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


T, Page 111. Prejudiced Views of Highland Character

The notions entertained by the inhabitants of the Low country in this respect are very excusable, when it is considered that they formed their opinions regarding the natives of the mountains on information received from those who lived nearest the boundary, and who were supposed to be best acquainted with them. This, however, was a very doubtful source of intelligence; because, in the first place, the borderers lived in a state of perpetual contention with their Lowland neighbours, and had thus the worst propensities of their nature called forth and exasperated; and, secondly, because their more powerful neighbours had been, for ages, in the habit of taking deep revenge for petty injuries. No one who knows any thing of human nature need be told, that there exists a strong propensity in the minds of those who oppress others by an undue exercise of power, to justify that proceeding to themselves, by exaggerating every provocation given by the objects of their hostility. Prejudice and party hatred are like streams, always enlarging in their progress by petty additions. A man incapable of direct falsehood, willingly and confidently repeats the tales of wonder told by others; and these seldom lose in the recital. That "oppression," which, we are told from the highest authority, "makes a wise man mad," [Of this we have too many instances among the peasantry in Ireland.] must have produced a similar effect on a proud high-spirited people, who had not even language in which to complain, and who would not have been listened to if they had. "Lions are not painters," as the fable says, and Highlanders are not writers of their own traditions; but if the tales of wrong and injustice preserved in traditions were unfolded, they might then "make justice and indignation start,'' &c.; but this blazon must not be. It would be visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, who may perhaps, even on this score, have enough of their own to answer for, when they appear at their last account.

Since the above was written, a new edition of "Letters from a Gentleman in the North" has been published by Mr Jamieson of Edinburgh. This edition has been enlarged, by several tracts and articles on the Highlanders, and the former state of the people. One of these is a kind of statistical report of the state of the Highlands about the year 1747. This paper is a perfect specimen of the spirit of the times, and of the jaundiced eye with which the Highlanders were viewed by their Lowland neighbours, who held them in the greatest contempt for their Jacobite principles, their heathenish belief in ghosts and fairies, their slothful habits, fabulous traditions, poetry and songs. The author was educated beyond the mountains, quite in opposition to the habits and principles of the Highlanders; and at a period when the stream of ribaldry ran strongly against them, and their true character was ill understood, it was difficult to state it in proper colours: the commonly received opinions of the times were, that their fidelity and ready obedience proceeded from a base and servile disposition, and their idle habits from an aversion to industry, when, in fact, they proceeded from want of employment or payment for labour. Had the author given in to the grave discussions which were not unfrequent at that period, on the propriety of exterminating the whole race, it might have excited less surprise, than that this mode of improving a people by extirpation and banishment should not only be discussed in more enlightened times, but actually acted upon and enforced, if not with the fury and violence with which those who call themselves the friends of liberty in America treat their free, independent, but unfortunate neighbours the Indians, the original possessors of their country, at least by means sufficiently effectual.

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