Chapter VI., pp.127-143.

[History of the Highlands Contents]

THE removal of the court by Malcolm Ceanmore to the Lowlands was an event which was followed by results very disastrous to the future prosperity of the Highlands. The inhabitants soon sunk into a state of poverty, and, as by the transference of the seat of government the administration of the laws became either inoperative or was feebly enforced, the people gave themselves up to violence and turbulence, and revenged in person those injuries which the laws could no longer redress. Released from the salutary control of monarchical government, the Highlanders soon saw the necessity of substituting some other system in its place, to protect themselves against the aggressions to which they were exposed. From this state of things originated the institution of Chiefs, who were selected by the different little communities into which the population of the Highlands was naturally divided, on account of their superior property, courage, or talent. The powers of the chiefs were very great. They acted, as judges or arbiters, in the quarrels of their clansmen and followers, and as they were backed by resolute supporters of their rights, their property, and their power, they established within their own territories a jurisdiction almost independent of the kingly authority. 

From this division of the people into clans and tribes under separate chiefs, arose many of those institutions, feelings, and usages which characterized the Highlanders. “The nature of the country, and the motives which induced the Celts to make it their refuge, almost necessarily prescribed the form of their institutions. Unequal to contend with the overwhelming numbers, who drove them from the plains, and, anxious to preserve their independence, and their blood uncontaminated by a mixture with strangers, they defended themselves in those strongholds which are, in every country, the sanctuaries of national liberty, and the refuge of those who resist the oppressions and the dominion of a more powerful neighbour. Thus, in the absence of their monarchs, and defended by their barrier of rocks, they did not always submit to the authority of a distant government, which could neither enforce obedience, nor afford protection. The division of the country into so many straths, valleys, and islands, separated from one another by mountains, or arms of the sea, gave rise, as a matter of necessity, to various little societies; and individuals of superior property, courage, or talent, under whose banners they had fought, or under whose protection they had settled, naturally became their chiefs. Their secluded situation rendered general intercourse difficult, while the impregnable ramparts with which they were surrounded made defence easy.”1 

The various little societies into which the Highland population was, by the nature of the country, divided, having no desire to change their residence or to keep up a communication with one another, and having all their wants, which were few, supplied within themselves, became individually isolated. Every district became an independent state, and thus the Highland population, though possessing a community of customs and the same characteristics, was divided or broken into separate masses, and placed under different jurisdictions. A patriarchal2 system of government, “a sort of hereditary monarchy founded on custom, and allowed by general consent, rather than regulated by laws,” was thus established over each community or clan in the persons of the chiefs, which continued in full vigour till about the year seventeen hundred and forty-eight. 

As a consequence of the separation which was preserved by the different clans, matrimonial alliances were rarely made with strangers, and hence the members of the clan were generally related to one another by the ties of consanguinity or affinity. While this double connexion tended to preserve harmony and good will among the members of the same clan, it also tended, on the other hand, to excite a bitter spirit of animosity between rival clans, whenever an affront or injury was offered by one clan to another or by individuals of different clans. 

Although the chief had great power with his clan in the different relations of landlord, leader, and judge, his authority was far from absolute, as he was obliged to consult the leading men of the clan in matters of importance in things regarding the clan or particular families, in removing differences, punishing or redressing injuries, preventing law suits, supporting declining families, and declaring war against, or adjusting terms of peace with other clans. 

As the system of clanship was calculated to cherish a warlike spirit the young chiefs and heads of families were regarded or despised according to their military or peaceable disposition. If they revenged a quarrel with another clan by killing some of the enemy or carrying off their cattle and laying their lands waste, they were highly esteemed, and great expectations were formed of their future prowess and exploits. But if they failed in their attempts, they were not respected; and if they appeared disinclined to engage in hostile rencontres, they were despised.3 

The military ranks of the clans were fixed and perpetual. The chief was, of course, the principal commander. The oldest cadet commanded the right wing, and the youngest the rear. Every head of a distinct family was captain of his own tribe. An ensign or standard-bearer was attached to each clan, who generally inherited his office, which had been usually conferred on an ancestor who had distinguished himself. A small salary was attached to this office. 

Each clan had a stated place of rendezvous, where they met at the call of their chief. When an emergency arose for an immediate meeting from the incursions of a hostile clan, the cross or tarie, or fiery-cross, was immediately despatched through the territories of the clan. This signal consisted of two pieces of wood placed in the form of a cross. One of the ends of the horizontal piece was either burnt or burning, and a piece of linen or white cloth stained with blood was suspended from the other end. Two men, each with a cross in his hand, were despatched by the chief in different directions, who kept running with great speed, shouting the war cry of the tribe, and naming the place of rendezvous, if different from the usual place of meeting. The cross was delivered from hand to hand, and as each fresh bearer ran at full speed, the clan assembled with great celerity. General Stewart says, that one of the latest instances of the fiery-cross being used, was in seventeen hundred and forty-five by Lord Breadalbane, when it went round Loch Tay, a distance of thirty-two miles, in three hours, to raise his people and prevent their joining the rebels, but with less effect than in seventeen hundred and fifteen when it went the same round, and when five hundred men assembled the same evening under the command of the Laird of Glenlyon to join the Earl of Mar. 

Every clan had its own war cry, (called in Scottish slogan,) to which every clansman answered. It served as a watch-word in cases of sudden alarm, in the confusion of combat, or in the darkness of the night. The clans were also distinguished by a particular badge, or by the peculiar arrangements or sets of the different colours of the tartan, which, with the different war cries, will be fully noticed when we come to treat of the history of the clans. 

When a clan went upon any expedition they were much addicted to omens. If they met an armed man they believed that good was portended. If they observed a deer, fox, hare, or any other four-footed beast of game, and did not succeed in killing it, they prognosticated evil. If a woman barefooted crossed the road before them, they seized her and drew blood from her forehead. 

The Cuid-Oidhche, or night’s provision, was paid by many tenants to the chief, and in hunting or going on an expedition, the tenant who lived near the hill was bound to furnish the master and his followers a night’s entertainment, with brawn for his dogs. 

There are no sufficient data to enable us to estimate correctly the number of fighting men which the clans could bring at any time into the field; but a general idea may be formed of their strength in seventeen hundred and forty-five, from the following statement of the respective forces of the clans as taken from the memorial supposed to be drawn up by the Lord President Forbes of Culloden, for the information of government. It is to be observed, however, that besides the clans here mentioned, there were many independent gentlemen, as General Stewart observes, who had many followers, but being what were called broken names, or small tribes, are omitted. 

Argyle, 3000 
Breadalbane, 1000 
Lochnell and other chieftains of the Campbells, 1000 
Macleans, 500 
Maclauchlans, 200 
Stewart of Appin, 300 
Macdougals, 200 
Stewart of Grandtully, 300 
Clan Gregor, 700 
Duke of Athol, 3000 
Farquharsons, 500 
Duke of Gordon, 300 
Grant of Grant, 850 
Mackintosh, 800 
Macphersons, 400 
Frasers, 900 
Grant of Glenmorriston, 150 
Chisholms, 200 
Duke of Perth, 300 
Seaforth, 1000 
Cromarty, Scatwell, Gairloch, and other chieftains of the Mackenzies, 1500 
Laird of Menzies, 300 
Munros, 300 
Rosses, 500 
Sutherland, 2000 
Mackays, 800 
Sinclairs, 1100 
Macdonald of Slate, 700 
Macdonald of Clanronald, 700 
Macdonell of Glengary, 500 
Macdonell of Keppoch, 300 
Macdonald of Glencoe, 130 
Robertsons, 200 
Camerons, 800 
McKinnon, 200 
Macleod, 700 
The Duke of Montrose, Earls of Bute and Moray, Macfarlanes, McNeils of Barra, McNabs, McNaughtons, Lamonts, &c. &c.,  5600 
 31,930 

There is nothing so remarkable in the political history of any country as the succession of the Highland chiefs, and the long and uninterrupted sway which they held over their followers. The authority which a chief exercised among his clan was truly paternal, and he might, with great justice, have been called the father of his people. We cannot account for that warm attachment and the incorruptible and unshaken fidelity which the clans uniformly displayed towards their chiefs, on any other ground, than the kind and conciliatory system which they must have adopted towards their people; for, much as the feelings of the latter might have been awakened, by the songs and traditions of the bards, to a respect for the successors of the heroes whose praises they heard celebrated, a sense of wrongs committed, or of oppressions exercised, would have obliterated every feeling of attachment in the minds of the sufferers, and caused them to attempt to get rid of a tyrant who had rendered himself obnoxious by his tyranny. 

The division of the people into small tribes, and the establishment of patriarchal government, were attended with many important consequences affecting the character of the Highlanders. This creation of an imperium in imperio was an anomaly, but it was, nevertheless, rendered necessary from the state of society in the Highlands shortly after the transference of the seat of government from the mountains. The authority of the king, though weak and inefficient, continued, however, to be recognized, nominally at least, except indeed when he interfered in the disputes between the clans. On such occasions his authority was utterly disregarded. “His mandates could neither stop the depredations of one clan against another, nor allay their mutual hostilities. Delinquents could not, with impunity, be pursued into the bosom of a clan which protected them, nor could his judges administer the laws in opposition to their interests or their will. Sometimes he strengthened his arm by fomenting animosities among them, and by entering occasionally into the interest of one, in order to weaken another. Many instances of this species of policy occur in Scottish history, which, for a long period, was unhappily a mere record of internal violence.”4 

The general laws being thus superseded by the internal feuds of the clans, and the authority of the sovereign being insufficient to repress these disorders, a perpetual system of warfare, aggression, depredation, and contention existed among them, which, during the continuance of clanship, banished peace from the Highlands. The little sovereignties of the clans “touched at so many points, yet were so independent of one another; they approached so nearly, in many respects, yet were, in others, so distant; there were so many opportunities of encroachment, on the one hand, and so little of a disposition to submit to it, on the other; and the quarrel of one individual of the tribe so naturally involved the rest, that there was scarcely ever a profound peace, or perfect cordiality between them. Among their chiefs the most deadly feuds frequently arose from opposing interests, or from wounded pride. These feuds were warmly espoused by the whole clan, and were often transmitted, with aggravated animosity, from generation to generation.”5 

The disputes between opposing clans were frequently made matters of negotiation, and their differences were often adjusted by treaties. Opposing clans, as a means of strengthening themselves against the attacks of their rivals, or of maintaining the balance of power, also entered into coalitions with friendly neighbours. These bands of amity or manrent, as they were called, were of the nature of treaties of offensive and defensive alliance, by which the contracting parties bound themselves to assist each other; and it is remarkable that the duty of allegiance to the king was always acknowledged in these treaties, – “always excepting my duty to our lord the king, and to our kindred and friends,” was a clause which was uniformly inserted in them. In the same manner, when men who were not chiefs of clans, but of subordinate tribes, thus bound themselves, their fidelity to their chiefs was always excepted. The smaller clans who were unable to defend themselves, and such clans or families who had lost their chiefs, were included in these friendly treaties.6 Under these treaties the smaller clans identified themselves with the greater clans; they engaged in the quarrels, followed the fortunes, and fought under the greater chiefs; but their ranks, as General Stewart observes, were separately marshalled, and led by their own subordinate chieftains and lairds, who owned submission only when necessary, for the success of combined operations. We shall give several instances of this union in the history of the clans. 

As the system of clanship, by repudiating the authority of the sovereign and of the laws, prevented the clans from ever coming to any general terms of accommodation for settling their differences, their feuds were interminable, and the Highlands were, therefore, for ages, the theatre of a constant petty warfare destructive of the social virtues. “The spirit of opposition and rivalry between the clans perpetuated a system of hostility, encouraged the cultivation of the military at the expense of the social virtues, and perverted their ideas of both law and morality. Revenge was accounted a duty, the destruction of a neighbour a meritorious exploit, and rapine an honourable occupation. Their love of distinction, and their conscious reliance on their courage, when under the direction of these perverted notions, only tended to make their feuds more implacable, their condition more agitated, and their depredations more rapacious and desolating. Superstition added its influence in exasperating animosities, by teaching the clansmen, that, to revenge the death of a relation or friend, was a sacrifice agreeable to their shades: thus engaging on the side of the most implacable hatred, and the darkest vengeance, the most amiable and domestic of all our feelings, – reverence for the memory of the dead, and affection for the virtues of the living.”7 

As the causes out of which feuds originated were innumerable, so many of them were trivial and unimportant, but as submission to the most trifling insult was considered disgraceful, and might, if overlooked, lead to fresh aggression, the clan was immediately summoned, and the cry for revenge met with a ready response in every breast. The most glaring insult that could be offered to a clan, was to speak disrespectfully of its chief,8 an offence which was considered as a personal affront by all his followers, and was resented accordingly. 

It often happened that the insulted clan was unable to take the field to repel aggression or to vindicate its honour; but the injury was never forgotten, and the memory of it was treasured up till a fitting opportunity for taking revenge should arrive. The want of strength was sometimes supplied by cunning, and the blackest and deadliest intentions of hatred and revenge were sought to be perpetrated under the mask of conciliation and friendship. This was the natural result of the inefficiency of the laws which could afford no redress for wrongs, and which, therefore, left every individual to vindicate his rights with his own hand. The feeling of revenge, when directed against rival tribes, was cherished and honoured, and to such an extent was it carried, that there are well authenticated instances where one of the adverse parties have been exterminated in the bloody and ferocious conflicts which the feuds occasioned. 

As the wealth of the Highlanders consisted chiefly in flocks and herds, “the usual mode of commencing attacks, or of making reprisals, was by an incursion to carry off the cattle of the hostile clan. A predatory expedition was the general declaration of enmity and a command given by the chief to clear the pastures of the enemy, constituted the usual letters of marque.”9 These creachs, as such depredations were termed, were carried on with systematic order, and were considered as perfectly justifiable. If lives were lost in these forays, revenge full and ample was taken, but in general personal hostilities were avoided in these incursions either against the Lowlanders or rival tribes. These predatory expeditions were more frequently directed against the Lowlanders, whom the Highlanders considered as aliens, and whose cattle they, therefore, considered as fair spoil at all times. The forays were generally executed with great secrecy, and the cattle were often lifted and secured for a considerable time before they were missed. To trace the cattle which had been thus carried off, the owners endeavoured to discover their foot marks in the grass, or by the yielding of the heath over which they had passed; and so acute had habit rendered their sight, that they frequently succeeded, in this manner, in discovering their property. The man on whose property the track of the cattle was lost was held liable if he did not succeed in following out the trace or discovering the cattle; and if he did not make restitution, or offer to compensate the loss, an immediate quarrel was the consequence. A reward called Tasgal money was sometimes offered for the recovery of stolen cattle; but as this was considered in the light of a bribe it was generally discouraged. The Camerons and some other clans, it is said, bound themselves by oath never to accept such a reward, and to put to death all who should receive it. 

Besides the Creachs there was another and a peculiar class of forays or spoliations called Cearnachs, a military term of similar import with the Catherens of the Lowlands, the Kernes of the English, and the Catervæ of the Romans. The Cearnachs were originally a select body of men employed in difficult and dangerous enterprizes where more than ordinary honour was to be acquired; but, in process of time, they were employed in the degrading and dishonourable task of leving contributions on their Lowland neighbours, or in forcing them to pay tribute or black mail for protection. Young men of the second order of gentry who were desirous of entering the military profession, frequently joined in these exploits, as they were considered well fitted for accustoming those who engaged in them to the fatigues and exercises incident to a military life. The celebrated Robert Macgregor Campbell, or Rob Roy,10 was the most noted of these freebooters. 

The cearnachs were principally the borderers living close to and within the Grampian range, but cearnachs from the more northerly parts of the Highlands also paid frequent visits to the Lowlands, and carried off large quantities of booty. The border cearnachs judging such irruptions as an invasion of their rights, frequently attacked the northern cearnachs on their return homewards; and if they succeeded in capturing the spoil, they either appropriated it to their own use or restored it to the owners. 

It might be supposed that the system of spoliation we have described, would have led these freebooters occasionally to steal from one another. Such, however, was not the case; for they observed the strictest honesty in this respect. No precautions were taken – because unnecessary – to protect property, and the usual securities of locks, bolts, and bars, were never used, nor even thought of. Instances of theft from dwelling-houses were very rare; and, with the exception of one case which happened so late as the year seventeen hundred and seventy, highway robbery was totally unknown. Yet, notwithstanding the laudable regard thus shown by the freebooters to the property of their own society, they attached no ideas of moral turpitude to the acts of spoliation we have alluded to. Donald Cameron, or Donald Bane Leane, an active leader of a party of banditti who had, associated together after the troubles of seventeen hundred and forty-five, tried at Perth for cattle-stealing, and executed at Kinloch Rannoch, in seventeen hundred and fifty-two, expressed surprise and indignation at his hard fate, as he considered it, as he had never committed murder nor robbery, or taken any thing but cattle off the grass of those with whom he had quarrelled. The practice of “lifting of cattle” seems to have been viewed as a very venial offence, even by persons holding very different views of morality from the actors, in proof of which, General Stewart refers to a letter of Field-Marshall Wade to Mr Forbes of Culloden, then Lord Advocate, dated October, seventeen hundred and twenty-nine, describing an entertainment given him on a visit to a party of cearnachs. “The Knight and I,” says the Marshall, “travelled in my carriage with great ease and pleasure to the feast of oxen which the highwaymen had prepared for us, opposite Lochgarry, where we found four oxen roasting at the same time, in great order and solemnity. We dined in a tent pitched for that purpose. The beef was excellent; and we had plenty of bumpers, not forgetting your Lordship’s and Culloden’s health; and, after three hours’ stay, took leave of our benefactors, the highwaymen,11 and arrived at the hut at Dalnachardoch, before it was dark.”12 

Amid the violence and turbulence which existed in the Highlands, no appeal for redress of wrongs committed, or injuries sustained, could be effectually made to the legal tribunals of the country; but to prevent the utter anarchy which would have ensued from such a state of society, voluntary and associated tribunals, composed of the principal men of the tribes, were appointed. A composition in cattle being the mode of compensating injuries, these tribunals generally determined the amount of the compensation according to the nature of the injury, and the wealth and rank of the parties. These compensations were called Erig

Besides these tribunals, every chief held a court, in which he decided all disputes occurring among his clansmen. He generally resided among them. “His castle was the court where rewards were distributed, and the most enviable distinctions conferred. All disputes were settled by his decision, and the prosperity or poverty of his tenants depended on his proper or improper treatment of them. These tenants followed his standard in war – attended him in his hunting excursions supplied his table with the produce of their farms – and assembled to reap his corn, and to prepare and bring home his fuel. They looked up to him as their adviser and protector. The cadets of his family, respected in proportion to the proximity of the relation in which they stood to him, became a species of sub-chiefs, scattered over different parts of his domains, holding their lands and properties of him, with a sort of subordinate jurisdiction over a portion of his people, and were ever ready to afford him their counsel or assistance in all emergencies. 

“Great part of the rent of land was paid in kind, and generally consumed where it was produced. One chief was distinguished from another, not by any additional splendour of dress or equipage, but by being followed by more dependants, and by entertaining a greater number of guests. What his retainers gave from their individual property was spent amongst them in the kindest and most liberal manner. At the castle every individual was made welcome, and was treated according to his station, with a degree of courtesy and regard to his feelings unknown in any other country.13 This condescension, while it raised the clansman in his own estimation, and drew closer the ties between him and his superior, seldom tempted him to use any improper familiarities. He believed himself well born, and was taught to respect himself in the respect which he showed to his chief; and thus, instead of complaining of the difference of station and fortune, or considering a ready obedience to his chieftain’s call as a slavish oppression, he felt convinced that he was supporting his own honour in showing his gratitude and duty to the generous head of his family. Hence, the Highlanders, whom more savage nations called savage, carried in the outward expression of their manners the politeness of courts without their vices, and in their bosoms the high point of honour without its follies.”14 

In many minds the idea of a Highland chief is associated with that of a domineering tyrant who plunders and oppresses his people. This notion is, however, extremely fallacious. “Nothing,” says Mrs Grant, “can be more erroneous than the prevalent idea, that a Highland chief was an ignorant and unprincipled tyrant, who rewarded the abject submission of his followers with relentless cruelty and rigorous oppression. If ferocious in disposition, or weak in understanding, he was curbed and directed by the elders of his tribe, who, by inviolable custom, were his standing counsellors, without whose advice no measure of any kind was decided.”15 

It cannot, however, be denied, that the authority of the chief was naturally arbitrary, and was sometimes exercised unduly and with great severity; as a proof of which, there is said to exist among the papers of the Perth family, an application to Lord Drummond from the town of Perth, dated in seventeen hundred and seven, requesting an occasional use of his Lordship’s executioner, who was considered an expert operator, a request with which his Lordship complied, reserving, however, to himself the power of recalling the executioner when he had occasion for his services. Another curious illustration of this exercise of power is given by General Stewart. Sometime before the year seventeen hundred and forty-five, Lord President Forbes dined at Blair castle with the Duke of Atholl, on his way from Edinburgh to his seat at Culloden. A petition was delivered to his Grace in the course of the evening, on reading which, he thus addressed the President: “My Lord, here is a petition from a poor man, whom Commissary Bisset, my baron bailie (an officer to whom the chief occasionally delegated his authority), has condemned to be hanged; and as he is a clever fellow, and is strongly recommended to mercy, I am much inclined to pardon him.” “But your Grace knows,” said the President, “that, after condemnation, no man can pardon but his Majesty.” “As to that,” replied the Duke, “since I have the power of punishing, it is but right that I should have the power to pardon.” Then, calling upon a servant who was in waiting, his Grace said, “Go, send an express to Logierait, and order Donald Stewart, presently under sentence, to be instantly set at liberty.” 

The authority which the generality of the chiefs exercised, was acquired from ancient usage and the weakness of the government; but the lords of regality, and the great barons and chiefs, had jurisdiction conferred on them by the crown, both in civil and criminal cases, which they sometimes exercised in person and sometimes by deputy. The persons to whom they delegated this authority were called bailies. In civil matters the baron or chief could judge in questions of debt within his barony, as well as in most of those cases known by the technical term of possessory actions. And though it has always been an established rule of law, that no person can be judge in his own cause, a baron might judge in all actions between himself and his vassals and tenants, necessary for making his rents and feu-duties effectual. Thus, he could ascertain the price of corns due by a tenant and pronounce sentence against him for arrears of rent; but in all cases where the chief was a party, he could not judge in person. The criminal jurisdiction of a baron, according to the laws ascribed to Malcolm Mackenneth, extended to all crimes except treason, and the four pleas of the crown, viz, robbery, murder, rape, and fire-raising. Freemen could be tried by none but their peers. Whenever the baron held a court, his vassals were bound to attend and afford such assistance as might be required. On these occasions, many useful regulations for the good of the community were often made, and supplies were sometimes voluntarily granted to the chief to support his dignity. The bounty of the vassals was especially and liberally bestowed on the marriage of the chief, and in the portioning of his daughters and younger sons. These donations consisted of cattle, which constituted the principal riches of the country in those patriarchal days. In this way the younger sons of the chief were frequently provided for on their settlement in life. 

The reciprocal ties which connected the chief and his clan were almost indissoluble. In return for the kindness and paternal care bestowed by the former on the latter, they yielded a ready submission to his authority, and evinced a rare fidelity to his person, which no adversity could shake. Innumerable instances of this devoted attachment might be given, but two will suffice. In the battle of Inverkeithing, between the royalists and the troops of Oliver Cromwell, five hundred of the followers of the Laird of Maclean were left dead on the field. Sir Hector Maclean being hard pressed by the enemy in the heat of the action, he was successively covered from their attacks by seven brothers, all of whom sacrificed their lives in his defence; and as one fell another came up in succession to cover him, crying, “Another for Hector.” This phrase, says General Stewart, has continued ever since a proverb or watchword, when a man encounters any sudden danger that requires instant succour. The other instance is that of a servant of the late James Menzies of Culdares, who had been engaged in the rebellion of seventeen hundred and fifteen. Mr Menzies was taken at Preston in Lancashire, was carried to London, where he was tried and condemned, but afterwards reprieved. This act prevented him from turning out in seventeen hundred and forty-five: but to show his good wishes towards Prince Charles, he sent him a handsome charger as a present, when advancing through England. The servant who led and delivered the horse was taken prisoner and carried to Carlisle, where he was tried and condemned. Every attempt was made, by threats of immediate execution, in case of refusal, and promises of pardon, on giving information, to extort a discovery from him of the person who sent the horse, but in vain. He knew, he said, what would be the consequence of a disclosure, and that his own life was nothing in comparison with that which it would endanger. Being hard pressed at the place of execution to inform on his master, he asked those about him if they were really serious in supposing that he was such a villain as to betray his master. He said, that if he did what they desired, and forgot his master and his trust, he needed not return to his country, for Glenlyon would be no home or country for him, as he would be despised and hunted out of the glen. This trusty servant’s name was John Macnaughton, a native of Glenlyon in Perthshire.16 

The obedience and attachment of the Highlanders to their chiefs, and the readiness they displayed, on all occasions, to adopt, when called upon, the quarrels of their superiors,17 did not, however, make them forget their own independence. When a chief was unfit for his situation, or had degraded his name and family, the clan proceeded to depose him, and set up the next in succession, if deserving, to whom they transferred their allegiance, as happened to two chiefs of the families of Macdonald of Clanronald and Macdonell of Keppoch. The head of the family of Stewart of Garth, who, on account of his ferocious disposition, was nick named the “Fierce Wolf,” was, about the year fifteen hundred and twenty, not only deposed, but confined for life in a cell in the castle of Garth, which was, therefore, long regarded by the people with a kind of superstitious terror. The clans even sometimes interfered with the choice of the chiefs in changing their places of abode, or in selecting a site for a new residence. The Earl of Seaforth was prevented by his clan (the McKenzies) from demolishing Brahan castle, the principal seat of the family. In the same way the Laird of Glenorchy, ancestor of the Marquis of Breadalbane, having some time previous to the year fifteen hundred and seventy, laid the foundation of a castle which he intended to build on a hill on the side of Lochtay, was compelled, or induced, by his people, to change his plan and build the castle of Balloch or Taymouth. 

From what has been stated, it will be perceived that the influence of a chief with his clan depended much on his personal qualities, of which kindness and a condescension, which admitted of an easy familiarity, were necessary traits. The author of ‘Letters from the North’ thus alludes to the familiarity which existed between a chief and his clan, and the affability and courtesy with which they were accustomed to be treated: “And as the meanest among them pretended to be his relations by consanguinity, they insisted on the privilege of taking him by the hand whenever they met him. Concerning this last, I once saw a number of very discontented countenances when a certain lord, one of the chiefs, endeavoured to evade this ceremony. It was in the presence of an English gentleman, of high station, from whom he would willingly have concealed the knowledge of such seeming familiarity with slaves of wretched appearance; and thinking it, I suppose, a kind of contradiction to what he had often boasted at other times, viz., his despotic power in his clan.” 

From the feeling of self-respect which the urbanity and condescension of the chiefs naturally created in the minds of the people, arose that honourable principle of fidelity to superiors and to their trust, which we have already noticed, “and which,” says General Stewart, “was so generally and so forcibly imbibed, that the man who betrayed his trust was considered unworthy of the name which he bore, or of the kindred to which he belonged.” Besides the instance already given in illustration of this honourable principle, others will be related in the course of this work. 

From this principle flowed a marked detestation of treachery, a vice of very rare occurrence among the Highlanders; and so tenacious were they, on that point, that the slightest suspicion of infidelity on the part of an individual estranged him from the society of his clan, who shunned him as a person with whom it was dangerous any longer to associate. The case of John Du Cameron, better known, from his large size, by the name of Sergeant Mor,18 affords an example of this. This man had been a sergeant in the French service, and returned to Scotland in the year seventeen hundred and forty-five, when he engaged in the rebellion. Having no fixed abode, and dreading the consequences of having served in the French army, and of being afterwards engaged in the rebellion, he formed a party of freebooters, and took up his residence among the mountains between the counties of Perth, Inverness, and Argyle, where he carried on a system of spoliation by carrying off the cattle of those he called his enemies, if they did not purchase his forbearance by the payment of Black mail. Cameron had long been in the habit of sleeping in a barn on the farm of Dunan in Rannoch; but having been betrayed by some person, he was apprehended one night when asleep in the barn, in the year seventeen hundred and fifty-three, by a party of Lieutenant (after Sir Hector) Munro’s detachment. On finding himself seized, being a powerful man, he shook off all the soldiers who had laid hold of him, and attempted to escape, but he was overpowered by the remainder of the party who had remained outside. He was carried to Perth, and there tried before the court of justiciary for the murder alluded to in the note, and various acts of theft and cattle stealing. Being found guilty, he was executed at Perth in seventeen hundred and fifty-three, and hung in chains. It was generally believed in the country that Cameron had been betrayed by the man in whose barn he had taken shelter, and the circumstance of his renting a farm from government, on the forfeited estate of Strowan, on advantageous terms, strengthened the suspicion, but beyond this there was nothing to confirm the imputation; yet this man was ever after heartily despised, and, having by various misfortunes lost all his property, which obliged him to leave the country in great poverty, the people firmly believed, and the belief it is understood is still prevalent in Rannoch, that his misfortunes were a just judgment upon him for violating the trust reposed in him by an unsuspecting and unfortunate person. 

Such were some of the leading characteristics of this fine and celebrated race of people, who preserved many of their national peculiarities till a comparatively recent period. These, however, are now fast disappearing amidst the march of modern improvement and civilization, and we are sorry to add that the vices which seem almost inseparable from this new state of society, have found their way into the Highlands, and supplanted, in some degree, many of those shining virtues which were once the glory of the Gaël.

1  Stewart’s Sketches, I. 21, 22. 

2  The power of the chiefs over their clans was, from political motives, often supported by the government, to counteract the great influence of the feudal system which enabled the nobles frequently to set the authority of the state at defiance. Although the duke of Gordon, was the feudal superior of the lands held by the Camerons, McPhersons, McDonells of Keppoch and others, he had no influence over those clans who always obeyed the orders of Locheil, Clunie, Keppoch, &c. 

3  Martin observes that in the Western Islands, “every heir, or young chieftain of a tribe, was obliged in honour to give a public specimen of his valour before he was owned and declared governor or leader of his people, who obeyed and followed him upon all occasions. This chieftain was usually attended with a retinue of young men of quality, who had not beforehand given any proof of their valour, and were ambitious of such an opportunity to signalize themselves. It was usual for the captain to lead them, to make a desperate incursion upon some neighbour or other that they were in feud with, and they were obliged to bring, by open force, the cattle they found on the lands they attacked, or to die in the attempt. After the performance of this achievement, the young chieftain was ever after reputed valiant, and worthy of government, and such as were of his retinue acquired the like reputation. This custom being reciprocally used among them, was not reputed robbery, for the damage which one tribe sustained by this essay of the chieftain of another, was repaired when their chieftain came in his turn to make his specimen; but I have not heard an instance of this practice for these sixty years past.” Western Islands. – 2d edit. p. 101, 102. 

4  Stewart’s Sketches, I. 30. 

5  Ibid. I. 30, 31. 

6  General Stewart says that the families of the name of Stewart, whose estates lay in the district of Athol, and whose chief, by birth, was at a distance, ranged themselves under the family of Athol, though they were themselves sufficiently numerous to raise 1000 fighting men. 

7  Stewart’s Sketches, Vol. I. 33, 34. 

8  “When a quarrel begins in words between two Highlanders of different clans, it is esteemed the very height of malice and rancour, and the greatest of all provocations, to reproach one another with the vices or personal defects of their chiefs, or that of the particular branch whence they sprung.” – Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland. 

9  Stewart’s Sketches, I. 35. 

10  This famous person, whose name has been immortalized by our great Novelist, was the younger son of Mr Macgregor of Glengyle (a respectable family in Perthshire,) by a daughter of Campbell of Glenlyon, sister to the Commander at the base massacre of Glenco. He was born between the year 1657 and 1660, and married Helen Campbell of the family of Glenfalloch. Rob Roy followed the profession of a drover or cattle-dealer at an early period of life, and was so successful in business, that before the year 1707 he purchased the lands of Craigrostane on the banks of Lochlomond from the family of Montrose, and relieved the estate of Glengyle, the property of his nephew, from considerable debts. Before the Union no cattle were allowed to be imported into England, but free intercourse in that commodity being allowed by the treaty, various speculators engaged in this traffic, and, among others, the Marquis of Montrose, afterwards created Duke, and Rob Roy entered into a joint adventure. The capital to be advanced was fixed at 10,000 merks each, and Rob Roy was to purchase the cattle and drive them to England for sale. Macgregor made his purchases accordingly, but finding the market overstocked on his arrival in England, in consequence of too many speculators having entered the field, he was obliged to sell the cattle below prime cost. The Duke refused to bear any share of the loss, and insisted on repayment of the whole money advanced by him with interest. Macgregor told him that if such were his principles he should not consider it his principle to pay the interest, nor his interest to pay the principal, and he kept his word. Macgregor having expended the Duke’s money in organizing a body of the Macgregors in 1715, under the nominal command of his nephew, his Grace took legal means to recover his money, and laid hold of the lands of Craigrostane in security. This proceeding so exasperated Macgregor, that he declared perpetual war against the Duke, and resolved that in future he should supply himself with cattle from his Grace’s estates, a resolution which he literally kept, and for nearly thirty years, down to the day of his death, he carried off the Duke’s cattle with impunity, and disposed of them publicly in different parts of the country. 

Although these cattle generally belonged to the Duke’s tenants, he was the ultimate sufferer, as they were unable to pay their rents, to liquidate which, their cattle mainly contributed. Macgregor also levied contributions in meal and money; but he never took it away till delivered to the Duke’s storekeeper in payment of rent, and he then gave the storekeeper a receipt for the quantity taken. At settling the money-rents Macgregor often attended, and several instances are recorded of his having compelled the Duke’s factor to pay him a share of the rents, which he took good care to see were discharged to the tenants beforehand. This singular man lived till nearly eighty years of age, thirty of which he spent in open violation of the laws. He died peaceably in his bed, and his funeral, which took place in 1736, was attended by the whole population of the surrounding country, with the exception of the Duke and his immediate friends. This funeral was the last at which a piper officiated in the Highlands of Perthshire. 

11  General Stewart observes, that the Marshall had not at this period been long enough in the Highlands to distinguish a cearnach, or “lifter of cattle,” from a highwayman. “No such character as the latter then existed in the country; and it may be presumed he did not consider these men in the light which the word would indicate, – for certainly the Commander-in-chief would neither have associated with men whom he supposed to be really highwaymen, nor partaken of their hospitality.” 

12  Culloden Papers. 

13  This was noticed by Dr Johnson. He thus describes a meeting between the young laird of Coll and some of his “subjects:” – “Wherever we roved, we were pleased to see the reverence with which his subjects regarded him. He did not endeavour to dazzle them by any magnificence of dress, – his only distinction was a feather in his bonnet; but as soon as he appeared, they forsook their work and clustered about him: he took them by the hand, and they seemed mutually delighted. He has the proper disposition of a chieftain, and seems desirous to continue the customs of his house. The bagpiper played regularly when dinner was served, whose person and dress made a good appearance; and he brought no disgrace upon the family of Rankin, which has long supplied the lairds of Coll with hereditary music.” – Journey to the Western Islands

14  Stewart’s Sketches, I. 46, &c. – Dalrymple’s Memoirs. 

15  Superstitions of the Highlanders. 

16  A picture of the horse was in the possession of the late General Stewart of Garth, being a legacy bequeathed to him by the daughter of Mr Menzies. “A brother of Macnaughton (says the General) lived for many years on the estate of Garth, and died in 1790. He always went about armed, at least so far armed, that when debarred wearing a sword or dirk, he slung a large long knife in his belt. He was one of the last I recollect of the ancient race, and gave a very favourable impression of their general manner and appearance. He was a smith by trade, and although of the lowest order of the people, he walked about with an air and manner that might have become a field marshal. He spoke with great force and fluency of language, and, although most respectful to those to whom he thought respect was due, he had an appearance of independence and ease, that strangers, ignorant of the language and character of the people, might have supposed to proceed from impudence. As he always carried arms when legally permitted, so he showed on one occasion that he knew how to handle them. When the Black Watch was quartered on the banks of the rivers Tay and Lyon, in 1741, an affray arose between a few of the soldiers and some of the people at a fair at Kenmore. Some of the Breadalbane men took the part of the soldiers, and, as many were armed, swords were quickly drawn, and one of the former killed, when their opponents, with whom was Macnaughton, and a smith, (to whom he was then an apprentice,) retreated and fled to the ferry-boat across the Tay. There was no bridge, and the ferryman, on seeing the fray, chained his boat. Macnaughton was the first at the river side, and leaping into the boat, followed by his master, the smith, with a stroke of his broadsword cut the chain, and crossing the river, fixed the boat on the opposite side, and thus prevented an immediate pursuit. Indeed no farther steps were taken. The earl of Breadalbane, who was then at Taymouth, was immediately sent for. On inquiry, he found that the whole had originated from an accidental reflection thrown out by a soldier of one of the Argyle companies against the Atholemen, then supposed to be Jacobites, and that it was difficult to ascertain who gave the fatal blow. The man who was killed was an old warrior of nearly eighty years of age. He had been with Lord Breadalbane’s men, under Campbell of Glenlyon, at the battle of Sheriffmuir; and, as his side lost their cause, he swore never to shave again. He kept his word, and as his beard grew till it reached his girdle, he got the name of Padric-na-Phaisaig, “Peter with the Beard.” 

17  Sir Walter Scott has thus beautifully and justly described the alacrity of a clan gathering at the call of a chief: 

“He whistled shrill, 

And he was answered from the hill; 

Wild as the scream of the curlieu, 

From crag to crag the signal flew; 

Instant, through copse and heath arose 

Bonnets and spears and bended bows; 

On right, on left, above, below, 

Sprung up at once the lurking foe; 

From shingles grey their lances start, 

The bracken bush sends forth the dart, 

The rushes and the willow wand, 

Are bristling into axe and brand, 

And every tuft of broom gives life 

To plaided warrior, armed for strife. 

That whistle garrison’d the glen 

At once with full five hundred men, 

As if the yawning hill to heaven 

A subterranean host had given. 

Watching their leader’s beck and will, 

All silent there they stood, and still, 

Like the loose crags whose threatening mass 

Lay tottering o’er the hollow pass, 

As if an infant’s touch could urge 

Their headlong passage down the verge, 

With step and weapon forward flung, 

Upon the mountain-side they hung. 

Lady of the Lake, Canto V. ix. 

18  The following amusing anecdote of this man is related by General Stewart:- “On one occasion he met with an officer of the garrison of Fort-William on the mountains of Lochaber. The officer told him that he suspected he had lost his way, and, having a large sum of money for the garrison, was afraid of meeting the sergeant Mor; he therefore requested that the stranger would accompany him on his road. The other agreed; and, while they walked on, they talked much of the sergeant and his feats, the officer using much freedom with his name, calling him robber, murderer. – ‘Stop there,’ interrupted his companion, ‘he does indeed take the cattle of the whigs and you Sassanachs, but neither he nor his cearnachs ever shed innocent blood; except once,’ added he, ‘that I was unfortunate at Braemar, when a man was killed, but I immediately ordered the creach (the spoil) to be abandoned, and left to the owners, retreating as fast as we could after such a misfortune!’ ‘You,’ says the officer, ‘what had you to do with the affair?’ ‘I am John Du Cameron, – I am the sergeant Mor; there is the road to Inverlochay, – you cannot now mistake it. You and your money are safe. Tell your governor to send a more wary messenger for his gold. Tell him also, that, although an outlaw, and forced to live on the public, I am a soldier as well as himself, and would despise taking his gold from a defenceless man who confided in me.’ The officer lost no time in reaching the garrison, and never forgot the adventure, which he frequently related.” 

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