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

Part I

A Sketch of the Moral and Physical Character, and of the Institutions and Customs of the Inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland

Sketches of the Highlanders

Section VI.


While the common people amused themselves, as I will have occasion to notice afterwards, with recitals of poetry and imaginary or traditionary tales, every chief had his bard, whose office it was to celebrate the warlike deeds of the family and of individuals of the clan; to entertain the festive board with the songs of Ossian, of Ullin, and of Oran; and to raise the feelings and energies of the hearers by songs and narratives, in which the exploits of their ancestors and kinsmen were recorded. The bards were an important order of men in Highland society. In the absence of books they constituted the library, and concentrated the learning of the tribe. By retentive memories, indispensable requisites in their vocation, they became the living chronicles of past events, and the depositaries of popular poetry. They followed the clans to the field, where they eulogized the fame resulting from a glorious death, and held forth the honour of expiring in the arms of victory in defence of their beloved country, as well as the disgrace attending dastardly conduct, or cowardly retreat. Before the battle they passed from tribe to tribe, and from one party to another, giving to all exhortations and encouragement; and when the commencement of the fight rendered it impossible for their voice to be heard, they were succeeded by the pipers, who, with their inspiring and warlike strains, kept alive the enthusiasm which the bard had inspired. When the contest was decided, the duties of these two public functionaries again became important. The bard was employed to honour the memory of the brave who had fallen, to celebrate the actions of those who survived, and to excite them to future deeds of valour. The piper, in his turn, was called upon to sound mournful lamentations for the slain, and to remind the survivors how honourably their friends had died. By connecting the past with the present, by showing that the warlike hero, the honoured chief, or the respected parent, who, though no longer present to his friends, could not die in their memory; and that, though dead, he still survived in fame, and might sympathize with those whom he had left behind, a magnanimous contempt of death was naturally produced, and sedulously cherished. It has thus become a singular and characteristic feature of Highland sentiment, to contemplate with easy familiarity the prospect of death, which is considered as merely a passage from this to another state of existence, enlivened with the assured hope of meeting their friends and kindred who had gone before them, and of being followed by those whom they should leave behind. The effect of this sentiment is perceived in the anxious care with which they provide the necessary articles for a proper and becoming funeral. Of this they speak with an ease and freedom, equally remote from affectation or presumption, and proportioned solely to the inevitable certainty of the event itself. Even the poorest and most destitute endeavour to lay up something for this last solemnity. To be consigned to the grave among strangers, without the attendance and sympathy of friends, and at a distance from their family, was considered a heavy calamity;

[This feeling still exists with considerable force, and may afford an idea of the despair which must actuate people when they can bring themselves to emigrate from a beloved country, hallowed by the remains of their forefathers, and where they so anxiously desired that their own bones might be laid. Lately, a woman aged ninety-one, but in perfect health, and in possession of all her faculties, went to Perth from her house in Strathbrane, a few miles above Dunkeld. A. few days after her arrival in Perth, where she had gone to visit a daughter, she had a slight attack of fever. One evening a considerable quantity of snow had fallen, and she expressed great anxiety, particularly when told that a heavier fall was expected. Next morning her bed was found empty, and no trace of her could be discovered, till the second day, when she sent word that she had slipt out of the house at midnight, set off on foot through the snow, and never stopped till she reached home, a distance of twenty miles. When questioned some time afterwards why she went away so abruptly, she answered, "If my sickness had increased, and if I had died, they could not have sent my remains home through the deep snows. If I had told my daughter, perhaps she would have locked the door upon me, to prevent my going out in the storm, and God forbid that my bones should lie at such a distance from home, and be buried among Gaull-na machair, ' the strangers of the plain.' "

Now, since this woman, who was born on the immediate borders of the plains had such a dread of leaving her bones among strangers, as she considered a people whom she was accustomed to meet frequently, and among whom her daughter and family resided; how much stronger must this feeling be in the central and northern Highlands, where the majority of the people never saw the plains or their inhabitants!]

and even to this day, people make the greatest exertions to carry home the bodies of such relations as happen to die far from the ground hallowed by the ashes of their forefathers. "A man well known to the writer of these pages," says Mrs Grant, "was remarkable for his filial affection, even among the sons and daughters of the mountains, so distinguished for that branch of piety. His mother being a widow, and having a numerous family, who had married very early, he continued to live single, that he might the more sedulously attend to her comfort, and watch over her declining years with the tenderest care. On her birth-day, he always collected his brothers and sisters, and all their families, to a sort of kindly feast, and in conclusion, gave a toast, not easily translated from the emphatic language, without circumlocution,—An easy and decorous departure to my mother, comes nearest to it. ["Crioch Onerach" may you have an honourable exit or death, is a common expression to a friend, in return for a kindly word or action.] This toast, which would shake the nerves of fashionable delicacy, was received with great applause, the old woman remarking, that God had been always good to her, and she hoped she would die as decently as she had lived; for it is thought of the utmost consequence to die decently." The ritual of decorous departure, and of behaviour to be observed by the friends bf the dying on that solemn occasion, being fully established, nothing is more common than to take a solemn leave of old people, as if they were going on a journey, and pretty much in the same terms. People frequently send conditional messages to the departed. If you are permitted, tell my dear brother, that I have merely endured the world since he left it, and that I have been very kind to every creature he used to cherish, for his sake. I have, indeed, heard a person of a very enlightened mind, seriously give a message to an aged person, to deliver to a child he had lost not long before, which she as seriously promised to deliver, with the wonted salvo, if she was permitted." [Mrs Grant's Superstitions of the Highlanders.] Speaking in this manner of death as a common casualty, a Highlander will very gravely ask you where you mean to be buried, or whether you would prefer such a place of interment, as being near to that of your ancestors.

With this freedom from the fear of death, they were, and still are, enthusiastically fond of music and dancing, and eagerly availed themselves of every opportunity of indulging this propensity. [At harvest-home, halloween, christenings, and every holiday, the people assembled in the evenings to dance. At all weddings, pipes and fiddles were indispensable. These weddings were sometimes a source of emolument to the young people, who supplied the dinner and liquors, while the guests paid for the entertainment, more agreeably to their circumstances and inclinations than in proportion to the value of the entertainment itself. Next morning the relations and most intimate friends of the parties re-assembled with offerings of a cow, calf, an article of furniture, or whatever was thought necessary for assisting the establishment of a young housekeeper. See Appendix, M.] Possessing naturally a good ear for music, they displayed great agility in dancing. Their music was in unison with their character. They delighted in the warlike high-toned notes of the bagpipes, and were particularly charmed with solemn and melancholy airs, or Laments (as they call them) for their deceased friends,—a feeling, of which their naturally sedate and contemplative turn of mind rendered them peculiarly susceptible; while their sprightly reels and strathspeys were calculated to excite the most exhilarating gaiety, and to relieve the heart from the cares and inquietudes of life. [See Appendix, N.]

Such were and still are some of the most striking and peculiar traits in the character of this people. "Accustomed to traverse tracts of country, which had never been subjected to the hands of art, contemplating every day the most diversified scenery, surrounded every where by wild and magnificent objects, by mountains, lakes, and forests, the mind of the Highlander is expanded, and partakes in some measure of the wild sublimity of the objects with which he is conversant. Pursuing the chase in regions not peopled, according to their extent, he often finds himself alone, in a gloomy desart, or by the margin of the dark frowning deep; his imagination is tinged with pleasing melancholy; he finds society in the passing breeze, and he beholds the airy forms of his fathers descending on the skirts of the clouds. When the tempest howls over the heath, [Previous to a tempest, some mountains in the Highlands emit a loud hollow noise like the roaring of distant thunder; and the louder the noise, the more furious will be the tempest, which it generally precedes about twelve or twenty-four hours. From this warning, when "the spirit of the mountain shrieks," (Ossian.) the superstitious minds of the Highlanders presage many omens. Beindouran in Glenorchy, near the confines of Perth and Argyle, emits this noise in a most striking manner. It is remarkable that it is emitted only previous to storms of wind and rain. Before a fall of snow, however furious the tempest, the mountain, which is of a conical form, and 3500 feet in height, is silent. In the same manner several of the great waterfalls in the Highland rivers and streams give signals of approaching tempests and heavy falls of rain. Twenty-four or thirty hours previous to a storm, the great falls on the river Tummel, north of Shichallain, emit a loud noise, which is heard at the distance of several miles. The longer the course of the preceding dry weather, the louder and the more similar to a continued roll of distant thunder is the noise; consequently, it is louder in summer than in winter. When the rain commences the noise ceases. It forms an unerring barometer to the neighbouring farmers. Why mountains and waterfalls in serene mild weather emit such remarkable sounds, and are silent in tempests and rains, might form an interesting subject of physical inquiry.] and the elements are mixed in dire uproar, he recognises the airy spirit of the storm, and he retires to his cave. Such is, at this day, the tone of mind which characterizes the Highlander, who has not lost the distinctive marks of his race by commerce with strangers, and such, too, has been the picture which has been drawn by Ossian." [Dr Graham of Aberfoyle, on the Authenticity of Ossian.] Such scenes as these impressed the warm imaginations of the Highlanders with sentiments of awe and sublimity; and, without any moroseness or sullenness of disposition, produced that serious turn of thinking so remarkably associated with gaiety and cheerfulness.

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