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


F, Page 38. Characteristic Anecdotes

The following are the instances given by Martin: "Captain Jackson of Whitehaven, about sixteen years ago, was obliged to leave his ship, being leaky, in the bay within Island Glass, alias Scalpa, in the Isle of Harris, with two men only to take care of her though loaded with goods. The ship was not within three miles of a house and separated from the dwelling-houses by mountains. Yet when the captain returned, twelve months afterwards, he found the vessel and his men quite safe. Captain Lotch lost the Dromedary of London, of 600 tons burthen, with all her rich cargo from the Indies of which he might have saved a great deal, had he embraced the assistance the natives offered him. The captain and his men were kindly entertained in the Isle of Skye by Sir Norman Macleod; and though, among other valuable goods, they had six boxes of gold dust, there was not the least thing taken from them by the inhabitants." [Martin's Description of the Western Isles. London, printed 1703.]

This protection afforded to the lives and property of their fellow-creatures in the calamity of shipwreck, is honourable to a people a-niong whom the restraints of political institutions were few and feeble, To persons who understand the character of the Highlanders, it would be unnecessary to state facts, to prove how generally feelings of humanity, charity, and probity prevail ; but it is by relating a succession of characteristic traits and circumstances of different ages and periods, connected with, and illustrating each other, that prejudices, long entertained, can be subdued, and that a proposition, however true in itself, which militates against general opinion, can be fully established. To deny the truth of a general statement, to which, in all cases, exceptions may be made, is a matter of no difficulty ; but it is not so easy to resist a coincident and connected view of the manners and habits of successive generations. I do not mean to apply those observations to the statements which follow, but to the general scope of the whole, as I have had occasion to state facts in opposition to the opinion of many, with regard to the character and dispositions of the Highlanders, as well as with regard to their intelligence and religious and moral principles.

Without referring to Roman authors, Ossian's Poems, or the traditional history of the ancient Caledonians, for the firmness and spirit of independence with which they maintained their freedom from a foreign yoke; I shall only notice a few extracts from authors, whose works were printed soon after they were composed. Amongst the earliest of these is Hollingshed, who wrote previous to 1560, and who thus speaks of the Highlanders: "Hereby, in like sort, it cometh to pass, that they are more hard of constitution and bodie, to beare off the cold blasts, to watch better, and abstaine longer; where-into also it appeareth, that they are kind, hold, nimble, and thereto more skillfull in the warres. As for their faith and promise, they hold it with great constancie. " The author of "Certayne Matters concerning Scotland," printed in 1597, describes the Highlanders of his day in the following manner: "Their drink is the broth of sodden flesh; [This beef-soup has gone out of fashion, as many cannot now indulge in animal food. It was called inerich, and considered so nourishing, that, even in my own time, it was given to delicate persons who required strengthening food.] they love very well the drinks made of whey and certayne yerbs, drinking the same at feasts; but the most part of them only drink water; their custom is to make their bread of oats and barley, which are the only kinds of grain that grow in those parts; experience with tyme hath taught them to make it of such sort that it is not unpleasant to eat; they take a little of it in the morning, and passing to the hunting or any other busynis, centent themselves without any other kind of meat till even." The following extract is from an author of great learning and research, who wrote upwards of a century after the preceding: "But what contributes above all things to their health and longevity, is constant temperance. They rather satisfy than oppress nature. Their meals are two a-day, water being their ordinary drink; they are strangers to many of the distempers, as they are to most of the vices, of other nations, for some of which they have not so much as a name. They owe every thing to nature. They cure all disorders of the body by simples of their own growth, and by proper diet or labour. Hence, they are stout and active, dexterous in all their exercises, as they are withal remarkably sagacious, choleric, but easily appeased, sociable, good natured, ever cheerful, and having a strong inclination to poetry and music. They are hospitable beyond expression, entertaining all strangers of whatever condition gratis. They have no lawyers or attorneys. The men and women plead their own causes, and every decision is made by the proprietor, who is perpetual president in their courts; or by his bailiff as his substitute. In a word, they are equally void of the two chief curses of mankind, luxury and ambition. They are not only rigid observers of justice, but show less propensity than any people to tumult, except what they may be led into by the extraordinary deference they pay to their chiefs and leaders, who are accountable for the mischiefs they sometimes bring on these well-meaning men, by their feuds and quarrels with their neighbours." [Toland's History of the Druids. London, printed 1709.]

The next quotation is from a valuable work lately published. The author, although born in the Lowlands, and at a distance from the people he describes, was latterly much among them, and had every opportunity of ascertaining the truth of what he states. "The natives of the Highlands and Isles possess a degree of civilization, that, by those who had never been amongst them, would hardly be believed. Attention to the great laws of morality, as confirmed and supported by religion, is no where more complete; in no part of the world is property more secure. A stranger in these regions, behaving inoffensively, will not only travel in perfect safety, but be kindly received, and welcomed with affectionate hospitality. On these unknown coasts, shipwrecks must sometimes happen; and in all cases of that nature, the mariners are not only saved, where it possibly can be done, and kindly entertained, but their property is secured and preserved, with a degree of care that reflects the highest honour on the natives. During the winter of 1784-5, a vessel, navigated by Danish seamen, having struck on a rock west of Icolmkill the men, afraid of sinking, took to their boat, and made for that island, leaving the vessel, with the sails set, to drive with the wind and tide. Some of the natives, seeing the vessel rolling, without being under proper management, put off to the ship, and, finding nobody on board, took possession of her, and carried her into Loch Scridan in Mull. The mariners, seeing their vessel safely moored went and claimed her, and, without hesitation or dispute, obtained full possession, without any salvage or other charge being made, save a few shillings to the men who brought her in. The ship and cargo were then intrusted to the farmer of the land adjoining the port in which she lay, who, for a very trifling consideration, insured the whole cargo to the owners, and delivered it over to them some months afterwards, complete, and in good order. Another vessel was put ashore about the same time in the Island of Coll, the cargo of which was, in like manner, saved by Mr Maclean, the respectable chief and laird of the island.

"About the same time, two large vessels, belonging to Clyde, went ashore in the Island of Islay; one of them contained on board ten, thousand pounds in specie. As these vessels were not under management merely because of the sickness and lassitude of the crew, as often happens from a long voyage, although the weather was not tempestuous, the cargoes were taken out, and placed along the shores in the best way they could. The vessels were then got off, and when the articles of the two cargoes were collected together, there was not one thing missing, save one barrel of tar, which had probably been hove overboard, or lost through carelessness. But the most singular instance of the kind I met with was the following. A vessel from Ireland, laden with linen yarn, was stranded in Islay. The weather happened to become easy, and the cargo was got out; but as it was drenched in salt water, it became necessary to have the whole washed in fresh water. This was done in a river that was near, and the yarn spread about along some extensive fields near the shore. Several hundred persons were employed in this work for several weeks. Yarn is the staple manufacture of the island, so that the temptation for embezzlement was very great, as a discovery in these circumstances would have been extremely difficult. Yet when the whole was collected together, to the utter astonishment of the parties concerned, a very few hanks of the yarn, (about five or six to the best of my recollection,) value about two or three shillings, were wanting. ,

"I gladly record these instances of honesty and friendly care of the unfortunate. How different from what I have been witness to on the coast of England and Ireland! " [See Letter to the Right Honourable Charles Abbot, Speaker of the House of Commons, on the best Means of Improvement of the Coasts and Western Isles of Scotland, and the extension of the White Fisheries, by Robert Fraser, Esq.]

In a recent scientific work, the author speaks of the hospitality of the Highlanders, as forming a striking contrast to their exorbitant demands, when payment is expected. These demands (as stated by Dr Macculloch) are much at variance with Mr Fraser's statement. Both are subtantially correct. "This habitual extortion," says the Doctor, "presents an amusing, but not an inexplicable contrast to the hospitality, which every one who has travelled in this country must also have experienced. The milk is given with the utmost generosity, but if purchased, even from the same individual, ten times the value is required." [Dr Macculloch's Description of the Western Isles.] This inconsistency, as this Geologist justly observes, is not inexplicable. Hospitality and kindness to strangers proceed from the natural disposition ; the exorbitant demand for that which, under other circumstances, would be presented with cheerfulness, proceeds from the trafficking spirit which has now reached the Highlands, and is gradually superseding all gratuitous kindness and disinterested hospitality. Men who are not in the habit of demanding payment for hospitality or for accidental personal services, know not what to ask. The man who would ask two shillings for a quart of milk, would work a whole day for a shilling, or run ten miles with a letter or message without any payment. A Highland lad will enlist to serve for life, along with a friend, for a trifling or nominal bounty; but if an attempt be made to bargain with the same lad, no sum, perhaps, will tempt him to enlist; or if he do listen to proposals, he will demand a sum out of all reason. I have seen Highland soldiers spring forward to cover their officers from the shot of the enemy; I have seen them endeavouring to restrain their officers, and to keep them under cover, while they fully exposed themselves, in the expectation of diverting the attention of the enemy from their commanders; I have seen the same soldiers disputing a penny in their accounts with the same officers, and, this perhaps, only a few days after this voluntary hazard of their lives to shelter them.

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