A Strange Reflux

This contemptuous loathing lasted till the year 1745, and was then for a moment succeeded by intense fear and rage. England, thoroughly alarmed, put forth her whole strength. The Highlands were subjugated rapidly, completely, and for ever. During a short time the English nation, still heated by the recent conflict, breathed nothing but vengeance. The slaughter on the field of battle and on the scaffold was not sufficient to slake the public thirst for blood. The sight of the tartan inflamed the populace of London with hatred, which showed itself by unmanly outrages to defenceless captives. A political and social revolution took place through the whole Celtic region. The power of the chiefs was destroyed: the people were disarmed: the use of the old national garb was interdicted: the old predatory habits were effectually broken; and scarcely had this change been accomplished when a strange reflux of public feeling began. Pity succeeded to aversion. The nation execrated the cruelties which had been committed on the Highlanders, and forgot that for those cruelties it was itself answerable. Those very Londoners, who, while the memory of the march to Derby was still fresh, had thronged to hoot and pelt the rebel prisoners, now fastened on the prince who had put down the rebellion the nickname of Butcher. Those barbarous institutions and usages, which, while they were in full force, no Saxon had thought worthy of serious examination, or had mentioned except with contempt, had no sooner ceased to exist than they became objects of curiosity, of interest, even of admiration. Scarcely had the chiefs been turned into mere landlords, when it became the fashion to draw invidious comparisons between the rapacity of the landlord and the indulgence of the chief. Men seemed to have forgotten that the ancient Gaelic polity had been found to be incompatible with the authority of law, had obstructed the progress of civilisation, had more than once brought on the empire the curse of civil war. As they had formerly seen only the odious side of that polity, they could now see only the pleasing side. The old tie, they said, had been parental: the new tie was purely commercial. What could be more lamentable than that the head of a tribe should eject, for a paltry arrear of rent, tenants who were his own flesh and blood, tenants whose forefathers had often with their bodies covered his forefathers on the field of battle? As long as there were Gaelic marauders, they had been regarded by the Saxon population as hateful vermin who ought to be exterminated without mercy. As soon as the extermination had been accomplished, as soon as cattle were as safe in the Perthshire passes as in Smithfield market, the freebooter was exalted into a hero of romance. As long as the Gaelic dress was worn, the Saxons had pronounced it hideous, ridiculous, nay, grossly indecent. Soon after it had been prohibited, they discovered that it was the most graceful drapery in Europe. The Gaelic monuments, the Gaelic usages, the Gaelic superstitions, the Gaelic verses, disdainfully neglected during many ages, began to attract the attention of the learned from the moment at which the peculiarities of the Gaelic race began to disappear. So strong was
this impulse that, where the Highlands were concerned, men of sense gave ready credence to stories without evidence, and men of taste gave rapturous applause to compositions without merit. Epic poems, which any skilful and dispassionate critic would at a glance have perceived to be almost entirely modern, and which, if they had been published as modern, would have instantly found their proper place in company with Blackmore’s Alfred and Wilkie’s Epigoniad, were pronounced to be fifteen hundred years old, and were gravely classed with the Iliad. Writers of a very different order from the impostor who fabricated these forgeries saw how striking an effect might be produced by skilful pictures of the old Highland life. Whatever was repulsive was softened down: whatever was graceful and noble was brought prominently forward. Some of these works were executed with such admirable art that, like the historical plays of Shakspeare, they superseded history. The visions of the poet were realities to his readers. The places which he described became holy ground, and were visited by thousands of pilgrims. Soon the vulgar imagination was so completely occupied by plaids, targets, and claymores, that, by most Englishmen, Scotchman and Highlander were regarded as synonymous words. Few people seemed to be aware that, at no remote period, a Macdonald or a Macgregor in his tartan was to a citizen of Edinburgh or Glasgow what an Indian hunter in his war paint is to an inhabitant of Philadelphia or Boston. Artists and actors represented Bruce and Douglas in striped petticoats. They might as well have represented Washington brandishing a tomahawk, and girt with a string of scalps. At length this fashion reached a point beyond which it was not easy to proceed. The last British King who held a court in Holyrood thought that he could not give a more striking proof of his respect for the usages which had prevailed in Scotland before the Union, than by disguising himself in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a thief.

Thus it has chanced that the old Gaelic institutions and manners have never been exhibited in the simple light of truth. Up to the middle of the last century, they were seen through one false medium: they have since been seen through another.

Thus it has chanced that the old Gaelic institutions and manners have never been exhibited in the simple light of truth. Up to the middle of the last century, they were seen through one false medium: they have since been seen through another. Once they loomed dimly through an obscuring and distorting haze of prejudice; and no sooner had that fog dispersed than they appeared bright with all the richest tints of poetry. The time when a perfectly fair picture could have been painted has now passed away. The original has long disappeared: no authentic effigy exists: and all that is possible is to produce an imperfect likeness by the help of two portraits, of which one is a coarse caricature and the other a masterpiece of flattery.

— Lord Macaulay, History of England, Vol. III, chap. xiii.

The Old Foundations of Life

Malvine, Dying in the Arms of Fingal, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson.
Malvine, Dying in the Arms of Fingal, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson.

Gaelic-speaking Ireland, because its art has been made, not only by the artist choosing his material from wherever he has a mind to, but by adding a little to something which it has taken generations to invent, has always had a popular literature. We cannot say how much that literature has done for the vigour of the race, for we cannot count the hands its praise of kings and high-hearted queens made hot upon the sword-hilt, or the amorous eyes it made lustful for strength and beauty. We remember indeed that when the farming people and the labourers of the towns made their last attempt to cast out England by force of arms they named themselves after the companions of Finn. Even when Gaelic has gone, and the poetry with it, something of the habit remains in ways of speech and thought and ‘come-all-ye’s’ and political sayings; nor is it only among the poor that the old thought has been for strength or weakness. Surely these old stories, whether of Finn or Cuchulain, helped to sing the old Irish and the old Norman-Irish aristocracy to their end. They heard their hereditary poets and story-tellers, and they took to horse and died fighting against Elizabeth or against Cromwell; and when an English-speaking aristocracy had their place, it listened to no poetry indeed, but it felt about it in the popular mind an exacting and ancient tribunal, and began a play that had for spectators men and women that loved the high wasteful virtues. I do not think that their own mixed blood or the habit of their time need take all, or nearly all, credit or discredit for the impulse that made our modern gentlemen fight duels over pocket-handkerchiefs, and set out to play ball against the gates of Jerusalem for a wager, and scatter money before the public eye; and at last, after an epoch of such eloquence the world has hardly seen its like, lose their public spirit and their high heart and grow querulous and selfish as men do who have played life out not heartily but with noise and tumult. Had they understood the people and the game a little better, they might have created an aristocracy in an age that has lost the meaning of the word. When we read of the Fianna, or of Cuchulain, or of some great hero, we remember that the fine life is always a part played finely before fine spectators. There also we notice the hot cup and the cold cup of intoxication; and when the fine spectators have ended, surely the fine players grow weary, and aristocratic life is ended. When O’Connell covered with a dark glove the hand that had killed a man in the duelling field, he played his part; and when Alexander stayed his army marching to the conquest of the world that he might contemplate the beauty of a plane-tree, he played his part. When Osgar complained, as he lay dying, of the keening of the women and the old fighting men, he too played his part: ‘No man ever knew any heart in me,’ he said, ‘but a heart of twisted horn, and it covered with iron; but the howling of the dogs beside me,’ he said, ‘and the keening of the old fighting men and the crying of the women one after another, those are the things that are vexing me’.

If we would create a great community–and what other game is so worth the labour?–we must recreate the old foundations of life, not as they existed in that splendid misunderstanding of the eighteenth century, but as they must always exist when the finest minds and Ned the beggar and Sean the fool think about the same thing, although they may not think the same thought about it.

— W. B. Yeats’s Preface to Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men, 1904.

Passing History

THE Highlands of Scotland, like many greater things in the world, may be said to be unknown, yet well-known. Thousands of summer tourists every year, and from every part of the civilised world, gaze on the romantic beauties of the Trosachs and Loch Lomond, skirt the Hebrides from the Firth of Clyde to Oban, trundle through the wild gorge of Glencoe, chatter among the ruins of Iona, scramble over the wonders of Staffa, sail along the magnificent line of lakes to Inverness, reach the sombre Coolins, or disturb the silence of Coruisg. Pedestrains also, with stick and knapsack, search the more solitary wildernesses and glens of the mainland, from the Grampians to Ross-shire and Caithness. Sportsmen, too, have their summer quarters dotted over the moors, or scattered on the hill-sides and beside clear streams, with all the irregularity of the boulders of the great northern drift, but furnished with most of the luxuries of an English home. All these, it must be admitted, know something of the Highlands.

Tourists know the names of steamers, coaches, and hotels; and how they were cheated by boatmen, porters, and guides. They have a vague impression of misty mountains, stormy seas, heavy rains, difficult roads, crowded inns, unpronounceable Gaelic names, with brighter remembrances of landscapes whose grandeur they have probably never seen surpassed.

Pedestrians can recall lonely and unfrequented paths across broken moorlands undulating far away, like brown shoreless seas, through unploughed and untrodden valleys, where the bark of a shepherd’s dog, and much more the sight of a shepherd’s hut, were dearly welcomed. They can also recall panoramas from hill-tops or from rocky promontories, of lake and river, moor and forest, sea and island, of lonely keeps and ruined homesteads, and of infinite sheep-walks and silent glens which seemed to end in chaos. And these remembrances will flit before them like holy days of youth, and “hang about the beatings of the heart,” refreshing and sanctifying it, amidst the din and worry of a city life.

Sportsmen, when they visit old shootings, hail from afar the well-known hill-sides and familiar “ground.” They can tell twenty miles off where the birds are scarce, or where, according to the state of the weather, they can be found. They have waded up to the shoulders in Highland lakes, nothing visible but hat swathed with flies and hand wielding the lithe rod and line. They have trodden the banks and tried the pools of every famous stream, until the very salmon that are left know their features and their flies, and tremble for their cunning temptations. The whole scenery is associated in their memory with the braces that have been bagged, the stags which have been killed, or—oh, horrid memory!—missed, “when the herd was coming right towards us, and all from that blockhead Charlie, who would look if they were within shot.” The keepers, and gillies, and beaters, and the whole tribe of expectants, are also well-known, as such; and every furrowed face is to these sportsmen a very poem, an epic, a heroic ballad, a history of the past season of happiness, as well as a prophecy of the morrow, hoped for with a beating heart, which blames the night and urges on the morn.

There are others, too, who may be expected to know something of the Highlands. Low-country sheep-farmers, redolent of wool; English proprietors, who, as summer visitants, occupy the old castle of some extinct feudal chief; Highland lairds, who are absentees save during the grouse season; geologists, who have explored the physical features of the land; and antiquaries, who have dipped into, or even studied profoundly, its civil and ecclesiastical antiquities.

Nevertheless, to all such, the Highlands may be as unknown in their real life and spirit as the scent of the wild bog-myrtle is to the accomplished gentleman who has no sense of smell; or as a Gaelic boat-song is to a Hindoo pundit.

Some readers may very naturally be disposed to ask, with a sneer of contempt, what precise loss any human being incurs from want of this knowledge? The opinion may be most reasonably held and expressed that the summer tourist, the wandering pedestrian, or the autumnal sportsman, have probably taken out of the Northern wilderness all that was worth bringing into the Southern Canaan of civilised life; and that as much gratitude, at least, is due for what is forgotten as for what is remembered.

Perhaps those readers may be right. And if so, then, for their own comfort as well as for mine, I warn them that if they have been foolish enough to accompany me thus far, they should pity me, bid me farewell, and wish me a safe deliverance from the mountains.

Is there any one, let me ask, who reads these lines, and yet dislikes peat-reek? any one who puts his fingers in his ears when he hears the bagpipe—the real war-pipe—begin a real pibroch? any one who dislikes the kilt, the Gaelic, the clans, and who does not believe in Ossian? any one who has a prejudice to the Mac, or who cannot comprehend why one Mac should prefer a Mac of his own clan to the Mac of any other clan? any one who smiles at the ignorance of a Highland parson who never reads a London review, who never heard about one in ten of the “schools of modern thought,” and who believes, without any mental suffering, that two and two make four? any one who puts his glass to his eye during prayer in a Highland church, and looks at his fellow-traveller with a sneer while the peasants sing their psalms? any one who, when gazing on a Highland landscape, descants to his local admirers upon some hackneyed Swiss scene they never saw, or enumerates a dozen Swiss Horns, the Wetter Horn, Schreckhorn, or any other horn which has penetrated into his brain? Forbid that any such terribly clever and well-informed cosmopolitans should “lose ten tickings of their watch” in reading these reminiscences!

[The man] who owes all that makes him tolerable in society to the Celtic blood which flows in spite of him through his veins;—for this man to be proud of his English accent, to sneer at the everlasting hills, the old kirk and its simple worship, and to despise the race which has never disgraced him—faugh!

One other class sometimes found in society, I would especially beseech to depart; I mean Highlanders ashamed of their country. Cockneys are bad enough, but they are sincere and honest in their idolatry of the Great Babylon. Young Oxonians or young barristers, even when they become slashing London critics, are more harmless than they themselves imagine, and after all inspire less awe than Ben Nevis, or than the celebrated agriculturist who proposed to decompose the mountain with acids, and scatter the debris as a fertiliser over the Lochaber moss. But a Highlander, who was nurtured on oatmeal porridge and oatmeal cakes; who in his youth wore home-spun cloth, and was innocent of shoes and stockings; who blushed in his first attempts to speak the English language; who never saw a nobler building for years than the little kirk in the glen; and who owes all that makes him tolerable in society to the Celtic blood which flows in spite of him through his veins;—for this man to be proud of his English accent, to sneer at the everlasting hills, the old kirk and its simple worship, and to despise the race which has never disgraced him—faugh! Peat-reek is frankincense in comparison with him; let him not be distracted by any of my reminiscences of the old country; leave them, I beseech of thee!

I ask not how old or how young those are who remain; I care not what their theory of political economy or their school of modern philosophy may be; I am indifferent as to their evening employment, whether it be darning stockings, sitting idle round the winter fire in the enjoyment of repose, or occupying, as invalids, their bed or their chair. If only they are charitable souls, who hope all things, and are not easily provoked; who would like to get a peep into forms of society, and to hear about customs differing greatly from what they have hitherto been acquainted with; or to have an easy chat about a country less known, perhaps, than any other in Europe,—then shall I gladly unfold to them my reminiscences of a people worth knowing about and loving, and of a period in history that is passing, if, indeed, it has not already passed away.

— Norman Macleod, D.D., Reminiscences of a Highland Parish, “Preamble,” London, 1867.

Patrimonial Possessions of the Ancients

Standard of Ranald Alexander Macdonald of Clanranald, 24th Chief and Captain of Clanranald.
Standard of Ranald Alexander Macdonald of Clanranald, 24th Chief and Captain of Clanranald.

Seventeen hundred years exactly,
And fifteen years directly close,
From the birth of God to the death of Allan,
Whoever should enquire.

Our importuning of the Chief over heaven,
Grant, O Mary, O Son, our request.
That he be in heaven of the angelic orders,
If it be the will of our Lord.

To the abode of the pure angels
Is the journey for his soul;
It is not right to be sorrowful after him,
It is sufficient to remember our first redemption.

Such as have remained with us of his princely blood,
May the king of the elements well direct them,
And bring them to obtain their property by right,
And defend them against the power of the enemy.

Young Ranald, our country’s chief,
May he come with a right royal intention,
To the patrimonial possessions of the ancients
To awaken the spirit of the warriors.

The King who redeemed all people —
We implore Him to send prosperity in our time,
And to send [Ranald] to our presence over the wave,
Since the nobility of our wishes has fallen.

Excerpt of Elegy of Allan of Clanranald from the Book of Clanranald.

Continue reading “Patrimonial Possessions of the Ancients”

Where All the Women are Strong, All the Men are Good Looking…

The inhabitants of this Island are for the most part of a good stature, strong and nimble, of a good complexion, live verie long, much addicted to hunting, arching, shooting, swimming, wherein they are expert. Their language for the most part is Irish, which is very empathetick, and for its antiquity Scaliger reckons it one of the material languages of Europe. They are good lovers of all sorts of mussick — have a good ear.

As to their women they are very modest, temperet in ther dyet and apparell, excessively grieved at the death of any near relation.

All the inhabitants here have a great veneration for their superiour, whom with the King they make particular mention of in ther privat devotion. Besides ther land rents, they ordinarilie send gratis to their superiours of the product of ther lands of all sorts. They honour ther ministers in a high degree, to whose care, under God, they owe ther freedom from idolatrie and many superstitious customes. Their traditions, wherein they are verie faithful, gives account that this Isle has been in time of the Danes and since, the scene of many warlik exploits. Some of ther genealogers can neither read nor writt, and yett will give an account of some passages in Buchanan his Chronicles, Plutarches Lives; yea, they will not onlie talk of what has passed in former ages, but in ther pedigree will almost ascend near Adam, as ifthey had an Ephemerides of all ther ancestors’ lives. They treat strangers with great civility, and give them such as the place does afford without ever demanding any payment. There are among them who excell in poetrie, and can give a satyre or panegyrick ex tempore on sight upon anie subject whatsomever.

Description of Sky from The Spottiswoode Miscellany: A Collection of Original Papers and Tracts, Illustrative Chiefly of the Civil and Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, Spottiswoode Society, 1845.

As Thicke As Pleates May Lye

With skulles upon their poules,
Insteade of civil cappes,
With speares in hand and sword by sides,
To bear off afterclappes;
With jackettes long and large,
Which shroud simplicitie:
Though spiteful dartes which they do beare
Importe iniquitie.
Their shirtes be verie straunge,
Not reaching paste the thigh,
With pleates on pleates they pleated are,
As thicke as pleates may lye.
Whose slieves hang trailing doune,
Almoste unto the shoe,
And with a mantle commonlie
The Irish Karne doe goe.
And some amongst the reste,
Do use another weede:
A coat I ween of strange device,
Which fancie first did breed.
His skirtes be verie shorte,
With pleates set thicke about,
And Irish trouzes more, to put
Their straunge protractours out.
Like as their weedes be straunge,
And monstrous to beholde;
So do their manners far surpasse
Them all a thousand folde.
For they are termed wilde,
Wood Karne they have to name;
And mervaile not though straunge it be,
For they deserve the same.

— from The Image of Irelande, by John Derricke (London, 1581).

The Image of Irelande: Kern Led by Piper

The Image of Irelande; Plate 2. An armed company of the kern, carrying halberds and pikes and led by a piper, attack and burn a farmhouse and drive off the horses and cattle.
The Image of Irelande; Plate 2. An armed company of the kern (Gaelic light infantry), carrying halberds and pikes and led by a piper, attack and burn a farmhouse and drive off the horses and cattle. Note the characteristic léine (saffron-dyed shirt with baggy sleeves bloused around the waist) and ionar (short open-sleeved jacket) worn by the kern.

Kern are mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Acts I and V):

The merciless Macdonwald–
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villanies of nature
Do swarm upon him–from the western isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied;

[…]

Mark, king of Scotland, mark:
No sooner justice had with valour arm’d
Compell’d these skipping kerns to trust their heels,
But the Norweyan lord surveying vantage,
With furbish’d arms and new supplies of men
Began a fresh assault.

[…]

I cannot strike at wretched kerns, whose arms
Are hired to bear their staves: either thou, Macbeth,
Or else my sword with an unbatter’d edge
I sheathe again undeeded.