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


V, Page 116. Supposed Ferocity of the Highlanders

A Highlander would fight to the last drop of his blood at the command of his Chief; and if he thought his own honour, or that of his district or clan, insulted, he was equally ready to call for redress, and to seek revenge : yet, with this disposition, and though generally armed, few lives were lost, except in general engagements and skirmishes. This is particularly to be remarked in their personal encounters, duels, and trials of swordmanship.

[A relation of mine, the late Mr Stewart of Bohallie, exhibited an instance of this. He was one of the gentlemen soldiers in the Black Watch, (but left them before the march to England), and one of the best swordsmen of his time. Latterly he was of a mild disposition, but in his youth he had been hot and impetuous ; and as in those days the country was full of young men equally ready to take lire, persons of this description had ample opportunity of proving the temper of their swords, and their dexterity in the use of them. Bohallie often spoke of many contests and trials of skill, but they always avoided, he said, coming to extremities, and were in general satisfied when blood was drawn, and "I had the good fortune never to kill my man." His swords and targets gave evidence of the service they had seen. On one occasion he was passing from Breadalbane to Lochlomond through Glenfalloch, in company with James Macgregor, one of Rob Hoy's sons. As they came to a certain spot, Macgregor said, "It was here I tried the mettle of one of your kinsmen." Some miles farther on, he continued, "Here I made another of your blood feel the superiority of my sword; and here," said he, when in sight of Benlomond, in the country of the Macgregors, "I made a third of your royal clan yield to clan Gregor." My old friend's blood was set in motion by the first remark; the second, as he said, made it boil; however, he restrained himself till the third, when he exclaimed, "You have said and done enough; now stand, defend yourself, and see if the fourth defeat of a Stewart will give victory to a Gregarach." As they were both good swordsmen, it was some time before Macgregor received a cut in the sword arm, when, dropping his target, he gave up the contest.]

The stories detailed of private assassinations, murders, and conflagration, deserve no credit, as is well known to every man of intelligence in the country, at least when reported to have occurred within the last century and a half. In earlier times, there were murders in the Highlands, as there were in the streets of Edinburgh in mid-day, but much of these may be attributed to the weakness of the laws, and a high spirited turbulence. The character of the Highlanders will be better understood by their actions, than by collecting anecdotes two and three hundred years old, and giving them as specimens of what was supposed to have occurred within the fifty years preceding the Rebellion of 1745. In this Rebellion did they display any blood-thirsty atrocity? It were as just to take the character of the people of Scotland from the period and scenes described by Pitscottie in the extract I have quoted, as thus to collect all the revolting anecdotes and repetitions of centuries, and give them as specimens of the Highland character in the days of Rob Roy Macgregor. Even in the seventeenth century, when turbulence was at its height, less atrocity was shown by the Highlanders, than has been exhibited by enlightened nations of modern times, when living at free quarters in an enemy's country. Spain, Portugal, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Egypt, have ample reason to remember the murders, conflagrations and spoliation of the armies of France. The following statement shows the manner in which the Highlanders comported themselves, when ordered from their mountains, for the special purpose of keeping down the Republican spirit in the south-west of Scotland, and of living at free quarters on the Covenanters, and others inimical to the measures of Government. This was in 1678, when the "Highland Host," (as they were called,) of 8000 men, were ordered south, to "eat up" the Covenanters. In what manner they obeyed these instructions we learn from an eye-witness, whose account is preserved in Wodrow's MS. in the Advocates' Library. This writer, who evinces no friendship for this " Heathen and Unholy Host," describes their parties sent out for provisions, and the sufferings of the inhabitants, who were beaten and driven out of their houses if they refused to give what they demanded. After a detail of outrages, which indeed were to be expected, as it was for this very purpose that they were sent on the duty, he concludes, in a manner hardly to be expected, and certainly very different from the accounts we read of the proceedings of the modern Vandals when overrunning the Continent, and who, if they had forced their way into this country, and had, like the Highlanders, been ordered to live at free quarters, "to eat up," harass, and keep down the people, would not perhaps have left the country with such a report of their proceedings as the following. "Yet I hear not," says the writer in Wodrow's MS., "of any having been killed, though many were hurt; but I would not have you think that all the Highlanders behave after the same manner," (going about in parties to collect provisions and plunder.) " No, there is a difference both among the men and leaders. The Marquis of Atholl's men are generally commended, both as the best appointed and the best behaved. Neither do I hear of any hurt done by the Earl of Moray's men, but all of them take free quarters, and at their own discretion." Living in this manner, and sent for such a special purpose, none were killed even by the most turbulent. That numbers were hurt in defending their property was to be expected, and it is matter of surprise, that, in such circumstances, lives were not lost.

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