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Popular Superstitions of the Highlands

No part of the United Kingdom has of late years attracted a greater portion of public attention than the Highlands of Scotland. Formerly isolated as the inhabitants were from their fellow subjects, by a different language and separate interests, their character was but little known and less admired. Devoted to their chiefs and feudal institutions, they entertained a sovereign contempt for their neighbours; and, in their occasional intercourse with them, displayed feelings and manners little calculated to gain confidence or secure esteem.

But when the Rebellion in 1745, and its consequences, nearly annihilated feudal power, and broke down the wall of partition, by which the mountaineer was so long divided from the inhabitant of the plain, a new light was reflected upon his manners and habits. The gradual establishment of commercial and friendly relations with the inhabitants of other countries, accelerated the decay of mutual prejudices; and the virtues of the Highlander, which were previously reserved for home consumption, were now duly appreciated by the world. He no longer appeared the rude and unprincipled depredator, but the generous and disinterested character, whose romantic and chivalrous habits were rendered peculiarly interesting, as the remains of those boldly defined virtues which distinguished our primitive ancestors. Accordingly, the genius of the age became speedily alive to the importance of so novel and interesting a character. Shaping its course to the Highland mountains, it discovered among their unexplored recesses, those plentiful materials, on which are founded some of the most splendid works which adorn the circle of British literature.

Nor have all those superstructures yet exhausted so fertile a mine. Notwithstanding all the research that has been employed in tracing the origin, and delineating the manners of the inhabitants, and the many ingenious descriptions we have had of their local scenery, there are still many hidden treasures left for discovery, which presently languish in obscurity. This observation applies with great truth to those more remote and romantic regions which, from their secluded situations, have been long inaccessible to the approach of learning and genius; and where the native inhabitants, from want of intercourse with their more refined and effeminate countrymen, are the true representatives of our ancient forefathers in their various feelings and habits.

Of the manners and character of this noble and poetic race of mountaineers, little is known further than what may be collected from the manners of their contemporaries, in more accessible parts of the country; and it yet remains for the Great Unknown, or one possessing some share of his pre-eminent abilities, to paint their character in its genuine colours. The great defect which especially exists in the delineation of the Highlanderís superstitions, becomes peculiarly apparent to one, who has an opportunity of investigating those relics of the less polished ages of the world, as they are still exhibited in the habits of the people of whom we are writing. Many of the more prominent and common features of this branch of our national peculiarities have, indeed, been, long ago. celebrated by the pens of the immortal Burns, Ramsay, Sir Walter Scott, and others of less note, while much light has been lately thrown on the general character of the Scottish Highlander, by the ingenious Mrs Grant of Laggan, and the gallant Colonel Stewart of Garth; but the more interesting and latent peculiarities have been left to expire in the dark. The want of a complete and systematic account of the Highland and Scottish Superstitions, is a desideratum in our national literature, which the philosophic mind will readily regret; and this regret will be the more sincere on reflecting, that, from the fading aspects those interesting relics have now assumed, it as a desideratum which, in the course of a few years, cannot be supplied. The decline of popular romance is keeping pace with the progress of knowledge and civilization,ó which, as they illumine the unenlightened mind, open it to the folly of its prejudices; and thus the time is hastening its approach, when the natives of our remotest glens shall be no longer inspired with reverence for the fairy turret, nor shall their social circle be contracted by the frightful tale.

Far be it, however, from the writer of these pages to wish the reign of superstition prolonged. But, while he would hail with delight, the total extirpation of every prejudice tending to enslave the mental energy of the noble Gael, he would as ardently desire their perpetuation on the page of history, as his ancient peculiarities. Divested as they will soon be of their formidable character, we would preserve them as the most ancient relics we could transmit to our posterity, to whom, in the course of a few centuries, they may appear as preposterous and incredible, as the Poems of Ossian, do now, to the more sceptical part of the present generation.

It was not, however, the writerís conviction of the utility of such a work as this alone, that induced him to undertake a task for which, he is afraid, he will be found to have been ill qualified. A considerable time ago, an impaired state of health rendered it necessary for him to abandon his professional labours for a time, and to retire from the metropolis to the place of his nativity. The lassitude of mind consequent on a total remission from all employment, induced him to seek some rational source of amusement; and the idea of investigating the opinions and customs of his countrymen, was suggested to him by various circumstances, as likely to afford instruction as well as entertainment. His opportunities were most ample, and his task, of course, comparatively easy. Surrounded by the most original, brave, and ingenuous class of Highlanders existing, and possessing considerable knowledge of their language and manners, the writer found it no difficult matter to become completely acquainted with their prejudices and habits. By visiting the most celebrated professors of traditional lore in the district, he speedily acquired not only a fundamental knowledge of the reigning principles of superstition, but likewise an inexhaustible store of tales and traditions. And by mingling occasionally with the peasantry in their public and private festivities, he was enabled, from personal observation, to draw faithful portraits of those scenes of mirth and festivity, for which the inhabitants are so eminently distinguished. The result of his observations afforded him so much satisfaction, that he thought it worth while, from time to time, to commit the particulars to paper,ónot with the view of urging them on the public, but for his own private amusement. Of late, however, the increasing avidity with which traits of the Highland Superstitions have been received, as developed in the tales of the day, suggested to him the idea of submitting his gleanings to the public, in the form of a detailed account of the Superstitions and Festivities of the Highlanders of Scotland; and he hopes, however defective may be its execution, the design is not altogether unworthy of public patronage.

To arrange his gleanings in a connected and systematic order, was an undertaking far more tedious than the collection of them. The traits of Highland superstition are of so various and heterogeneous a character, that it appeared almost wholly impracticable to connect and digest them into the form of a connected narrative; and yet, in any other shape, they would necessarily lose much of the interest which they possess in their present form. Sensible of this, he has endeavoured, to the best of his ability, to arrange the different traits under their proper heads, in the most systematic and connected manner practicable, without introducing extraneous matter, which would not only destroy the native complexion of the subject, but also swell the Iimits of the work. By excluding solemn dissertation from such ludicrous relations as the following, he has been enabled to compress many particulars into little space, while his delineations possess a greater degree of truth and fidelity. To illustrate the various traits set forth, the writer has interspersed his delineations with a collection of the most popular tales of the day. These tales, whether they be the creation of the imagination, or the offspring of the credulity of their own original authors, cannot now fail to interest the philosopher or the antiquary, while they may amuse the less profound. For, utterly destitute of all probability, and broadly ludicrous as they may appear to the polished reader, they are, nevertheless, those interesting channels, by which the feelings and habits of our earliest forefathers have been kept alive, and transmitted down through so many changeful ages, to their posterity of the present day.

The length of those primitive relations is necessarily much abridged, but a strict regard has been had to their original style and phraseology. The language is almost entirely borrowed from the mouth of the Highland narrator, and translated, it is hoped, in a manner so simple and unvarnished, as to be perfectly intelligible to the capacity of the peasant, for whose fireside entertainment this little volume may, perhaps, be peculiarly adapted.

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