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


S, Page 106. State of Education in the Highlands in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

It is a generally received opinion, that the Highlanders are ignorant and uneducated. It is no doubt true, that previous to the present reign, many could not read, or understand what they read in Eng-iish, and there were few books in their own language ; but they had their Bards and Senachies, who taught them in the manner already mentioned. The middle and higher orders of society were as well educated as the youth of any part of the United Kingdom. The gentlemen farmers and tacksmen were certainly better classical scholars than men holding the same occupation and rank in society, in the south. These observations must be confined to the period which has elapsed since the reign of Charles II. as the prior notices are not in a connected series. But, to judge from insulated circumstances, the education of the gentry, and the better order of farmers of an earlier period was not deficient. Of this, the celebrated George Buchanan, the son of a small Highland farmer, was a remarkable instance. On reference to old family charters and papers, it will be found, that the signatures to the former, from and after the year 1500, show a correctness of writing not to be seen in modern times, and not to be acquired without much time and experience. Aware that it might be said that these signatures were written by the notaries and others who drew out these charters, I have compared the signatures of the same persons to different instruments at considerable intervals, and signed in different places, sometimes as principals, at others as witnesses, and I have found them always similar, or in the same hand. Of this I have seen many instances in my own family, as well as in several others. A fair hand is certainly no proof of a classical education; but it is a proof of care having been bestowed on a branch of education which was not then so necessary as it is now, when epistolary communication is so much more frequent. In those days, when there was no public conveyance, and when distant events did not occupy so much of the attention of men, there was not the same inducement to correspond. It may therefore be concluded that they to whose instruction in writing so much attention had been paid, would not be neglected in other branches of education. The fragments of manuscripts and private correspondence which have been preserved in families give evidence of classical attainments, and prove also, that this was not confined to one sex. The following is an instance. There is a manuscript volume preserved in the family of Stewart of Urrard, of 260 pages, consisting of poems, songs, and short tracts, in the Scotch language, written, as is stated on the first page, by Margaret Robertson, (daughter of John Robertson of Lude) and wife of Alexander Stewart of Bonskeid, dated 1643. It is written in a beautiful hand, and with such correctness, that it might be sent to the press.

There were eminent grammar schools in Inverness, Fortrose or Channonry, Dunkeld, &c. The grammar school of Perth was celebrated for ages. From these different seminaries, young men were sent to Aberdeen and St Andrews, and many to Leyden and Douay. The armies of Sweden, Holland, and France, gave employment to the younger sons of the gentry, who were educated abroad; many of these returned with a competent knowledge of modern languages, added to their classical education, often speaking Latin with more purity than Scotch, which these Highlanders sometimes learned after leaving their native homes, where nothing but Gaelic was spoken. The race of Bradwardine is not long extinct. In my own time, several veterans might have sat for the picture, so admirably drawn in Waverley, of that most honourable, brave, learned, and kind-hearted personage, the Baron of Bradwardine. These gentlemen returned from the Continent full of warlike Latin, French phrases, and inveterate broad Scotch, (learned, as I have said, by the Highlanders abroad.) One, I believe of the last of these, Colonel Alexander Robertson, of the Scotch Brigade, uncle of the present Strowan, I well remember.

[Another of the Bradwardine character is still remembered by the Highlanders, with a degree of admiration bordering on enthusiasm. This was John Stewart of the family of Kincardine, in Strathspey, known in the country by the name of John Roy Stewart, an accomplished gentlemen, an elegant scholar, a good poet, a brave soldier, and an able officer. He composed with equal facility in English, Latin, and Gaelic; but it was by his songs, epigrams, and descriptive pieces in the latter language, that he attracted the admiration of his countrymen. He was an active leader in the Rebellion of 1745, and during "his hiding" of many months, he had more leisure to indulge his taste for poetry and song. The country traditions are full of his descriptive pieces, eulogies, and laments on friends, or in allusion to the events of that unfortunate period. He had been long in the service of France and Portugal. He was in Scotland in 1745, and commanded a regiment composed of the tenants of his family, and a considerable number of the followers of Sir George Stewart of Grandtully, who had been placed under him. With these, amounting in all to 400 men, he joined the rebel army, and proved one of its ablest partisans. Had the rebel commanders benefited by his judgment and military talents, that deplorable contest would probably have been lengthened, and much additional misery inflicted on the country. Colonel Stewart recommended opposing the passage of the Duke of Cumberland's army across the Spey. Had this advice been acted upon, allowing for the expeditious movements of the rebels, many men must have been lost in forcing the passage of that rapid river. He also opposed fighting on Culloden Moor, which with a level and hard surface, was well calculated for the cavalry and artillery of the royal army. When this advice was rejected, he proposed to attack before the army was formed in order of battle; this also was disregarded, and the attack delayed till the royal army was formed in two lines. It is said that the Irish officers attached to the rebel army, dreading a lengthened campaign in the mountains, opposed retiring farther north, seeing that, in such a field as Culloden, one-third of the Highlanders being absent, and those present, two days without food, and after a long and harrassing night-march to Nairn and back, with an intention of surprising the Duke's army, (as at Preston), the contest would soon be decided, and their lives safe from the laws, whatever was the result. The point was fortunately brought to an issue, and much calamity, the consequence of a lengthened civil war, saved to the country.]

I also knew several tacksmen of good learning, who could quote and scan the classics with much ease and rapidity ; while the sons of these men are now little better than clowns, knowing nothing beyond English reading and the common rules of arithmetic. When the Hessian troops were quartered in Athole in 1745, the commanding officers, who were accomplished gentlemen, found Latin a ready means of communication at every inn. At Dunkeld, Inver, Blair Athole, Taybridge, &c. every landlord spoke that language, and I have been informed, by eye-witnesses, of the pleasure expressed by a colonel of the Hessian cavalry, when he halted at the inn in Dunkeld, the landlord of which addressed and welcomed him in Latin, the only language they mutually understood. I knew four of these respectable innkeepers, who, like many other valuable classes in the Highlands, have disappeared. Perhaps the landlords of Dunkeld, Blair Athole, or indeed any other Highland inn, will not, even in this educated age, agreeably surprise, or make themselves more acceptable to their customers, by addressing them in Latin.

But it was in the remotest district of the kingdom, the Isle of Skye, and other islands, that classical education was most general. There, the learning of the gentry was quite singular. Few of them went abroad, and except the three lairds, Macdonald, Macleod, and Mackinnon, few of them were proprietors. I believe it is rather unique for the gentry of a remote corner to learn Latin merely to talk to each other-yet so it was in Skye. It was remarked that, for a considerable period, the clergymen of the sixteen parishes of Skye, Harris, Lewis, &c. were men of good families, great learning, and consequent influence their example, therefore, might diffuse and preserve this classical taste. Owing to the same cause, the Isle of Skye songs are sometimes filled with allusions to the heathen deities. While the younger sons of Highland gentlemen were educated for the church, law, or physic, the elder could not be neglected. The elder brothers of Sir George Mackenzie, Lord Advocate to Charles II. and of Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Advocate to George II. could not have been uneducated.

But various causes have contributed to a change of manners, and to remove numbers of the ancient race, and have put an end to all university education, except in a few cases, where young men are intended for the learned professions: consequently the last generation did not give their children the same education which they themselves had received.

[The average annual salary of the parish schoolmaster was L.7, 10s. that is, L.5 the lowest and L. 10 the highest, with school fees, which were equally low, Latin being taught for half a crown the quarter, English and writing for one shilling. When the Lord President Hope was Lord Advocate, he brought a bill into Parliament to increase the salaries of this useful body of men. The bill was passed, and no schoolmaster can now have less than L. 10 salary, the maximum being L. 25. The opposition Mr Hope met with showed, that however much people may talk about the value of education, the estimate of its advantages does not appear to stand high in the opinion of those who pay the schoolmasters, or perhaps the value is better understood and more appreciated when cheaply obtained; otherwise why meet so important a measure by an opposition which has reduced the scale so low that even with the increased emoluments, no man of talents will remain a pans schoolmaster except from necessity.]

Thus we see young men sent into the army and other professions with an education not extending beyond reading and arithmetic, and with manners unformed and as unlike the former race of gentlemen farmers in their general appearance and character, as in their education. Hence, many have been led to observe, that the youth of the second order of Highland gentry have more degenerated, and are more changed in every respect than the Highland peasantry. Many causes have tended to accelerate this change; one of which is, that three-fourths of the old respectable race of gentlemen tacksmen have disappeared, and been supplanted by men totally different in manners, birth, and education. Persons travelling through the Highlands will observe what description of persons the present tacksmen are. The character upheld by the officers of the Highland regiments in the Seven Years' War, and in that with America, show what sort of men the ancient race were. One half of the officers of those corps were the sons of tacksmen. Of these respectable officers I could give many names, but shall mention only a few:óGenerals Simon Fraser, killed at Saratoga in 1777, and Thomas M. Fraser, killed at Dieg in 1804; Lieutenant-General Simon Fraser, commanding the British troops in Lisbon; Sir Archibald Campbell, Governor-General of India; Sir Hector Munro; Sir Alexander Munro; Major-Generals John Small, Thomas Fraser, Francis Maclean, J. Stewart, P. Mackenzie, and a numerous list of brave soldiers and officers of talent and acquirements; as well as many accomplished civilians, Sir John Macpherson, Governor-General of India, the translator of Ossian, and many others.

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