about 200 years before the rebellion, an enactment had to be made by parliament limiting the amount of wine and brandy to be used by the various chiefs. Claret, in Captain IBurt’s time, was as common m and around Inverness as it was in Edinburgh; the English soldiers are said to have found it selling at sixpence a quart, and left it at three or four times that price. In their habits and mode of life, their houses and other surroundings, these Highland gentlemen were no doubt rough and rude and devoid of luxuries, and not over particular as to cleanliness either of body or untensils, but still always dignified and courteous, respectful to their superiors and affable to their inferiors. Highland pride is still proverbial, and while often very amusing and even pitiable, has often been of considerable service to those who possess it, stimulating them to keep up their self-respect and to do their best in whatever situation they may be placed. It was this pride that made the poorest and most tattered of the tacksmen tenants with whom Burt came in contact, conduct himself as if he had been lord of all he surveyed, and look with suspicion and perhaps with contempt upon the unknown English red-coat.

As a kind of set-off to Burt’s disparaging account of the condition of Highland gentlemen, and yet to some extent corroborating it, we quote the following from the Old Statistical Account of the parish of Boleskine and Abertarf in Inverness-shire. The district to which this account refers was at least no worse than most other Highland parishes, and in some respects must have been better than those that were further out of the reach of civilisation.

The following quotations from Mr Dunbar’s Social Life in Former Days, giving details of household furniture and expenses, may be taken as "a correct index of the comforts and conveniences" of the best off of the old Highland lairds; for as they refer to Morayshire, just on the borders of the Highlands, they cannot be held as referring to the Highlands generally, the interior and western districts of which were considerably behind the border lands in many respects:-


Strypt Room.

"Camlet hangings and curtains, feather bed and bolster, two pillows, five pair blankets, and an Inglish blanket, a green and white cover, a blew and white chamber-pot, a blew and white bason, a black jopand table and two looking-glasses, a jopand tee-table with a tee-pat and plate, and nine cups and nine dyshes, and a tee silver spoon, two glass sconces, two little bowles, with a leam steep and a pewter head, eight black ken chairs, with eight silk cushens conform, an easie chair with a big cushen, a jopand cabinet with a walnut tree stand, a grate, shuffle, tonges, and brush; in the closet, three piece of paper hangings, a chamber box. with a pewter pan therein, and a brush for cloaths.

Closet next the Strypt Room.

Four dishes, two assiets, six broth plates, and twelve flesh plates, a quart flagon, and a pynt flagon, a pewter porenger, and a pewter flacket, a white iron jaculale pot, and a skellet pann, twenty-one timber plates, a winter for warming plates at the fire, two Highland plaids, and a sewed blanket, a bolster, and four pillows, a chamber-box, a sack with wool, and a white iron dripping pann.

In the farest Closet.

"Seventeen drinking glasses, with a glass tumbler end two decanters, a oil cruet, and a vinegar cruet, a urinal glass, a large blew and white posset pot, a white leam posset pat, a blew and white bowl, a dozen of blew and white leam plates, three milk dishes, a blew and white leam porenger, and a white leam porenger, four jelly pots, and a little butter dish, a crying chair, and a silk craddle.

In the Moyhair Room.

"A note of stamped cloath hangings, and a moyhair bed with feather bed, bolster, and two pillows, six pair blankets, and an lnglish blanket and a twilt, a leam chamber-pat, five moyhalr chairs, two looking-glasses, a cabinet, a table, two stands, a table cloak, and window hangings, a chamber-box with a pewter pann, a leam bason, with a grate and tongs and a brush; in the closet, two carpets, a piece of Arres, three pieces lyn’d strypt hangings, three wawed strypt curtains, two piece gilded leather, three trunks and a craddle, a chamber-box, and a pewter pann, thirty-three pound of heckled lint, a ston of vax, and a firkin of sop, and a brush for cloaths, two pair blankets, and a single blanket.

In lhe Dyning-Room.

"A sute of gilded hangings, two folding tables, eighteen low-backed ken chairs, a grate, a fender, a brass tongs, shuffle, brush, and timber brush, and a poring iron, and a glass ken.

In my Lady’s Room.

"Gilded hangings, standing bed, and box bed, stamped drogged hangings, feather bed, bolster, and two pillows, a pallise, five pair of blankets, and a single one, and a twilt, and two pewter chamber-pots, six chairs, table, and looking-glass a little folding table, and a chist of drawers, tonges, shuffle, porrin-iron and a brush, two window curtains of linen; In the Laird's closet, two trunks, two chists, and a citrena cabinet, a table, and a looking-glass, the dow holes, two carpet chairs, and a chamber-box with a pewter pan, and a little bell, and a brush tar cloath.

My Lady’s Closet.

"A cabinet, three presses, three kists, and a spicerie box, a dozen leam white plates, a blew and white leam plate, a little blew butter plate, a white leam porenger, and three gelly pots, two leam dishes, and two big timber capes, four tin congs, a new pewter basson, a pynt chopen, and matchken stoups, two copper tankers, two pewter salts, a pewter mustard box, a white iron paper and suggar box, two white iron graters, a pot for starch, and a pewter spoon, thirteen candlesticks, five pair snuffers and snif dishes conform, a brass mortar and pistol, a lantern, a timber box, a dozen knives and a dozen forks, and a carpet chair, two milk conga, a milk cirn, and kirn staff, a sisymilk, and a cheswel, a neprie basket, and two new pewter chamber pots.

A Note of Plate.

"Three silver salvers, four salts, a large tanker, a big spoon, and thirteen littler spoons, two jugs, a sugar box, a mustard box, a paper box, and two little spoons.

An account of bottles in the Salt Cellar

"Received ten dozen and one of chapen bottles full of claret. More received—eleven dozen and one of pynt bottles, wbereof there was six broke in the home-coming. 1709, June the 4th, received from Elgin forty-three chopen bottles of claret."

"Till the beginning of this century, all the heritors and wadsetters in this parish lived in houses composed of cupple trees, and the walls and thatch made up of sod and divot; but in every wadsetter’s house there was a spacious hall, containing a largetable, where he and his family and dependants eat their two meals a-day with this single distinction, that he and his family sat at the one end of the table, and his dependants at the other; and it was reckoned no disparagement for the gentlemen to sit with commoners in the inns, such as the country then afforded, where one cap, and afterwards a single glass, went round the whole company. As the inhabitants experienced no want, and generally lived on the produce of their farms, they were hospitable to strangers, providing they did not attempt a settlement among them. But it was thought then disgraceful for any of the younger sons of these wadsetters to follow any other profession than that of arms and agriculture; and it is in the remembrance of many now living, when the meanest tenant would think it disparaging to sit at the same table with a manufacturer."

The following quotation from the Statistical Account of Rannoch, in Perthshire, will give an idea of another phase of the life of Highland gentlemen in those days, as well as enable the reader to see how it was, considering the general poverty of the country, the low rent, the unproductiveness of the soil, and the low price of cattle, they were still able to keep open table and maintain more retainers than the land could support. "Before the year 1745 Rannoch was in an uncivilized barbarous state, under no check, or restraint of laws. As an evidence of this, one of the principal proprietors never could be compelled to pay his debts. Two messengers were sent from Perth, to give him a charge of horning. He ordered a dozen of his retainers to bind them across two hand-barrows, and carry them, in this state, to the bridge of Cainachan, at nine miles distance. His property in particular was a nest of thieves. They laid the whole country, from Stirling to Coupar of Angus, under contribution, obliging the inhabitants to pay them Black Meal, as it is called, to save their property from being plundered. This was the centre of this kind of traffic. In the months of September and October they gathered to the number of about 300, built temporary huts, drank whisky all the time, settled accounts for stolen cattle, and received balances. Every man then bore arms. It would have required a regiment to have brought a thief from that country."

As to the education of the Highland gentry, in this respect they seem not to have been so far behind the rest of the country, although latterly they appear to have degenerated in this as in other respects; for, as will be seen in the Chapter on Gaelic Literature, there must have been at one time many learned men in the Highlands, and a taste for literature seems not to have been uncommon. Indeed, from various authorities quoted in the Introduction to Stuart’s Costume of the Clans, it was no uncommon accomplishment in the 16th and 17th centuries for a Highland gentleman to be able to use both Gaelic and Latin, even when he could scarcely manage English. "If, in some instances," says Mrs Grant, "a chief had some taste for literature, the Latin poets engaged his attention more forcibly than the English, which he possibly spoke and wrote, but inwardly despised, and in fact did not understand well enough to relish its delicacies, or taste its poetry." "Till of late years," says the same writer on the same page, "letters were unknown in the Highlands except among the highest rank of gentry and the clergy. The first were but partially enlightened at best. Their minds had been early imbued with the stores of knowledge peculiar to their country, and having no view beyond that of passing their lives among their tenants and dependants, they were not much anxious for any other. In some instances, the younger brothers of patrician families were sent early out to lowland seminaries, and immediately engaged in some active pursuit for the advancement of their fortune." In short, so far as education went, the majority of the Highland lairds and tacksmen appear to have been pretty much on the same footing with those in a similar station in other parts of the kingdom.

From what has been said then as to the condition of the chiefs or lairds and their more immediate dependants the tacksmen, previous to 1745, it may be inferred that they were by no means ill-off so far as the necessaries and even a few of the luxuries of life went. Their houses were certainly not such as a gentleman or even a well-to-do farmer would care to inhabit now-a-days, neither in build nor in furnishing; but the chief and principal tenants as a rule had always plenty to eat and drink, lived in a rough way, were hospitable to their friends, and, as far as they were able, kind and lenient to their tenants.

It was the sub-tenants and cottars, the common people or peasantry of the Highlands, whose condition called for the utmost commiseration. It was they who suffered most from the poverty of the land, the leanness of the cattle, the want of trades and manufactures, the want, in short, of any reliable and systematic means of subsistence. If the crops failed, or disease or a severe winter killed the half of the cattle, it was they who suffered, it was they who were the victims of famine, a thing of not rare occurrence in the Highlands. It seems indeed impossible that any one now living could imagine anything more seemingly wretched and miserable than the state of the Highland subtenants and cottars as described in various contemporary accounts. The dingiest hovel in the dirtiest narrowest "close" of Edinburgh may be taken as a fair representative of the house inhabited formerly in the Highlands by the great mass of the farmers and cottars. And yet they do not by any means appear to have regarded themselves as the most miserable of beings, but on the contrary to have been lighthearted and well content if they could manage to get the year over without absolute starvation. No doubt this was because they knew no better state of things, and because love for the chief would make them endure any thing with patience. Generally the houses of the sub-tenants and cottars who occupied a farm were built in one spot, "all irregularly placed, some one way, some another, and at any distance, look like so many heaps of dirt." They were generally built in some small valley or strath by the side of a stream or loch, and the collection of houses on one farm was known as the "toon" or town, a term still used in Shetland in the very same sense, and in many parts of Scotland applied to the building occupied by even a single farmer. The cottages were generally built of round stones without any cement, thatched with sods, and sometimes heath; sometimes they were divided into two apartments by a slender partition, but frequently no such division was made. In the larger half resided the family, this serving for kitchen, eating, and sleeping-room to all. In the middle of this room, on the floor, was the peat fire, above which was a gaping hole to allow the escape of the smoke, very little however of this finding its way out, the surplus, after every corner of the room was filled, escaping by the door. The other half of the cottage was devoted to the use of the live-stock when "they did not choose to mess and lodge with the family." Sometimes these cottages were built of turf or mud, and sometimes of wattle-work like baskets, a common system of fencing even yet in many parts of the Highlands where young wood is abundant. As a rule these huts had to be thatched and otherwise repaired every year to keep them habitable; indeed, in many places it was quite customary every spring to remove the thatch and use it as manure. Buchanan, even in the latter half of the 18th century, thus speaks of the dwellings of tenants in the Western Isles; and, in this respect at least, it is not likely they were in worse plight than those who lived in the early part of the century.

A cottage in Islay

"The huts of the oppressed tenants are remarkably naked and open; quite destitute of furniture, except logs of timbers collected from the wrecks of the sea, to sit on about the fire, which is placed in the middle of the house, or upon seats made of straw, like foot hassacks, stuffed with straw or stubble. Many of them must rest satisfied with large stones placed around the fire in order. As all persons must have their own blankets to sleep in, they make their beds in whatever corner suits their fancy, and in the mornings they fold them up into a small compass, with all their gowns, cloaks, coats, and petticoats, that are not in use. The cows, goats, and sheep, with the ducks, hens, and dogs, must have the common benefit of the fire, and particularly the young and tenderest are admitted next to it. This filthy sty is never cleaned but once a-year, when they place the dung on the fields as manure for barley crops. Thus, from the necessity of laying litter below these cattle to keep them dry, the dung naturally increases in height almost mid-wall high, so that the men sit low about the fire, while the cattle look down from above upon the company. "We learn from the same authority that in the Hebrides every tenant must have had his own beams and side timbers, the walls generally belonging to the tacksman or laird, and these were six feet thick with a hollow wall of rough stones, packed with moss or earth in the centre. A tenant in removing carried his timbers with him to his new location, and speedily mounted them on the top of four rude walls. But indeed the condition of many of the Western Isles both before and after 1745 and even at the present day, was frequently much more wretched than the Highlands in the mainland generally. Especially was this the case after 1745, although even before that their condition can by no means be taken as typical of the Highlands generally. The following, however, from the Statistical Account of the island of Tiree, might have applied at the time (about 1745), to almost any part of the Highlands. "About 40 years ago, a great part of the lands in this parish lay in their natural uncultivated state, and such of them as were in culture produced poor starved crops. The tenants were in poor circumstances, the rents low, the farm houses contemptible. The communication from place to place was along paths which were to be known by the footsteps of beasts that passed through them. No turnips, potatoes, or cabbages, unless a few of the latter in some gardens; and a great degree of poverty, indolence, and meanness of spirit, among the great body of the people. The appearance of the people, and their mode of thinking and acting, were but mean and indelicate; their peats were brought home in creels; the few things the farmer had to sell were carried to market upon the backs of horses; and their dunghills were hard by their doors. "We have reliable testimony, however, to prove, that even the common Highland tenants on the mainland were but little better off than those in the islands; their houses were almost equally rude and dirty, and their furniture nearly as scanty. The Statistical Account of the parish of Fortingal, in Perthshire, already quoted, gives a miserable account of the country and inhabitants previous to 1745, as does also the letters of Captain Burt in reference to the district which came under his observation; and neither of these districts was likely to be in worse condition than other parts of the Highlands, further removed from intercourse with the Lowlands. "At the above period [1745], the bulk of the tenants in Rannoch had no such thing as beds. They lay on the ground, with a little heather, or fern, under them. One single blanket was all their bed-cloaths, excepting their body-cloaths. Now they have standing-up beds, and abundance of blankets. At that time the houses in Rannoch were huts of, what they called, ‘Stake and Rife.’ One could not enter but on all fours; and after entering, it was impossible to stand upright. Now there are comfortable houses built of stone. Then the people were miserably dirty, and foul-skinned. Now they are as cleanly, and are clothed as well as their circumstances will admit of. The rents of the parish, at that period, were not much above £1500, and the people were starving. Now they pay £4660 per annum, and upwards, and the people have fulness of bread. It is hardly possible to believe, on how little the Highlanders formerly lived. They bled their cows several times in the year, boiled the blood, eat a little of it like bread, and a most lasting meal it was. The present incumbent has known a poor man, who had a small farm hard by him, by this means, with a boll of meal for every mouth in his family, pass the whole year. "This bleeding of the cattle to eke out the small supply of oatmeal is testified to by many other witnesses. Captain Burt refers to it; and Knox, in his View of the British Empire, thus speaks of it:—" In winter, when the grounds are covered with snow, and when the naked wilds afford them neither shelter nor subsistence, the few cows, small, lean, and ready to drop down through want of pasture, are brought into the hut where the family resides, and frequently share with them their little stock of meal, which had been purchased or raised for the family only, while the cattle thus sustained are bled occasionally to afford nourishment for the children, after it has been boiled or made into cakes."

It must be borne in mind that at that time potatoes were all but unknown in the Highlands, and even in the Lowlands had scarcely got beyond the stage of a garden root. The staple food of the common Highlander was the various preparations of oats and barley; even fish seems to have been a rarity, but why it is difficult to say, as there were plenty both in the sea and in freshwater rivers and lochs. For a month or two after Michaelmas, the luxury of fresh meat seems to have been not uncommon, as at that time the cattle were in condition for being slaughtered; and the more provident or less needy might even go the length of salting a quantity for winter, hut even this practice does not seem to have been common except among the tacksmen. "Nothing is more deplorable than the state of this people in time of winter." Then they were completely confined to their narrow glens, and very frequently night and day to their houses, on account of the severe snow and rain storms. "They have no diversions to amuse them, but sit brooding in the smoke over the fire till their legs and thighs are scorched to an extraordinary degree, and many have sore eyes and some are quite blind. This long continuance in the smoke makes them almost as black as chimney-sweepers; and when the huts are not water-tight, which is often the case, the rain that comes through the roof and mixes with the sootiness of the inside, where all the sticks look like charcoal, falls in drops like ink. But, in this circumstance, the Highlanders are not very solicitous about their outward appearance. "We need not wonder under these circumstances at the prevalence of a loathsome distemper, almost peculiar to the Highlands, and the universality of various kinds of vermin; and indeed, had it not been that the people spent so much of their time in the open air, and that the pure air of the mountains, and been on the whole temperate in drinking and correct in morals, their condition must have been much more miserable than it really was. The misery seems to have been apparent only to onlookers, not to those whose lot it was to endure it. No doubt they were most mercilessly oppressed sometimes, but even this oppression they do not seem to have regarded as any hardship, as calling for complaint on their part:- they were willing to endure anything at the hands of the chief; who, they believed, could do no wrong.

As a rule the chiefs and gentlemen of the clan appear to have treated their inferiors with kindness and consideration, although, at the same time, it was their interest and the practice of most of them to encourage the notions the people entertained of their duty to their chiefs, and to keep them in ignorance of everything that would tend to diminish this profitable belief. No doubt many of the chiefs themselves believed as firmly in the doctrine of clanship as their people; but there is good reason to believe, that many of them encouraged the old system from purely interested and selfish motives. Burt tells us that when a chief wanted to get rid of any troublesome fellow, he compelled him, under threat of perpetual imprisonment or the gallows, to sign a contract for his own banishment, when he was shipped off from the nearest port by the first vessel bound for the West Indies. Referring no doubt to Lord Lovat, he informs us that this versatile and long-headed chief acted on the maxim that to render his clan poor would double the tie of their obedience; and accordingly he made use of all oppressive means to that end. "To prevent any diminution of the number of those who do not offend him, he dissuades from their purpose all such as show an inclination to traffic, or to put their children out to trades, as knowing they would, by such an alienat on shake off at least good part of their slavish attachment to him and his family. This he does, when downright authority fails, by telling them how their ancestors chose to live sparingly, and be accounted a martial people, rather than submit themselves to low and mercenary employments like the Lowlanders, whom their forefathers always despised for the want of that warlike temper which they (his vassals) still retained, &c. This cunning chief was in the habit, according to Dr Chambers’s Domestic Annals, of sending from Inverness and paying for the insertion in the Edinburgh Courant and Mercury of glaring accounts of feasts and rejoicings given by himself or held in his honour. And it is well known that this same lord during his life-time erected a handsome tombstone for himself inscribed with a glowing account of his heroic exploits, intended solely for the use of his clansmen. By these and similar means would crafty selfish lairds keep their tenants and cottars in ignorance of their rights, and make them resigned to all the oppressive impositions laid upon them. No doubt Lovat’s was an extreme case, and there must have been many gradations of oppressions, and many chiefs who really cared for their people, and did their best to make them happy and comfortable, although, considering their circumstances and general surroundings, it is difficult to see how they could succeed. Yet notwithstanding their miserable and filthy huts, their scanty and poor food, their tattered and insufficient clothes, their lean cattle and meagre crops, their country wet above and below, their apparent want of all amusements and of anything to lighten their cheerless condition, and the oppressive exactions of their chiefs, the Highlanders as a body certainly do not seem to have been an unhappy or discontented people, or to have had any feeling of the discomfort attending their lot. There seems to have been little or no grumbling, and it is a most remarkable fact that suicide was and probably is all but unknown among the Highlanders. Your genuine Highlander was never what could strictly be called a merry man, he never had any of the effervescence of the French Celt, nor of the inimitable never-failing light-hearted humour of his Irish brother; but, on the other hand, under the old system, at heart he showed little or no discontent, but on the contrary seems to have been possessed of a self-satisfied, contented cheerfulness, a quiet resignation to fate, and a belief in the power and goodness of his chief, together with an ignorance and contempt for all outside his own narrow sphere, that made him feel as happy and contented as the most comfortable peasant farmer in France. They only became discontented and sorely cut up when their chiefs,—it being no longer the interest of the latter to multiply and support their retainers,— began to look after their own interests solely, and show little or no consideration for those who regarded them with reverence alone, and who thought their chief as much bound to support and care for them and share his land and his bread with them, as a father is to maintain his children. After the heritable jurisdictions were abolished, of course everything was changed; but before that there is every reason to believe that the Highland tenants and cottars were as contented and happy, though by no means so well off, as the majority of those in the same condition throughout the United Kingdom. Indeed the evils which prevailed formerly in the Highlands, like all other evils, look far worse in prospect (in this case retrospect) than they do in reality. Misery in general is least perceived by those who are in its midst, and no doubt many poor and apparently miserable people wonder what charitable associations for their relief make so much fuss about, for they themselves see nothing to relieve. Not that this misery is any the less real and fruitful of evil consequences, and demanding relief; it is simply that those who are in the midst of it can’t, very naturally, see it in its true light. As to the Highlands, the tradition remained for a long time, and we believe does so still in many parts, that under the old regime, chiefs were always kind as fathers, and the people faithful and loving as children; the men were tall and brave, and the women fair and pure; the cattle were fat and plentiful, and the land produced abundance for man and beast; the summers were always warm, and the winters mild; the sun was brighter than ever it has been since, and rain came only when wanted. In short everybody had plenty with a minimum of work and abundance of time for dancing and singing and other amusements; every one was as happy as the day was long. It was almost literally "a land flowing with milk and honey," as will be seen from the following tradition :- "It is now indeed idle, and appears fabulous, to relate the crops raised here 30 or 40 years ago. The seasons were formerly so warm, that the people behoved to unyoke their ploughs as soon as the sun rose, when sowing barley; and persons yet living, tell, that in traveling through the meadows in the loan of Fearn, in some places drops of honey were seen as the dew in the long grass and plantain, sticking to their shoes as they passed along in a May morning; and also in other parts, their shoes were oiled as with cream, going through such meadows. Honey and bee hives were then very plenty. . . Cattle, butter, and cheese, were then very plenty and cheap." This glowing tradition, we fear, must melt away before the authentic and too sober accounts of contemporaries and eye-witnesses.

As for wages to day-labourers and mechanics, in many cases no money whatever was given; every service being frequently paid for in kind; where money was given, a copper or two a day was deemed an ample remuneration, and was probably sufficient to provide those who earned it with a maintenance satisfactory to themselves, the price of all necessary provisions being excessively low. A pound of beef or mutton, or a fowl could be obtained for about a penny, a cow cost about 30 shillings, and a boll of barley or oatmeal less than 10 shillings; butter was about two pence a pound, a stone (21 lbs.) of cheese was to be got for about two shillings. The following extract, from the Old Statistical Account of Caputh, will give the reader an idea of the rate of wages, where servants were employed, of the price of provisions, and how really little need there was for actual cash, every man being able to do many things for himself which would now require perhaps a dozen workmen to perform. This parish being strictly in the lowlands, but on the border of the Highlands, may be regarded as having been, in many respects, further advanced than the majority of Highland parishes. "The ploughs and carts were usually made by the farmer himself; with little iron about the plough, except the colter and share; none upon the cart or harrows; no shoes upon the horses; no hempen ropes. In short, every instrument of farming was procured at small expense, wood being at a very low price. Salt was a shilling the bushel: little soap was used: they had no candles, instead of which they split the roots of fir trees, which, though brought 50 or 60 miles from the Highlands, were purchased for a trifle. Their clothes were of their own manufacturing. The average price of weaving ten yards of such cloth was a shilling, which was paid partly in meal and partly in money. The tailor worked for a quantity of meal, suppose 3 pecks or a firlot a-year, according to the number of the farmer’s family. In the year 1735, the best ploughman was to be had for L.8 Scots (13s. 4d.) a year, and what was termed a bounty, which consisted of some articles of clothing, and might be estimated at 11s. 6d. ; in all L.1, 4s. 10d. sterling. Four years after, his wages rose to L.24 Scots, (L.2) and the bounty. Female servants received L.2 Scots, (3s. 4d.) and a bounty of a similar kind; the whole not exceeding 6s. or 7s. Some years after their wages rose to 15s. Men received for harvest work L.6 Scots, (10s.); women, L.5 Scots, (8s. 4d.). Poultry was sold at 40 pennies Scots, (3½d.) Oat-meal, bear and oats, at L.4 or L.5 Scots the boll. A horse that then cost 100 merks Scots, (L.5 : 11 : 1¾) would now cost L.25. An ox that cost L.20 Scots, (L.1 : 13 : 4) would now be worth L.8 or L.9. Beef and mutton were sold, not by weight, but by the piece; about 3s. 4d. for a leg of beef of 3½ stones; and so in proportion. No tea nor sugar was used: little whisky was drunk, and less of other spirits: but they had plenty of good ale; there being usually one malt barn (perhaps two) on each farm."

When a Highlander was in need of anything which he could not produce or make himself, it was by no means easy for him to obtain it, as by far the greater part of the Highlands was utterly destitute of towns and manufactures; there was little or no commerce of any kind. The only considerable Highland town was Inverness, and, if we can believe Captain Burt, but little business was done there; the only other places, which made any pretensions to be towns were Stornoway and Campbeltown, and these at the time we are writing of, were little better than fishing villages. There were no manufactures strictly speaking, for although the people spun their own wool and made their own cloth, exportation, except perhaps in the case of stockings, seems to have been unknown. In many cases a system of merchandise some what similar to the ruinous, oppressive, and obstructive system still common in Shetland, seems to have been in vogue in many parts of the Highlands. By this system, some of the more substantial tacksmen would lay in a stock of goods such as would be likely to be needed by their tenants, but which these could not procure for themselves, such as iron, corn, wine, brandy, sugar, tobacco, &c. These goods the tacksmen would supply to his tenants as they needed them, charging nothing for them at the time; but, about the month of May, the tenant would hand over to his tacksman-merchant as many cattle as the latter considered an equivalent for the goods supplied. As the people would seldom have any idea of the real value of the goods, of course there was ample room for a dishonest tacksman to realise an enormous profit, which, we fear, was too often done. " By which traffic the poor wretched people were cheated out of their effects, for one half of their value; and so are kept in eternal poverty."

As to roads, with the exception of those made for military purposes by General Wade, there seems to have been none whatever, only tracts here and there in the most frequented routes, frequently impassable, and at all time unsafe without a guide. Captain Burt could not move a mile or two out of Inverness without a guide. Bridges seem to have been even rarer than slated houses or carriages.

We have thus endeavoured to give the reader a correct idea of the state of the country and people of the Highlands previous to the abolition of the heritable jurisdictions. Our only aim has been to find out the truth, and we have done so by appealing to the evidence of contemporaries, or of those whose witness is almost as good. We have endeavoured to exhibit both the good and bad side of the picture, and we are only sorry that space will not permit of giving further details. However, from what has been said above, the reader must see how much had to be accomplished by the Highlanders to bring them up to the level of the rest of the country, and will be able to understand the nature of the changes which from time to time took place, the difficulties which had to be overcome, the prejudices which had to be swept away, the hardships which had to be encountered, in assimilating the Highlands with the rest of the country.

Having thus, as far as space permits, shown the condition of the Highlands previous to 1745, we shall now, as briefly as possible, trace the history down to the present day, showing the march of change, and we hope, of progress after the abolition of the heritable jurisdictions. In doing so we must necessarily come across topics concerning which there has been much rancorous and unprofitable controversy; but, as we have done in the case of other disputed matters, we shall do our best to lay facts before the reader, and allow him to form his opinions for himself. The history of the Highlands since 1745 is no doubt in some respects a sad one; much misery and cruel disappointment come under the notice of the investigator. But in many respects, and, we have no doubt in its ultimate results, the history is a bright one, showing as it does the progress of a people from semi-barbarism and slavery and ignorance towards high civilisation, freedom of action with the world before them, and enlightenment and knowledge, and vigorous and successful enterprise. Formerly the Highlanders were a nuisance to their neighbours, and a drag upon the progress of the country; now they are not surpassed by any section of her Majesty’s subjects for character, enterprise, education, loyalty, and self-respect. Considering the condition of the country in 1745, what could we expect to take place on the passing and enforcing of an act such as that which abolished the heritable jurisdictions? Was it not natural, unavoidable that a fermentation should take place, that there should be a war of apparently conflicting interests, that, in short, as in the achievement of all great results by nations and men, there should be much experimenting, much groping to find out the best way, much shuffling about by the people to fit themselves to their new circumstances before matters could again fall into something like a settled condition, before each man would find his place in the new adjustment of society? Moreover, the Highlanders had to learn an inevitable and a salutary lesson, that in this or in any country under one government, where prosperity and harmony are desired, no particular section of the people is to consider itself as having a right to one particular part of the country. The Highlands for the Highlanders is a barbarous, selfish, obstructive cry in a united and progressive nation. It seems to be the law of nature, as it is the law of progress, that those who can make the best use of any district ought to have it. This has been the case with the world at large, and it has turned out, and is still turning out to be the case with this country. The Highlands now contain a considerable lowland population, and the Highlanders are scattered over the length and breadth of the land, and indeed of the world, honourably fulfilling the noble part they have to play in the world’s history. Ere long there will be neither Highlander nor Lowlander; we shall all be one people, having the best qualities of the blood of the formerly two antagonistic races running in our veins. It is, we have no doubt, with men as with other animals, the best breeds are got by judicious crossings.

Of course it is seldom the case that any great changes take place in the social or political policy of a country without much individual suffering: this was the case at all events in the Highlands. Many of the poor people and tacksmen had to undergo great hardships during the process of this new adjustment of affairs; but that the lairds or chiefs were to blame for this, it would be rash to assert. Some of these were no doubt unnecessarily harsh and unfeeling, but even where they were kindest and most considerate with their tenants, there was much misery prevailing among the latter. In the general scramble for places under the new arrangements, every one, chief, tacksman, tenant, and cottar, had to look out for himself or go to the wall, and it was therefore the most natural thing in the world that the instinct of self-preservation and self-advancement, which is stronger by far than that of universal benevolence, should urge the chiefs to look to their own interests in preference to those of the people, who unfortunately, from the habit of centuries, looked to their superiors alone for that help which they should have been able to give themselves. It appears to us that the results which have followed from the abolition of the jurisdictions and the obliteration of the power of the chiefs, were inevitable; that they might have been brought about in a much gentler way, with much less suffering and bitterness and recrimination, there is no doubt; but while the process was going on, who had time to think of these things, or look at the matter in a calm and rational light? Certainly not those who were the chief actors in bringing about the results. With such stubbornness, bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance on one side, and such power and poverty and necessity for immediate and decided action on the other, and with selfishness on both sides, it was all but inevitable that results should have been as they turned out to be. We shall do what we can to state plainly, briefly, and fairly the real facts of the case.

Return to Social History of the Highlands | General History of the Highlands


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