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


EE, Page 217.  Influence of Public Opinion

Instances are common in the Highlands, even to this day, of the influence of public opinion operating as a powerful restraint on crimes, nay, even as a punishment, to the extent of forcing individuals into exile. Of these, two have occurred within my own remembrance. Several years ago, two men, one old and the other young, stepped into a small boat to cross Loch Tay. In the middle of the lake they were seen to stand up, as if struggling, and then quickly to sit or fall down, the people from the distance could not distinguish which. When the boat arrived at the shore, the young man was missing. The account which his aged companion gave was, that the youth was in liquor, and wished to quarrel with him, and got up in the boat to strike him, but his foot slipped and he fell overboard. This story was not believed. The man was sent to Perth jail, tried at the ensuing assizes, and acquitted for want of evidence. The impression of his guilt, however, was not to be effaced from the minds of the people. This belief was farther confirmed by the character of the man, who was quarrelsome and passionate. On his return to Breadalbane no person would speak to him. He was not upbraided for his supposed guilt, nor was any attempt made to insult or maltreat him ; but he found every back turned upon him, and every house he entered instantly emptied of its inhabitants. He withstood this for a short time, when he left the country, and never returned, or was seen afterwards. I was present at this man's trial. His name was Ewen Campbell, or Ewen Laider, or the Strong, from his great strength. The other instance happened some years afterwards in Strathbrane, the most southern valley in the Perthshire Highlands. The circumstances were in part similar to those which occasioned the late proposed trial by wager of battle in the case of Thornton, accused of the murder of Mary Ashford. A young woman was found drowned in a small pool of water used for steeping flax, having considerable marks of violence on the body, and traces of struggling being discovered on the grass round the pool. There was not a doubt but she had been murdered and forced into the water. Suspicions fell upon a young man supposed to have been her sweetheart. He was sent to Perth jail, tried, and acquitted for want of proof. In the minds of the people, however, there was proof sufficient. He happened to reach home late on a Saturday night, and next morning went to hear Divine service, and took his seat in one end of the church; but in a moment he had it wholly to himself. Every person moved away to a distance, and left the whole range of seats empty. When he came out after service, and stood in the church-yard, all shunned him, and when he walked homewards, those that were in his front hurried on, and those behind walked slow, leaving the road to himself. This was too much to bear, and his resolution not holding out so long as the old man's, he disappeared that night, and, like him, has never since been heard of.

The laws are now sufficiently strong to punish all crimes in the Highlands. When such was not the case, these were the institutions and habits of thinking which these illiterate people established for themselves, to punish and prevent transgressions.

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