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In the Country of the Clansmen


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The history of Scotland down to a certain epoch gives no sanction whatever to the familiar expressions "Highlands" and "Lowlands." Neither can ethnology, nor the same history down to the same point, admit the justness of the expressions "Highlanders" and "Lowlanders," when such are used in a racial and not a geographical sense, which often happens. On the other hand, these are convenient and fairly long-established verbal conventions. Further, "Highlands" and "Lowlands" can be roughly equated with the main physical features of the country; and between "Highlander" and "Lowlander" there exist certain differences which call for the employment of distinguishing terms, if not indeed for these in particular. It is, however, in their conventional sense that the expressions in question are employed here.

The early history of the country now called Scotland, but formerly Cruithentuath, that is, Pictland, shows us the Picts or Caledonians in entire possession of it; but in this place a few outlines only of this history can be given, and always with particular regard to the concise narrative which is to follow these few explanatory remarks.

Pictland was politically divided into two parts, the range of hills anciently known as the Mounth, and later as the Grampians, forming the barrier between them. These two divisions - North and South Pictland - were divided up into a number of provinces, over each of which ruled, first (in point of time) a king with practically sovereign powers, and later a mormaer, an official who owed a nominal subjection to the high-king of Pictland, but who was otherwise as independent as his predecessor in office, the petty or provincial king, had been.

According to the theory of Pictish rule, North and South were privileged to supply kings for the high-throne of the confederacy "turn-about," that is, alternately; but in course of time, and in consequence of the external and internal troubles of successive ages, this arrangement came to be set aside, and a violent scramble for power as between North and South arose. The famous MacBeth (1040-1057) was the last effective sovereign that the North sent south to Scone (the Pictish capital after the destruction of Forteviot by the Norse) to occupy the common throne; but long before his day the balance of political power had begun to incline very visibly southwards. In the South, the Scots (Irish) of Argyll and the neighbouring isles, who had been in close and friendly alliance with the Picts for centuries previously, joined later with the natives of Southern Pictland, the result being the accession of Kenneth MacAlpin (843-858), a Scot on his father's side, but a Pict, there is good reason to believe, on his mother's, as sovereign (without conquest) of united Picts and Scots. But though this arrangement seems to have suited well the Southerners, yet it did not please the North, who, fully sensible of its political tendencies, took the alarm from them and resisted it.

In the event, however, the southern union of Picts and Scots proved too strong for the North, which, greatly weakened by the Norse conquests and, immediately afterwards, their consequent mainland settlements, was obliged in course of time to cease all organized hostilities against the South and to content itself with setting up for an independent kingdom on its own account, the name of this independent kingdom being Moray - the chief province of the North. With varying success and chequered fortunes Moray managed to preserve a precarious independence as late as the reign of Alexander II (1214-1249), when the last of its many " rebellions " against the South having been suppressed, the province was annexed to the dominions of the Scoto-Pictish crown.

Thus the true date of the complete disappearance of political Pictland is that of the last of the Moray risings, not that of the union of Picts and Scots in the person of Kenneth MacAlpin a few centuries previously. With regard to the ethnology of the Picts or Caledonians, to account for the origin of this people there are, or rather, were, for the first of them is little held nowadays, two principal views, one of which regards the Picts as pre-Aryans, and the other as a mixed people formed of "aboriginal" elements and later Celtic invaders. But be the precise origin of the Caledonians what it may, this at least is sure - that they spoke a Celtic language and had Celtic manners and customs. That they were Celts in the conventional sense of the term is therefore plain.

To attempt at this time of day to disentangle the clans that are presumably Scottish by origin from those that are probably Pictish by descent were surely a vain proceeding. But the foregoing brief and necessarily compressed account of the settlement of Pictland by the Scots has been judged necessary in order to clear the ground for the following remarks, and more especially to show the inappropriateness of such expressions as "Highlands" and "Lowlands," "Highlanders" and "Lowlanders," when these are applied, as they sometimes are, to pre-Highland and pre-Lowland history.

And though it is roughly true that whereas the Highlanders of to-day represent the Scotic incomers of long ago, and the Lowlander of to-day the Picts who joined with or resisted them, yet neither is this rough classification entirely satisfactory, since many a Highlander is of Pictish descent, and many a Low-lander of Scotic origin. Now, however, that these few words of warning and explanation have been uttered, the writer deems himself at liberty to complete the rest of his task, that is, to give a brief historical account of the Clansmen and their country.

The first cause of the Highlander as we know him to-day, and as our later ancestors knew him, was the feudal system, which began to be introduced into Scotland in the reign of David I (1124-1153). It is true that the terms "Highlands," "Highlanders," and their oppositcs did not come into anything like general vogue till centuries after the death of that monarch; nor to this day are they recognized in the Highlander's language, the Gaelic. Nevertheless, the feudal system it was that made Highlanders of a large part of the Scoto-Pictish people and Lowlanders of the rest. And how the feudal system produced that particular effect is not hard to understand, provided we know something about the principles on which the system itself was based, and those, on the other hand, of the Celtic polity by which this feudal system was opposed.

In the wake, then, ot the feudal system there came to Scotland, first, the Norman, and later the English speech; secondly, the theory that the ultimate proprietor of the lands of a country is the king thereof - not the tribe, as the Celts affirmed; thirdly, laws establishing primogeniture, and substituting "land" for "blood" in the general scheme of reckoning human descent (under the Celtic system primogeniture did not obtain, and descent was reckoned by " blood " and independently of property-holding qualifications); and fourthly and lastly, manners and customs joined to a way of looking at life in general which were not Celtic by nature and implication, whatever else they may have been. Little imagination is needed in order to enable us to understand that the application of this system to the districts into which it was first introduced, that is to say the Lowlands generally, worked in time a profound social and political change.

In fine, it feudalised vast numbers of Scotsmen; and but for the example of the Scots who inhabited the more mountainous and therefore the less accessible parts of the kingdom, it must have rapidly feudalised the whole nation. These Scots, however, turned their backs on the feudal system and resisted it with arms in their hands as often as they could; and as, roughly speaking, they who so stood out against the feudal system and foreign manners and customs represent the ancestors (be they Pict or be they Scot) of the Highlanders of to-day and yesterday, so on the other hand, and speaking no less roughly, are the ancestors of the Lowlanders to be reckoned those who accepted the feudal system, and along with it the foreign speech, manners and customs that came into Scotland in its wake.

From the earliest times down to the introduction of the feudal system in the reign of David I, and from those times again onwards till the extinction of the Celtic d}^nasty in the person of Alexander III (1249-1286), it may be said with perfect truth that the Clansmen ruled Scotland, notwithstanding during the latter period the contemporaneous existence of feudalised Scotland; and to this state of affairs the long and bloody Wars of Independence brought little interference, the crisis meanwhile subterraneanising certain social and political forces that must inevitably declare themselves as soon as ever the struggle should be brought to an end. It was brought to an end, and ended with true glory, at Bannockburn; but it is very noticeable that the Scotland that took its rise from the field of battle - in a word the Scotland of Bruce and the Stewarts - was no longer demonstrably Celtic, but rather distinctly and definitely feudal.

But though a large part of the kingdom was now under feudal rule, yet another as large, if not larger, continued true to ancient laws and native manners and customs; and though the feudal government always willed to destroy this inconvenient imperium in imperio, yet what with its own feebleness relative to it, and the internal troubles and distractions of successive reigns, that government and that system had ever enough to do to preserve their own lives. Indeed, the violent suppression of the Clansmen and the annexation of their country to feudalised Scotland was hardly a dream that enlivened the slumbers of even the wildest political imagination of those times.

As long as the principal power of the West - the Lordship of the Isles, to give it its feudal title - endured, all went fairly well with the country of the Clans. But towards the end of the fifteenth century this Celtic shepherd was struck and his sheep were scattered. It is true that the annexation of the Lordship of the Isles to the feudal crown freed certain clans from dependence on the MacDonalds, the Campbells, MacLeans, Camerons, MacDougalls, etc., dating their rise to power, though not, of course, their pedigrees, from this event.

On the whole, however, the effects of this abolition were immediately, as progressively, injurious to Celtic interests in Scotland. A civilizing power was snuffed out and a cultural exemplar destroyed. Released from the control exercised, and on the whole efficiently exercised, by the MacDonalds, the Clans in general soon began to fall away from Celtic law, from the Celtic peace, and from a sense of Celtic customs and traditions.

Soon, too, "broken men" - those pests of the later Highlands - began to appear, and a race of petty chiefs to spring up who had the front to boast that they held their lands not by written law but by dint of the sword - insolence and barbarity on their part that most certainly had not been tolerated during the long ascendancy of the MacDonalds.

Unable itself to exert the supervision which the now leaderless Clans in most cases required, the feudal (and often futile) government of the South fell back on the stale device of employing chief to spy on chief and tribe to war against tribe, in the hope, of course, that out of this welter of conflicting interests, this quagmire of division and misrule, something for itself worth having might emerge. The result of this brutal policy may have been success so far as feudal government notions were concerned; but for the Clansmen themselves it was little short of sheer disaster and calamity.

Barbarity and incivility prevailed everywhere; private wars abounded; and assassinations designed to remove leading or inconvenient men became rife where before they had been rare. It is true that the celebrated Statutes of lona passed at a great assembly of the tribes in the year 1609 did not a little, at the time, to correct abuses that had sprung up in the Highlands since the extinction of the Lordship of the Isles, and to keep in check powers that needed to be held in check, but had not been checked at all, ever since the same epoch. The event, however, proved that the Statutes had all the defects of their qualities. They were too ambitious, and thus largely inoperative; and, besides, there was no "over-all" power to enforce them, each tribe implementing or neglecting to implement them just as whim took it or its interests decided.

But though the steps taken by successive feudal governments, which ever professed to have the welfare of the Highlands close at heart, were slow and faint, yet always was feudalism a growing force within the country of the Clans. Delay must reach the door some time or other, says the Gaelic proverb; and so it happened here; for by the time the Jacobite clans came again to a head, in 1715 few of them, whether Jacobite or Whig, then survived of whose standing and polity it could be said with truth that they continued faithful to those of the tribes of old, so greatly had feudalism eaten into the forms and temper of Scottish clanship in general.

The few tribes (MacDonalds for the most part) which at the period spoken of still continued faithful to ancient law and custom were known to their contemporaries as "The Clans"; for in these, the true descendants of the ancient tribes, election to chiefship was still occasionally practised, nor was any man admitted to chiefship merely because he was the eldest son of a father who held his lands, not of the tribe, but of the king - feudal innovations on Celtic law and custom to which the vast majority of the Clansmen had by now succumbed. By "Charlie's Year," however, "The Clans," judging by President Forbes of Culloden and other contemporary authorities, had entirely disappeared.

The abolition by the English government of the hereditable jurisdictions appertaining to chiefs of Clans struck at the root of the feudal, not at the native, polity of the Highlands; but clanship itself, though denounced, yet was not formally abolished, they who laid the scheme of these " reprisals " judging probably that since true clanship was now dead in the Highlands, to pass laws to abolish it were a waste of time. And thus, unconsciously no doubt so far as the administration of the day was concerned, was laid the scheme of the Highlands that arose as soon as the disabilities inflicted on the Clans and their country for so many successive rebellions were removed by law, and both were thus restored to official favour.

Nevertheless it is very observable that in this scheme of things, in this era of unrivalled popularity upon which the Highlands have now entered, little of the old order remains beyond the old familiar kinship sentiment and a fortunately growing attachment to the native language and culture. Nowadays the Highlands are to be apprehended not through a distinct polity and a social and political environment altogether foreign to the rest of the monarchy, but by means of such modern institutions as Highland games, the great social gatherings held annually at Inverness, Perth, Oban, Stirling, Portree and other places within the "Highland Line," and lastly by means of the Mods or gatherings of the Gaelic Association, and the smaller provincial assemblies which the parent body has been the means of setting on foot within recent years, in divers parts of the Highlands of Scotland.

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