John Macculloch.

The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, containing descriptions of their scenery and antiquities, with an account of the political history ... present condition of the people, &c. ... founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 ... in letters to Sir Walter Scott, bart (Volume 1) online

. (page 14 of 37)
Online LibraryJohn MaccullochThe Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, containing descriptions of their scenery and antiquities, with an account of the political history ... present condition of the people, &c. ... founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 ... in letters to Sir Walter Scott, bart (Volume 1) → online text (page 14 of 37)
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some bold promontory, it commands the whole extent of
the brilliant landscape around.

To attempt to detail the various pictures on this north-
ern side of the water, would be to undertake a task alike
laborious and ineffectual. Only let me remark, for the
sake of those to whom this lake is new, that neither the
value nor the number of the scenes contained within this
short space of two miles, will easily be discovered on a
first visit, nor without certain precautions which experi-
ence alone will teach. It is natural to fix the eye on the
great features, to have the attention engaged by the
whole picture rather than by the parts; nor is it easy,
without considerable effort, to withdraw the mind from
the general and overwhelming effect of the entire scene.
Thus we overlook the rapid and incessant changes that
occur near us, and see but one or a few pictures where
there exist hundreds. Let the spectator bestow his chief
attention on the objects immediately near him, on the
wonderful variety of rocks and trees, of bays, precipices,


promontories, and sinuosities along which the road is
conducted, and from these form his pictures. The dis-
tance is always nearly the same, and he may safely neg-
lect it ; as there is no danger that it will not command
his attention whenever that is required. Thus he will
add, both to his pleasures and to his stores; and will
discover also, if he was not before aware of it, that, even
in a single landscape in nature, it is impossible to pay
due attention to all the parts, without a considerable
effort, and without a degree of study which may be
called analytical. I need only further add, with respect
to this side of the water, that the point where the land-
scapes first cease, is obvious, and that, beyond this,
there is no further temptation to proceed up the lake.
Nothing- can be so sudden as the transition, or so strong
as the contrast, between its lower and upper parts.
From this point to the very further extremity, and on both
sides, it is among the dullest of our lakes : all the magic
lies in Ben Venu and the objects immediately surround-
ing- it, and from the moment we part with these, the
charm is broken. If there is some little character in
Glen Gyle, it is insufficient to attract any attention after
quitting these more splendid scenes.

I must now return to some points on this lake which
are known to few, and which are utterly neglected by
the mass of travellers. Yet those who do not visit them,
will depart with very inadequate conceptions of the in-
finite variety of this extraordinary spot. The first sight
of the lake, as it breaks on the eye after emerging from
the magnificent pass of the Trosachs, is rather bizarre or
singular than picturesque, as well from the littleness of
the parts as from their unexpected forms, though it can-
not be denied the praise of romantic character. From
this point, a road or path to the left, strikes off round


the base of that singular little hill which here terminates
the pass : giving access to the river as it issues from the
lake, and to various wild landscapes of extraordinary
beauty. The river itself affords one or two pictures
scarcely inferior to those of the pass of Lenie, and utterly
distinct from every thing else which Loch Cateran pre-
sents. Boisterous and wild, forcing its winding way
among huge rocks and under the shadow of ancient and
rugged oaks, its origin and termination are alike myste-
rious and obscure ; appearing to spring from the depths
of the mountain, and shortly and suddenly losing itself
among the lofty wooded rocks which enclose the head of
Loch Achray. Ben Venn, towering aloft in all its simple
sublimity, overhangs this scene of romance; of solitude
which appears inaccessible alike to man and animals,
and which seems fitted for the resort of supernatural
beings. Every thing appears wrapt in gloom and in
mystery ; and we wander about this awful wilderness of
rocks and woods, wondering how we are to extricate our-
selves from their deep chasms and recesses, and almost
wondering how we entered into the mountain labyrinth.
We need not be surprised that such scenes as these were
the resort of banditti ; nor is it even now easy, in con-
templating them, to cast off the impressions produced in
our younger days by tales of romantic horror.

Here also are found some of the finest views which the
lake affords. That angle, in particular, which gives exit
to the river, produces some of the grandest scenes about
this spot ; Ben Venu here rising, close at hand, in a noble
series of romantic precipices till it is lost in the clouds,
and stretching away from the eye in a magnificent per-
spective, while the left hand of the picture is formed by
all that wild variety of ground which conducts the road ;
seen from this point under shapes as new as they are


picturesque and wild. The island, celebrated by your-
self, and not much less famed as the garrison of the wo-
men and children during the invasion of Cromwell's
soldiers, forms a conspicuous object from this point ;
while the distant mountains, which enclose the head of
the lake, retire in airy forms till they are lost in the mist
of the western horizon.

But it is time to think of ending with Loch Cateran.
Not, however, till I have advised those who are really
desirous of knowing this lake, to bestow one forenoon on
the southern side of the water, and amid the wilds of Ben
Venn itself, as far as they are accessible. The path
which leads to Balloch-nam-bo, is not very difficult to
find ; and the scenery here is, if possible, wilder, more
magnificent, and more romantic than at any other part.
The closer scenery about the woods and rocks, formed
among the grey precipices and dark recesses and knotted
oaks and pendent birches, is unexampled for wildness
and beauty; while the same spot also aftbrds various
general views of the Trosachs and of the lake, entirely
distinct in character from all the former; more wild, more
strange, and more romantic. It is an incredible chaos
of objects, but it is a chaos of beauty and sublimity :
nor let any man imagine that he can pronounce on the
merits of Loch Cateran and all that surrounds it, till he
has passed days, mornings, noons, and evenings, on it
and about it; till he has explored, even at the risk of
his neck, all the dark and mysterious places in which it
abounds, has climbed every grey rock and precipice
where he can obtain footing, and has threaded all the
labyrinthine maze of its woods and its torrents, of its deep
ravines and twilight recesses.



Returning through the deep and wild woody pass
under Ardkenknochan, I met a smart young Highlander,
blazing in a full suit of scarlet tartan, forming a highly
picturesque and proper accompaniment to the surround-
ing landscape. He was of the better class of farmers,
and evidently a Highland dandy of the first water. His
colours were of that pattern called royal ; and it was to
be presumed that he claimed descent from the Stuarts.
Each clan, you know, is supposed to have had its distinctive
tartan, (for there are philosophers called sceptics who
doubt even this,) and many of these patterns, formed of
somewhat dingy mixtures of green, purple, and red, are
admirably adapted for that which is thought to have been
part of their original purpose ; namely, the concealing^
as is described in your poem, an ambuscade among the
heath and bushes, or watching the motions of an enemy.
The scarlet patterns, however, must have been fully as
efficacious in defeating this object ; if such ever was the
purpose of a tartan. Some of these mixtures are ex-
tremely beautiful, even to the eye of a painter : being
judicious associations of warm and cold tints ; well pro-
portioned and well opposed, and further, finely blended
by the broken hues which arise from the crossing of the
different coloured threads in the other parts of the pat-
tern. Notwithstanding the extreme division of the de-
sign, they are also frequently managed in such a manner
as to produce a breadth of colouring which gives an air
of solidity and repose to a mixture of tints that, for want


of such care, would only dazzle and fatigue the sight.
Many of them, it must however be admitted, are dis-
posed in complete defiance of all taste and harmony ;
dazzling, gaudy, and confused, so as to give pain instead
of pleasure to an educated or correct eye; while others
are made ot colours, either so injudiciously arranged and
approximated, or so dingy and discordant in themselves,
as to produce an unpleasant effect. I must not run the
risk of offending any of my worthy friends by hazarding
a more special criticism on them, or by naming those
which a painter would admire or those which he would
reject; since the colour and pattern of his tartan are said
to be interwoven in the very heart of a true Highlander,
Among some of the greater Reges this is true, or may be
supposed : as to the Achivi, they know little about the
matter and seem to care much less.

In some of the clans, the characters of these patterns
are thought to have been rigidly preserved ; but, re-
specting many, there are disputes in which it would
ill become a Sassanach to interfere. Martin does not say
that the clans were thus distinguished : he merely re-
marks that the different islands had different patterns.
Like most other objects of affection, their value seems to
have increased just at the moment they were in danger
of being lost; and hence those who had long neglected
this relic of ancient distinctions, have been lately busy
in inventing or imagining what they could not restore.
New genera and species have thus crept into the arrange-
ment: and, to increase the confusion which thus reigns
in the natural history of tartans, the weavers of Bannock-
burn, backed by the ladies and the haberdashers of
Edinburgh, have lately spawned an illegitimate off-
spring, which bids defiance to all classification. It is
chiefly in the country indeed, that there is a chance of



procuring genuine specimens of the original heraldic
bearings of the clans; while the solidity of the manufac-
ture as it is woven in a Highland loom, ensures that
warmth and comfort which we may seek in vain in the
flimsy Lowland imitations that have now superseded
them in the towns.

Whatever may be thought of the convenience of the
Highland dress, every one must acknowledge that the
full costume, as it is worn by the Highland regiments, is
highly picturesque. But even this is corrupted by the
modern ostritch plume ; which, like that of an under-
taker's horse, nods from the bonnet ; although it cannot
be denied that it improves the effect. The chief alone
was formerly distinguished by some mark of this nature;
by an eagle's feather; and, according to his clan, by a
sprig of heath or of some other plant : distinct clans
being supposed to have been distinguished, as I formerly
observed, each by its own botanical bearing. The effec-
tive part of this dress is the belted plaid, as it is called,
or that arrangement in which the plaid is fastened to the
kilt; not a separate garment to be thrown off or put on
when convenient. But this is no longer to be seen in the
country, except among a few of the gentlemen who
choose occasionally to wear it in full dress, or as the cos-
tume of the Piper or the Henchman, where these are still
retained. It is by no means very common now to meet,
even with the kilt ; except among those who have much
occasion for walking, and among the children, with
whom, from its cheapness and convenience, it is almost
universal. The bonnet is still a good deal worn, even
when the rest of the dress is merely a jacket and trousers ;
but it is not a very picturesque ornament at any time,
when unadorned, and is quite the reverse when worn
with the coat and the other incongruities of English


dress. Nor can much be said in this respect in favour of
the kilt, unless the loose plaid happens to be used at the
same time. Still less is it to be considered ornamental,
when worn, as it sometimes is, with a hat. Nothing in-
deed can well look more incongruous and mean than this
spurious dress. The plaid is still much in use ; particu-
larly among old women in their Sunday attire ; when it
is so disposed as to form a cap and cloak both, and is
sometimes fastened before, by a huge circular silver or
pewter broach that has descended through generations.
The coarse plaid, of a plain brown and white chequer,
is in universal use among the shepherds and drovers,
and among the children who tend the cattle ; and to them
it serves the purpose of cloak, umbrella, and sometimes
of bedding-; as its texture is sufficiently solid to keep
off a great deal of rain. When wet, it is equally im-
pervious to the blast ; and, however strange it may ap-
pear, forms thus a very comfortable shelter. An ancient
Highlander rolled himself in his wet plaid when he lay
down to sleep on the heath.

The trousers, which anciently formed a variety of the
Highland costume, under the name of trews, (whence also
trouser,) the braccse caligatae of Giraldus Cambrensls,
have now quite superseded the kilt among the shepherds,
who have learnt to know the comfort of warmth. At sea,
no other dress is worn ; nor do I recollect, throughout all
the islands, seeing a single boatman in a kilt, except by
accident, although some still wear the bonnet. They
have, in fact, adopted the bluejacket and trousers, with
the warm stockings, of a common seaman; sensible of their
advantages in the wet and cold weather in which their
occupation lies. As long as Highland regiments are
maintained, the full dress cannot be forgotten : it is de-
sirable that it should not ; but time, and a sense of its

N 2


superior convenience, have now rendered familiar and
welcome, that which was originally imposed by force,
and was not adopted without many remonstrances and
much obloquy against my lord Hardwicke ; of which
the popular ballads of the times have preserved ample
record. Every year, even in my own experience, is en-
croaching on the kilt and bonnet; and, in no long time,
it will probably be found only among the few who are
laudably tenacious of ancient customs and recollections.
A few enthusiasts have amused themselves with de-
riving the Highland kilt from one of the dresses of the
Romans, to which the resemblance is sufficiently vague.
These worthy antiquaries forget the anger they feel at
the bare notion that the Romans ever interfered v^'ith the
Highlanders; as much as Macpherson forgot himself
when he chose to convert Caracul into Caracalla, and to
send his hero Fingal to make war on the legions, and to
reward his followers with the " gold of the stranger."
They were little likely to adopt, either an ornamental or a
useful part of dress from their enemies; but whether that
be the fact or not, it is nearly certain that the Gael and
the Romans had no communication, as the progress of the
latter lay along the east coast; among Picts or Cale-
donians, a different race, be their disputed origin what it
may, until it finally terminated at Cromarty, or rather
beyond it, at Tarbet Ness, the Arae finium Imperii

Shocking as it may be to Gaelic pride, it does not seem
very difficult to trace the origin of the belted plaid ; the
true and characteristic dress from which the other modifi-
cations have been derived. It is precisely, as has been
often said, the expedient of a savage, unable or unwilling
to convert the web of cloth which he had procured, into
a more convenient shape. Rolling one extremity round


his body, the remainder was thrown over his shoulder,
to be used as occasion should require, in covering the
rest of his person. The Roman theory of the kilt is in-
deed demolished at one blow, by the fact that this article
of dress in an independent form, or the philibeg (feala beg),
is of very modern introduction: and, what is still worse,
that it was the invention of an Englishman. It was first
introduced at Tyndrum about a century past, by Rawlin-
son, the superintendent, or agent for the lead mines; who,
finding his Highland labourers encumbered with their
belted plaids, taught them to separate the two into the
present form. To such vile causes have great revolu-
tions been owing, and by such trifles are ponderous
theories overthrown.

I am as much in danger however for any heterodoxy
which I may have the misfortune to entertain in the
matter of kilts, particularly if the tartan fever should
continue, as for those other difficulties of belief that haunt
all unfortunate wights who choose to hunt among Celtic
antiquities, and listen to Celtic antiquaries. Nevertheless
I must go on, and say, with Kecksy, " who's afraid."

They tell us it is the Roman dress. Antiquaries are
strange fellows every where, but this is wondrous strange.
If this hypothesis means any thing, it is that the kilt was
an imitation of the skirts of the Roman Tunica, or else of
the loose dangling fringe-like armour, the straps of the
Lorica, or cuisses, in modern phrase, which were some-
times worn over them. Now, at whatever time the kilt,
or rather petticoat, was adopted, it was the lower end of
the plaid, and nothing else ; not of a waistcoat like the
Tunica : the proper philibeg, as I said before, is modern.
There is a sort of resemblance between the kilt and the
skirts of the Tunica, it is true ; but as to the rest of it, or
the principle of the two dresses, they resemble each other


just as much as Macedon does Monmouth. The Roman
soldiers had no plaid ; nor would it he very easy to ex-
tract that g-arment from the Sagura ; except that, as differ-
ent people may wrap themselves in a simple web, there
cannot fail to be coincidences in form. It would not be
amiss also if these Celtic tailors would prove that the
Roman soldiers who occupied Britain, were so indifferent
to cold as to be content to cover their bodies with nothing
but the loose skirt of a waistcoat ; or that their officers
were silly enough to bring naked men out of the red
heat of Italy, and turn them bare to the rains, and storms,
and snows, of our delectable climate. They ought also
to tell us how it happened that a barbarous people
adopted the dtess of their invaders ; invaders, not even
conquerors ; and whom moreover it could not have been
the fortune of many of them to have seen. The matter is
too plain to require any further commentary.

The real origin of the dress is obvious enough, as I
said before, though, probably, extremely remote ; but
the present showy combination, which forms the entire
dress, seems to be comparatively modern. It has been
said that the mere philibeg of tartan cannot be very old;
and that the harlequin-like masquerade dress, all of
tartan, and sometimes of more kinds than one, is abso-
lutely an affair of yesterday. It has also been said, that
it must require no common share of Celtic credulity, even
to believe that the Highlanders could have woven a tar-
tan two or three centuries ago ; and that they were as
likely to have made brocade or sprigged muslins. As
to their distinguishing their clans by the patterns of these
webs, that also, as I have just noticed, is said to be more
than doubtful; and is asserted, at any rate, to be very
modern indeed.

The tug of war is severe when Scot meets Gael ; but


I suspect that the Gael here has got the right on his side ;
at least for an antiquity much more considerable than
this criticism would imply; In some canons for regulat-
ing the Scottish church, enacted about 1240 and 1250>
the ecclesiastics were prohibited from wearing red, green,
and striped clothing, as well as garments that were
shorter than the middle of the leg That, obviously,
alludes both to tartan and to kilts or plaids. Moniepenny
also mentions " plaids of divers colours :" but his date
scarcely passes 1600. Nor is it reasonable to conclude
that the Highlanders were at any period so barbarous,
as to have been incapable, either of dyeing or weaving.
They manufactured arms; and the arts required for that,
are fully as refined. It is usual to run into extremes in
these matters ; while, when extravagant claims are set
up on one side, the common rule is to allow nothing at
all. Admitting that the military or political system and
the mode of life, in the middle ages of the Highlands, were
what we now call barbarous and savage, these critics
ought to remember that many arts, even refined ones,
were known to Greece, when its manners were no other
than those of the ancient Highlanders ; and that, even in
those nations which are now savage, many ingenious and
difiicult manufactures are practised. But history itself
will shew the unfounded nature of this criticism. To
take one portion alone, and the most secluded of the
Highlands, viz. the maritime part, it could not possibly
have been deficient in arts before 1200, when under the
Norwegian government ; when it built and manned large
fleets and gave aid to England ; when its kings resided
occasionally at the English court, and when, even long
prior to that date, the state of Norway was similar to that
of Normandy at the time of the conquest of England.
Such arts could not have been lost in the Highlands after


the Norwegian secession : and therefore, whatever we
may choose to think of Highland manners in former
times, we must beware of imagining them to have been
that barbarous people which some persons have chosen
to suppose. But anger on one side excites it on the
other; and truth, taking wing, flies far away.

But to return to the antitartanists. Scotland never
stood very high in the arts, it must be owned, and her
list of painters is as meagre as it is modern. Conse-
quently, her galleries of family portraits are rather more
defective than her pedigrees. Yet if we go back to the
time of Charles the first, which is not a very great way,
there are no pictures of tartaned gentlemen, nor any gra-
phic records of kilts and plaids ; though many of the
Highland chiefs, such as the Gordons, and Campbells,
and Murrays, had their pictures painted occasionally.
If Jameson, for one, felt like his master Vandyke, about
draperies, he would have been very glad to have made
use of these supposed Celtic paraphernalia; and it is
probable enough that, like the present Lowlanders, and
other mob of all sorts, who have adopted, for great occa-
sions, a dress to which they have no more title than to a
turban and a banyan, a chadre, or a mantilla, he would
liave extended these picturesque habiliments far beyond
the verge of their legitimate rights.

This fact proves, perhaps, some points relating to the
ancient Highland dress, but it will not prove that the plaid
or the tartan was unknown. It seems that as the chiefs
wore mail in war, when the people were unarmed, so
they also often distinguished themselves in peace, by
adopting the dress of France or of the Scottish court;
with one or other of which, all the greater ones at least,
were in occasional connexion. That those who were
Scottish barons, such as the Atholls and the Gordons


should have done so, was to be expected. If also the
common people, as appears to be true, wore, in latter
days, chiefly the grey checked plaid, and that of a
scanty size, rolled close, with a naked bonnet, and if,
as is probable, and, I believe, true, they were in every
sense poorly clad, the dress, in this form, was certainly
one which no painter would have wished to copy : since,
splendid and picturesque as a modern Highland dress
is, it is quite easy to retain all its elements and still to
make it hideous. All that follows from the preceding
remark therefore, is, that the dresses which we now see
in Edinburgh, were unknown in that form, and that the
ancient chiefs did not, like the modern, consider their
native dress an object to be desired, or conceive it ca-
pable of the improvement which it has recently un-

What the Highlanders wore in their most ancient
days, it is not very easy to discover from any positive do-
cuments ; whether they were Celts, Norwegians, or Ger-
man Picts. There being no print-shops nor lithography
in those days, their costumes have not descended to
us ; and there is not much to be learnt from sculptures,
unless with respect to churchmen, who were pretty much

Online LibraryJohn MaccullochThe Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, containing descriptions of their scenery and antiquities, with an account of the political history ... present condition of the people, &c. ... founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 ... in letters to Sir Walter Scott, bart (Volume 1) → online text (page 14 of 37)