Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland

Part I

A Sketch of the Moral and Physical Character, and of the Institutions and Customs of the Inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland

Sketches of the Highlanders

Section II
System of Clanship—Consequences of this system—Effects of the want of Laws on the Manners and Character of the People.

The division of the people into clans and tribes, under separate chiefs, whose influence remained undiminished till after the year 1748, constitutes the most remarkable circumstance in their political condition, and leads directly to the origin of many of their peculiar sentiments, customs, and institutions. 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 overwhelming numbers, who drove them from the plains, and, anxious to preserve their independence, and their blood uncontaminated by intermixture with strangers, they defended themselves in those strong holds, which are, in every country, the sanctuaries of national liberty, and the refuge of those who resist the oppression and domination 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 division of the country into so many straths, valleys, and islands, separated from one another by mountains or arms of the sea, gave rise, as a matter of necessity, to various little societies; and individuals of superior property, courage, or talent, under whose banners they had fought, or under whose protection they had settled, naturally became their chiefs. Their secluded situation rendered general intercourse difficult, while the impregnable ramparts with which they were surrounded made defence easy.

Every small society had arms sufficient for its own protection, artisans skilful enough to furnish the rude manufactures required within their own territory, pasture for their cattle, wood for every purpose, moss and turf for fuel, and space for their hunting excursions. As there was nothing to tempt them to change their residence, to court the visits of strangers, or to solicit the means of general communication, every society became insulated. The whole race was thus broken into many individual masses, possessing a community of customs and character, but placed under different jurisdictions. Thus every district became a petty independent state. The government of each community, or clan, was patriarchal, [The feudal system, which had obtained such general influence over all the east and south of Europe, did not extend to the inaccessible districts, where the remains of the Celts had taken shelter. In Wales, in Ireland, in the western and middle borders of Scotland, and in the Highlands, the patriarchal government was universal. Opposed to this was the feudal system of their Saxon invaders, who established it as far as their power extended. It was long the policy of the Scottish legislature to oppose the feudal government, and support the power exercised by the chief, jure sanguinis, over the obedience and service of his clan, while the power assumed by the feudal superior of his freehold was disregarded. In this manner the Duke of Gordon, feudal superior of the lands and estates held by the Camerons, Macphersons, Macdonells of Keppoch, and others, had no vassalage or command over these clans, who always followed the orders of their patriarchal chiefs, Lochiel, Clunie, Keppoch, &c.] a sort of hereditary monarchy, founded on custom, and allowed by general consent, rather than regulated by laws. Many members of each clan considered themselves, and actually were, branches and descendants of the same family. The central stem of this family was the chief. But the more these connections of blood and friendship tended to preserve internal harmony, the more readily the clans broke out into violence on occasion of any external injury or affront. The laws of the state affording no protection, clans and individuals, when oppressed or insulted, were obliged to revenge, or seek for redress in their own persons, and thence turbulence, aggressions, and reprisals necessarily resulted. In this state of agitation, all knowledge of letters was lost, except among a few; but a kind of traditionary lore, scarcely less efficient, was preserved by means of the Bards and Senachies, or the Elders of Clans and Tribes. With very few laws, and no controlling power to enforce the execution of the few they had, they presented the rare spectacle of a people so beneficially influenced by the simple institutions and habits which they had formed for themselves, that, with all the defects consequent on such a state, they were prepared, with a little cultivation, to become valuable members of society.

In this insulated state, with a very limited admission of strangers, intermarriages and consanguinity were the natural consequence; and many members of the clan bore the same name with the chief.

[A supposition has been entertained, that many changed their names, and assumed names different from that of the clan or family. This was not frequent, and proceeded from a custom, (very necessary where so many were of the same name), of adding a distinguishing denomination to the Christian name; and sometimes when a man, from respect or gratitude, named his child after a friend, it was continued to the descendants. But instances abound of the wide extension of the same name and clan by lineal descent. Of these the following is one : James Stewart, son of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan and Badenoch, commonly called the Wolf of Badenoch, second son of King Robert II., first of the Stewarts, is said to have built the Castle of Garth, and settled there some time after the year 1390. (In the Cathedral of Dunkeld, there is a statue in armour of this "Wolf of Badenoch," or Alaster Mor Mac-in-Righ, "Alexander the King's son," as he is called in the Highlands. The statue seems to have been designed as part of a tomb, but is now greatly mutilated. The Earl of Buchan died in 1394. His descendants, now resident in Athole, are so numerous, that if each subscribed one shilling, this tomb and statue of their common ancestor might be completely repaired and restored to its original state, and would form an elegant, and interesting ornament to the magnificent ruin, in which it has lain up. wards of four hundred years.) There are now living in the district of Athole, within its ancient boundary, 1937 persons of the name of Stewart, descendants of this man, in the male line, besides numbers in other parts of the kingdom. The descendants through the female line being considerably more numerous, as few women leave the country, in proportion to the number of men who enter the army, and resort to different parts of the world, we have thus upwards of 4000 persons now living in one district, descended of this individual.]

In this manner a kind and cordial intimacy, and a disposition towards mutual support, were preserved, in a manner totally unknown in modern times. To all, the chief stood in the several relations of landlord, leader, and judge. He could call out the young men to attend him at the chase, or to fight under his banners—a mandate which generally met with ready obedience.

[Facts of this nature are easily ascertained in the Highlands, where descent from honourable ancestors is not forgotten or neglected by the poorest individual. It may therefore be believed, that, in former times, the bond of friendship was close and strong, in societies where so much importance was attached to consanguinity. It has likewise been alleged, that the more ancient names and people roust have been removed by violence, or extirpated to make room for the more recent clans. This opinion seems founded on conjecture rather than fact. Such changes often. occur from natural causes. The name of Cunnison or Mac-conich was prevalent in Athole in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries ; yet not an individual of that name now remains. All died out without violence or expulsion. In the same period there were twenty-four small landed proprietors, {or wadsetters, as they were called), of the name of Macair-bre in Breadalbane; but not a man of that name is now to be found, nor is there even a tradition of one of them having ever been extirpated, or their lands taken from them by force. All became extinct by natural causes. One of these M'Cairbres, probably their chief, possessed Finlarig Castle, afterwards one of the principal seats of the family of Glenorchy. The following communication, from Archibald Fletcher, Esq. advocate, exhibits a more recent instance of the extinction of clans and names without violence. ' About fifty years ago I visited my cousin, Donald Fletcher of Bernice, who then lived at Baravou-rich in Glenorchy, the original country of the Fletchers, and who, in the figurative language of the country, are said to be the first " that raised smoke or boiled water " in that district. On the two farms of Baravourich and Achalader, there were at that time eighty persons of my own name and descent, but when I went there two years ago, there was not a human being of my name remaining.'

In the former editions M'Cairbre was by mistake spelt M'Rabie. Great antiquity is given by tradition to the M'Cairbres; they are said to be descended from Cairbre Rua, frequently mentioned by Ossian. Archibald Fletcher Esq., advocate, is descended from the M'Cairbres in the female line, and in failure of the male line, may be considered as their representative.]

[It may he proper to mention, that many families of the same descent had two names, one common to the whole clan, as Macdonald, Macleod, &c. the other to distinguish a branch, which last was called the bun sloine, or genealogical surname, taken from the Christian name, or whatever designation marked the first man who branched off from the original family. In this manner, Campbell of Strachur is always called Macarslair or Macarthur, Campbell of Asknish, Macivor, and a tribe of the Robertsons in Perthshire, descendants from Strowan, are also called Clanivor; a tribe descended from Stewart of Garth are Clan Duilach, from their immediate ancestor, who was so denominated from his black eyes. Another tribe of the same family are called Cama-chas, or Crookshanks, from a bend or deformity in his leg, by which their ancestor was distinguished from others of his name. A class of the Stewarts of Appin are called Combich; and in this manner, through nearly all the clans, tribes, and families in the Highlands ; never, at the same time, forgetting the proper surname of their chief, or stem of their family. Thus, all the Macar-thurs of Strachur (There is a very ancient clan of this name, quite distinct from the branch of the Campbells. The Chief's estate lay on the side of Loch-owe in Argyleshire,) are Campbells, as are all the Macivors of Argyleshire; while the Macivors of Athole and Breadalbane are Robertsons, and the Duilach, Camachas, and Combich, are Stewarts, and so sign their names, and are designated in all writings, while in common conversation the bun sloine, or genealogical surname, is their usual appellation. To a stranger, the accuracy with which these genealogical connections were preserved may appear ridiculous, but the people filled up many idle hours very innocently with matters of this kind, never failing to bring forward the best traits in the character of their relations. Few men disclaim a relationship to persons of honour, worth, or high station. No claims of this nature were allowed by the Highlanders to sleep ; and it is to be wished their conduct would continue, as formerly, to be influenced by the dread of disgracing the honourable race whose blood they believed filled their veins.]

The zeal and courage which the Highlanders displayed in the cause of the Stuart princes, particularly in 1715, excited such alarm, and produced such extraordinary effects, as to give an exaggerated idea of their numbers. The peculiarity of their situation, and the sources of their power, which could no longer be despised, were minutely examined, and a Memorial, said to have been drawn up by the Lord President Forbes of Culloden, was transmitted to Government, detailing the force of every clan, the tenures of every chieftain, and the amount of retainers which he could bring into the field. This enumeration proceeds on the supposition that the chieftain calculated upon the military services of the youthful, the most hardy, and the bravest of his followers, omitting those who were infirm from age, those who, from tender years, or natural inability, were unable to carry arms, and those whom it was found necessary to leave at home, for conducting the business of the country. Besides the clans enumerated in this curious document, there were a number of independent gentlemen, who had many followers, as also several small clans, or "tribes" as they are commonly called, which have been omitted in the Lord President's report.

After treating of the general character of the Highlanders, the Memorial particularizes each clan, and subjoins statements of their respective forces, as under.

In the enumeration below, the reader will find exhibited in one view the power by which this mixture of patriarchal and feudal government was supported. When the kindred and followers of the chief saw him thus surrounded by a body so numerous, faithful, and brave, they could conceive no power superior to his; and how far soever they looked back into the history of their tribe, they found his progenitors at their head. Their tales, traditions, and songs, continually referred to the exploits or transactions of the same line of kindred and friends, living under the same line of chiefs; and the transmission of command and obedience, from one generation to another, thus became, in the eye of a Highlander, as natural as the transmission of blood, or the regular laws of descent.

In this statement the President has not included his own family of Cul-loden, and his immediate neighbours Rose of Kilravock, and Campbell of Cal-der ; nor has he noticed Bannatyne of Kaimes, the Maccallasters, Macquarries, and many other families and names. As an instance of uninterrupted lineal descent, through a series of turbulent ages, that of the family of Kilravock is remarkable. Colonel Hugh Rose is the twenty-sixth Laird, and the nineteenth of the name of Hugh in regular succession, since the estate came into the possession of his family.

[When the first Marquis of Huntly waited upon King James VI. in Edinburgh, on being created Marquis, in the year 1590, be stood in the presence chamber with his head covered; and on being reminded of his seeming want of respect, he humbly asked pardon, assigning as an excuse, that as he had just come from a country where all took off their bonnets to him, he had quite forgotten what he owed to his present situation.]

The long unbroken line of chiefs [Twenty-one Highland chiefs fought under Robert Bruce at Bannockburn. The number of their direct descendants now in existence, and in possession of their paternal estates, is remarkable. The chiefs at Bannockburn were, Stewart, Macdonald, M'Kay, Mackintosh, Macpherson, Cameron, Sinclair, Drummond, Campbell, Menzies, Maclean, Sutherland, Robertson, Grant, Fraser, Macfarlane, Ross, Macgregor, Monro, Mackenzie, and Macquarrie. dimming, Macdougall of Lorn, and a few others, were also present, but unfortunately in opposition to Bruce.—In consequence of the distinguished conduct of the chief of the Drummonds in this battle, the King added the calthropes to his armorial bearings, and gave him an extensive grant of lands in Perthshire. It is said to have been by Sir Malcolm Drummond's recommendation that the calthropes, which proved so destructive to the English cavalry, were made use of on that day.

When we consider the state of turbulence, and misrule which prevailed in the Highlands, an unbroken succession, for five hundred years, of so great a proportion of the chief agitators and leaders, is the more remarkable, as there has been a greater change of property within the last forty years of tranquillity, abundance, and wealth, than in the preceding two hundred years of feuds, rapine, and comparative poverty.] is as great a proof of the general mildness of their sway, as of the fidelity of their followers; for the independent spirit displayed on various occasions by the people, proves that they would not have brooked oppression, where they looked for kindness and protection. "This power of the chiefs is not supported by interest, as they are landlords, but by consanguinity, as lineally descended from the old patriarchs or fathers of their families; for they hold the same authority when they have lost their estates, as may appear from several instances, and particularly that of one who commands his clan, though at the same time they maintain him, having nothing left of his own. " [Letters from an Officer of Engineers to his friend in London.]

This was the late Lord Lovat, who, with all his good and bad qualities, possessed, in a singular degree, the art of securing the love and obedience of his clan. Though attainted and outlawed, and though his estate was forfeited, and given to Mackenzie of Fraserdale, as next heir in the female line, his mother being eldest daughter of a former Lord Lovat; yet such was the fidelity of the clan to their real •chief, that they flocked to his standard at the first summons, quitting his rich rival, who, being possessed of the estate, had the power of rewarding his friends and supporters. The individuals might change, but the ties that bound together one, were drawn more closely, though by insensible degrees. around the succeeding; and thus each family, in all its various successions, retained something like the same sort of re-lation to the parent stem, which the renewed leaves of a tree in spring preserve, in point of relative position, to those which dropped off in the preceding autumn.

[The attachment and friendship of kindred, families, and clans, were confirmed by many ties. It has been an uniform practice in the families of the Campbells of Melford, Duntroon, and Dunstaffnage, that, when the head of either family died, the chief mourners should be the two other lairds, one of whom supported the head to the grave, while the other walked before the corpse. In this manner friendship took place of the nearest consanguinity ; for even, the eldest sons of the deceased were not permitted to interfere with this arrangement. The first progenitors of these families were three sons of the family of Argyll, who took this method of preserving the friendship, and securing the support of their posterity to one another.

In a manner something similar the family of Breadalbane had their bonds of union and friendship, simple in themselves, but sufficient to secure the support of those whom they were intended to unite. The motto of the armorial bearings of the family is "Follow me." This significant call was assumed by Sir Colin Campbell, Laird of Glenorchy, who was a Knight Templar of Rhodes, and is still known in the Highlands by the designation of Caillain Dhu na Roidh, "Black Colin of Rhodes." Several cadets of the family assumed mottos analogous to that of this chivalrous knight, and when the chief called "Follow me," he found a ready compliance from Campbell of Glenfalloch, a son of Glenorchy, who says, "Thus far," that is, to his heart's blood, the crest being a dagger piercing a heart;—from Achlyne, who says, "With heart and hand;"—from Achallader, who says, "With courage;"—and from Barcaldine who says, Paratus sum: Glenlyon, more cautious, says, Quae recta sequor. A knight and baron, neighbours but not followers, Menzies of Menzies, and Flemyng of Moness, in token of friendship say, "Will God I shall," and "The deed will show," An ancestor of mine, also a neighbour, says, "Beware."]

Many important consequences, regarding the character of the Highlanders, resulted from this division of the people into small tribes, and from this establishment of patriarchal government. The authority of the king was rendered feeble and inefficient. His mandates could neither arrest the depredations of one clan against another, nor allay their mutual hostilities. Delinquents could not, with impunity, be pursued into the bosom of a clan which protected them, nor could his judges administer the laws, in opposition to their interests or their will. Sometimes he strengthened his arm, by fomenting animosities among them, and by entering occasionally into the interest of one, in order to weaken another. [This was acting on the old maxim, "Divide et impera."] Many instances of this species of policy occur in Scottish history, which, for a long period, was unhappily a mere record of internal violence. The consequence of this absense of general laws was an almost perpetual system of aggression, warfare, depredation, and contention. These little sovereignities touched at so many points, yet were so independent of one another; they approached so nearly, in many respects, yet were, in others, so distant; there were so many opportunities of encroachment on the one hand, and so little of a disposition to submit to" it on the other; and the quarrel of one individual of the tribe so naturally involved the rest, that there was scarcely ever a profound peace, or perfect cordiality between them. Among their chiefs the most deadly feuds frequently arose from opposing interests, or from wounded pride. These feuds were warmly espoused by the whole clan, and were often transmitted, with aggravated animosity, from generation to generation.

It would be curious to trace all the negotiations, treaties, and bonds of amity, (or Manrent, as they are called,) with which opposing clans strengthened themselves, and their coalitions with friendly neighbours, against the attacks and encroachments of their enemies or rivals, or to preserve the balance of power. [It is rather a humiliating consideration for the votaries of ambition, who have made war and politics their sole study, to find, from the history of past ages, that no less art, sagacity, address, and courage, have been displayed in the petty contests of illiterate mountaineers, than in their most refined schemes of policy and their most brilliant feats of arms. That they should be able, by intrigue and dexterity, to attach new allies, and detach hostile tribes from their confederates, is a still more mortifying proof how nearly the unassisted powers of natural talent, approach to the practices of the most profound politicians.] By these bonds, [As a curious document of this nature, I may mention a bond of amity and mutual defence entered into by a number of gentlemen of the name of Stewart in Athole, Monteith, and Appin, to which each affixed his seal and signature, binding himself to support the others against all attacks and encroachments, especially from the Marquis of Argyll, who had sided with the Covenanters. This bond is dated at Burn of Keltney, 24th June 1654. The long continued feuds between the Argyle and Atholemen, which were latterly much embittered by political differences, were the cause of many skirmishes and battles. The last of these was a kind of drawn battle, in the reign of Charles II., each party retiring different ways. When the Atholemen heard that the Argylemen were on their march to attack them, they immediately flew to arms, and, moving forward, encountered their foes in Breadalbane, near the east end of Lochtay. The conflict was most desperate. The dead were carried to a considerable distance and buried in a small knoll, now included in the parks of Taymouth, where their bones were found in great numbers in 1816, when Lord Breadalbane cut down a corner of this knoll in the formation of a road.] they pledged themselves to assist each other; but, however general their internal insurrections and disputes might be, however extended their cause of quarrel with rivals or neighbours, they invariably bound themselves to be loyal and true to the king: "always, excepting my duty to our Lord the King, and to our kindred and friends," was a special clause. [Of these bonds of Manrent, the instances are too many to be enumerated. One in possession of Lord Bannatyne, is a bond between his ancestor the Laird of Kames, chief of the Bannatynes or Maccamelyne, as they are called in Gaelic, and Sir John Stewart, ancestor to the Marquis of Bute, dated 20th May 1547, in which they engage to stand by and support each other, against all persons except the King and the Earl of Argyll; this latter reservation being to enable the chief of the Bannatynes to fulfil a bond of Manrent, he had previously come under to Argyll. This latter bond is dated 14th April 1538.

Nor were these engagements confined to chiefs and heads of families: humbler individuals thus bound themselves; but a particular exception never to be forgotten or infringed, was their fidelity to the chief of their own blood and family.]

In these treaties of mutual support and protection were included smaller clans, unable to defend themselves, and such families or clans as had lost their chiefs. Those of the name of Stewart, for instance, whose estates lay in the district of Athole, and whose chiefs by birth, being at one period Kings of Scotland, and afterwards of Great Britain, were latterly in exile, ranged themselves under the family of Athole, though they were themselves sufficiently numerous to raise 1000 fighting men. When such unions took place, the smaller clans followed the fortunes, engaged in the quarrels, and fought under the chiefs of the greater, [In this manner the M'Raes followed the Earl of Seaforth, the Gunns and Mathiesons the Earls of Sutherland, the M'Colls, the Stewarts of Appin, and the M'Gillivrays and M'Beans, the Laird of Mackintosh, &c. &c.] but their ranks were separately marshalled, and led by their own subordinate chieftains and lairds, who owned submission only when necessary, for the success of combined operations. From these, and other causes, the Highlands were for ages, as constant a theatre of petty warfare, as Europe has been of important struggles. The smaller the society, and the more closely connected together, the more keenly did it feel an injury, or resent an insult offered by a rival tribe. A haughty or contemptuous expression uttered against a chief, was considered by all his followers, in the light of a personal affront; ["When a quarrel begins in words between two Highlanders of different clans, it is esteemed the very height of malice and rancour, and the greatest of all provocations, to reproach one another with the vices or personal defects of their chiefs, or that of the particular branch whence they sprung; and, in a third degree, to reproach the whole clan or name, whom they will assist, right or wrong, against those of any other tribe with which they are at variance, to whom their enmity, like that of exasperated brothers, is most outrageous. "— Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland.] and the driving away the cattle of one clansman, was looked upon as an act of aggression against the whole. The rage for vengeance, and the desire of reprisals, spread throughout the little community, like the violence of an insult offered to an individual, heightened by the sympathy of numbers. Submission to insult would have been present disgrace, and would have invited future aggression. Immediate hostility was therefore the result, and the gathering word of the clan found an echo in every breast. [See Appendix, D.]

If no immediate opportunity of obtaining complete satisfaction occurred; if the injured party was too weak to repel attack, and to vindicate their honour in the field, or to demand compensation for their property, still the hostile act was not forgotten, nor the resolution of avenging it abandoned. Every artifice by which cunning could compensate the want of strength was practised; alliances were courted, and favourable opportunities watched. Even an appearance of conciliation was assumed, to cover the darkest purposes of hatred; and as revenge is embittered in all countries where the laws are ill executed, and where the hand of the individual must vindicate those rights which public justice does not protect, so this feeling was cherished and honoured when directed against rival tribes. [In the present enlightened times, were the laws unable to afford protection, and were individuals, or collective bodies, forced to arm in order to redress their own wrongs,—would murder, turbulence, and spoliation of property, be less prevalent than they were in the Highlands when unprotected by the general laws of the realm? Were the return of such scenes of license and rapine a probable occurrence, I fear much the warmest advocate of modern civilization would hardly venture to anticipate, that they would be blended with those frequent and softening traits of honourable feeling which distinguished the inroads of the wild mountaineers.]

To such a pitch were those feelings carried, that there are instances, both in tradition and on record, in which these feuds led to the most sanguinary conflicts, and ended in the extermination of one of the adverse parties. [See Appendix, E.]

The spirit of opposition and rivalry between the clans perpetuated a system of hostility, encouraged the cultivation of the military at the expense of the social virtues, and perverted their ideas both of law and morality. Revenge was accounted a duty, the destruction of a neighbour a meritorious exploit, and rapine an honourable occupation. Their lave of distinction, and a conscious reliance on their own courage, when under the direction of these perverted notions, only tended to make their feuds more implacable, their condition more agitated, and their depredations more rapacious and desolating. Superstition added its influence in exasperating animosities, by teaching the clansmen, that, to revenge the death of a relation or friend, was a sacrifice agreeable to his manes; thus engaging on the side of implacable hatred, and vengeance, the most amiable and domestic of all our feelings,—reverence for the memory of the dead, and affection for the virtues of the living. [Another custom contributed to perpetuate this spirit of lawless revenge. Martin, who studied, and understood the character and manners of the Highlanders, says, "Every heir or young chieftain of a tribe was obliged in honour to give a specimen of his valour before he was owned or declared governor or leader of his people, who obeyed and followed him on all occasions. This chieftain was usually attended with a retinue of young men, who had not before given any proof of their valour, and were ambitious of such an opportunity to signalize themselves. It was usual for the chief to make a desperate incursion upon some neighbour or other, that they were in feud with, and they were obliged to bring, by open force, the cattle they found in the land they attacked, or to die in the attempt. After the performance of this achievement, the young chieftain was ever after reputed valiant, and worthy of government, and such as were of his retinue acquired the like reputation. This custom being reciprocally used among them, was not reputed robbery; for the damage which one tribe sustained by the inauguration of the chieftain of another was repaired when their chieftain came in his turn to make his specimen; but I have not heard of an instance of this practice for these sixty years since." Martin's Description of the Western Islands. London, printed 1703.]

As the general riches of the country consisted in flocks and herds, the usual mode of commencing attacks, or of making reprisals, was by an incursion to carry off the cattle of the hostile clan. A predatory expedition was the general declaration of enmity; and a command given by the chief to clear the pastures of the enemy, constituted the usual letters of marque. Such inroads were frequently directed to the Lowlands, where the booty was richest, and where less vigilance was exercised in protecting it. Regarding every Lowlander as an alien, and his cattle as fair spoil of war, they considered no law for his protection as binding. The Lowlanders, on the other hand, regarded their neighbours of the mountains as a lawless banditti, whom it was dangerous to pursue to their fastnesses, in order to recover their property, or to punish aggressions. Yet, except against the Lowlanders, or a hostile clan, these freebooters maintained, in general, the strictest honesty towards one another, and inspired confidence in their integrity. In proof of this, it may be mentioned, that instances of theft from dwelling-houses scarcely ever occurred, and highway robbery was totally unknown, except in one case so recent as the year 1770, when a man of education, and of respectable family, but of abandoned character, formed and headed a gang of robbers. [His name was Mackintosh. He was a man of education, and knowledge of the world, who disgraced the respectable family from which he was descended, and the community to which he belonged. He was bred in a school such as the Highlands had rarely witnessed. His father, who, by a base stratagem, had usurped possession of an estate to which he had no right, lived, after the death of his wife, in a kind of seraglio, despised and shunned by the neighbouring gentry, though his abilities were good, and his manners prepossessing. He was the Colonel Charteris of his district, with this honourable distinction in favour of the Highlanders, that he was shunned as much as the other was countenanced. This example accounts too well for the bold profligacy of his heir, who excelled in all personal accomplishments, possessed engaging and elegant manners, and was remarkably handsome. The last exploit of this man was an attempt to rob Sir Hector Munro on his journey to the North, after his return from India in 1770. Mackintosh escaped to America, and afterwards joined Washington's army. One of his accomplices was taken and executed at Inverness in 1773.] In the interior of their own society, all property was safe, without the usual security of bolts, bars and locks. [A late scientific tourist gives an unintentional testimony to the probity and honesty of the people towards one another. Noticing the wretched dwellings of the inhabitants of St Kilda, with an interior dark and smoky, he adds, "Each house has a door with a lock and key, a luxury quite unknown in other parts of the Highlands." It were well that this luxury should long continue unknown, and that the people should remain ignorant of the necessity of securing their houses. If the progress of civilization, as the change of manners is called, compel the Highlanders to lock their doors against nightly depredators, it may create a question, whether ignorance and integrity, or knowledge and knayery, be preferable ; or whether people can indeed be called ignorant, who are attentive to their religous duties,—who exercise the moral virtues of integrity and filial reverence,—who are loyal to their king, brave and honourable in the field, and equally firm in opposing an enemy and in supporting a friend. If these traits of character are exhibited by a people called ignorant and uncivilized, the terms may have perhaps been misapplied. On this subject Martin says of the Highlanders of the seventeenth century, "I am not ignorant that foreigners have been tempted, from the sight of so many wild hills, to imagine that the inhabitants, as well as the places of their residence, are equally barbarous, and to this opinion their habit as well as their language has contributed. The like is supposed by many that live in the south of Scotland ; but the lion is not fierce as he is painted, neither are the people here so barbarous as people imagine. The inhabitants have humanity, use strangers hospitably and charitably. I could bring several instances of barbarity and theft by stranger seamen in the Isles, but there is not one instance of any injury offered by the islanders to any seaman or stranger. For the humanity and hospitable temper of the islanders to sailors I shall only give two instances." (See Appendix F.)] An open barn, or shed, was the common summer receptacle of their clothes, cheese, and every thing that required air; and although iron bars and gates were necessary to protect the houses and castles of the chiefs and lairds from hostile inroads, when at feud, no security was required in time of peace, and while the castle gates were open, the dwellings of the people had no safeguard. [My father, still adhering to old customs, does not lock his doors to this day. I know not how long this custom may with safety be continued : recent symptoms of a deplorable change in morals will undoubtedly compel people to guard their property with more care. It will then be no longer, as I have known it, that gentlemen have been half their lives in the commission of the peace, without having occasion to act against a criminal, unless in issuing warrants to recover the fines of Excise Courts, or on account of assaults on Excise officers, and accidental frays. Clothes and linens will no longer be seen drying and bleaching in all parts of the country, and at all hours, without guard or protection; nor open sheds hung round with all the Sunday's apparel of the lads and lasses. The rude Highlanders are undergoing a process of civilization by new manners, new morals, and new religion, the progress of which is at once rapid and deplorable. An inquiry into the cause of this loss of principle and morals in an age when so much is done to enlighten and educate, would certainly be extremely interesting.] But on the other hand, open depredations were carried on with systematic order, and they saw no greater moral turpitude in levying a creach, [Creach is a very appropriate term, and means, to impoverish. If there was much resistance in these forays, and if lives were lost, great destruction frequently ensued in revenge for the loss sustained; but in common incursions, either against the Lowlanders, or rival tribes, personal hostilities were avoided except in retaliation of some previous death or insult. The creachs of the Highlanders, though sufficiently calamitous, were trifling when compared with the raids or forays on the borders of England and Scotland. The following account of the devastation committed by the English upon the Scotch, in the year 1544, will serve as a specimen of the miseries to which the border countries were exposed. The sum-total of mischief done in different forays, from the 2d of July to the 17th of November of that year, is thus computed:—"Towns, towers, steads, parish churches, castle houses, cast down and burnt, 192; Scots slain, 405; prisoners taken, 816; nolts, i. e. horned cattle, taken, 10,386; sheep, 12,498; nags and geldings, 1296; goats, 200; bolls of corn, 850 ; insight gear, (i. e. household furniture,) not reckoned." In another inroad by the Earl of Hertford, in the year 1545, he burnt, rased, and destroyed in the counties of Berwick and Roxburgh, "Monasteries and friars' houses. 7; castles, towers, and piles, 16; market towns, 5; villages, 243; milns, 13; hospitals, 3. All these were cast down and burnt." As the Scots were equally ready and skilful in this irregular warfare, we have many similar instances of the damage done in their wasteful and destructive raids or inroads into England.] heading a foray, or in "lifting" the cattle which "cropped the grass of an enemy," than we now discover in the reprisals and exploits of our men of war and privateers, or in the killing of deer and game, the latter of which subjects the offenders to punishment, if detected, while no shame or disgrace attaches to the deed, whether discovered or not.

In a country in which the ablest and most active of the people despised the labour necessary to raise their subsistence from the soil, and in which the use of arms was thought the most honourable occupation, every excuse was eagerly seized for commencing hostilities. If overtaken in their depredations, the plunderers were generally prepared for resistance, and for ennobling an act of robbery, by the intrepidity of their defence. Such an event, however, was rather avoided than courted ; and the rapidity of their retreat, joined to the acuteness of their vision, formed generally their best security, as well as one of their readiest means for recovering their cattle. It is said, that habit had rendered their sight so acute, that, where a common observer could perceive nothing, they could trace the cattle, by the yielding of the heath over which they had passed. If cattle were thus traced to a man's property, without any marks of their having proceeded beyond his boundary, he was held responsible, and an immediate quarrel ensued, unless he agreed to make ample restitution, or compensation for the loss.

Besides those persons who committed occasional spoliations, which they did not regard as dishonourable, and which they exercised at times as the means of weakening or punishing their enemies, there was a peculiar class, called Kear-nachs. This term, originally applied to the character of soldiers, was equivalent to the catherons of the Lowlands, the kernes of the English, and the catervae of the Romans,—denominations, doubtless, of the same import. [It has been suggested by a learned author, that the Lake, celebrated in the Poem of the " Lady of the Lake," and known by the name of Loch Katrine, derives its name from the word above mentioned, and is the Loch of Kearnachs, or Catherons.—Some of these kearnachs died in my remembrance. They had completely abandoned their old habits, and lived a quiet domestic life,, but retained much of the chivalrous spirit of their youth, and were respected in the country. One man was considered an exception to this general description, as it was supposed that he was not altogether convinced of the turpitude of cattle-lifting. However, as he had the character of being a brave soldier, these suspicions against his moral opinions were less noticed. His name was Robert Robertson, but he was called in the country Rob Bane. He was very old when I knew him, but he had not lost the fire and animation of earlier years.—In autumn 1746, a party, consisting of a corporal and eight soldiers, marching north to Inverness, after passing Tummel Bridge, halted on the road-side, and placed their arms against a large stone some yards behind them. Robert Bane observed the soldiers, and the manner in which they disposed of their arms. This, as he said, was a good opportunity to make a dash at his old friends the Seidaran dearag, or red coat soldiers, whom he had met at Gladsmuir, Falkirk, and Culloden. None of his neighbours were at home to assist him; but he sallied out by himself, armed with his gun, pistols, and broadsword, and, proceeding with great caution, got close to the party undiscovered, when he made a sudden spring, and placed himself between the soldiers and their arms. Brandishing his sword in one hand, and pointing his gun with the other, he called out to them in broken English, to surrender instantly, or he would call his party, who were in the wood behind, and would kill them all. The soldiers were so taken by surprise, that they permitted the kearnach to carry off their arms for the purpose of delivering them, as he said, to his companions in the wood. He quickly returned, however, and desiring the soldiers to follow him quietly, else those in the woods would be out, he conducted them to Tummel Bridge inn, where he left them, and repairing to the wood, took possession of the arms as fair spoil of war. The soldiers soon discovered the truth, and hurried back to recover their arms, and get hold of the man who, by his address and courage, had thus disgraced them; but the kearnach had taken care to place himself and his prize out of danger. When the soldiers reached Inverness, they were tried and punished for the loss of their arms. In the course of the following year, Bane went to Inverness, not expecting that he would be recognised; but he was mistaken. The day he arrived he met one of the soldiers who knew him, and instantly laying hold of him, called for assistance, secured, and sent him to jail. While he lay there, three men who were confined in the same room, broke through the prison wall and made their escape. He refused to accompany them, saying that he took nothing from his prisoners but their arms, which he considered as no crime, and, therefore, had no occasion to fear or to escape from punishment. The circumstance coming to the knowledge of his Clansman, Mr Robertson of Inches, who lived in the neighbourhood, he made so favourable a representation of his case, that the kearnach was liberated without trial, and allowed to return home as a reward for his conduct in not availing himself of such an opportunity of escaping the intended punishment, which in those days was sometimes very summary.]

In their best days, the kearnachs were a select band, and were employed in all enterprises where uncommon danger was to be encountered, and more than common honour to be acquired. Latterly, however, their employments were less laudable, and consisted in levying contributions on their Lowland neighbours, or in making them pay tribute, or Black Mail [See Appendix, G.] for protection. The sons of the tacksmen, or second order of gentry, frequently joined these parties, and considered their exploits as good training in the manly exercises proper for a soldier.

The Highlanders of the counties of Perth, Stirling, and Dumbarton, inhabiting chiefly a border country, had the most frequent encounters with their southern neighbours, and also skirmishes with the Lochaber, Badenoch, and northern kearnachs, whom on their return from their expeditions to the south, they sometimes attacked, with an intention of stripping them of their booty, either on their own account, or for the purpose of restoring it to the owners.

The borderers being thus placed in the centre of agitation, and having arms always ready, were prepared to turn out whenever their services might be required. The clan Farquharson, and the Highlanders of Braemar, placed in the same circumstances with regard to the Lowlands of the counties of Banff, Aberdeen, and Kincardine, as the Athole Highlanders were in regard to those of Perth, Stirling, and Angus, acquired similar habits; and both of them being actuated by similar political principles, they generally took the field together on all important occasions. An instance of the warlike disposition thus cherished, appeared in the rebellion during the reign of Charles I., when the Marquis of Montrose always found "his brave Atholemen " his never-failing support, both in his numerous victories, and under his greatest reverses. At his call they were always ready. On one occasion, being dressed in the common Highland garb, and attended only by the Laird of Inchbrakie and one servant, he came among them so unexpectedly, that some Irish soldiers who had been sent over by the Earl of Antrim, under Macdonnell, [This brave loyalist, and able partisan, was a native of the county of Antrim. The Marquis of Montrose placed the utmost confidence in his talents and intrepidity, intrusting to his command the most difficult enterprises. To this day his memory is held in the highest veneration by the Highlanders, who retain many traditional anecdotes of him.] (or Alister M'Colla, as he was called by the Highlanders,) "could hardly be persuaded the man they saw was the Marquis of Montrose, till he was saluted by the Atholemen, who knew him perfectly, and almost paid him the honours of a guardian angel;" [Bishop Wishart's Memoirs of Montrose.] and the following day, "the Atholemen, to the number of eight hundred, put themselves in arms, and offered their services most cheerfully to Montrose. " In the same manner we find (as will be afterwards noticed), that "fifteen hundred men of Athole, as reputable for arms as any in the kingdom," [General Mackay's Memoirs.] joined Lord Dundee to support King James. The storming of the town of Dundee, and the skilful and masterly retreat effected by Montrose and his Atholemen in the face of a greatly superior force, affords another instance in point, and is the only further example of the same kind which I shall adduce. In the year 1645, Montrose, being deceived by false information from his spies, mistook the motions of the enemy, and resolving to punish the town of Dundee, "a most seditious town, being the securest haunt and receptacle of the rebels in those parts, and a place that had contributed as much as any other towards the rebellion," marched from Dunkeld, at twelve o'clock at night, with one hundred and fifty horse, six hundred Atholemen, and a detachment of Irish, and reaching Dundee at ten o'clock next morning, instantly stormed and carried the town; but he had scarcely taken possession, when he received information that General Baillie and Colonel Hurry, two veteran and experienced officers, with eight hundred horse, and three thousand infantry, were on their march towards him, and within little more than a mile of the town. Montrose immediately recalled his men, and marched off pursued by. the enemy, who, dividing their force, sent one part to intercept, and the other to pursue him. During the retreat he occasionally halted, and opposed their successive attacks, and by a circuitous route regained the Grampians through the pass of Glen Esk, with a trifling loss.—"And this was that so much talked-of expedition to Dundee, infamous indeed for the mistakes of the scouts, but as renowned as any for the valour, constancy, and undaunted resolution of the General; and admirable for the hardiness of the soldiers in encountering all extremities with patience: for threescore miles together (Scotch miles, equal to ninety English), they had been often in fight, always upon their march, without either meat or sleep, or intermission, or the least refreshment; which, whether foreign nations or aftertimes will believe, I cannot tell; but, I am sure, I deliver nothing but what is most certain of my own knowledge: And truly, amongst expert soldiers, and those of eminent note, both of England, Germany, and France, I have not seldom heard this expedition of Montrose preferred to his greatest victory." [Dr Wishart, Bishop of Edinburgh's Memoirs of the Marquis of Montrose.]

The endless feuds between the Argyle and Atholemen assisted in preserving the military spirit and the use of arms. In the charter-chest of Stewart of Ballechin there is a commission to bis ancestor, the Laird of Ballechin, from the Marquis of Atholl, then Lord-Lieutenant of Argyleshire, dated in 1685, authorizing him to march with a strong body of Atholemen into that county, and to take possession of the property of the Marquis of Argyll, and of several gentlemen then attainted for rebellion. In what spirit these orders were carried into effect, will appear from the circumstance that eighteen gentlemen, of the name of Campbell, were executed at Inverary. The commission granted to Ballechin is highly curious, and prescribes all the intended operations and proposed plans with great accuracy and precision.

[I am informed by my friend Mr Stewart of Ballechin, that, in the preceding editions, I had misapprehended the nature of this document; and that it was a commission from, the Marquis of Atholl as Lord Lieutenant of Argyleshire to his ancestor, under the authority of which he marched into that county, and, taking possession of Inverary, held courts there. Many were tried on a charge of rebellion, and refusing to take the Test Oath; and eighteen men were executed. I find also that Ballechin got a charter from the Crown in 1685, containing a grant of a considerable portion of lands in Argyleshire. Having only had a cursory glance of these documents a number of years ago, it is probable I may not have had a proper recollection of their real import. But in whatever view this transaction is considered, whether as a feudal inroad, or a proceeding under authority, it equally proves the object for which I introduced the subject;—namely, to show, in a strong light, the fatal effects which may be expected when a weak and inefficient government is unable to execute an important measure, except by employing the inhabitants of one district to coerce and punish those of another; thus adding fresh matter of irritation and hostility to former feuds, and exciting a spirit of revenge and retaliation—a feeling which would not have existed, at least in the same degree, had a sufficient force, front a distant country, been employed. Were the weavers of Glasgow sent to quell a riot or insurrection among the weavers of Paisley, and were they to hang a number of the rioters, the heart-burnings, jealousies, and spirit of revenge, which such rencounters would occasion, may easily be imagined.]

How little the Highlanders were accustomed to attach any ideas of moral turpitude to such exploits, may be learned from the conduct and sentiments of several of those freebooters, who, at no very distant period, became the victims of a more regular administration of the laws, and who were unable to comprehend in what their criminality consisted. After the troubles of 1745, many who had been engaged in. them, afraid to return to their own country, over which the king's troops were dispersed, and having no settled residence or means of support, formed several associations of freebooters, which laid the borders of the Highlands under contribution.

An active leader among these banditti, Donald Cameron, or Donald Bane Leane, was tried in Perth for cattle stealing, and executed at Kinloch Rannoch in 1752, in order to strike terror into his band in that district. At his execution he dwelt with surprise and indignation on his fate. He had never committed murder, nor robbed man or house, or taken any thing but cattle off the grass of those with whom he was at feud; why therefore punish him for doing that which was a common prey to all? Another freebooter, Alexander Stewart, (commonly called Alister Breac, from his being marked with the small pox), was executed in 1753. He was despised as a pitiful thief, who deserved his fate, because he committed such acts as would have degraded a genuine Kearnach.

But they were not the actors alone who attached no criminality, or at least disgrace, to the "lifting of cattle," as we find from a letter of Field Marshal Wade to Mr Forbes of Culloden, then Lord Advocate, dated October 1729, describing an entertainment given him on a visit to a party of Kearnachs. The Marshal says, "The Knight and I travelled in my carriage with great ease and pleasure to the feast of oxen which the highwaymen had prepared for us, opposite Lochgarry, where we found four oxen roasting at the same time, in great order and solemnity. We dined in a tent pitched for that purpose. The beef was excellent; and we had plenty of bumpers, not forgetting your Lordship's and Culloden's health; and, after three hours' stay, took leave of our benefactors, the highwaymen, [The Marshal had not at this period been long enough in the Highlands to distinguish a kearnach, or "lifter of cattle," from a highwayman. No such character as the latter then existed in the country; and it may be presumed he did not consider these men in the light which the word would indicate;—for certainly the Commander-in-Chief would neither have associated with men whom he supposed to be really highwaymen, nor partaken of their hospitality.] and arrived at the hut at Dalnachardoch before it was dark." [Culloden Papers.]

The constant state of warfare, aggression, and rapine, in which the clans lived, certainly tended to improve their ingenuity, and inured them to hardships and privations, which, indeed, their abstemious mode of living, and their constant exposure to all varieties of weather in their loose and light dress, enabled them to bear without inconvenience.

[Habituated as the people were, from the nature of the country, and their pastoral employment, to traverse extensive tracts exposed to tempests and floods, and to cross rapid torrents, and dangerous precipices, the young Highlander acquired a presence of mind which prepared him for becoming an active and intelligent soldier, particularly in that independent species of warfare practised in the woods of America, and lately so much in use with our light troops, in which men must depend upon their own resources and personal exertions. These habits are not so readily acquired in a level country, where there are few natural obstructions or difficulties, and these few easily surmountable by art.

In Mr Jamieson's excellent edition of Burt's Letters, the following instance is given of presence of mind in a Highland lad, who, with a Lowland farmer, was crossing a mountain stream, in a glen, at the upper end of which a waterspout had fallen. The Highlander had reached the opposite bank, but the farmer was looking about and loitering on the stones over which he was stepping, wondering at a sudden noise he heard, when the Highlander cried out, " Help, help, or I am a dead man, " and fell to the ground. The farmer sprung to his assistance, and had hardly reached him when the torrent came down, sweeping over the stones, with a fury which no human force could have withstood. The lad had heard the roaring of the stream behind the rocks, which intercepted its view from the farmer, and fearing that he might be panic struck if he told him of his danger, took this expedient to save him. A young man like this might have been trusted on an out-post in front of an enemy ; and, possessing such presence of mind, would have been equally capable of executing his own duties, and of observing the movements and intentions of the enemy.]

On the other hand, this incessant state of warfare gave a cast of savage ferocity to their character, while their quarrels and hereditary feuds kept them in a state of alarm and disquietude, and obliged them to have recourse to stratagems and intrigues. These naturally gave rise to habits of duplicity, which had a baneful influence on their morals. Whilst a summary and arbitrary course of proceeding was sanctioned by ideas of honour, passion had no check from legal control, and retaliation must have frequently been accompanied by licentious cruelty, and a disregard of all moderation and justice.

[An old historian has drawn the following picture of the state of Scotland after the murder of James I., and during the minority of his son, James II., under the administration of Livingston of Callander, the governor, and the Lord Chancellor Crichton, the imbecillity of whose government was such as to leave the turbulence of the nobility without control. The strong arm of the law had never been felt in the Highlands, and hence arose the summary modes of avenging private wrongs, to which the people had recourse in the absence of judicial redress. Yet they may be said to have lived in a state of peace and repose, compared with the distractions and turbulence of the south, whenever the laws and the executive authority were for a time suspended. "Through this manner," says the author, "the whole youth of Scotland began to rage in mischief; for as long as there was no man to punish, much herships and slaughter was in the land and boroughs, great cruelty of nobles among themselves, for slaughters, theft, and murder, were there patent; and so continually, day by day, that he was esteemed the greatest man of renown and fame that was the greatest brigand, thief, or murderer. But they were the cause of this Mischief that were the governors and magistrates of the realm. And this oppression and mischief reigned not only in the south-west parts, but also the' men of the Isles invaded sundry parts of Scotland at that time, both by fire and sword, and especially the Lennox was wholly overthrown. Traitors became so proud and insolent, that they burned and herried the country wherever they came, and spared neither old nor young, bairn or wife, but cruelly would burn their houses and them together if they made any obstacles. Thus they raged through the country without any respect either to God or man."

Of the reign of James V. the same author writes, " the King went to the south with 12,000 men, and after this hunting he hanged Johnnie Armstrong, Laird of Kilnocky, over the gate of his castle, and his accomplices, to the number of thirty-six persons, for which many Scotchmen heartily lamented, for he was the most redoubted chieftain that had been for a long time on the borders of Scotland or of England. It is said, that, from the borders to Newcastle, every man of whatsoever estate paid him tribute to be free of his trouble. This being done, the king passed to the Isles, and there held justice courts, and then punished both thief and traitor, according to their deserts; syne brought many of the great men of the Isles captive with him, such as Macconnells, Macleod of the Lewis, Macneils, Maclean, Macintosh, John Muidart, Mackay, Mackenzie, with many others that I cannot rehearse at this time, some of them to be put in wards, and some had in courts, and some he took in pledges for good rule in time coming; so he brought the Isles in good rule and peace both north and south, whereby he had great profit, service, and obedience of people a long time thereafter ; and as long as he had the heads of the country in subjection, they lived in great peace and rest, and there was great riches and policy by the king's justice." (Lindsay of Pitscottie's History of Scotland.)]

To avoid the disorders produced by perpetual strife, a plan was adopted for compensating injuries by a composition in cattle. The amount of the reparation to be made was generally determined by the principal men of the tribes, according to the rank and wealth of the parties, and the nature of the injury. Thus the aggressions of the rich could not escape with impunity; and, complete redress being the object of the arbiters, the composition was considered more honourable, as well as affording greater security against future encroachments, in proportion to the largeness of its amount. These ransoms, or compensations, were called Erig.

Return to Book Index Page


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

comments powered by Disqus