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Highlanders of Scotland

The Highlanders of Scotland, who had since the middle of the thirteenth century been a people distinctly marked off from the rest of the inhabitants of the country, were regarded by their Southern neighbors as a horde of savage thieves, and the country they inhabited as a great impenetrable wilderness. What was known of them excited no feeling but contempt and loathing. Writing of 1689, Macaulay says that the politicians of Westminster, and indeed most of the politicians of Edinburgh, knew no more about the Highlands than they did about Abyssinia and Japan.

The fierce inhabitants of the glens and mountains heartily returned the feeling of contempt with which they were regarded. They paid no more heed to the voice of monarch and statesman than they did to the croaking of the raven. They recognised no lawmakers but those of their own family and blood, and no laws but those of honor and might. To the decision of the sword they referred all questions in dispute between themselves and their neighbors, and to this weapon they made their first and last appeal. Their pride forbade them to mingle with a race whom they considered in every way their inferior; but they made no scruple to descend at times from their mountain homes, and, laying waste the lands of the Lowlanders, carry off their flocks and herds to their own secure fastnesses. They were strongly attached to their country and their kindred, had a habitual contempt of danger, and an imperishable love of independence.

The Highlanders had ever been famed as brave and devoted soldiers. This character they always maintained, whether fighting against disciplined foes in a foreign land, or engaged in battle against a neighboring clan in their own glen. They were a fighting people, and officers of experience knew well that no higher honor could or can be conferred upon a Highland regiment than to place it at the post of danger, or wherever an opportunity might or may be afforded of displaying its prowess. And he who trusted in their valor was never deceived.

From the 12th to the end of the 17th century the Highlands may be described as being in a state of almost perpetual turmoil. There was scarcely ever a period in which all the clans were on peaceable terms with their neighbours. There was never a really cordial feeling between any. In some part or other of the country there was always a quarrel to be settled by the sword. To-day it was Sutherland against Caithness ; to-morrow Argyle against Lochiel; now it was the Macdonalds against the Breadalbane Campbells; and anon the Menzieses of Rannoch drew the claymore against the Murrays of Athole.

The Clan system occasioned so many petty sovereignties, so many petty jealousies and conflicting interests, that the existence of a state of peace and security was hardly to be expected ; and when to this was added the fiery disposition, the characteristic pride, proneness to fight, and desire to be distinguished for valour which animated the Highlanders, the reason of so many lamentable struggles becomes plain enough. A slight, an angry word, a sneering answer, was sufficient to plunge whole clans in bloodshed-was enough, indeed, to cause a feud which might continue for generations, until almost a whole people had been decimated. To openly insult or kill a clansman merited the most sanguinary vengeance, and the records of many of the requitals which have followed are sickening to read.

The authority of the King was unheeded; his mandate could neither subdue the animosities of rival clans, nor cause them to relinquish hostilities. Yet the clans were loyal in all respects, save one. If two, three, or more clans joined against a common enemy, in the agreement there invariably was a clause swearing loyalty and fidelity to the King; but if the King offered to oppose them in their purpose they were ready at once to collide against him. In their quarrels they would not tolerate his interference.

The manner in which feuds arose were generally something like the following: When two men of different families quarrelled, and the one slew or injured the other, the relatives of the injured person, numbering in every case a whole clan, set about obtaining revenge. Sometimes they contented themselves with simply killing an innocent relative of the person who did the injury ; sometimes they killed the person himself. The family of the other in turn then tried to be revenged, and killed one or two of the first injured family. At length the feeling rose so high that the fiery cross went through the glen. One of the clans mustered at their meeting-place, their war- cry was sounded, and they marched against their enemy. If the enemy were prepared, a battle was the result; if not, the aggressors burned his houses, pillaged his lands, carried off his stock and herds, and returned in triumph to their own fastnesses. This victory they were permitted to enjoy till the other side gamed strength, when they in turn made the onslaught, and committed like depredations.

Such a manner of living was, of course, hostile to peace and security, but it was much loved by the wild mountaineer. The spirit of opposition and rivalry between the clans encouraged the cultivation of the military at the expense of the social virtues, and perverted the people's ideas of law and morality. Revenge was accounted a duty, the destruction of a neighbour a meritorious exploit. Their love of distinction and their conscious reliance on their courage when under the direction of these perverted notions only tended to make their feuds more implacable, their condition more agitated, and their depredations more rapacious and desolating. Superstition added its influence in exasperating animosities, by teaching the clansmen that to revenge the death of a relative or friend was a sacrifice agreeable to their shades, thus engaging on the side of the most implacable hatred and the darkest vengeance the most amiable and domestic of all our feelings, reverence for the memory of the dead and affection for the virtues of the living."

It often happened that the insulted clan was unable at the moment to take the field to repel aggression, or to vindicate its honour, but the injury was never forgotten, and the memory of it was treasured up until a fitting opportunity for taking revenge should arrive.

The movie "Braveheart" is a dramatic account of Scotland's greatest patriot, recalling the legendary life of William Wallace (ca. 1270-1305). Wallace (Mel Gibson) did lead a rebellion against the English in 1296. He won a surprising victory at Stirling Bridge, and then lost at Falkirk. He was captured, and executed as depicted. The rest of the film was a good story, but featured many elements that were either distorted or simply made up. To begin with, Isabella, the Princess of Wales, did not arrive in England until 1308, after Wallace had been executed in 1305. And Wallace was not a highlander, but a lowlander who wore neither highland tartan nor the blue woad of Roman-era Picts. Mel Gibson was certainly not the first to improve on the story of William Wallace. Of the origin and youth of this celebrated man, little is known, though much has been reported. His biographer, Blind Harry, lived about two centuries later, and his ballad, full as it is of manifest inaccuracy and untruth, is almost valueless, except as showing what history had become in that time under the influence of popular tradition. His work can only be regarded as an attempt to recite the story as Scotsmen of the thirteenth century, reared in incessant warfare with England, would like it to be.

The clan system was a kind of patrimonial monarchy - each family constituted a separate petty state. The head was the Chief, and every clansman could claim a family relationship either near or remote. Peculiarly enough, the position of the Highland Chief did not depend on his possessions. Though these became lost or forfeited those dwelling on the soil under the new landlord did not give allegiance to the latter. The Chief retained his sway and authority undiminished. And not only so, but if necessary the clan contributed to the support of his family. To him they looked as their head, to him alone they rendered obedience ; at his call they assembled to fight, and his leadership they followed.

The fidelity of the clansmen to their chiefs, and of Highland soldiers to their officers, was one of the most distinctly marked peculiarities of the Gael. It meets one on almost every page of Highland history, and the nineteenth century Lowlander, with an eye specially trained to the exigencies of business and the mystery of his own interests, is apt to marvel at the steadfastness of the Gael in this respect. Selfishness seemed altogether foreign to his nature.

The Highland Chieftain occupied a position peculiar to the society in which he lived. He was the leader, the father, and the judge of his people. He heard then- complaints, and redressed their wrongs. He was their friend and counsellor in time of peace, and then- rallying point in the day of battle. They were educated by his wisdom, imbued with his courage, and inspired by the dignity and independence of his bearing.

Beside the authority of the Chief, the authority of the King was of little moment. So long as the King's will coincided with that of the Chief, then the King's will was obeyed, but whenever the commands became opposed to each other, that of the Chief became law. Against this principle of action nothing would be tolerated. This was a law which must be held sacred ; the sway of the Chief must be arbitrary or it was useless.

The Highland Chief possessed despotic powers. Custom gave him the right to preserve life or to inflict death. His position he held, not because of his peculiar wisdom or because of any faculty which he might possess, but because of his descent. The Chief loved, next to his renown, nothing so much as the attachment of his people. It was the universal custom, and a wise one it was, for the Chief to endeavour to strengthen this feeling. He never failed to show gratitude for any special service rendered him by any member of his clan. Upon such he conferred signal benefits, and the spoils of war he shared with all. He thus showed himself to be not a thankless tyrant, but a kind and grateful leader, and an affectionate father of his people. The possessions of a Chief were considered as much the clan's as his own. He had full power and authority over them, but these were only exercised in trust. The clansmen were bound by their customs to render implicit obedience to him; but he had also to see that they were provided for.

Whether the position taken up by their leader was honorable or dishonorable was a matter with which the clansman gave himself no concern. His duty was plain and distinct-to follow the Chief-and no power was strong enough to persuade him to relinquish that duty. He stuck to his Chief with unwavering adhesion. The greater the hardship the more pleased he was to suffer, and to lay down his life for his leader's sake he considered the legitimate end for which he had been born.

A Highlander considered his honor as of more account than his life. While he might be ready at any moment to sacrifice the latter, to the former he clung with a tenacity which death itself was powerless to overcome. And the most marked form in which this adhesion to honor was displayed was in the incorruptible fidelity which he exhibited to his Chieftain, or to any other who might place absolute dependence on his faithfulness. Fidelity was the best ornament in the Highland character; the brightest and most precious, because most dearly-bought jewel in the coronet of Celtic glory and fame.

An illustration of a Highlander's adhesion to his honor was exhibited on one occasion by an ancestor of Rob Roy-Macgregor of Glenstrae. One day the young Laird of Lamond and Macgregor's son quarrelled, and, blows having been interchanged, young Macgregor was killed. Lamond fled, and some of the Clan Gregor pursued. The hunted man reached the house of the murdered youth's father, and besought protection from his pursuers. He did not, however, state what crime he had committed, and on this point old Macgregor did not question him. "You are safe with me," he simply said, "whatever you may have done." At length the pursuers arrived, and, informing the unfortunate parent that the man he protected had murdered his son, demanded him to be given up. But Macgregor, though grief and rage boiled in his breast, having passed his word, would not break it. "Let none of you dare to touch him," he exclaimed with dignity and firmness. "I have promised him protection, and, as I live, he shall be safe as long as he is with me."

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Page last modified: 19-07-2012 15:43:05 ZULU