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

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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 7 of 37)
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it still continued in a narrow region among ourselves ;
offering a political'phenomenon not a little singular, and
speaking little in praise of that government which could
so long endure it. We, ourselves, have scarcely seen it :
but that of which our fathers had read, as of ag-es lono-
past, was here embalmed for their inspection ; on a nar-
row scale it is true, but not the less a picture of former
days. It has been the leading error of the Highlanders
to forget this : to imagine themselves distinguished for
their peculiarities ; for good, themselves^ as their antago-
nists have for evi), from all the world at all periods ;
when the only essential distinction is the period. They
outlived the system. We have heard moreof their virtues,
and more too of their vices, than we have read of those
of the parallel people who have long past away. That is
the main difference. But they are at length alike past
away. That which it required a long lapse of time to
effect for Europe at large, was here performed, compa-
ratively, in a moment. The change was a work of time,
when all were alike and no one could proceed much faster
than its neighbour. But the Highlands were suddenly
found surrounded by an overwhelming majority; the
universal light broke on them at once, and, in an in-
finitely short time, they experienced that change which
it had required ages before that, to effect for others. Let
those who have misled themselves with romantic notions
respecting the Highlands, whether for good or evil, reflect


on this. If it is a mortification to this people that they
only share the praise of the former days of general
Europe, it is a consolation that they divide the blame :
each al ke was incidental to their political condition.

But, to return to the narrow subject of war, its general
nature among the clans is already sufficiently understood.
That every man able to bear arms was a soldier, and that
the Highlanders were therefore a military people, was
only a necessary consequence of their political state. At
the same period of civilization, all nations are alike mili-
tary. Such a force, however, is not an army ; because it
cannot have the discipline of one : nor was it ever pre-
tended that the discipline of the clans was what we should
respect; unless in some instances, and towards their last
warfares, when engaged with the government, whether
as allies or enemies. Even to the last, however, it could
not have been much ; since they were not easily rallied,
and could not be prevented from returning home when
wearied of the campaign. I cannot help thinking,
that the military condition of the Highlands under
the Lords of the Isles, must have been superior to what it
was afterwards among the divided clans. An ordinary
clan militia was little more than a guerilla party, perhaps
sometimes a rabble ; but Alexander and Donald could
not have led armies amounting to 10,000 men, without
discipline ; nor could the battle of Hara law have been
fought by a mob, even though the Highlanders were de-
feated ; if indeed both parties did not suifer alike. No
system, properly military, could, in fact, subsist in that
state of minute subdivision which marked the smaller
clans ; while it was equally incompatible with that pre-
datory kind of warfare which was waged by them. Plun-
der, nocturnal incursions, and robbery, never yet were
united to regular military discipline ; even where, as


among the Pandours and Cossacs, the system has been
far better organized, the commands more extensive, and
the officers possessed of more power.

The personal courage of the Highlanders seems to have
been accompanied by great ardour; a remarkable cir-
cumstance in a people who, though keen and acute, are
not lively, or mercurial, as the French, who are noted for
the same quality of military spirit, are. Steadiness, to
impel or bear, in action, and in bodies, are rarely united
to this quality ; and this inseparable defect appears to
have been that of the clan Highlanders. The Highland
soldier was a thinking being who acted for himself, and
who felt as if the event of the action lay in his own sword :
and this feeling, it is unnecessary to say, is fostered by
the use of weapons with which men meet hand to hand,
and when a man's life is in his own keeping. To what
valuable uses troops of this character may be turned, is
well known to military men. Whether it remains yet
among this people, it is for them to decide; and, if so, to
ask themselves whether, in the modern system, every ad-
vantage has been taken of it that might have been, or
whether the Highlanders have not been too often con-
founded with a class of men who are rather the integrant
parts of one valuable and steady body, than possessed of
any personal individuality. From this cause arose the
irregularity of the Highland charge, so often described :
each man advancing according to his own mental energy
or personal strength, as happens now in the charges of
the Cossac cavalry.

If the bow was not in general use among the High-
landers before the introduction of fire arms, they appear
to have had, for their regular arms, only the sword, the
dirk, and the target ; at least in the times best known to
us. The latter seems to have been sometimes armed with



a pike in the centre. The Celtic and Gothic nations both
had spears, and that weapon figures in the Ossianic
poetry ; yet no record is preserved of its use among the
clan Highlanders. The axe is mentioned as a weapon of
ancient times ; and the Lochaber axe seems also to have
been occasionally employed. The former, at least, we know
to have been a Norwegian weapon, and it was in use in
Ireland. It appears also that the Irish anciently used
slings; but I have never heard that this weapon was
known in the Highlands. A dagger, or knife, called a
skian, was sometimes worn under the garter of the stock-
ing, or in other parts, as an instrument of reserve : and
this fashion seems to have prevailed also among- the
ancient Irish, The Clymore is, literally, the long or two-
handed sword, specimens of which are yet preserved in
some Highland families. It is a weapon, however, that
could scarcely have been in general use, and was proba-
bly limited to officers of peculiar strength or prowess, as
we know that it actually was sometimes worn by these.

This two-handed sword was a Norwegian weapon, and
probably reached the Highlands from that source ; as
among the English, it seems to have been derived from
the Gothic warriors. It is probable, also, that it was in-
vented after plate armour, against which a lighter weapon
was of little avail. Its power and effect in the hands of
the mounted knights of the days of chivalry, are well
known ; but it was also used on foot with similar con-
sequences. Giraldus tells us that it would cut off a
man's thigh through his armour, *' so that one part of the
man fell on one side of the horse, and the remainder on
the other." In the affair of Largs, this very feat was
performed by one of the Norwegian captains, Andrew
Nicolson, upon the body of a Scottish warrior whom the
Norwegian historians call Perus, and Ferash; and who,


according- to Wintoun, was a certain Peter deCurrie;
an unfortunate dandy, apparently, who was armed and
bedizened in the very pink of the mode, with a belt, in
particular, which the poet Sturla has celebrated in his
ode, and who rode up and down along the Norwegian
line, in defiance, or to display his new armour.

The term has now long been applied to the well-
known sword in common use. Though the people appear
never to have had any other defensive armour than the
target, the chiefs or officers must have occasionally been
i)etter protected ; as we find proofs of that in the sculp-
tures on some of their tombstones. Some relics of com-
mon plate mail have also been preserved as further evi-
dence. Monipennie indeed says that the Highlanders
had iron bonnets, and habergeons to their heels. But
he is a very fabulous writer ; and if such armour had ex-
isted, so as to have been in general use, it must have
been remembered and preserved. In the more modern
times of the clans, the Highland charge is described as
being impetuous : the men, after the first fire, throwing
away their muskets and plaids, and advancing with their
swords. Even so recently, it is said that they could not
be rallied when beaten, but that they dispersed and
returned home ; as they did when the action was over,
for the purpose of securing their plunder. When it is
remarked that they made an orderly retreat at Pinkie, it
seems to be quoted as a special instance. It is remarked
also, that they often fell on the ground to avoid the eflfect
of the enemies' fire. Before action, if possible, they took
up the higher ground ; either to gain a command for fire,
or to render their charge more weighty. Like many
other mountaineers, they were used, when in possession
of fire arms, to act as riflemen ; but it never has been
said that they were celebrated as marksmen. It has

G 2


been asserted that they gave no quarter, and that they
shed blood without necessity, even down to the begin-
ning- of the last century. Their reputation for cruelty,
like many other faults, has, however, passed away, as I
have elsewhere more particularly remarked ; and it is
also denied, and with justice, that the accusation was
generally true.

It is understood that where the clan was small, or of
a moderate size, it was formed into a single regiment ; but
that when large, as was the case with the troops brought
forward by Atholl and Argyll, it was subdivided into bat-
talions. The chief was the Colonel, and the gentlemen
of the clan formed the officers. It seems also to be per-
fectly known, that, although the discipline of these troops,
in the circumstances just mentioned, was not such as to
meet our modern military ideas, the moral discipline, on
a march, or in an enemy's country, was always excellent;
as was indeed proved, both in the wars against the Ca-
meronians and in 1745. At the same time, the people
always displayed great alacrity in receiving such disci-
pline as was taught : and even now, I have often, myself,
witnessed the surprising rapidity with which Highland
recruits are drilled. The carriage of a soldier, which
generally demands some time to be acquired, is to them
but the work of a day.

They were always remarked for being afraid of
cavalry, and to a degree which is sometimes described
as absolutely ludicrous; as if the animal itself was to
devour them. It is remarkable that they themselves
were never mounted. Of the Highlands, it is true, we
may say what was said of Ithaca; yet the whole country
was not so impracticable, but that there were many situ-
ations where they might have used irregular cavalry and
derived great advantages from them. It is easy to ima-


gine a Highlander, with one of his mountain ponies, form-
ing a very effective Cossac; always abstracting the kilt,
and substituting something better in its place. But it
seems as if they had never even thought of the possibility
of such a thing: a circumstance which is the more re-
markable, as it might be imagined that horses might
have been rendered of great use on their plundering
expeditions. But they are not even now a riding people ;
although, almost till this day, the horses have been nearly
as numerous as the men, sometimes more so. A High-
lander walks sixty or seventy miles in a day, without
seeming to recollect that he has, perhaps, half a dozen
ponies running wild about his hill, doing nothing. It
would be a curious speculation to enquire whether the
kilt itself was not the cause of this : as little causes have
produced even greater effects.

I think, however, that the use of cavalry could not
always have been unknown in this country. The evidence
stands on Sueno's stone, at Foitcs: unless, indeed, the
action there represented was fought between the Danes
and the Picts. This will never be further settled ; but
the question of chariots is still more obscure. I shall
not quote the Ossianic poems as evidence of any thing;
but that the ancient Caledonians, who resisted the Roman
armies, had chariots, is matter of Roman history. It is
probable, however, that this was a Gothic people, as
Pinkerton imagines. What these chariots were, and how
they were driven in a country without roads, if indeed it
was without roads, is never likely to be accurately known,
though their construction has been conjectured. If there
could be a moment's doubt respecting the existence of
chariots, and these with wheels, even as far back as the
sixth century, it is removed by a remark in Adomnan,
quoted here on another occasion, who relates it as a mi-


racle, that Columba had travelled a whole day without a
linch-pin. That, however, must have been in the more
civilized and flatter parts of the then Pictish dominions.
It is equally plain, that if the Caledonians who impeded
the progress of the Roman army had chariots, they could
not have been mountaineers or Highlanders ; and that
these, therefore, have no reason to boast of that resist-
ance. It is perfectly visionary to imagine the possibility
of any carriage with two wheels, be its construction ever
so simple and strong, travelling, even for a mile, in any
part of the Highlands, unless where the modern roads
have been made. What difficulties this throws in the
way of some points relating to the Ossianic poems, I need
not now enquire ; that being done elsewhere.

While the singular activity of the Highlanders must
have rendered them admirable light troops and partizans,
their endurance and strength wonderfully qualified them
for long marches. It is said that Montrose's troops some-
times marched sixty miles in a day. Their mode of life
is not yet so far changed, but that they retain this valu-
able military quality in perfection ; but it is rendered of
little comparative value, where, as has been too much
the case, men of different countries or powers are united
in the same regiment, and when armies made of many
discordant materials must move in large masses together.
Martin relates that, on an expedition, it was the prac-
tice to slay the first animal they met on the enemies'
ground, and to sprinkle the colours for good luck. This,
if I mistake not, was also a Norwegian superstition.
Another modification of this superstition is rather ludi-
crous than cruel. It was a good omen to meet with a
woman on setting out, provided they could succeed in
drawing blood from her above the arm-pit. When I say
ludicrous, however, I only allude to some recent in-


stances, where the ceremony was performed in a regular
manner, by drawing a few drops of blood, according to
scientific rules, from the temple or jugular vein. In the
olden time, it is likely that they were not so scrupulous :
and that the unfortunate biped intruder sometimes
shared the fate of the goat or the cow.

Each clan had its war cry, as each had its badge ; the
latter being a necessary expedient where there were no
uniforms or regimental colours ; as it is not even pre-
tended that the common men wore those differently
coloured tartans by which the clans were supposed to be
distinguished ; and as even some of these would have
been undistinguishable in the confusion of a fight. What
the badges and what the cries were, has been preserved
for some and conjectured for others ; nor need I enume-
rate either the one or the other. Of the former, only, it
has been said by Lowland critics, that it would have been
prudent to have always named such plants as were na-
tives of the country, instead of exotics scarcely yet known
in its gardens. The field equipage of the Highlanders
is known to have been their plaids; nor will any one
question that they were, in truth, a hardy as they were a
bold race. Yet we must not forget that the power of
taking and keeping the field in this manner, has been de-
monstrated by all species of troops during the last two
wars; nor can even the wars of Montrose produce any
instance of Highlanders keeping the field so long, and
during a season so inclement, as that which occurred
during the unfortunate expedition to the Holder, and
with as little means of covering'. We may surely grant
the Highlanders all the praise they merit, without robbing
all the rest of mankind of its just dues. In the facility
of living on little food, they, however, far exceeded all
the troops of present civilized Europe. The Swedes and


Russians of Charles the twelfth's time, might, however,
probably have competed for the palm of abstinence with
them : it is likely that many of the latter would still.
Meal mixed with water appears to have been the regular
food of the campaign ; but we must also recollect, that
the low country Scots were formerly satisfied with the
same diet, and showed equal abstinence.

It appears to have been the usage of the northern
nations, to communicate their signal of war by means of
beacon lights. We do not hear of this practice among
the clans ; and perhaps it was not often applicable, on
account of the nature of the ground and the mode in
which the people were dispersed. But the practice of
sending the fiery cross, or Crosh Tarie, as it has been
called, belonged also to their northern progenitors. In
some cases, this was a mere stick, burnt at one end and
bloody at the other, or provided with a piece of cloth
dipped in blood, denouncing fire and sword against the
disobedient ; in others, the cross of shame was attached
to one extremity ; and the place of meeting was commu-
nicated by a word. If, as is stated, it is true, that this pass-
word and signal were circulated through Breadalbane^
and over a space of thirty-two miles, in three hours, no
one certainly, to whom they were in succession committed,
allowed the grass to grow under his feet. Antiquaries
who love to fish in troubled waters, may enquire whether
the Christmas game of Jack's alive, is not derived from
the transit of the fiery cross.

And thus, in the concatenation of things, we have
brought the war to a conclusion, and returned to anti-
quities, and thence to Fortingal, once more. The circu-
lar stone works called Danish, are very numerous in this
neighbourhood ; reaching into Glen Lyon on one side,
and to Edradour and Blair in Atholl, and even beyond


the latter, on the other ; being further found even as far
south as Dunkeld. This must always have been an
opulent country, because it is a fertile one ; and this
offers a much easier solution of the matter than any of
the imaginary causes for these works which have been
suggested. Strath Tay must always have been populous :
it had wealth to defend and people to defend it with.
Roman coins, and urns, said also to be Roman, have been
dug up in this neighbourhood ; and it is pretended to
point out the traces of a Roman camp.

90 OLliN LYON.


After passing- Fortingal, there is a short space, of
no peculiar interest ; but the Lyon is then seen forcing
its way through a deep and narrow pass, quitting that
long and spacious valley which is, more properly, called
Glen Lyon. The character of this valley is quite distinct
from that of any in the Highlands ; uniting the appear-
ances of a glen and a strath, being prolonged for a dis-
tance of about twelve miles, almost in a straight line from
this pass to Meggarnie, where its beauty ceases, and
being bounded, on both sides, by continuous and almost
unbroken ridges of mountain, of a very steep acclivity.
It is also a green glen and a wooded one, and is highly
peopled ; and although this general description might
imply uniformity, it presents considerable variety of cha-
racter throughout. If its landscapes do not resemble
those of the valleys formerly described, they have a
character as decided as it is purely their own. There is
not here that succession of distant trees in perpetual
diminution, and that consequent intricacy and minute-
ness of ornament, which belong to Strath Tay, or even
to the valley of Blair ; nor are the outlines and forms of
the hills so varied by the successive appearance of dis-
tant ranges and summits, as in most of the glens which I
have described on other occasions. But to compensate
that, there is a simplicity and breadth in the general


forms, together with strong markings in the shape of the
ground and in the sky line, from which the leading cha-
racters of this landscape are chiefly derived ; while, in
place of the dazzling minuteness of successive and di-
minishing trees, the woods and the groups, and even
the rows and single trees, which skirt the river, or are
scattered on the sides of the hills and in the bottom of
the valley, are all marked by the same character of dis-
tinctness and simplicity which belong to the ground
itself; thus maintaining a harmony of style in every part.
To this I must add, that not only is Glen Lyon thus
beautiful, almost throughout a large portion of its extent,
with little more of blank perhaps than suffices for con-
trast, but that it presents, for the artist's use, many dis-
tinct and striking landscapes, in different modes of com-
position; always rendered peculiarly rich in the middle
and foregrounds, and hence also differing from those of
most of the valleys formerly described, where so much de-
pends on the middle distances and on the outlines upon
the sky. The want of variety and of space in the extreme
distances, might indeed almost seem a defect in this
place ; were it not that the landscape does not materially
depend on these for its character : which may almost be
considered as appertaining to close scenery, if such a
term can be applied to so spacious a valley.

The steep descent into Glen Lyon, amid dark and
dense woods, is very striking; and we immediately enter
on a narrow part of it, giving room to little more than the
road, and to the river, which rolls majestically along
beneath lofty overhanging mountains and amid trees of
noble growth. These, Avith all the freedom of nature,
are nevertheless so disposed on its banks, skirting it as
with an avenue, that we almost imagine we are entering
on some pleasure grounds, and naturally look for the


house to which they may belong. It is all a splendid
park scene, where every thing is already done, but
where all is deserted and all in the hands of nature. To
the artist, it affords many fine subjects for drawing, in a
peculiar style of river scenery, where the trees, each of
which might form studies, as well for their magnitude as
for their beauty, variety, and distinctness,formeven a more
important part of the landscape than the hills, which rise
suddenly up, high and rocky towards the sky ; adding,
to the ornaments of the river, the support and contrast
which confer on it an alpine character. I ought to have
said before, that where the Tay and the Lyon join, the latter
is scarcely inferior in consequence, so that its importance
in the scenery, as a mere body of water, is easily compre-
hended ; while, in different places, it presents the differ-
ent characters of a river forcing its turbulent way
through a rocky channel, of a deep and smooth stream
gliding majestically beneath its high banks, and of a
meandering water whose bright and distant glimpses
are occasionally seen as they break out among the
trees which adorn it, or among* the intricacies of the

As the valley expands beyond this part, the scenery
changes its character in various ways, so as to display, in
some places, new modes of river landscape, in others,
the wide and prolonged strath, bounded by its lofty
hills and stretching away with a succession of irregular
ground and of scattered trees and woods ; offering a
class of vale scenery as distinct from all that we had
before seen, as it is grand and picturesque. I dare not
attempt to specify these, but may observe that some of
the most remarkable will be found about the middle of
the valley ; one of which, in particular, cannot fail to
attract notice, from combining, with the richness that


arises from the repetition of trees along a river in a dis-
tant and intricate succession, that grandeur and sim-

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 7 of 37)