WE have now arrived at an era in our history, when the line of demarcation between the inhabitants of the Lowlands and Highlands of Scotland begins to appear, and when, by the influx of a Gothic race into the former, the language of that part of North Britain is completely revolutionized, when a new dynasty or race of sovereigns ascends the throne, and when a great change takes place in the laws and constitution of the kingdom.
At the epoch which closes the last chapter, the Gaëlic was the almost universal language of North Britain. In proof of this, reference has been made to proper names, or names of persons and places, which were all Gaëlic during that period, as may be seen by consulting the ancient chartularies and chronicles, the annals of Ulster, and the register of the Priory of St Andrews. In the Lowlands, however, some places still retain the British appellations conferred on aboriginal inhabitants of North Britain. The cause of this may be owing to the close affinity between the same names in the British and Gaëlic; and to this circumstance, that the Gaëlic language did not obtain such a complete mastery over the British in the Lowlands as in the Highlands.
Although the Anglo-Saxon colonization of the Lowlands of Scotland does not come exactly within the design of the present work; yet, as forming an important feature in the history of the Lowlands of Scotland as contradistinguished from the Highlands, a slight notice of it may not be uninteresting.
At the time when the Romans invaded North Britain, the whole population of both ends of the island consisted of a Celtic race, the descendants of its original inhabitants. Shortly after the Roman abdication of North Britain in the year four hundred and forty-six, which was soon succeeded by the final departure of the Romans from the British shores, the Saxons, a people of Gothic origin, established themselves upon the Tweed, and afterwards extended their settlements to the Frith of Forth and to the banks of the Solway and the Clyde. About the beginning of the sixth century the Dalriads, as we have seen, landed in Kintyre and Argyle from the opposite coast of Ireland, and colonized these districts, from whence, in the course of little more than two centuries, they overspread the Highlands and western islands, which their descendants have, ever since, continued to possess. Towards the end of the eighth century, a fresh colony of Scots from Ireland settled in Galloway among the Britons and Saxons, and having overspread the whole of that country, were afterwards joined by detachments of the Scots of Kintyre and Argyle, in connexion with whom they peopled that peninsula. Besides these three races, who made permanent settlements in Scotland, the Scandinavians colonized the Orkney and Shetland islands, and also established themselves on the coasts of Caithness and Sutherland.
But notwithstanding these early settlements of the Gothic race, the era of the Saxon colonization of the Lowlands of Scotland is, with more propriety, placed in the reign of Malcolm Ceanmore, who, by his marriage with a Saxon princess, and the protection he gave to the Anglo-Saxon fugitives who sought for an asylum in his dominions from the persecutions of William the Conqueror, and his Normans, laid the foundations of those great changes which took place in the reigns of his successors. Malcolm, in his warlike incursions into Northumberland and Durham, carried off immense numbers of young men and women, who were to be seen in the reign of David I. in almost every village and house in Scotland. The Gaëlic population was quite averse to the settlement of these strangers among them, and it is said that the extravagant mode of living introduced by the Saxon followers of Queen Margaret, was one of the reasons which led to their expulsion from Scotland, in the reign of Donalbane, who rendered himself popular with his people by this unfriendly act.
This expulsion was, however, soon rendered nugatory, for on the accession of Edgar, the first sovereign of the Scoto-Saxon dynasty, many distinguished Saxon families with their followers settled in Scotland, to the heads of which families the king made grants of land of considerable extent. Few of these foreigners appear to have come into Scotland during the reign of Alexander I. the brother and successor of Edgar; but vast numbers of Anglo-Saxons, Anglo-Normans, and Flemings, established themselves in Scotland in the reign of David I. That prince had received his education at the court of Henry I. and had married Maud or Matildes, the only child of Waltheof earl of Northumberland and Huntingdon, by Judith, niece to William the Conqueror on the mother’s side. This lady had many vassals, and when David came to the throne in the year one thousand one hundred and twenty-four, he was followed, successively, by a thousand Anglo-Normans, to whom he distributed lands, on which they and their followers settled. Most of the illustrious families in Scotland originated from this source.
Malcolm Ceanmore had, before his accession to the throne, resided for some time in England as a fugitive, under the protection of Edward the Confessor, where he acquired a knowledge of the Saxon language; which language, after his marriage with the princess Margaret, became that of the Scottish court. This circumstance made that language fashionable among the Scottish nobility, in consequence of which and of the Anglo-Saxon colonization under David I., the Gaëlic language was altogether superseded in the Lowlands of Scotland in little more than two centuries after the death of Malcolm. A topographical line of demarcation was then fixed as the boundary between the two languages, which has ever since been kept up, and presents one of the most singular phenomena ever observed in the history of philology.
The change of the seat of government by Kenneth on ascending the Pictish throne, from Inverlochay, the capital of the Scots, to Abernethy also followed by the removal of the marble chair, the emblem of sovereignty, from Dunstaffnage to Scone, appears to have occasioned no detriment to the Gaëlic population of the Highlands; but when Malcolm Ceanmore transferred his court about the year one thousand and sixty-six to Dunfermline, which also became, in place of Iona, the sepulchre of the Scottish kings, the rays of royal bounty, which had hitherto diffused its protecting and benign influence over the inhabitants of the Highlands, were withdrawn, and left them a prey to anarchy and poverty. “The people,” says General David Stewart, “now beyond the reach of the laws, became turbulent and fierce, revenging in person those wrongs for which the administrators of the laws were too distant and too feeble to afford redress. Thence arose the institution of chiefs, who naturally became the judges and arbiters in the quarrels of their clansmen and followers, and who were surrounded by men devoted to the defence of their rights, their property, and their power; and accordingly the chiefs established within their own territories a jurisdiction almost wholly independent of their liege lord.”1
The connexion which Malcolm and his successors maintained with England, estranged still farther the Highlanders from the dominion of the sovereign and the laws; and their history, after the Gaelic population of the Lowlands had merged into and adopted the language of the Anglo-Saxons, presents, with the exception of the wars between rival clans, which will be noticed afterwards, nothing remarkable till their first appearance on the military theatre of our national history in the campaigns of Montrose, Dundee, and others. Of these campaigns and other interesting military achievements of the modern Highlanders, we intend to give the details; but before entering upon that important and highly interesting portion of our labours, we mean to bring under the notice of the reader such objects of general interest connected with the ancient state of the Highlands, and the character and condition of the Highlanders in former times, as may be considered interesting either in a local or national point of view.
The early history of the Highlanders presents us with a bold and hardy race of men, filled with a romantic attachment to their native mountains and glens, cherishing an exalted spirit of independence, and firmly bound together in septs or clans by the ties of kindred. Having little intercourse with the rest of the world, and pent up for many centuries within the Grampian range, the Highlanders acquired a peculiar character, and retained or adopted habits and manners differing widely from those of their Lowland neighbours. “The ideas and employments, which their seclusion from the world rendered habitual, – the familiar contemplation of the most sublime objects of nature, – the habit of concentrating their affections within the narrow precincts of their own glens, or the limited circle of their own kinsmen, – and the necessity of union and self-dependence in all difficulties and dangers, combined to form a peculiar and original character. A certain romantic sentiment, the offspring of deep and cherished feeling, strong attachment to their country and kindred, and a consequent disdain of submission to strangers, formed the character of independence; while an habitual contempt of danger was nourished by their solitary musings, of which the honour of their clan, and a long descent from brave and warlike ancestors, formed the frequent theme. Thus, their exercises, their amusements, their modes of subsistence, their motives of action, their prejudices and their superstitions, became characteristic, permanent, and peculiar.
“Firmness and decision, fertility in resources, ardour in friendship, and a generous enthusiasm, were the result of such a situation, such modes of life, and such habits of thought. Feeling themselves separated by Nature from the rest of mankind, and distinguished by their language, their habits, their manners, and their dress, they considered themselves the original possessors of the country, and regarded the Saxons of the Lowlands as strangers and intruders.”2
Like their Celtic ancestors, the Highlanders were tall, robust, and well formed. Early marriages were unknown among them, and it was rare for a female who was of a puny stature and delicate constitution to be honoured with a husband. The following observations of Martin on the inhabitants of some of the western islands may be generally applied to the Highlanders:- “They are not obliged to art in forming their bodies, for Nature never fails to act her part bountifully to them; perhaps there is no part of the habitable globe where so few bodily imperfections are to be seen, nor any children that go more early. I have observed several of them walk alone before they were ten months old: they are bathed all over every morning and evening, some in cold, some in warm water; but the latter is most commonly used, and they wear nothing strait about them. The mother generally suckles the child, failing of which, a nurse is provided, for they seldom bring up any by hand: they give new born infants fresh butter to take away the miconium, and this they do for several days; they taste neither sugar, nor cinnamon, nor have they any daily allowance of sack bestowed on them, as the custom is elsewhere, nor is the nurse allowed to taste ale. The generality wear neither shoes nor stockings before they are seven, eight, or ten years old; and many among them wear no night caps before they are sixteen years old, and upwards; some use none all their life-time, and these are not so liable to headaches as others who keep their heads warm.”3
This practice of bathing children every morning and evening contributes more than any other expedient to steel the body against cold, and to preserve the frame from rheumatic affection. Nor did this healthy operation cease with childhood, – it was continued in after life, and the practice still is with those who wear the kilt to wash their limbs every morning as a preventive against cold. These precautions made the Highlanders impervious to cold, and indifferent to warm and cumbrous clothing. Their wardrobe was, of course, very scanty, but quite sufficient for useful purposes, – comfort and cleanliness.
As a proof of the indifference of the Highlanders to cold, reference has been made to their often sleeping in the open air during the severity of winter. Birt, who resided among them and wrote in the year seventeen hundred and twenty-five, relates that he has seen the places which they occupied, and which were known by being free from the snow that deeply covered the ground, except where the heat of their bodies had melted it. The same writer represents a chief as giving offence to his clan by his degeneracy in forming the snow into a pillow before he lay down. “The Highlanders were so accustomed to sleep in the open air, that the want of shelter was of little consequence to them. It was usual before they lay down, to dip their plaids in water, by which the cloth was less pervious to the wind, and the heat of their bodies produced a warmth, which the woollen, if dry, could not afford. An old man informed me, that a favourite place of repose was under a cover of thick over-hanging heath. The Highlanders, in 1745, could scarcely be prevailed on to use tents. It is not long since those who frequented Lawrence fair, St Sair’s, and other markets in the Garioch of Aberdeenshire, gave up the practice of sleeping in the open fields. The horses being on these occasions left to shift for themselves, the inhabitants no longer have their crop spoiled, by their ‘upthrough neighbours,’ with whom they had often bloody contentions, in consequence of these unceremonious visits.”4
Till of late years the general opinion was that the plaid, philebeg and bonnet formed the ancient garb of the Highlanders, but some writers have maintained that the philebeg is of modern invention, and that the truis, which consisted of breeches and stockings in one piece, and made to fit close to the limbs, was the old costume. Pinkerton says, that the kilt “is not ancient, but singular, and adapted to their” – the Highlanders’ – “savage life, – was always unknown among the Welsh and Irish, and that it was a dress of the Saxons, who could not afford breeches.”5 We like an ingenious argument even from the pen of this vituperative writer, with all his anti-Gaëlic prejudices, and have often admired his tact in managing it; but after he had admitted that “breeches were unknown to the Celts, from the beginning to this day,”6 it was carrying conjecture too far to attribute the introduction of the philebeg to the Saxons, who were never able to introduce any of their customs into the Highlands; and of all changes in the dress of a people, we think the substitution of the kilt for the truis the most improbable.
That the truis are very ancient in the Highlands is probable, but they were chiefly confined to the higher classes, who always used them when travelling on horseback. Beague, a Frenchman, who wrote a history of the campaigns in Scotland in fifteen hundred and forty-nine, printed in Paris in fifteen hundred and fifty-six, states that, at the siege of Haddington, in fifteen hundred and forty-nine, “they (the Scottish army) were followed by the Highlanders, and these last go almost naked; they have painted waistcoats, and a sort of woollen covering, variously coloured.”
The style of dress is alluded to by our older historians, by Major, Bishop Lesly, and Buchanan. Lindsay of Pitscottie also thus notices it:- “The other pairt northerne ar full of mountaines, and very rud and homelie kynd of people doeth inhabite, which is called the Reid Schankes, or wyld Scottis. They be cloathed with ane mantle, with ane schirt, fachioned after the Irish manner, going bair legged to the knie.”7 Another who wrote before the year fifteen hundred and ninety-seven, observes that, in his time, “they” – the Highlanders – “delight much in marbled cloths, especially that have long stripes of sundry colours; they love chiefly purple and blue; their predecessors used short mantles, or plaids of divers colours, sundrie ways divided, and among some the same custom is observed to this day; but, for the most part now, they are brown, most near to the colour of the hadder, to the effect when they lye among the hadders, the bright colour of their plaids shall not bewray them, with the which, rather coloured than clad, they suffer the most cruel tempests that blow in the open fields, in such sort, that in a night of snow they sleep sound.”8
There was nothing a Highlander took so much delight in as the improvement of his personal appearance by the aid of dress. The point of personal decoration being once secured, it mattered not, says General Stewart, that his dwelling was mean, his domestic utensils scanty, and of the simplest construction, and his house and furniture merely such as could be prepared by his own hands. Yet, with all his gay tendencies, the Highlander looked upon the occupations of the tailor and weaver with profound contempt, and as fit only for sickly and effeminate persons. He did not disdain, however, to be his own shoemaker, cooper, and carpenter, all of which he considered honourable professions, when confined at least to the supply of his own domestic necessities. We shall now give a description of the different parts of the Highland costume:-
The Breacan-feile, literally, the chequered covering, is the original garb of the Highlanders, and forms the chief part of the costume; but it is now almost laid aside in its simple form. It consisted of a plain piece of tartan from four to six yards in length, and two yards broad. The plaid was adjusted with great nicety, and made to surround the waist in great plaits or folds, and was firmly bound round the loins with a leathern belt in such a manner that the lower side fell down to the middle of the knee joint, and then, while there were the foldings behind, the cloth was double before. The upper part was then fastened on the left shoulder with a large brooch or pin, so as to display to the most advantage the tastefulness of the arrangement, the two ends being sometimes suffered to hang down; but that on the right side, which was necessarily the longest, was more usually tucked under the belt. In battle, in travelling, and on other occasions, this added much to the commodiousness and grace of the costume. By this arrangement, the right arm of the wearer was left uncovered and at full liberty; but in wet or very cold weather the plaid was thrown loose, by which both body and shoulders were covered. To give free exercise for both arms in case of need, the plaid was fastened across the breast by a large silver bodkin, or circular brooch, often enriched with precious stones, or imitations of them, having mottos engraved, consisting of allegorical and figurative sentences.9 Although the belted plaid was peculiar to the Highlanders, it came gradually to be worn by some of the inhabitants of the Lowland districts adjoining the Highlands; but it was discontinued about the end of the last century.
As the Breacan was without pockets, a purse, called sporan by the Highlanders, was fastened or tied in front, which was very serviceable. This purse was made of goats’ or badgers’ skin, and sometimes of leather, and was neither so large nor so gaudy as that now in use. People of rank or condition ornamented their purses sometimes with a silver mouthpiece, and fixed the tassels and other appendages with silver fastenings; but in general the mouthpieces were of brass, and the cords employed were of leather neatly interwoven. The sporan was divided into several compartments. One of these was appropriated for holding a watch, another money, &c. The Highlanders even carried their shot in the sporan occasionally, but for this purpose they commonly carried a wallet at the right side, in which they also stowed when travelling, a quantity of meal and other provisions. This military knapsack was called dorlach by the Highlanders.
The use of stockings and shoes is comparatively of recent date in the Highlands. Originally they encased their feet in a piece of untanned hide, cut to the shape and size of the foot, and drawn close together with leather thongs, a practice which is observed by the descendants of the Scandinavian settlers in the Shetland islands even to the present day; but this mode of covering the feet was far from being general, as the greater part of the population went barefooted. Such was the state of the Highlanders who fought at Killicrankie; and Birt, who wrote upwards of a century ago, says that he visited a well-educated and polite Laird, in the north, who wore neither shoes nor stockings, nor had any covering for his feet. A modern writer observes, that when the Highland regiments were embodied during the French and American wars, hundreds of the men were brought down without either stockings or shoes.
The stockings, which were originally of the same pattern with the plaid, were not knitted, but were cut out of the web, as is still done in the case of those worn by the common soldiers in the Highland regiments; but a great variety of fancy patterns are now in use. The garters were of rich colours, and broad, and were wrought in a small loom, which is now almost laid aside. Their texture was very close, which prevented them from wrinkling, and displayed the pattern to its full extent. On the occasion of an anniversary cavalcade, on Michaelmas day, by the inhabitants of the island of North Uist, when persons of all ranks and of both sexes appeared on horseback, the women, in return for presents of knives and purses given them by the men, presented the latter “with a pair of fine garters of divers colours.”10
The bonnet, of which there were various patterns, completed the national garb, and those who could afford had also, as essential accompaniments, a dirk, with a knife and fork stuck in the side of the sheath, and sometimes a spoon, together with a pair of steel pistols.
The garb, however, differed materially in quality and in ornamental display, according to the rank or ability of the wearer. The short coat and waistcoat worn by the wealthy, were adorned with silver buttons, tassels, embroidery, or lace, according to the taste or fashion of the times; and even “among the better and more provident of the lower ranks,” as General Stewart remarks, silver buttons were frequently found, which had come down to them as an inheritance of long descent. The same author observes, that the reason for wearing these buttons, which were of a large size and of solid silver, was, that their value might defray the expense of a decent funeral in the event of the wearer falling in battle, or dying in a strange country and at a distance from his friends. The officers of Mackay’s and Munroe’s Highland regiments, who served under Gustavus Adolphus in the wars of sixteen hundred and twenty-six, and sixteen hundred and thirty-eight, in addition to rich buttons, wore a gold chain round the neck, to secure the owner, in case of being wounded or taken prisoner, good treatment, or payment for future ransom.
Although shoe buckles now form a part of the Highland costume, they were unknown in the Highlands one hundred and fifty years ago. The ancient Highlanders did not wear neckcloths. Their shirts were of woollen cloth, and as linen was long expensive, a considerable time elapsed before linen shirts came into general use. We have heard an old and intelligent Highlander remark, that rheumatism was almost, if not wholly, unknown in the Highlands until the introduction of linen shirts.
It is observed by General Stewart, that “among the circumstances which influenced the military character of the Highlanders, their peculiar garb was conspicuous, which, by its freedom and lightness, enabled them to use their limbs, and to handle their arms with ease and celerity, and to move with great speed when employed with either cavalry or light infantry. In the wars of Gustavus Adolphus, in the civil wars of Charles I., and on various other occasions, they were often mixed with the cavalry, affording to detached squadrons the incalculable advantage of support from infantry, even in their most rapid movements.” “I observed,” says the author of Memoirs of a Cavalier, speaking of the Scots army in sixteen hundred and forty, “I observed that these parties had always some foot with them, and yet if the horses galloped or pushed on ever so forward, the foot were as forward as they, which was an extraordinary advantage. These were those they call Highlanders; they would run on foot with all their arms, and all their accoutrements, and kept very good order too, and kept pace with the horses, let them go at what rate they would.”
Among the different costumes with which we are acquainted, none can stand comparison with the Highland garb for gracefulness. The nice discernment and correct taste of Eustace preferred it to the formal and gorgeous drapery of the Asiatic costume. Its utility, now that such a complete change has been effected in the manners and condition of the people, may be questioned, but it must be admitted on all hands, that a more suitable dress for the times when it was used, could not have been invented.
The dress of the women seems to require some little notice. Till marriage, or till they arrived at a certain age, they went with the head bare, the hair being tied with bandages or some slight ornament, after which they wore a head-dress, called the curch, made of linen, which was tied under the chin; but when a young woman lost her virtue and character she was obliged to wear a cap, and never afterwards to appear bare-headed. Martin’s observations on the dress of the females of the western islands, may be taken as giving a pretty correct idea of that worn by those of the Highlands. “The women wore sleeves of scarlet cloth, closed at the end as men’s vests, with gold lace round them, having plate buttons set with fine stones. The head-dress was a fine kerchief of linen, strait about the head. The plaid was tied before on the breast, with a buckle of silver or brass, according to the quality of the person. I have seen some of the former of one hundred merks value; the whole curiously engraved with various animals. There was a lesser buckle which was worn in the middle of the larger. It had in the centre a large piece of crystal, or some finer stone, of a lesser size.” The plaid, which, with the exception of a few stripes of red, black, or blue, was white, reached from the neck almost to the feet; it was plaited, and was tied round the waist by a belt of leather, studded with small pieces of silver.
The antiquity of the tartan has been called in question by several writers, who have maintained that it is of modern invention; but they have given no proofs in support of their assertion. We have seen that an author who wrote as far back as the year fifteen hundred and ninety-seven, mentions this species of cloth; and in the account of charge and discharge of John, Bishop of Glasgow, Treasurer to King James III. in fourteen hundred and seventy-one, the following entries occur:
“An elne and ane halve of blue tartane to lyne his gowne of cloth of gold,
£1 10 6
“Four elne and ane halve of tartane for a sparwurt aboun his credill, price ane elne, 10s.
2 5 0
“Halve ane elne of duble tartane to lyne collars to her lady the Quene, price 8 shillings.”
It is therefore absurd to say that tartan is a modern invention.
When the great improvements in the process of dyeing by means of chemistry, are considered, it will appear surprising, that without any knowledge of this art, and without the substances now employed, the Highlanders should have been able, from the scanty materials which their country afforded, to produce the beautiful and lasting colours which distinguished the old Highland tartan, some specimens of which are understood still to exist, and which retain much of their original brilliancy of colouring. “In dyeing and arranging the various colours of their tartans, they displayed no small art and taste, preserving at the same time the distinctive patterns (or sets, as they were called) of the different clans, tribes, families, and districts. Thus, a Macdonald, a Campbell, a Mackenzie, &c. was known by his plaid; and, in like manner, the Athole, Glenorchy, and other colours of different districts, were easily distinguishable. Besides those general divisions, industrious housewives had patterns, distinguished by the set, superior quality, and fineness of cloth, or brightness and variety of the colours. In those times, when mutual attachment and confidence subsisted between the proprietors and occupiers of land in the Highlands, the removal of tenants, except in remarkable cases, rarely occurred; and, consequently, it was easy to preserve and perpetuate any particular set or pattern, even among the lower orders.”11
The Highlanders, in common with most other nations, were much addicted to superstition. The peculiar aspect of their country, in which nature appears in its wildest and most romantic features, exhibiting at a glance sharp and rugged mountains, with dreary wastes – wide-stretched lakes, and rapid torrents, over which the thunders and lightnings, and tempests, and rains, of heaven, exhaust their terrific rage, wrought upon the creative powers of the imagination, and from these appearances, the Highlanders “were naturally led to ascribe every disaster to the influence of superior powers, in whose character the predominating feature necessarily was malignity towards the human race.”12
The most dangerous and most malignant creature was the kelpie, or water-horse, which was supposed to allure women and children to his subaqueous haunts, and there devour them. Sometimes he would swell the lake or torrent beyond its usual limits, and overwhelm the unguarded traveller in the flood. The shepherd, as he sat upon the brow of a rock in a summer’s evening, often fancied he saw this animal dashing along the surface of the lake, or browsing on the pasture-ground upon its verge.
The urisks, who were supposed to be of a condition somewhat intermediate between that of mortal men and spirits, “were a sort of lubbary supernaturals, who, like the brownies of England, could be gained over by kind attentions to perform the drudgery of the farm; and it was believed that many families in the Highlands had one of the order attached to it.”13 The urisks were supposed to live dispersed over the Highlands, each having his own wild recess; but they were said to hold stated assemblies in the celebrated cave called Coire-nan-Uriskin, situated near the base of Ben-Venue, in Aberfoyle, on its northern shoulder. It overhangs Loch Katrine “in solemn grandeur,” and is beautifully and faithfully described by Sir Walter Scott.14
The urisks, though generally inclined to mischief, were supposed to relax in this propensity, if kindly treated by the families which they haunted. They were even serviceable in some instances, and in this point of view were often considered an acquisition. Each family regularly set down a bowl of cream for its urisk, and even clothes were sometimes added. The urisk resented any omission or want of attention on the part of the family; and tradition says, that the urisk of Glaschoil, a small farm about a mile to the west of Ben-Venue, having been disappointed one night of his bowl of cream, after performing the task allotted him, took his departure about day-break, uttering a horrible shriek, and never again returned.
The Daoine Shith, or Shi’ (men of peace), or as they are sometimes called, Daoine matha (good men), come next to be noticed. Dr P. Graham considers the part of the popular superstitions of the Highlands which relates to these imaginary persons, and which is to this day retained, as he observes, in some degree of purity, as “the most beautiful and perfect branch of Highland mythology.”
Although it has been generally supposed that the mythology of the Daoine Shi’ is the same as that respecting the fairies of England, as portrayed by Shakspeare, in the Midsummer Night’s Dream, and perhaps, too, of the Orientals, they differ essentially in many important points.
The Daoine Shi’, or men of peace, who are the fairies of the Highlanders, “though not absolutely malevolent, are believed to be a peevish repining race of beings, who, possessing themselves but a scanty portion of happiness, are supposed to envy mankind their more complete and substantial enjoyments. They are supposed to enjoy, in their subterraneous recesses, a sort of shadowy happiness, a tinsel grandeur, which, however, they would willingly exchange for the more solid joys of mortals.”15 Green was the colour of the dress which these men of peace always wore, and they were supposed to take offence when any of the mortal race presumed to wear their favourite colour. The Highlanders ascribe the disastrous result of the battle of Killiecrankie to the circumstance of Viscount Dundee having been dressed in green on that ill-fated day. This colour is even yet considered ominous to those of his name who assume it.
The abodes of the Daoine Shi’ are supposed to be below grassy eminences or knolls, where, during the night, they celebrate their festivities by the light of the moon, and dance to notes of the softest music.16 Tradition reports that they have often allured some of the human race into their subterraneous retreats, consisting of gorgeous apartments, and that they have been regaled with the most sumptuous banquets and delicious wines. Their females far exceed the daughters of men in beauty. If any mortal shall be tempted to partake of their repast, or join in their pleasures, he at once forfeits the society of his fellow-men, and is bound down irrevocably to the condition of a Shi’ich, or man of peace.
“A woman,” says a Highland tradition, “was conveyed, in days of yore, into the secret recesses of the men of peace. There she was recognised by one who had formerly been an ordinary mortal, but who had, by some fatality, become associated with the Shi’ichs. This acquaintance, still retaining some portion of human benevolence, warned her of her danger, and counselled her, as she valued her liberty, to abstain from eating or drinking with them for a certain space of time. She complied with the counsel of her friend; and when the period assigned was elapsed, she found herself again upon earth, restored to the society of mortals. It is added, that when she had examined the viands which had been presented to her, and which had appeared so tempting to the eye, they were found, now that the enchantment had been removed, to consist only of the refuse of the earth.”
Some mortals, however, who had been so unhappy as to fall into the snares of the Shi’ichs, are generally believed to have obtained a release from Fairyland, and to have been restored to the society of their friends. Ethert Brand, according to the legend, was released by the intrepidity of his sister, as related by Sir Walter Scott in the fourth Canto of the Lady of the Lake:-
“She crossed him thrice that lady bold:
He rose beneath her hand,
The fairest knight on Scottish mould,
Her brother, Ethert Brand!”
A recent tradition gives a similar story, except in its unfortunate catastrophe, and is thus related by Dr Patrick Grahame in his “Sketches of Perthshire.”
The Rev. Robert Kirk, the first translator of the Psalms into Gaelic verse, had formerly been minister at Balquidder; and died minister of Aberfoyle, in 1688, at the early age of 42. His gravestone, which may be seen near the east end of the church of Aberfoyle, bears the inscription which is given underneath.17 He was walking, it is said, one evening in his night-gown, upon the little eminence to the west of the present manse, which is still reckoned a Dun-shi’. He fell down dead, as was believed; but this was not his fate:-
“It was between the night and day,
When the fairy king has power,
That he sunk down (but not) in sinful fray,
And, ‘twixt life and death, was snatched away,
To the joyless Elfin bower.”
Mr Kirk was the near relation of Mr Graham of Duchray, the ancestor of the present General Graham Stirling. Shortly after his funeral, he appeared in the dress in which he had sunk down, to a mutual relation of his own and of Duchray. “Go,” said he to him, “to my cousin Duchray, and tell him that I am not dead; I fell down in a swoon, and was carried into Fairy-land, where I now am. Tell him, that when he and my friends are assembled at the baptism of my child – for he had left his wife pregnant – I will appear in the room, and that if he throws the knife which he holds in his hand over my head, I will be released, and restored to human society.” The man, it seems, neglected for some time, to deliver the message. Mr Kirk appeared to him a second time, threatening to haunt him night and day till he executed his commission, which at length he did. The day of the baptism arrived. They were seated at table. Mr Kirk entered, but the laird of Duchray, by some unaccountable fatality, neglected to perform the prescribed ceremony. Mr Kirk retired by another door, and was seen no more. It is firmly believed that he is, at this day, in Fairy-land.
Another legend in a similar strain is also given as communicated by a very intelligent young lady:-
“A young man roaming one day through the forest, observed a number of persons, all dressed in green, issuing from one of those round eminences which are commonly accounted fairy hills. Each of them, in succession, called upon a person by name, to fetch his horse. A caparisoned steed instantly appeared; they all mounted, and sallied forth into the regions of the air. The young man, like Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights, ventured to pronounce the same name, and called for his horse. The steed immediately appeared; he mounted, and was soon joined to the fairy choir. He remained with them for a year, going about with them to fairs and weddings, and feasting, though unseen by mortal eyes, on the victuals that were exhibited on those occasions. They had, one day, gone to a wedding, where the cheer was abundant. During the feast the bridegroom sneezed. The young man, according to the usual custom, said, ‘God bless you.’18 The fairies were offended at the pronunciation of the sacred name, and assured him, that if he dared to repeat it they would punish him. The bridegroom sneezed a second time. He repeated his blessing; they threatened more than tremendous vengeance. He sneezed a third time; he blessed him as before. The fairies were enraged; they tumbled him from a precipice, but he found himself unhurt, and was restored to the society of mortals.”
The Shi’ichs, or men of peace, are supposed to have a design against new-born children, and women in childbed, whom, it is still universally believed, they sometimes carry off into their secret recesses. To prevent this abduction, women in childbed are closely watched, and are not left alone, even for a single moment, till the child is baptized, when the Shi’ichs are supposed to have no more power over them.19
The following tradition will illustrate this branch of the popular superstition respecting the Shi’ichs: A woman whose new-born child had been conveyed by them into their secret abodes, was also carried thither herself, to remain, however, only until she should suckle her infant. She one day, during this period, observed the Shi’ichs busily employed in mixing various ingredients in a boiling cauldron; and as soon as the composition was prepared, she remarked that they all carefully anointed their eyes with it, laying the remainder aside for future use. In a moment when they were all absent, she also attempted to anoint her eyes with the precious drug, but had time to apply it to one eye only, when the Daoine Shi returned. But with that eye, she was henceforth enabled to see every thing as it really passed in their secret abodes; she saw every object, not as she had hitherto done, in deceptive splendour and elegance, but in its genuine colours and form. The gaudy ornaments of the apartment were reduced to the naked walls of a gloomy cavern. Soon after, having discharged her office, she was dismissed to her own home. Still, however, she retained the faculty of seeing with her medicated eye, every thing that was done, any where in her presence, by the deceptive art of the order. One day, amidst a throng of people, she chanced to observe the Shi’ich, or man of peace, in whose possession she had left her child, though to every other eye invisible. Prompted by maternal affection, she inadvertently accosted him, and began to inquire after the welfare of her child. The man of peace, astonished at thus being recognised by one of mortal race, sternly demanded how she had been enabled to discover him. Awed by the terrible frown of his countenance, she acknowledged what she had done. He spit into her eye, and extinguished it for ever.
The Shi’ichs, it is still believed, have a great propensity for attending funerals and weddings, and other public entertainments, and even fairs. They have an object in this; for it is believed that, though invisible to mortal eyes, they are busily employed in carrying away the substantial articles and provisions which are exhibited, in place of which they substitute shadowy forms, having the appearance of the things so purloined. And so strong was the belief in this mythology, even till a recent period, that some persons are old enough to remember, that some individuals would not eat any thing presented on the occasions alluded to, because they believed it to be unsubstantial and hurtful.
As the Shi’ichs are always supposed to be present on all occasions, though invisible, the Highlanders, whenever they allude to them, do so in terms of respect. This is, however, done as seldom as possible, as they endeavour to avoid conversing about them as much as possible; and when the Shi’ichs are casually mentioned, the Highlanders add some propitiatory expression of praise to avert their displeasure, which they greatly dread. This reserve and dread on the part of the Highlanders, is said to arise from the peevish envy and jealousy which the Shi’ichs are believed to entertain towards the human race. Although believed to be always present, watching the doings of mortals, the Shi’ichs are supposed to be more particular in their attendance on Friday, on which day they are believed to possess very extensive influence. They are believed to be especially jealous of what may be said concerning them; and if they are at all spoken of on that day, which is never done without great reluctance, the Highlanders uniformly style them the Daoine matha, or good men.
According to the traditionary legends of the Highlanders, the Shi’ichs are believed to be of both sexes; and it is the general opinion among the Highlanders that men have sometimes cohabited with females of the Shi’ich race, who are in consequence called Leannan Shi’. These mistresses are believed to be very kind to their mortal paramours, by revealing to them the knowledge of many things both present and future, which were concealed from the rest of mankind. The knowledge of the medicinal virtues of many herbs, it is related, has been obtained in this way from the Leannan Shi’. The Daoine Shi’ of the other sex are said, in their turn, to have sometimes held intercourse with mistresses of mortal race.
This popular superstition relating to the Daoine Shi’, is supposed, with good reason, to have taken its rise in the times of the Druids, or rather to have been invented by them after the overthrow of their hierarchy, for the purpose of preserving the existence of their order, after they had retreated for safety to caves and the deep recesses of the forest. This idea receives some corroboration from the Gaëlic term, Druidheachd, which the Highlanders apply to the deceptive power by which the men of peace are believed to impose upon the senses of mankind; “founded, probably, on the opinion entertained of old, concerning the magical powers of the Druids. Deeply versed, according to Cæsar’s information, as the Druids were, in the higher departments of philosophy, and probably acquainted with electricity, and various branches of chemistry, they might find it easy to excite the belief of their supernatural powers, in the minds of the uninitiated vulgar.”20 The influence of this powerful order upon the popular belief was felt long after the supposed era of its extinction; for it was not until Christianity was introduced into the Highlands, that the total suppression of the Druids took place. Adomnan mentions in his life of St Columba, the mocidruidi, (or sons of Druids,) as existing in Scotland in the time of Columba; and he informs us, “that the saint was interrupted at the castle of the king (of the Picts), in the discharge of his religious offices, by certain magi;” a term, by the bye, applied by Pliny to the order of the Druids. The following passage from an ancient Gaelic MS.21 in the possession of the Highland Society of Scotland, supposed to be of the 12th or 13th century, is conjectured to refer to the incident noticed by Adomnan. “After this, St Columba went upon a time to the king of the Picts, namely, Bruidhi, son of Milchu, and the gate of the castle was shut against him; but the iron locks of the town opened instantly, through the prayers of Columb Cille. Then came the son of the king, to wit, Maelchu, and his Druid, to argue keenly against Columb Cille, in support of paganism.”
Martin relates, that the natives of South-Uist believed that a valley called Glenslyte, situated between two mountains on the east side of the island, was haunted by spirits, whom they called the Great Men, and that if any man or woman entered the valley without first making an entire resignation of themselves to the conduct of the great men, they would infallibly grow mad. The words by which they gave themselves up to the guidance of these men are comprehended in three sentences, where in the glen is twice named. This author remonstrated with the inhabitants upon this “piece of silly credulity,” but they answered that there had been a late instance of a woman who went into the glen without resigning herself to the guidance of the great men, “and immediately after she became mad; which confirmed them in their unreason able fancy.” He also observes, that the people who resided in the glen in summer, said, they sometimes heard a loud noise in the air like men speaking.22
The same writer mentions a universal custom among the inhabitants of the western islands, of pouring a cow’s milk upon a little hill, or big stone, where a spirit they called Brownie, was believed to lodge, which spirit always appeared in the shape of a tall man, with very long brown hair. On inquiring “from several well-meaning women, who, until of late, had practised it,” they told Martin that it had been transmitted to them by their ancestors, who believed it was attended with good fortune, but the most credulous of the vulgar had then laid it aside.
It was also customary among the “over-curious,” in the western islands, to consult an invisible oracle, concerning the fate of families, battles, &c. This was done three different ways; the first was by a company of men, one of whom being chosen by lot, was afterwards carried to a river, the boundary between two villages: four of the company seized on him, and having shut his eyes, they took him by the legs and arms, and then tossing him to and fro, struck his posteriors with force against the bank. One of them then cried out, What is it you have got here? Another answered, A log of birch wood. The other cried again, Let his invisible friends appear from all quarters, and let them relieve him, by giving an answer to our present demands; and in a few minutes after, a number of little creatures came from the sea, who answered the question, and disappeared suddenly. The man was then set at liberty, and they all returned home to take their measures according to the prediction of their false prophets. This was always practised at night.
The second way of consulting the oracle was by a party of men, who first retired to solitary places, remote from any house, and then singling out one of their number, wrapt him in a large cow’s hide, which they folded about him, covering all but his head, in which posture they left him all night until his invisible friends relieved him by giving a proper answer to the question put; which answer he received, as he fancied, from several persons he found about him all that time. His companions returned to him at break of day when he communicated his news to them, which it is said “often proved fatal to those concerned in such unlawful inquiries.”23
The third way of consulting the oracle, and which consultation was to serve as a confirmation of the second, was this: The same company who put the man into the hide, took a live cat and put him on a spit. One of the company was employed to turn the spit, and when in the act of turning, one of his companions would ask him, what are you doing? He answered, I roast this cat, until his friends answer the question, the same as that proposed to the man inclosed in the hide. Afterwards a very large cat was said to come, attended by a number of lesser cats, desiring to relieve the cat turned upon the spit, and answered the question. And if the answer turned out to be the same that was given to the man in the hide, then it was taken as a confirmation of the other, which in this case was believed infallible.24
A singular practice called Deis-iuil existed in the Western Islands, so called from a man going round carrying fire in his right hand, which in the Gaelic is called Deas. In the island of Lewis this fiery circuit was made about the houses, corn, cattle, &c. of each particular family, to protect them from the power of evil spirits. The fire was also carried round about women before they were churched after child-bearing, and about children till they were baptized. This ceremony was performed in the morning and at night, and was practised by some of the old midwives in Martin’s time. Some of them told him that ‘the fire-round was an effectual means of preserving both the mother and the infant from the power of evil spirits, who are ready at such times to do mischief, and sometimes carry away the infant; and when they get them once in their possession, return them poor meagre skeletons; and these infants are said to have voracious appetites, constantly craving for meat. In this case it was usual with those who believed that their children were thus taken away, to dig a grave in the fields upon quarter-day, and there to lay the fairy skeleton till next morning; at which time the parents went to the place, where they doubted not to find their own child instead of this skeleton. Some of the poorer sort of people in these islands long retained a custom of performing rounds sun-wise, about the persons of their benefactors three times, when they blessed them, and wished good success to all their enterprises. Some were very careful, when they set out to sea, that the boat should be first rowed about sun-wise; and if this was neglected, they were afraid their voyage would prove unfortunate.’ These and many other customs which were peculiar to the inhabitants of the Western Islands, are, we think, of Scandinavian origin, and were probably introduced by the Danish Vikingr. The practice of turning the boat sun-wise is still observed by the fishermen of the Shetland islands, where none of the Celtic usages were ever introduced.
A prevailing superstition also existed in the Western Islands, and among the inhabitants of the neighbouring coast, that women, by a certain charm or by some secret influence, could withdraw and appropriate to their own use the increase of their neighbour’s cow’s milk. It was believed, however, that the milk so charmed did not produce the ordinary quantity of butter usually churned from other milk, and that the curds made of such milk were so tough that they could not be made so firm as other cheese, and that it was also much lighter in weight. It was also believed that the butter produced from the charmed milk could be discovered from that yielded from the charmer’s own milk, by a difference in the colour, the former being of a paler hue than the latter. The woman in whose possession butter so distinguished was found, was considered to be guilty. To bring back the increase of milk, it was usual to take a little of the rennet from all the suspected persons, and put it into an egg shell full of milk, and when the rennet taken from the charmer was mingled with it, it was said presently to curdle, but not before. Some women put the root of groundsel among their cream as an amulet against such charms.
In retaliation for washing dishes, wherein milk was kept, in streams or rivulets in which trouts were, it was believed that they prevented or took away an increase of milk, and the damage thus occasioned could only be repaired by taking a live trout and pouring milk into its mouth. If the milk curdled immediately, this was a sure sign of its being taken away by trouts; if not, the inhabitants ascribed the evil to some other cause. Some women, it was affirmed, had the art to take away the milk of nurses.
A similar superstition existed as to malt, the virtues of which were said to be sometimes imperceptibly filched, by some charm, before being used, so that the drink made of this malt had neither strength nor good taste, while, on the contrary, the supposed charmer had very good ale all the time. The following curious story is told by Martin in relation to this subject. “A gentleman of my acquaintance, for the space of a year, could not have a drop of good ale in his house; and having complained of it to all that conversed with him, he was at last advised to get some yeast from every alehouse in the parish; and having got a little from one particular man, he put it among his wort, which became as good ale as could be drank, and so defeated the charm. After which, the gentleman on whose land this man lived, banished him thirty-six miles from thence.”25
A singular mode of divination was sometimes practised by the Highlanders with bones. Having picked the flesh clean off a shoulder-blade of mutton, which was supposed to lose its virtue if touched by iron, they turned towards the east, and with looks steadily fixed on the transparent bone they pretended to foretell deaths, burials, &c.
The phases or changes of the moon were closely observed, and it was only at particular periods of her revolution that they would cut turf or fuel, fell wood, or cut thatch for houses, or go upon any important expedition. They expected better crops of grain by sowing their seed in the moon’s increase. “The moon,” as Dr Johnson observes, “has great influence in vulgar philosophy,” and in his memory it was a precept annually given in one of the English almanacs, “To kill hogs when the moon was increasing, and the bacon would prove the better in boiling.”
The aid of superstition was sometimes resorted to for curing diseases. For hectic and consumptive complaints, the Highlanders used to pare the nails of the fingers and toes of the patient, – put these parings into a bag made from a piece of his clothes, – and after waving their hand with the bag thrice round his head, and crying, Deis-iuil, they buried it in some unknown place. Pliny, in his natural history, states this practice to have existed among the Magi or Druids of his time.
To remove any contagious disease from cattle, they used to extinguish the fires in the surrounding villages, after which they forced fire with a wheel, or by rubbing one piece of dry wood upon another, with which they burned juniper in the stalls of the cattle that the smoke might purify the air about them. When this was performed, the fires in the houses were rekindled from the forced fire. Shaw relates in his history of Moray, that he personally witnessed both the last mentioned practices.
Akin to some of the superstitions we have noticed, but differing from them in many essential respects, is the belief – for superstition it cannot well be called – in the Second Sight, by which, as Dr Johnson observes, “seems to be meant a mode of seeing, superadded to that which nature generally bestows,”26 and consists of “an impression made either by the mind upon the eye, or by the eye upon the mind, by which things distant or future are perceived, and seen as if they were present.”27 This “deceptive faculty” is called Taibhse in the Gaëlic, which signifies a spectre, or a vision, and is neither voluntary nor constant, but consists “in seeing an otherwise invisible object, without any previous means used by the person that sees it for that end; the vision makes such a lively impression upon the seers, that they neither see nor think of any thing else, except the vision, as long as it continues: and then they appear pensive or jovial, according to the object which was represented to them.”28
It has been observed by lookers-on, that those persons who saw, or were supposed to see, a vision, always kept their eye-lids erect, and that they continued to stare until the object vanished. Martin affirms that he and other persons that were with them, observed this more than once and he mentions an instance of a man in Skye, the inner part of whose eye-lids was turned so far upwards during a vision, that after the object disappeared he found it necessary to draw them down with his fingers, and would sometimes employ others to draw them down, which he indeed, Martin says, “found from experience to be the easier way.”
The visions are said to have taken place either in the morning, at noon, in the evening, or at night. If an object was seen early in the morning, its accomplishment would take place in a few hours thereafter. If at noon, that very day. If in the evening, perhaps that night; if after the candles were lighted, the accomplishment would take place by weeks, months, and sometimes years, according to the time of night the vision was seen.
As the appearances which are said to have been observed in visions and their prognostics are not generally known, and may prove curious to the general reader, a few of them shall be here stated, as noted by Martin.
When a shroud was perceived about one, it was a sure prognostic of death. The time was judged according to the height of it about the person. If not seen above the middle, death was not to be expected for the space of a year, and perhaps some months longer; and as it was frequently seen to ascend higher towards the head, death was concluded to be at hand within a few days, if not hours.
If a woman was seen standing at a man’s left hand, it was a presage that she would be his wife, whether they were married to others, or unmarried at the time of the apparition.
If two or three women were seen at once standing near a man’s left hand, she that was next to him would undoubtedly be his wife first, and so on, whether all three, or the man, were single or married at the time of the vision or not.
It was usual for the Seers to see any man that was shortly to arrive at the house. If unknown to the Seer he would give such a description of the person he saw as to make him to be at once recognised upon his arrival. On the other hand, if the Seer knew the person he saw in the vision, he would tell his name, and know by the expression of his countenance whether he came in a good or bad humour.
The Seers often saw houses, gardens, and trees, in places where there were none, but in the course of time these places became covered with them.
To see a spark of fire fall upon one’s arm or breast, was a forerunner of a dead child to be seen in the arms of those persons. To see a seat empty when one was sitting on it, was a presage of that person’s immediate death.
There are now few persons, if any, who pretend to this faculty, and the belief in it is almost generally exploded. Yet it cannot be denied that apparent proofs of its existence have been adduced which have staggered minds not prone to superstition. When the connexion between cause and effect can be recognised, things which would otherwise have appeared wonderful and almost incredible, are viewed as ordinary occurrences. The impossibility of accounting for such an extraordinary phenomenon as the alleged faculty, on philosophical principles, or from the laws of nature, must ever leave the matter suspended between rational doubt and confirmed scepticism. “Strong reasons for incredulity,” says Dr Johnson, “will readily occur. This faculty of seeing things out of sight is local, and commonly useless. It is a breach of the common order of things, without any visible reason or perceptible benefit. It is ascribed only to a people very little enlightened; and among them, for the most part, to the mean and ignorant. To the confidence of these objections it may be replied, that by presuming to determine what is fit, and what is beneficial, they presuppose more knowledge of the universal system than man has attained; and therefore depend upon principles too complicated and extensive for our comprehension; and that there can be no security in the consequence, when the premises are not understood: that the Second Sight is only wonderful because it is rare, for, considered in itself, it involves no more difficulty than dreams, or perhaps than the regular exercises of the cogitative faculty; that a general opinion of communicative impulses, or visionary representations, has prevailed in all ages and all nations; that particular instances have been given, with such evidence as neither Bacon, nor Bayle, has been able to resist; that sudden impressions, which the event has verified, have been felt by more than own or publish them; that the Second Sight of the Hebrides implies only the local frequency of a power which is no where totally unknown; and that where we are unable to decide by antecedent reason, we must be content to yield to the force of testimony.”29
Among the various modes of social intercourse which gladdened the minds and dissipated the worldly cares of the Highlanders, weddings bore a distinguished part, and they were longed for with a peculiar earnestness. Young and old, from the boy and girl of the age of ten to the hoary headed sire and aged matron, attended them. The marriage invitations were given by the bride and bridegroom, in person, for some weeks previous, and included the respective friends of the betrothed parties living at the distance of many miles.
When the bride and bridegroom had completed their rounds, the custom was for the matrons of the invited families to return the visit within a few days, carrying along with them large presents of hams, beef, cheese, butter, malt, spirits, and such other articles as they inclined or thought necessary for the approaching feast. To such an extent was this practice carried in some instances in the quantity presented, that, along with what the guests paid (as they commonly did) for their entertainment at the marriage, and the gifts presented on the day after the marriage, the young couple obtained a pretty fair competence, which warded off the shafts of poverty, and even made them comfortable in after-life.
The joyous wedding-morning was ushered in by the notes of the bagpipe. A party of pipers, followed by the bridegroom and a party of his friends, commenced at an early hour a round of morning calls to remind the guests of their engagements. These hastened to join the party, and before the circuit, which sometimes occupied several hours, had ended, some hundreds, perhaps, had joined the wedding standard before they reached the bridegroom’s house. The bride made a similar round among her friends. Separate dinners were provided; the bride groom giving a dinner to his friends, and the bride to hers. The marriage ceremony was seldom performed till after dinner, The clergyman, sometimes, attended, but the parties preferred waiting on him, as the appearance of a large procession to his house gave additional importance and eclat to the ceremony of the day, which was further heightened by a constant firing by the young men, who supplied themselves with guns and pistols, and which firing was responded to by every hamlet as the party passed along; “so that, with streamers flying, pipers playing, the constant firing from all sides, and the shouts of the young men, the whole had the appearance of a military army passing, with all the noise of warfare, through a hostile country.”
On the wedding-day, the bride and bridegroom avoided each other till they met before the clergyman. Many ceremonies were performed during the celebration of the marriage rites. These ceremonies were of an amusing and innocent description, and added much to the cheerfulness and happiness of the young people. One of these ceremonies consisted in untying all the bindings and strings about the person of the bridegroom, to denote, that nothing was to be bound on the marriage day but the one indissoluble knot which death only can dissolve. The bride was exempted from this operation from a delicacy of feeling towards her sex, and from a supposition that she was so pure that infidelity on her part could not be contemplated.
To discontinue practices in themselves innocent, and which contribute to the social happiness of mankind, must ever be regretted, and it is not therefore to be wondered at, that a generous and open-hearted Highlander, like General Stewart, should have expressed his regret at the partial disuse of these ceremonies, or that he should have preferred a Highland wedding, where he had himself “been so happy, and seen so many blithe countenances, and eyes sparkling with delight, to such weddings as that of the Laird of Drum, ancestor of the Lord Sommerville, when he married a daughter of Sir James Bannatyne of Corehouse.”30
The festivities of the wedding-day were generally prolonged to a late hour, and during the whole day the fiddlers and pipers never ceased except at short intervals, to make sweet music. The fiddlers performed in the house, the pipers in the field;31 so that the company alternately enjoyed the pleasure of dancing within and without the house, as inclined, provided the weather permitted.
No people were more attached to the fulfilment of all the domestic duties, and the sacred obligation of the marriage vow, than the Highlanders. A violation thereof was of course of unfrequent occurrence, and among the common people a separation was almost unknown. Rarely, indeed, did a husband attempt to get rid of his wife, however disagreeable she might be. He would have considered his children dishonoured, if he had driven their mother from the protection of his roof. The punishment inflicted by the ecclesiastical authority for an infringement of the marriage vow was, that “the guilty person, whether male or female, was made to stand in a barrel of cold water at the church door, after which, the delinquent, clad in a wet canvass shirt, was made to stand before the congregation, and at close of service the minister explained the nature of the offence.”32 Illicit intercourse before marriage between the sexes was also of rare occurrence, and met with condign punishment in the public infamy which attended such breaches against chastity.
This was the more remarkable, as early marriages were discouraged and the younger sons were not allowed to marry until they obtained sufficient means to keep a house and to rent a small farm, or were other wise enabled to support a family.
The attachment of the Highlanders to their offspring and the veneration and filial piety which a reciprocal feeling produced on the part of their children, were leading-characteristics in the Highland character, and much as these mountaineers have degenerated in some of the other virtues, these affections still remain almost unimpaired. Children seldom desert their parents in their old age, and when forced to earn a subsistence from home, they always consider themselves bound to share with their parents whatever they can save from their wages. But the parents are never left alone, as one of the family, by turns, remains at home for the purpose of taking care of them in terms of an arrangement. “The sense of duty is not extinguished by absence from the mountains. It accompanies the Highland soldier amid the dissipations of a mode of life, to which he has not been accustomed. It prompts him to save a portion of his pay, to enable him to assist his parents, and also to work when he has an opportunity, that he may increase their allowance, at once preserving himself from idle habits, and contributing to the comfort and happiness of those who gave him birth. I have been a frequent witness of these offerings of filial bounty, and the channel through which they were communicated, and I have generally found that a threat of informing their parents of misconduct, has operated as a sufficient check on young soldiers, who always received the intimation with a sort of horror. They knew that the report would not only grieve their relations, but act as a sentence of banishment against themselves, as they could not return home with a bad or blemished character. Generals McKenzie, Fraser, and McKenzie of Suddie, who successively commanded the 78th Highlanders, seldom had occasion to resort to any other punishment than threats of this kind, for several years after the embodying of that regiment.”33
Nor were the Highlanders less alive to the principles of honesty and fair dealing, in their transactions with one another. Disgrace was the usual consequence of insolvency, which was considered ex facie criminal. Bankrupts were not only compelled to wear a dyvours habit, but to undergo a singular punishment. They “were forced to surrender their all, and were clad in a party-coloured clouted garment, with the hose of different sets, and had their hips dashed against a stone. in presence of the people, by four men, each taking hold of an arm or a leg. This punishment was called Toncruaidh.”34
Such was the confidence in their honour and integrity, that in the ordinary transactions of the people, a mere verbal obligation without the intervention of any writing, was held quite sufficient, although contracted in the most private manner,35 and there were few instances where the obligation was either unfulfilled or denied. Their mode of concluding or confirming their money agreements or other transactions, was by the contracting parties going out into the open air, and with eyes erect, taking Heaven to witness their engagements, after which, each party put a mark on some remarkable stone or other natural object, which their ancestors had been accustomed to notice.
Accustomed, as the Highlanders were, to interminable feuds arising out of the pretensions of rival clans, the native courage which they had inherited from their Celtic progenitors was preserved unimpaired. Instances of cowardice were, therefore, of rare occurrence, and whoever exhibited symptoms of fear before a foe, was considered infamous and put to the ban of his party. The following anecdote, as related by Mrs Grant, shows, strongly, the detestation which the Highlanders entertain towards those who had disgraced themselves and their clan by an act of poltronery: “There was a clan, I must not say what clan it is, who had been for ages governed by a series of chiefs, singularly estimable, and highly beloved, and who, in one instance, provoked their leader to the extreme of indignation. I should observe, that the transgression was partial, the culprits being the inhabitants of one single parish. These, in a hasty skirmish with a neighbouring clan, thinking discretion the best part of valour, sought safety in retreat. A cruel chief would have inflicted the worst of punishments – banishment from the bounds of his clan, – which, indeed, fell little short of the curse of Kehama. This good laird, however, set bounds to his wrath, yet made their punishment severe and exemplary. He appeared himself with all the population of the three adjacent parishes, at the parish church of the offenders, where they were all by order convened. After divine service, they were marched three times round the church, in presence of their offended leader and his assembled clan. Each individual, on coming out of the church door, was obliged to draw out his tongue with his fingers, and then cry audibly, ‘Shud bleider heich,’ (i.e.) ‘This is the poltroon,’ and to repeat it at every corner of the church. After this procession of ignominy, no other punishment was inflicted, except that of being left to guard the district when the rest were called out to battle. . . It is credibly asserted, that no enemy has seen the back of any of that name (Grant) ever since. And it is certain, that, to this day, it is not safe for any person of another name to mention the circumstance in presence of one of the affronted clan.”36
The Highlanders, like the inhabitants of other romantic and mountainous regions, always retain an enthusiastic attachment to their country, which neither distance of place nor length of time can efface. This strong feeling has, we think, been attributed erroneously to the powerful and lasting effect which the external objects of nature, seen in their wildest and most fantastic forms and features, are calculated to impress upon the imagination.
No doubt the remembrance of these objects might contribute to endear the scenes of youth to the patriotic Highlander when far removed from his native glens; but it was the recollection of home, – sweet home! – of the domestic circle, and of the many pleasing associations which arise from the contemplation of the days of other years, when mirth and innocence held mutual dalliance, that chiefly impelled him to sigh for the land of his fathers. Mankind have naturally an affection for the country of their birth, and this affection is felt more or less according to the degree of social or commercial intercourse which exists among nations. Confined, like the Swiss, for many ages within their natural boundaries, and having little or no intercourse with the rest of the world, the Highlanders formed those strong local attachments for which they were long remarkably distinguished; but which are now being gradually obliterated by the mighty changes rapidly taking place in the state of society.
Firmly attached as they were to their country, the Highlanders had also a singular predilection for the place of their birth. An amusing instance of this local attachment is mentioned by General Stewart. A tenant of his father’s, at the foot of the mountain Shichallain, having removed and followed his son to a farm which the latter had taken at some distance lower down the country, the old man was missing for a considerable time one morning, and on being asked on his return where he had been, replied, “As I was sitting by the side of the river, a thought came across me, that, perhaps, some of the waters from Shichallain, and the sweet fountains that watered the farm of my forefathers, might now be passing by me, and that if I bathed they might touch my skin. I immediately stripped, and, from the pleasure I felt in being surrounded by the pure waters of Leidna-breilag (the name of the farm) I could not tear myself away sooner.” But this fondness of the Highlander was not confined to the desire of living upon the beloved spot – it extended even to the grave. The idea of dying at a distance from home and among strangers could not be endured, and the aged Highlander, when absent from his native place, felt discomposed lest death should overtake him before his return. 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; 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.37 This trait was exemplified in the case of a woman aged ninety-one, who a few years ago went to Perth from her house in Strathbrane in perfect health, and in the possession of all her faculties. 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, and God forbid that my bones should be at such a distance from home, and be buried among Gall-na-machair, The strangers of the plain.”38
Among the causes which contributed to sustain the warlike character of the Highlanders, the exertions of the bards in stimulating them to deeds of valour in the field of battle, must not be overlooked. We have already noticed some of the duties of their office (Chapter II.) which need not be here repeated; but we omitted to mention that one of the most important of these consisted in attending the clans to the field, and exhorting them before battle to emulate the glories of their ancestors, and to die if necessary in defence of their country. The appeals of the bards, which were delivered and enforced with great vehemence and earnestness, never failed to arouse the feelings; and when amid the din of battle the voices of the bards could no longer be heard, the pipers succeeded them, and cheered on their respective parties with their war like and inspiring strains. After the termination of the battle, the bard celebrated the praises of the brave warriors who had fallen in battle, and related the heroic actions of the survivors to excite them to similar exertions on future occasions. To impress still more deeply upon the minds of the survivors the honour and heroism of their fallen friends, the piper was employed to perform plaintive dirges for the slain.
From the associations raised in the mind by the great respect thus paid to the dead, and the honours which awaited the survivors who distinguished themselves in the field of battle, by their actions being celebrated by the bards, and transmitted to posterity, originated that magnanimous contempt of death for which the Highlanders are noted. While among some people the idea of death is avoided with studious alarm, the Highlander will speak of it with an easy and unconcerned familiarity, as an event of ordinary occurrence, but in a way equally remote from dastardly affectation, or fool-hardy presumption, and proportioned solely to the inevitable certainty of the event itself.”39
To be interred decently, and in a becoming manner, is a material consideration in the mind of a Highlander, and care is generally taken, even by the poorest, long before the approach of death, to provide sufficient articles to insure a respectable interment. To wish one another an honourable death, crioch onarach, is considered friendly by the Highlanders, and even children will sometimes express the same sentiment towards their parents. “A man well known to the writer of these pages 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. 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 of 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.”40
In no country was “the savage virtue of hospitality” carried to a greater extent than in the Highlands, and never did stranger receive a heartier welcome than was given to the guest who entered a Highland mansion or cottage. This hospitality was sometimes carried rather too far, particularly in the island of Barra, where, according to Martin, the custom was, that, when strangers from the northern islands went there, “the natives, immediately after their landing, obliged them to eat, even though they should have liberally eat and drank but an hour before their landing there.” This meat they called Bieyta’v, i.e. Ocean meat. Sir Robert Gordon informs us that it was a custom among the western islanders, that when one was invited to another’s house, they never separated till the whole provision was finished; and that, when it was done, they went to the next house, and so on from one house to an other until they made a complete round, from neighbour to neighbour always carrying the head of the family in which they had been last entertained to the next house along with them.41
1 Sketches, I. 20.
2 Stewart’s Sketches, I. 7, 8.
3 Martin’s Western Islands, 2d edit. p. 194, 195.
4 Logan I. 404, 405.
5 Introduction to History of Scotland, II. 73.
6 Ibid. I. 394.
7 Chronicles of Scotland, lxxiv.
8 Certayne Mattere concerning Scotland, London, printed 1603.
9 Stewart’s Sketches, I. 74.
10 Martin’s Western Islands, 2d Edit. p. 80.
11 Stewart’s Sketches, vol. I. p. 76.
12 Graham’s Sketches of Perthshire.
“It was a wild and strange retreat,
As e’er was trod by outlaw’s feet.
The dell, upon the mountain’s crest,
Yawned like a gash on warrior’s breast;
Its trench had staid full many a rock,
Hurl’d by primeval earthquake shock
From Ben-Venue’s grey summit wild,
And here, in random ruin piled,
They frowned incumbent o’er the spot,
And formed the rugged sylvan grot.
The oak and birch, with mingled shade,
At noontide there a twilight made,
Unless where short and sudden shone
From straggling beam on cliff or stone,
With such a glimpse as prophet’s eye
Gains on thy depth, Futurity.
No murmur wak’d the solemn still,
Save tinkling of a fountain rill;
But when the wind chafed with the lake,
A sullen sound would upward break,
With dashing hollow voice, that spoke
The incessant war of wave and rock.
Suspended cliffs, with hideous sway,
Seem’d nodding o’er the cavern grey.
From such a den the wolf had sprung,
In such a wild cat leaves her young;
Yet Douglas and his daughter fair
Sought for a space their safety there.
Grey Superstition’s whisper dread,
Debarred the spot to vulgar tread;
For there, she said, did fays resort,
And satyrs hold their sylvan court,
By moon-light tread their mystic maze,
And blast the rash beholder’s gaze.”
Lady of the Lake, c. iii. s. 26.
15 Graham’s Sketches.
16 The belief in Fairies is a popular superstition among the Shetlanders. The margin of a small lake called the Sandy Loch, about two miles from Lerwick, is celebrated for having been their favourite resort. It is said that they often walk in procession along the sides of the loch in different costumes. Some of the natives used frequently, when passing by a knoll, to stop and listen to the music of the fairies, and when the music ceased, they would hear the rattling of the pewter plates which were to be used at supper. The fairies sometimes visit the Shetland barns, from which they are usually ejected by means of a flail, which the proprietor wields with great agility, thumping and threshing in every direction.
17 ROBERTUS KIRK, A. M. LINGUÆ HIBERNII(C)Æ LUMEN, OBIIT, &c.
18 Dr Graham has some curious, observations on this practice. It is mentioned by Apuleius in his Metamorphosis of the Golden Ass; and in the Greek Anthologia, this custom is recorded in a verse, which speaks of the withholding of this blessing by an evil-minded person:-
– Ουδε λεγει, ξεν σωσον εαν πταςη.
Lib. II. § εις δυσειδεις.
“Nor does he say, Jupiter save him, if he should sneeze.”
In the seventeenth book of Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope, led by the account given by Eumæus of a stranger that had just arrived, to entertain some hopes of the return of Ulysses, expresses her expectations, when her son Telemachus sneezes aloud. Auguring favourably from this omen, Penelope smiles, and gives orders to conduct the stranger to the palace.
“She spoke. Telemachus then sneez’d aloud;
Constrained, his nostril echo’d through the crowd,
The smiling queen the happy omen blest.”
From the existence of the practice of blessing among the Siamese, it has been inferred, with some degree of probability, that it is of oriental origin, and was brought into Europe along with the druidical superstition. Father Tachard, in his Voyage de Siam, abridged by Le Clerc in his Bibliotheque Universelle de l’Annee, 1687, thus relates the belief of the Siamese as to this practice. “The Siamese believe that, in the other world, there is an angel, whose name is Prayompaban, who has a book before him, in which the life of every individual upon earth is written; he is incessantly employed in reading this book; and when he arrives at the page which contains the history of any particular person, that person infallibly sneezes. This, say the Siamese is the reason why we sneeze upon earth; and that we are in use to wish a long and happy life to those who sneeze.”
19 The Fairies of Shetland appear to be bolder than the Shi’ichs of the Highlands, for they are believed to carry off young children even after baptism, taking care, however, to substitute a cabbage stock, or something else in lieu, which is made to assume the appearance of the abstracted child. The unhappy mother must take as much care of this phantom as she did of her child, and on no account destroy it, otherwise, it is believed, the fairies will not restore her child to her. “This is not my bairn,” said a mother to a neighbour who was condoling with her on the wasted appearance of her infant, then sitting on her knee, – “this is not my bairn – may the d–l rest where my bairn now is!”
20 Graham’s Sketches.
21 MS. No. IV. noticed in the Appendix to the Report on the Poems of Ossian, p. 310 .
22 Western Islands, 2d Ed. p. 86.
23 Martin, 2d ed. p. 112.
25 Western Islands, p. 122.
26 Journey, p. 166.
28 Martin, p. 300.
29 Journey to the Western Islands, p. 167, 168.
30 “On that occasion, sanctified by the puritanical cant of the times, there was one marquis, three earls, two lords, sixteen barons, and eight ministers present at the solemnity, but not one musician; they liked yet better the bleating of the calves of Dan and Bethel – the ministers’ long-winded, and sometimes nonsensical graces, little to purpose, than all musical instruments of the sanctuaries, at so solemn an occasion, which, if it be lawful at all to have them, certainly it ought to be upon a wedding-day, for divertisement to the guests, that innocent recreation of music and dancing being much more warrantable and far better exercise than drinking and smoking tobacco, wherein the holy brethren of the Presbyterian (persuasion) for the most part employed themselves, without any formal health, or remembrance of their friends, a nod with the head, or a sign with the turning up of the white of the eye, served for the ceremony.” Stewart’s Sketches – Memoirs of the Sommerville Family.
31 “Playing the bagpipes within doors,” says General Stewart, “is a Lowland and English custom. In the Highlands the piper is always in the open air; and when people wish to dance to his music, it is on the green, if the weather permits; nothing but necessity makes them attempt a pipe-dance in the house. The bagpipe was a field instrument intended to call the clans to arms, and animate them in battle, and was no more intended for a house than a round of six pounders. A broadside from a first-rate, or a round from a battery, has a sublime and impressive effect at a proper distance. In the same manner, the sound of bagpipes, softened by distance, had an indescribable effect on the mind and actions of the Highlanders. But as few would choose to be under the muzzle of the guns of a battery, so I have seldom seen a Highlander, whose ears were not grated when close to pipes, however much his breast might be warmed, and his feelings roused, by the sounds to which he had been accustomed in his youth, when proceeding from the proper distance.” – Sketches, App. xxiii.
32 Dr McQueen’s Dissertation.
33 Stewart’s Sketches, I. 86.
34 Stewart’s Sketches.
35 Two remarkable instances of the regard paid by the Highlanders to their engagements, are given by General Stewart. “A gentleman of the name of Stewart, agreed to lend a considerable sum of money to a neighbour. When they had met, and the money was already counted down upon the table, the borrower offered a receipt. As soon as the lender (grandfather of the late Mr Stewart of Ballachulish) heard this, he immediately collected the money, saying, that a man who could not trust his own word, without a bond, should not be trusted by him, and should have none of his money, which he put up in his purse and returned home.” An inhabitant of the same district kept a retail shop for nearly fifty years, and supplied the whole district, then full of people, with all their little merchandise. He neither gave nor asked any receipts. At Martinmas of each year he collected the amount of his sales which were always paid to a day. In one of his annual rounds, a customer happened to be from home; consequently, he returned unpaid, but before he was out of bed the following morning, he was awakened by a call from his customer, who came to pay his account. After the business was settled, his neighbour said, “You are now paid; I would not for my best cow that I should sleep while you wanted your money after your term of payment, and that I should be the last in the country in your debt.” Such examples of stern honesty, are now, alas! of rare occurrence. Many of the virtues which adorned the Highland character have disappeared in the vortex of modern improvement, by which the country has been completely revolutionized.
36 On the Superstitions of the Highlanders.
37 Stewart’s Sketches, i. 79, 80.
39 Stewart’s Sketches.
40 Mrs Grant’s Superstitions of the Highlanders.
41 Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, p. 189.