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The Island Clans During Six Centuries
Chapter VII. - The Passing of the Old Order


While the events described in the last two chapters were taking place throughout the West Highlands, the Reformation was proceeding in the South of Scotland. The Roman Catholic Church was practically overthrown in the days of Queen Mary and John Knox, but a struggle almost immediately commenced in the Reformed Church between the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians.

We are so accustomed to think of Scotland as a purely Presbyterian country, that we forget the strength of Episcopacy in the seventeenth century. At least half the population were Episcopalians, possibly more than half, and the influence they possessed is indicated by the fact that for something like sixty years in that century, the Episcopalian form of religion was the Established Church of Scotland.

But the Presbyterians were also strong, and at times they completely overcame their rivals. In 1592, Presbyterianism was established as the National Religion of Scotland. In 1606 the Bishops were restored, and in 1610 Episcopacy entirely triumphed ; in 1638 it again fell, but was once more restored about 1662, only to fall again finally after the Revolution. It is probable that the Reformation did not come to the Islands till after Episcopacy had become the form of religion established in the country. Some of the Chiefs clung to the old religion, notably Clan Ranald, but most of them became Episcopalians.

It is clear that at this period Episcopalian clergy were ministering to the spiritual needs of the people. Among the papers at Dunvegan is an appointment by the Bishop dated in 1631 to the parish of Oynert in Skye, and some tacks of tiends beginning in 1623 from the Bishops of Argyle and the Isles.

There is very ample evidence that the West Highlanders were sincerely attached to their Episcopal Mother Church. This became very obvious when Episcopacy was abolished and Presbyterianism set up as the national form of religion after the Revolution of 1688. During the following years many Episcopalian clergymen were forcibly ejected, and Presbyterians installed in their places. These proceedings aroused the bitterest resentment, and it was only slowly and by degrees that the West Highlanders became reconciled to the Presbyterian form of worship. It is a curious fact that they have now completely forgotten that they were once Episcopalians.

It is possible that the attachment of the West Highlanders to the Episcopal Church may have had something to do with their devotion to the Stuart Kings. When James VI. was asked to give his reason for supporting the Episcopal Church, he gave it in one short pithy sentence—"No Bishop, no King." There was clearly the idea in his mind that the Monarchical and Episcopalian systems were based on similar principles, and he may not have been entirely mistaken. At all events, it is certainly the case that the enemies of Charles I. and of his successors were generally Independents or Presbyterians, while the Royalists and Jacobites were either Roman Catholic or Episcopalian.

There is ample evidence that the clergy met with considerable success in raising the people from the semi-heathen state into which they had fallen in the previous century. The West Highlanders are naturally a religious people, and when the dreadful spirit of hatred and revenge, which had been engendered by the clan feuds, passed away, religion gradually reassumed its power. Martin Martin describes them as saying grace after meals, and adding to their grace a petition for their Chief's welfare. None but a genuinely religious people would do this.

Turning from ecclesiastical matters to secular, we find that in the first half of the 17th century, as time went on, fresh developments were taking place in many directions. One of the Statutes of Iona had ordered that the Chiefs, and every man who owned 60 cows, should send their children to be educated in the South. Among the bills at Dunvegan are several for the "buird and entertainment" of the Chief's sons at Glasgow, where they were being educated at the University. The earliest of these is dated in 1622. Possibly a little later, the Chieftains began to send their sons to schools in the South, and, by the middle of the century, the gentlemen of the Isles were a well-educated class. Possibly this accounts for their having become the well-bred, courteous set of men that they certainly were during the latter half of the seventeenth century.

I repeat here a quotation in which Macaulay gives a description of them:—"It must in fairness be acknowledged that the patrician virtues were not less widely diffused among the Highlanders than the patrician vices. There was no other part of the Kingdom where such men had in such a degree the better qualities of an aristocracy, grace and dignity of manner, self-respect, and that noble sensibility which makes dishonour more terrible than death. A gentleman of Skye or Lochaber would do the honours of his home with a lofty courtesy worthy of the splendid circle of Versailles."

The education of the humbler classes came later, but it began much earlier in Scotland than it did in England. In 1696 and 1708, Education Acts were passed; in 1701 the newly-founded S.P.C.K. took up the work of education. Prom early in the century I find in the estate accounts payments to schoolmasters. The estate contributed about £5 a year towards the salary of each teacher, and every tacksman was bound under the conditions of his lease to make a certain payment for the same purpose. S.P.C.K. paid salaries to teachers of £10 to £20 a year. Other teachers only received from £6 to £11 2s 2d.

I imagine that girls shared in these educational advantages, but Martin, whom I have so often quoted, says " that women were anciently denied the use of writing in the Islands to prevent love intrigues ; their parents believed that nature was too skilful in that matter, and needed not the help of education, and therefore writing would be of dangerous consequences to the weaker sex."

Both Parliament and S.P.C.K., up to 1767, insisted that English should be the language in which the teaching was to be given. It is difficult to understand how efficient instruction could be given in a language of which the children were entirely ignorant.

Gaelic was undoubtedly the language of the people. In the report on Harris, dated 1772, to which I have so often referred, it is expressly stated that out of the 1993 inhabitants, only one hundred could speak English.

No doubt the Chiefs and tacksmen spoke both languages-Most of the Chiefs, however, lost their Gaelic in the eighteenth century, as they were educated in the South, but some of them appear to have been anxious that their children should learn Gaelic. Sir A. Macdonald says, in a letter written in 1744, that his "son Jamie is getting more Gallick at Kingsburgh than tongue can tell."

It is worthy of note that from the census return of 1921 it appears that 48 per cent. of the people of the County of Inverness still speak both Gaelic and English, and that 4443 persons speak no other tongue than Gaelic.

Trade with the outside world was beginning to flourish. The most important exports were the great droves of cattle which were annually sent South from every estate in the country. The cattle from the Outer Isles must certainly have performed part of the journey by sea, but those from Skye were taken to Kyleakin or Kyle Rhea, ferried across the Sound, and went by land to Falkirk. This implies that fairly peaceable conditions prevailed at this period on the mainland. An old account book shows that the cost of sending a drove of cattle South in 1670 was £13 18s 0d. This included the expenses of eleven men and horses from Skye to Falkirk and back, a sum of £7 for "customs and otherwise" —probably the auctioneer's charges for selling the cattle, and the wages of the men employed.

It is likely that other commodities, such as cloth, blanketing, butter and cheese, began to be exported at the same time. On the other hand, the bills in the Muniment Room at Dunvegan, which begin about 1600, show that clothes and many other articles were being bought in Glasgow, and no doubt these imports were paid for by the exports.

During this period some changes in estate management were taking place It is a moot question whether the tenants on West Highland estates held tacks or leases of their holdings in early days. Some seannachies think that they did, but I am not aware that any tack is in existence of an earlier date than the seventeenth century. It is, however, certain that some tacks were granted at that period, but probably at that time the farms were not universally held on leases. Whereas there are scores of eighteenth century tacks in the Dunvegan Muniment Room, there are only two dated in the previous century, and only two are given in the history of the Clan Donald.

In all the seventeenth century tacks the duration of the lease is for the "life of the grantee, and the life of his eldest lauchful son, and for nineteen years after the death of his said son." In the eighteenth century the tacks only endured for a term of years, varying from nine to fifteen. It was then the custom that all the tacks should terminate at the same time, when the estate was again "sett" for another term of years.

The earliest of the four tacks to which I have referred was granted by Clanranald in 1625 "to the parson of Finnen." The extent of the farm is 4½ marklands, a grassum is to be paid in four annual instalments of 1100 merks; after this is paid, the rent is to be 40 merks. Besides the rent, the tenant and his successors are to "give thair personal service and presens to me and my airis in all our oasting, hunting, and convening, as all the remanent possessoris sall do and perform."

In 1626 a tack was granted by MacDonald of Sleat to Neil MacDonald of Boreray, in North Uist. The rent was to be £40 a year and 10 merks for teinds; no grassum was payable, but a provision for service is inserted, "the said Neil owand service to me by sea and land, as use and wont is."

This service was undoubtedly military service. The word "oasting" is hosting, that is, gathering the host of the clan together for war.

It should be noted that a grassum is a sum of money paid by a tenant when his lease is renewed.

In the two later tacks preserved at Dunvegan, the tack of Strond, in Harris, dated 1657, and the tack of Gesto, in Skye, dated 1674, this clause as to service is omitted. This marks the great change which had taken place in the condition of the country. On the mainland desperate clan battles continued to be fought up to almost the end of the seventeenth century. The last of these was the battle of Mulroy, between the Macdonalds of Keppoch and the Mackintoshes, in 1688, but in the Islands the last was the attack made in 1625 by several clans, acting under orders from the King, on the MacIans of Ardnamurchan.

In 1625 the possibility of attack by a hostile clan was still present in men's minds, and this provision was inserted in the tack. By 1657 it had passed away. "Oasting" might still be necessary to raise men to fight for the Kings of the house of Stuart, but the existence of a clan no longer depended on it, and the devoted loyalty of the clansmen to the King made any such provision superfluous, so it was omitted. In one later tack, however, which is dated 1707, Clanranald, after reciting the terms on. which certain lands were let to his bard, McVurich, says:—"I also oblige me and my heirs to warrand the said lands to any one of his heirs, who shall be capable of serving in the station and office he now serves me in, of bard and seannachie." Whether the tenants on West Highland estates had ever in earlier times held tacks of their farms or not, they had never, as I believe, been called tacksmen. They now became known by that name, but, beyond the fact that their name was altered, there was no change in the position they occupied.

They still held the same farms on which their forbears had been settled from time immemorial. It is likely that some of the onerous services, which they had previously rendered to their Chiefs, gradually ceased to be demanded. They were no longer expected to attend on him as gentlemen in waiting, to give him and his numerous train of followers unlimited hospitality, or to receive as guests any sorners whom he might choose to quarter on them; but in other respects things went on as they had done before until after the '45. Whether military service was stipulated for in their tacks or not, the tacksmen still continued to render it; they still commanded their people in war, and governed them in peace. In a word, they still remained far more than tenants, as we understand the word.

The eldest son of a tacksman almost invariably succeeded his father. As I have pointed out, it was frequently provided for in the tack that he should do so. In early days the younger sons had generally remained at home. When the clan feuds were raging their services as leaders of the fighting force of the clan were all-important, but when these ceased, it is probable that an increasing number of the young men of this class went abroad, and took service under foreign potentates. Some, at all events, joined Mackay's Regiment, and went to Sweden, and there were many Highlanders engaged in the wars in Germany.

In the Dunvegan rent roll of the Skye estate, dated 1664, twenty-four farms appear as being held by 104 small tenants. I think it is probable that these were the farms which the Chief had originally kept in his own hands, and which had been cultivated for him by his own immediate dependents. I surmise that, at some period before 1664, he had ceased to keep any land in his own hands, and had divided these farms amongst the men who had formerly worked them for him, thus creating a new class of tenants, a class which we know at the present day as crofters.

But a reference to the rental shows that these small holdings were much larger than the crofts are now.

Taking the merk in those days as roughly equivalent to the pound sterling of to-day, two or three are rented at £45, though some are as low as £11. The average is about £20, and these sums do not include the additional rent paid in kind. Probably these holdings have been sub-divided in later times. This, I believe, is the real origin of the crofting system.

But these changes were trivial. Down to the middle of the eighteenth century the clan system was still in full force, alike for purposes of peace and war. The Chief, assisted by the tacksmen, still continued to rule over his people. I find several instances, which show that they did so, in letters from Sir Alexander Macdonald. In 1743, he writes that a man from the MacLeod estate had come over into his country in order to court a girl, that a quarrel had arisen between the MacLeod and a MacDonald rival, and that the former had cut off the ears of the latter. Sir Alexander asks MacLeod to punish the delinquent. In another, dated March 1744, Sir Alexander tells how there has been "a small invasion from Knoydart," and how three cows had been carried off. He describes the steps which he is taking to recover the cattle, and to punish the offenders. And it was not only in small matters that they exercised this authority. Tradition says that a man was hanged at Dunvegan for murder in the year 1728 by the order of the Chief.

Between 1625 and 1745 the Western clans were only occasionally engaged on active service, but they still continued to be organised for military purposes. No doubt, many changes had taken place. Gradually the clans ceased to be naval powers, and no longer possessed fleets of birlinns; muskets began to be used instead of bows and arrows; defensive armour was no longer worn, and it is probable that the smaller claymore was the weapon employed instead the great two-handed broadsword, with which the clansmen had been previously armed.

It is possible that the very strenuous military training which I described in Chapter IV. may have been somewhat relaxed when the clan feuds came to an end, and the very existence of a clan no longer depended on its efficiency for war ; but to a very great extent it must have been maintained. The Highlanders who fought at Prestonpans, Falkirk, and Culloden showed no falling off, either in valour or efficiency, from the high standard as fighting men to which their fathers had attained, and up to 1745 the supply of arms must have been a matter of great importance, and the training of a clan's manhood in their use a duty which could not be neglected.

But after 1745 the whole system was entirely changed. The English Government had been greatly alarmed by the measure of success which the Highland army under the Prince had attained, and drastic measures were taken, which were calculated to make it impossible that such a thing should ever happen again. These I shall briefly describe.

Many Highland properties were confiscated on account of the share their owners had taken in the rising. These estates were not sold, but vested in the hands of commissioners. who used the profits for purposes of public utility. Large-grants were made from these funds for making roads in the Highlands. One might have expected that these forfeitures would have had a great permanent effect on the ownership of land in the West Highlands, but, except in a very few cases they did not do so, for these estates were restored to the owners, or to their descendants, before many years had elapsed. Clan Ranald recovered his estate about 1770. In his attainder he had been called Donald MacDonald, whereas his real name was Ranald. Thus his attainder was void. General Fraser received a grant of the Lovat estates in 1774. Lochiel recovered his in 1784 under the general Act of amnesty.

In the interval, however, though their clansmen made most self-sacrificing efforts to help them, and though the French Government did something to assist, the exiled Chiefs were in a state of great poverty, and endured terrible hardships.

Other measures taken by the Government were more permanent in their results. In 1746 the Disarming Act was passed. By this Act the Highlanders were forbidden to possess any arms, and all those which they had were seized and taken away; the military service which the tenants had previously rendered to their Chiefs was no longer to be paid, and the "oasting, hunting, and convening," stipulated for in the tack of 1625, were made illegal. Thus the military side of the clan system was entirely destroyed.

To this Act was added yet another clause—"No man or boy shall, on any pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes, commonly called the Highland clothes, that is to say, the plaid, phillabeg, or little kilt, trousers, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland garb, and no tartan, or party coloured plaid, shall be used for great coats, or upper coats." The Act came into force on August 1, 1748.

A great many people at the time thought that this was a very harsh and severe measure, for which there was no real necessity. The Lord President Forbes was one of them. In a letter to Brodie of Brodie, he expressed a very strong opinion on the subject; but he did not succeed in his attempts to get the Bill modified.

The results of this measure were most far-reaching and important. While a clan remained a military organisation, the energies of its men were devoted to war, or to preparation for war. After the passing of this Act, their main occupation in life was taken away, and from this time dates the difficulty of finding employment for the Highlanders in their own country.

In the following year an Act was passed which brought to an end the clan system on its civil side. "The heritable jurisdictions," which the Chiefs had hitherto possessed and used, were taken away, and henceforth the people were governed under the laws of the realm. The administration of justice was put into the hands of Sheriff-Substitutes, who were then appointed all over Scotland. What we should call local government was exercised by the Justices of the Peace. From the minutes of a meeting held at Sconser in 1788 we get an idea of what matters they dealt with, and the methods they employed. Attendance at the meetings was compulsory, and absentees were fined; they were the Highway Authority for Skye; they made provision for the hiring of servants, and fixed the wages which were to be paid; no one was allowed to pay more than the amount fixed. They made rules about such things as the maintenance of march dykes, the pounding of strayed sheep and cattle, the certificates of beggars, the liability of people keeping dangerous beasts for any damage, the use of properly stamped weights and measures. There are provisions that no man shall be intoxicated at a funeral, or attend without an invitation, and that no one shall leave Skye during harvest time without the leave of two Justices of the Peace. This leave the Justices are not to give until they have tried to get the applicant work in the island.

In theory the changes made by the Act of 1747 were very great. In practice they were probably small. The same people, who had previously acted under the authority of the Chief, were now Justices of the Peace acting under the authority of the King, and they probably carried out their duties in much the same way as before.

Thus the Clan system was completely destroyed. The Chiefs, who had been all-powerful, became no more than the owners of large estates; the Chieftains, who had ruled over their people for centuries, became mere tenant-farmers; the clansmen, whose pride it had been that they belonged to a gallant and well-disciplined fighting force, became no more than peasants, whose occupation in life had been taken away, and whose national dress had been declared illegal.

There was only one thing which no Act of Parliament could destroy, and that was the devotion of the people to their Chiefs. There is ample evidence that this feeling of personal regard and affection lived on in spite of the Act; indeed, to some extent it made the ordinance of Parliament a dead letter, for the people continued to obey the Chiefs, not because they were obliged to do so, but because they loved them. It is on record that many clansmen paid their rents twice over, once to the Commissioners for forfeited estates, and once to their beloved Chiefs, who were in exile. In an earlier chapter I described the self-sacrificing devotion of the clansmen on the MacLeod Estate to their Chief in the year 1777. Many other instances of the warm affection with which his people continued to regard a Chief might be cited, and, as I said in an earlier chapter, it is by no means dead amongst clansmen at the present day.

Up to about the year 1770, the old tacksmen remained on their farms, and still continued to work them on the patriarchal principle. They gave their servants no wages, but they regarded them as members of their families, and recognised that it was their duty to support them, whether they could find any work for them to do or not, though the difficulty of employing all the people was constantly becoming greater.

But about 1770 the old tacksmen began to emigrate, and leave the Highlands. At that time a great increase in rents was taking place all over the country. Prices were rising very rapidly, and probably, if the value of farm produce is taken into consideration, the new rents were not more burdensome than the old ones had been. But many of the farmers thought that it would be impossible to pay these higher rents.

The tacksmen on Lord Macdonald's estate formed a sort of company, bought 100,000 acres of land in South Carolina, and emigrated in a body, taking many of their people with them. On other estates considerable numbers of tacksmen left the country. The exodus, which began about 1770, continued during the next 40 or 50 years, until few of the old class of tacksmen remained on their farms, and their places were taken by men from other parts of Scotland.

This change killed the patriarchal system. The new tenants were bound to the people on their farms by no ties of blood, or of long standing affection. Farming had become a business based on commercial considerations. The farmers employed the men whose services they required, and paid them wages, but it was no business of theirs to support people merely because they lived on their farms.

Fortunately, as will appear in the next chapter, during the next fifty on sixty years, there was a good deal of employment for the people in the country, but they had lost one most important asset—they were no longer certain that, whether work could be found for them to do or not, they would be maintained by their superiors.

They also lost masters who, I am convinced, had been uniformly kind to them. The author of a report, which was rendered to the British Fishery Society about the state of affairs at Stein towards the end of the eighteenth century, says that the tacksmen had been "most tyrannical and cruel in dealing with their people." This may have been true in isolated cases, but I do not believe that it was generally true. When, in 1772 and 1811, some of the tacksmen proposed to emigrate and take their dependants with them, it seems incredible that people who had been so cruelly treated should be willing to accompany their tyrants when they went away. They certainly were willing to do so, and, in a good many cases, they actually did so.

By the time this report was written a good many new tenants were settled in the country, and I think it likely that, if any of the farmers had been cruel to their dependants, it was among the new-comers, and not among the old tacksmen, that this cruelty was found.

The passing away of the patriarchal system brought about another change in the conditions under which the people lived. The family ceased to be a self-sufficing unit in a clan. The workers, having become the whole-time servants of their masters, had less leisure in which to work for themselves, and having money, or the equivalent of money, they were able to pay others to do the work for them, which they had formerly done for themselves.

As time went on labour began to be specialised. Weavers, tailors, shoemakers, and other tradesmen were found in every township, and, finally, though not for a long time, shops were opened, at which the people could buy the goods which they had formerly made for themselves.

Thus, before the dawn of the 19th century, the clan and the patriarchal systems had been entirely destroyed, the conditions of life in the West Highlands had been completely altered, and "the old order had passed away, giving place to the new."

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