The Highlanders are Great Thieves.
—Cassius Dio, Roman historian, Third Century A.D.
Twenty thousand years ago, the last great ice age buried the northern half of Europe under a massive glacier. In some places, the Eurasian ice sheet was as much as one mile thick; it acted as a primordial bulldozer, relentlessly shoving aside everything in its path. It did its most destructive work in Scandinavia and northern Britain, grinding the earth’s surface down to the bare rock. When the huge ice plate finally melted and receded, it left behind a pitiless landscape of granite mountains and deep, gouged-out river valleys—the landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Only a thin, provisional crust of topsoil covered the harsh, flinty ground. It is the poorest land in Britain.
Nonetheless, over the next millennia it would become home to a succession of peoples. First, pre-Celtic Neolithic tribesmen; then the Picts, who battled the Romans along Hadrian’s Wall for control of northern Britain; and then, finally, wanderers from Ireland whom the Romans termed Scoti (or “bandits”) but who called themselves the Gael. Celtic by language and culture, the Gaels congregated in extended family groupings—the ancestors of the clans. By the middle of the eighteenth century there were more than 600,000 people living in this wild, inaccessible region. The agriculture produced by that poor layer of topsoil could barely support half that number.
By 1745 the Highlands were on the brink of starvation. Political events far beyond the mountains and glens were about to set off a massive upheaval, as the news spread south that the clans were on the move.
To an observant Scot in the 1730s and 1740s, Lord Kames’s four-stage theory of social evolution was more than a theory; it was a part of everyday reality. Looking around him, he could see all four stages in action at once.
For example, Glasgow and Edinburgh were beginning to exhibit all the characteristics of “polite” commercial society. The fertile river valleys in the middle Lowlands, from Ayrshire and Lanarkshire in the Clyde Valley across the Lothians to Berwick and Roxburgh, fit the agrarian stage, as lairds and tenants labored as they always had to produce the annual harvest. In fact, the Scottish version of “fixed” agriculture was anything but fixed: a prodigious wave of agricultural improvement was about to sweep over the Lowlands. One of the most enthusiastic improvers was Lord Kames himself. He constantly experimented on his family estate with new crops, crop rotation, and different manures and fertilizers—all in order to make his land more productive. Kames even dubbed agriculture “the chief of the arts,” and wrote an influential book on the subject. In it he admonished his fellow landlords and their tenants for their “stupid attachment to ancient habit and practices,” and pushed them to embrace the new. After the disastrous harvest of 1740, which triggered the last widespread famine in Scottish history, many were ready to follow his lead. Change was becoming the norm in Lowland Scotland, just as it is for us living in the modern global village: change for those living on the land, as well as those in the city.
The Highlands, by contrast, seemed permanently stuck in the pastoral stage. Its inhabitants were herdsmen, living off their flocks of cattle and sheep, with farming coming in a poor second. The clan way of life fit perfectly Kames’s own description of the “shepherd life, in which societies are formed by the conjunction of families for mutual defense.” Once a source of strength, the clan system now increasingly isolated its members from the rest of Britain and Scotland.
In 1600, Lowlanders and Highlanders would not have been strangers to each other. By 1700 they were. Even before the Act of Union, a series of changes had driven a wedge between the two halves of Scotland. Some were social and economic, as cities and the cash-based relations between laird and tenant uprooted the last remnants of clanship in the Lowlands. Some were religious, as the Lowlands embraced the Presbyterianism of John Knox, while the clansmen in the north tended to remain loyal to the Catholic faith or followed their chieftains into the Episcopalian Church. Others were linguistic, as Gaelic disappeared from the regions of Scotland south of the Firth of Forth but remained firmly rooted in the glens and Hebridean Islands to the north. But in every case, the next century would only deepen the split, which the events of 1745 would set in high relief.
Then, if the observer turned to the Western Isles and the remotest parts of the north of Scotland, he might catch a glimpse of the most primitive of social stages, the hunter-gatherer stage. Tiny communities of fishermen and gatherers of seaweed and whelks dotted the Hebridean coast, eking out an existence from the rocky shoreline as they had for hundreds of years. Samuel Johnson saw them when he made his tour of the Hebrides with James Boswell in 1773, and noted the crude and pitiful huts in which they lived.
A visit to the north made any Scot immune from the romantic myth of the “noble savage.” This was not a life of harmony with nature, as the disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—or the modern radical environmentalist—might think. It was a world of dreary drudgery, inhabited by a people, Johnson observed, “whose whole time is a series of distress; where every morning is labouring with expedients for the evening; and where all mental pain or pleasure arose from the dread of winter, the expectation of spring, the caprices of their chiefs, and the motions of the neighboring clans.” No wonder he concluded, in one of his most famous maxims, that “the best prospect a Scotsman ever sees is the high road to London.”
London, perhaps, but more likely Glasgow or Edinburgh. If hunting-gathering and pastoral-nomadic Scotland chained people to a life of destitution and ignorance, commercial Scotland opened them up to the rest of the world, and the rest of Britain. In 1740, Glasgow’s great Tobacco Lords were just coming into their own, and the wealth from their American trade was about to transform the face of the city. The teeming warehouses and counting-houses along Glasgow’s business district not only looked westward over the Atlantic but also south and east, as Glasgow merchants re-exported their American tobacco cargoes to ports in France, Scandinavia, and Russia, as well as the Mediterranean.10
But it was Edinburgh that first exhibited the key advantages of life in a commercial, modern society. In 1740 it was still a small town compared with London or even Bristol. Citizens rich and poor still lived in the dank narrow alleys and wynds of the Old Town, now packed to overflowing. But the city breathed an energy and cultural vitality that every observer noted immediately. James Boswell described what it was like growing up in Edinburgh in the 1740s, with its unceasing bustle and social diversity, as he would race home after class down Horse Wynd and up Borthwick’s Close, past “advocates, writers, Scotch Hunters, cloth-merchants, Presbyterian ministers, country lairds, captains both by land and sea, porters, chairmen, and cadies”—“cadies” being young men hired to do menial tasks (such as the one for which we still use the word, namely carrying golf clubs).
Secular polite culture had arrived in Edinburgh, of a sort that a Lord Shaftesbury could recognize, and despite the occasional fierce opposition of local clergy. The sound that had symbolized the good life for the young Lord Kames—a harpsichord—had become part of everyday public life, thanks to the Crosskeys Tavern off Canongate. There, owner Patrick Steel, who was also a violin maker, sponsored regular concerts by talented amateur musicians. Lord Colville on the harpsichord, Forbes of Newhall on the viola da gamba, Steel himself on the violin, and Sir Gilbert Elliott of Minto on a new instrument from Germany, the transverse flute, drew flocks of admiring ladies. A little later the Edinburgh Musical Society would soon make the city Scotland’s music capital.
More daringly, dancing also penetrated the Edinburgh scene. In 1710, Edinburgh had its first public ball. By the next decade Scotland’s leading aristocrats—Hamilton, Morton, Annandale, and Islay—could be seen dancing minuets, gavottes, and polonaises at parties or “assemblies” in private homes, much like their counterparts in London or Paris. The real breakthrough came in 1737, when ministers-in-training were allowed to learn to dance without fear of retribution, divine or otherwise. Alexander Carlyle, who was studying to be a minister at the university in the 1740s, took up dancing lessons with enthusiasm. As he confessed years later, he became quite good at it, “and had my choice of partners on all occasions.”
Carlyle probably also perused Rules of Good Deportment, published in Edinburgh in 1720 by Adam Petrie. The Rules vividly demonstrated how “polite society” in Shaftesbury and Hutcheson’s sense required new standards of personal behavior. Petrie’s premise was that “civility is a pleasant Accomplishment” as well as “a Duty injoined by God.” He explained to his fellow Scots that gentlemen walk, rather than run, in the street. They don’t make faces or move their hands when they speak. They don’t prod people in the stomach to emphasize a point, and “when you discourse with another, stand not so near him as to breathe in his face.”
Petrie also warned against making noises when you eat, or cramming your mouth with food, which is behavior, he explained, “more suitable to a Beast than a rational creature.” The polite diner does not lick his fingers at the table, or blow on his soup if it is too hot. Petrie concluded his advice on table manners by saying, “Do not smell at what you eat or drink, and it is most rude to do it to what another eats or drinks.”
Edinburgh got its first daily newspaper in 1705. The Royal Bank of Scotland, the first such since the disastrous Darien failure, opened its doors in 1727, as did the Friendly Insurance Company and the Royal Infirmary. Scots Magazine published its first issue in 1739. It is still published today. Shops offering the physical accoutrements of polite manners—lace, gloves, linen underclothing, snuff, and gentleman’s powdered wigs—became part of Edinburgh commercial life, employing local men and women. Allan Ramsay, for example, was apprenticed to a wigmaker when he arrived in Edinburgh from his home in Lanarkshire. Once again, his education was a tribute to Scottish village schools. Although Ramsay was the son and stepson of day laborers, he learned enough Latin to read Horace “faintly in the original,” as he put it. Ramsay set up his own wigmaking shop in 1707, the same year as the Act of Union, but continued his voracious intellectual interests, poring over London publications such as Addison’s Spectator and Defoe’s Review. In 1727 he published his first poems, and then opened a bookstore in the Luckenbooths, beside St. Giles’s church.
Ramsay understood, as other Scots soon would, that high culture could also be good business. To increase his customer base, he permitted patrons not only to buy the latest books but also to borrow them for a week or two, for a subscription fee. It was the first lending library in Britain, and soon people were following Ramsay’s example up and down Scotland. At first Ramsay ran afoul of the Kirk: clerics warned that he was allowing profane and sinful works to circulate in the city, and demanded that he be shut down. The day the town council sent inspectors to examine Ramsay’s bookshelves, however, they were amazed to discover them full of theological works and sermons. The city fathers decided to allow Ramsay to stay open.
He did go too far, however, when he tried to open a theater, almost within sight of the John Knox House. The Kirk attacked Ramsay’s “Hellbred Playhouse Comedians who debauch all the Faculties of the Souls of our Rising Generation,” and the place had to be closed. It would be several more years before plays could be performed publicly in Edinburgh; people instead went to what were called “presentations,” usually in someone’s private home. But a corner had been turned in the battle against the old prohibitions and taboos, and the Kirk’s warning about “the Souls of our Rising Generation” shows that it knew the old Presbyterianism was losing its grip.
Commercial Scotland had another significance in the 1740s. Glasgow and Edinburgh were where loyalty to the British union ran the deepest. They were “Whig” cities par excellence, meaning committed to ties to England and parliamentary rule from Westminster, as well as the new Hanoverian kings, a succession of German-born Georges with their English prime ministers. The first generation of Scottish Whigs, men such as Principal Carstares, had had to fight for union, and saw it primarily as a way to keep a Protestant on the throne. The next generation—men such as William Robertson, David Hume, Hugh Blair, John Home, and Alexander Carlyle—could take union for granted. Those self-professed disciples of Kames and Hutcheson saw their mission as securing Scotland’s rightful place as England’s equal in this United Kingdom. When Robertson composed his History of Scotland in 1759, he could boast that “the union having incorporated the two nations, and rendered them one people, the distinctions which had subsisted for many ages gradually wear away; peculiarities disappear; the same manners prevail in both parts of the island. . . .”
One such distinction had been political. John Erskine of Grange, a jurist and leading Scottish Whig, noticed this as early as 1735. The end of independent Scotland, with its own Parliament and Privy Council, had not brought despotism and tyranny, as so many had feared. Just the opposite. “There is a wide difference,” Erskine noted, “between constitutional and effectual liberty.” In Scotland, he explained, “we had the first; but actual liberty was a stranger here.” Even the greatest aristocrats were not really free men, “for they were lawless, and with lawlessness freedom is inconsistent.” Thinking of figures such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, Erskine remarked, “the truth is our Scottish heroes of old savor a little of the Poles at present,” Poland being the eighteenth-century equivalent of constitutional anarchy. “They fought for liberty and independency, but not [for] the country, but [for] the Crown and the grandees.” Scots were beginning to realize that the passing of the old laws could be a matter of celebration rather than regret. In fact, that same year, 1735, saw the death penalty for witchcraft finally abolished.
The other distinction between England and Scotland, and just as important in the minds of Robertson and others, had been cultural and literary. Whereas seventeenth-century Scotland had little or no great literature to set beside the achievements of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, today, Robertson wrote, “the same standard of taste, and purity of language, is established” in both England and Scotland.
“Purity of language”—this touched on a thorny issue in the eighteenth century, namely whether educated Scotsmen should adopt English, instead of Scots, as their primary written and spoken tongue. The social and cultural pressures for taking up English were intense. Everyone knew that England was the dominant partner in this new united kingdom. A Scotsman with drive and ambition measured his success by his success in England, and particularly in the English equivalent of the Big Apple, London. Succeeding there required learning to be and act English: Dr. Johnson’s maxim about the high road to London turned out to be true in more ways than one. At the same time, one was expected to set aside the language and culture one had grown up with since childhood. But how far and how much? That was the question that the early Scottish Enlightenment confronted head-on, and with it something that has bedeviled the modern world ever since: the question of cultural identity.
In fact, Scottish Whigs such as Robertson, Adam Smith, and David Hume confronted much the same problem that Indian, Chinese, and other Third World intellectuals would encounter a century or two later: how to deal with a dominant culture that one admired but that threatened to overwhelm one’s own heritage, and oneself with it. At times they tried to act as if there were really only one culture, a British culture, just as there was only kingdom, Great Britain. They even took to calling themselves “North Britons,” implying that any remaining difference between the two people was merely geographic. However, no Englishman ever referred to himself as a “South Briton,” and Scots knew it. No amount of political wishful thinking could close the cultural gap.
One of the first to realize this was the poet James Thomson. Born in the Scottish border country, he was not only the first nature poet and forerunner of British Romanticism; he also composed the anthem of Scottish Whiggery, which would resound down through the next two centuries as rousing choruses of “Rule Britannia”:
When Britain first at Heaven’s Command
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sung the strain:
Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves!
Britons never shall be slaves.
Here was the Scottish Whig ideal: we are Britons, Scots and English all, belonging to one nation and enjoying the same privileges and liberties. All the same, although it was Thomson’s own home of Southdean in the Tweed river valley that inspired his poetic landscapes, and although he studied in Edinburgh and lived there for nine years, it was not until he went to London in 1726 and found a fellow Scot named Millan to publish the first part of his cycle of poems, The Seasons, that he found the literary success he craved.11 An English, not a Scottish, reading public made Thomson one of the most celebrated writers of the eighteenth century—and English, not his native Scots, served as the vehicle for his poetic muse.
So which to use, English or Scots (not, we note, Gaelic, which hardly any urban dweller spoke)? Despite their shared origin as dialects of old Anglo-Saxon, the two languages diverged widely in vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Enlivened by borrowings from French and Scandinavian as well as Gaelic, broad Scots could be heard up and down the streets of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, as well as in the farms and valleys of the Clyde and Tweed. For centuries it had served as the language of law, government, commerce, and the Kirk. It had also spawned a rich literary heritage during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as even a dedicated Scottish Whig such as William Robertson readily admitted. But now, as the eighteenth century dawned, it seemed second-class. As the career of James Thomson demonstrated, any Scottish modern or “polite” culture would have to take root in the idiom from the south.
For most Scots, learning to converse and write in English was as difficult as learning a new language. Mistakes in grammar, as well as accent, would constantly give them away. David Hume conversed in broad Scots all his life, but he always regretted that he never learned to speak English as well as he wrote it. He confessed that he and his fellow Scots were “unhappy in our Accent and Pronunciation.” It was not easy to pronounce night as nite instead of nicht, or say brite instead of bricht. It was hard to remember to say old instead of auld; above instead of aboon; talk instead of crack; a gathering instead of a rockin’; to say “It made me very glad” instead of “It pat me fidgin’ fain” or “I am angry” instead of “I’m a’ in a pelter” and “I have drunk a great deal” instead of “I drang a muckle.” Hume confessed to an English correspondent, “Notwithstanding all the Pains, which I have taken in the Study of the English Language, I am still jealous of my Pen. As to my Tongue, you have seen, that I regard it as totally desperate and irreclaimable.”
However, the person who best and most famously represents the problems of being a Scot in Georgian Britain is James Boswell.
Boswell is one of those writers whose reputation has suffered from his own success. Generations have come to take him for granted. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell turned himself into a sensitive, self-effacing sounding board in order to reveal the character of someone he believed to be not only interesting and admirable, but a truly great man—much as he would have done if he had ever finished his biography of Lord Kames. His voluminous diaries suffer from the same virtues. Boswell made them an absolutely honest and candid record of his own thoughts, experiences, and emotions. They present us with “Bozzie” not as he appeared to others but as he appeared to himself: his fantasies, ambitions, missteps, anxieties, and weaknesses are all revealed in detail. They dominate our recollection of reading them—and of him. Taken together, they have created the image of James Boswell as a genial, bumbling mediocrity, who happened to compose a literary masterpiece almost by accident.
Now, finally, we are beginning to realize that Boswell was a truly gifted writer and an accomplished man, that rare combination of an intellectual with broad human sympathies as well as a deep personal honesty. He grew up in Edinburgh under the shadow of the impossibly high demands of his disapproving father, Lord Auchinleck of the Court of Session, and found an emotional and intellectual counterweight in his mentor, Lord Kames. It was Kames who encouraged Boswell’s intellectual and literary interests, and who probably enabled Boswell, against his own inclinations, to complete his studies to become a lawyer.
The idea of setting off for London was Boswell’s own, however. He was twenty years old when he first arrived in 1760, determined to succeed in the city that seemed the center of civilized life. He was, as he described himself, “a young fellow whose happiness had always centered in London, who had at last got there, and had begun to taste its delights.” He fantasized about “getting into the Guards, being about Court, enjoying the happiness of the beau monde and the company of men of Genius.”
One thing stood in the way of this fantasy: being Scottish. When he first met Dr. Johnson, his first stammered words were, “I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” Johnson’s reply was devastating: “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.” It was a bad season for being a Scot in London. The new king, George III, had selected an extremely unpopular prime minister of Scottish origin, Lord Bute, and political feelings ran high against “North Britons.” Boswell even attended a play at which the audience kept shouting over and over, “No Scots! No Scots!” The radical John Wilkes published daily diatribes against Scottish immigrants, attacking them as ignorant, grasping, and corrupt: “The principal part of the Scottish nobility are tyrants,” Wilkes sneered, “and the whole of the common people are slaves.”
In this hostile atmosphere, Boswell struggled with his giveaway Scottish diction, just as Hume did. When he introduced General Sir Alexander MacDonald to Dr. Johnson in March 1772, the distinguished soldier remarked, “I have been correcting several Scotch accents in my friend Boswell. I doubt, Sir, if any Scotchman ever attains to a perfect English pronunciation.” Johnson replied loftily, “Why, Sir, few of ’em do. . . . But, sir, there can be no doubt that a man who conquers nineteen parts of the Scottish accent may conquer the twentieth.” Later, Boswell met a Dr. Kenrick, who claimed “he taught a man from Aberdeen to speak good English in six weeks.” Kenrick explained to Boswell that his great difficulty was to get the Aberdonian to stop lilting his words as he spoke, as a Scotsman did and an Englishman did not. Kenrick finally told the man, “Sir, you don’t speak at all. You sing.”
Today we would naturally expect this sort of prejudice and “negative stereotyping” to breed a deep cultural resentment among educated Scots, or at least a backlash. Remarkably, and characteristically, it had just the opposite effect. Boswell not only read Wilkes’s anti-Scottish scandal sheet (he admired its “poignant acrimony,” as he put it), but when they met he found Wilkes to be funny and charming, and they struck up a lasting friendship. Intellectuals in Edinburgh were thrilled, not offended, when in the summer of 1761 the Irish actor and “orthoepist” (or pronunciation expert) Thomas Sheridan arrived in town to offer a series of lectures on English elocution. More than three hundred gentlemen, “the most eminent in this country for their rank and abilities,” attended Sheridan’s lectures (one of them, we note, was Boswell). They encouraged Sheridan to enlarge on those aspects of spoken English “with regard to which Scotsmen are most ignorant, and the dialect of the country most imperfect.” They even encouraged him to run a separate set of lectures for ladies. Sheridan, whose son Richard would become a celebrated playwright and author of The School for Scandal, sold places at his lectures for a guinea each—in today’s money, almost a hundred dollars—as well as subscriptions for his forthcoming book for half a guinea. The Edinburgh town council even made him a honorary freeman of the city. All in all, it was a remarkable summer, not only for Sheridan but also for Edinburgh’s elite, whose cultural anxiety evidently ran so deep that they were eager to be lectured on good English from an Irish actor.
This has led some critics to condemn the Scottish Enlightenment for knuckling under to English “cultural imperialism.” But just the opposite was the case. Far from leading educated Scots to abandon or forget their Scottish identity, Anglicization seems to have encouraged them to keep it alive and intact. Kames continued to speak Scots on the bench up into the 1780s. Poets such as Allan Ramsay and Robert Burns became in effect bilingual, composing verse in good Scots or perfect Augustan English, depending on the occasion or the mood. Boswell himself spoke his native dialect during his stays in Edinburgh, and when he met Jean-Jacques Rousseau he fantasized about admonishing him in broad Scots for his eccentricities: “Hoot, Johnie Rousseau mon, what for hae ye sae mony figmangairies? You’re a bonny man indeed to mauk siccan a wark; set ye up. Canna ye just live like ither fowk?”12
In effect, the Scots became English speakers and culture bearers, but remained Scots. Instead of forgetting their roots, they acquired new ones. Men such as Boswell, Hume, and Robertson freely conceded the superiority of English culture so that they could analyze it, absorb it, and ultimately master it. They refused to be intimidated, because they intended to beat the English at their own game. They would reshape the dominant English culture so that both the English and the Scots could find a home in it.
The effort paid off. Robertson and Hume taught the English how to write “philosophical history,” using the four-stage theory to illuminate the past. The greatest masterpiece of Enlightenment history, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, would be unimaginable without its Scottish school predecessors. Boswell’s Life of Johnson would become the most famous biography in English letters—again, in English, not Scottish letters. And of course Adam Smith would compose the founding text of modern economics— Inquiry Concerning the Wealth of Nations—in a language that was, it is all too easy to forget, a foreign tongue to him.
By 1758, Horace Walpole, the son of the former prime minister, had to admit “Scotland is the most accomplished nation in Europe.” Voltaire agreed: “It is to Scotland that we look for our idea of civilization.” A central European observer stated that “it is now an incontestable fact that the principal authors who have adorned the British literature in these latter times, or do honour to it in the present days, have received their birth and education in Scotland.” It was as neat an example of reverse cultural imperialism as one can find, and David Hume expressed his pleasure with it in the form of a paradox:
Is it not strange that at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliament, our independent Government . . . are unhappy in our accent and . . . speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of, is it not strange, I say, that in these Circumstances, we shou’d really be the People most distinguished for Literature in Europe?
All the same, it was a rash man who could have predicted all this before 1745. At that date, Scottish Whigs knew that life even in Edinburgh was still pretty primitive compared with what was going on south of the Tweed. But they understood that change was under way, and that the changes were for the better—that the institutions and habits that still held Scotland back, such as the intolerance of the Kirk and the old feudal customs that made rural tenants so dependent on their lairds, were slowly improving. So it came as a shock when so much of Scotland lashed out violently against these changes in 1745, and the deepest, darkest aspects of Scotland’s past suddenly rose up to blot out the future.
Many myths abound about the Highland clans. The oldest, and most persistent, is that the rising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 symbolized a cultural clash between a Celtic “Jacobite” Highlands, steeped in primeval tribal loyalties, and a modernizing, proto-industrial “Whig” Lowlands. Scottish Whigs actually encouraged this view. It implied that they and their English allies were engaged in a virtual crusade for civilization, a war against an anachronistic social order left over from Scotland’s barbarous history.
The clans were an anachronism, all right, except that they were a holdover from Scotland’s feudal, not tribal, past. The bonds that held the clan together were land and landholding. Their origins had as much to do with French-speaking Normans as with ancient Celts. If we want to identify the true prototypes of the Highland warriors who fought for the Earl of Mar at Sheriffmuir or Prince Charlie at Culloden, we should look not to the ancient Picts or Britons, but to the followers of William the Conqueror.
The term clan, of course, comes from the Gaelic clann, meaning “children.” It implied a kinship group of four or five generations, all claiming descent from a common ancestor. And clan chieftains encouraged their followers to believe that they were indeed bound together like family. Men such as the Duke of Argyll of the Campbells or Lord Lovat of the Frasers routinely demanded a loyalty from their tenants not unlike that of children for a father. But it was entirely a fiction. The average clan—and there were more than fifty of them in 1745—was no more a family than is a Mafia “family.” The only important blood ties were those between the chieftain and his various caporegimes, the so-called tacksmen who collected his rents and bore the same name. Below them were a large, nondescript, and constantly changing population of tenants and peasants, who worked the land and owed the chieftain service in war and peacetime. Whether they considered themselves Campbells or MacPhersons or Mackinnons was a matter of indifference, and no clan genealogist or bard, the seanachaidh, ever wasted breath keeping track of them. What mattered was that they were on clan land, and called it home.
“In that sense,” says one prominent authority on the history of the Highlands, “one cannot really talk about a ‘clan system,’ only about specific clans.” Those clans that appear in the first written sources were all extinct by the beginning of the sixteenth century. The ones that dominated the landscape in 1745—Fraser, Cameron, Mackenzie, Stewart of Appin, and the most famous of all, the Campbells and the MacDonalds—mostly date from the thirteenth or fourteenth century, after Norman mercenaries had come to Scotland at royal invitation and established a pattern of feudal landholding across both the Highlands and Lowlands. Norman feudalism intermingled with Celtic tribal tradition, creating a hybrid: the clan, headed by a chief with his tenants living on a wartime footing. Many of these Norman knights and their descendants, such as Fraser, Drummond, Montgomery, Grant, and Sinclair, became heads of clans. Secured in their power by royal decree and tribal superstition, they became the power brokers of medieval Scotland and a law unto themselves, just like their feudal magnate counterparts in England or France. The only difference was that while the John of Gaunts and Charles the Bolds disappeared across the rest of Europe, and eventually even from Lowland Scotland, men such as the Lords Lovat of Fraser and MacDonnells of Keppoch lived on, a source of Highland pride and legend, but also of disunity and strife.
Scottish feudal law gave the chiefs land and peasants, as well as tenants-in-chief, the tacksmen, to run things. It also gave them formal jurisdiction over persons living in the clan area, including the power of life and death. They did not hesitate to use it. Once a woman was brought before MacDonald of Clanranald, accused of stealing money from him. He ordered her tied by the hair to seaweed among the rocks, until the Atlantic tide came in and drowned her.
Another chief, Coll MacDonnell13 of Barrisdale, required all fishermen on his land to pay him one-fifth of their catch. Those who failed to pay up found themselves tied to a device locals dubbed the “Barrisdale.” Iron rings held a man flat on his stomach while a large stone weight was strapped to his back, and a steel spike placed under his chin. If the miscreant failed to support the stone’s weight, the spike would drive up through his chin to the roof of his mouth. It is with a jolt that we remember this was in 1740, not 1140, and that there was nothing in Scottish law to protect a MacDonnell tenant from his chieftain’s protection racket.
What the average clansman got in exchange for submitting to this sometimes brutal authority was land, land to work or graze in order to feed his family, and to pay his rent. Rarely did he call himself a MacDonald or a MacKinnon or an Ogilvie or whatever the clan name was; he used patronymics or nicknames instead, such as Collum mac (meaning “son of”) Fergus vic (“grandson of”) Ian, or Angus mór (Angus the elder) or Angus ruadh (meaning “red”). His membership in the clan rested on the ties of custom, not kinship. He obeyed the chief, paid the chief’s rent, listened to his bard’s songs and stories, wore his badge, a sprig of herb or plant, in battle, and shouted his slogan because they were the clan’s badge and slogan, just as it was the clan’s land he worked. He saw the chief and his tacksmen and his bodyguards, the henchmen, not as masters, but as guardians and trustees of what ultimately belonged to everyone.
Unfortunately, this was not how the chieftains themselves saw it. Whatever sense of communal responsibility might have existed was fading fast; loyalty was becoming more and more a one-way street. Most chieftains now thought of themselves as landed aristocrats. They wore ruffled lace and drank French claret. They and their sons were educated at the universities. Families such as the Campbells and the Camerons kept fine houses in Edinburgh, although most of their followers were dirt poor. The sons of a chief continued to be raised in the traditional way, in the midst of the clan, and wet-nursed in the cottage of a humble clanswoman, whose own son became his milk-brother. He still had to prove his leadership in battle, by leading cattle raids on neighboring clans or committing acts of petty revenge. But increasingly the chieftains came to think of the clan land as their own property, and looked for ways to guarantee that their eldest sons would inherit it intact, regardless of what the clan itself might think or want. Lord Kames’s iron law, “man is disposed by nature to appropriate,” applied equally well to the Highland chieftain, the Berwickshire farmer, or the Glasgow merchant.
The chieftain’s key ally in this push for privatizing the clan’s lands was, and always had been, the Scottish Crown. This is another persistent myth: that Highlanders supported Bonnie Prince Charlie out of some ancient, mystical loyalty to the Stuarts. The truth was that the alliance between the Crown and the clan chieftains was one of mutual self-interest. The Crown recognized the chieftain’s life-and-death power over his tenants, reinforced the privileged status of his family members and supporters, and protected his children’s rights to his land by formal law. In exchange, the chiefs gave the king a rough version of law and order in a remote and largely inaccessible part of his kingdom. It also allowed him to play one clan against another, when it suited his own political purposes.
At various times the Stuarts banished or destroyed clans that had become nuisances or even merely inconvenient. They destroyed the Clan Donald’s power in the western Highlands and islands, and handed over its lands to the Campbells. They did the same to the Clan Leod of Lewis, and the MacIains of Ardnamurchan. In 1603, James VI went even further. After a quarrel with the leaders of the MacGregors, he in effect sentenced the entire clan to death. If any man dared to use the name MacGregor again, James decreed, he was to be put to death and his property forfeit to his killer. As an additional incentive, James promised any criminal an immediate pardon if he brought a royal official the head of a MacGregor.
It was genocide, pure and simple. Within the year more than thirty-six men had been murdered or executed. James himself led the way by hanging six who happened to be in his personal custody. The clan was steadily driven from its home in Glen Strae and Glen Lyon into a life of permanent exile and banditry, regularly hunted as renegades by all the other clans in the region. One hundred fifty years later the proscription against the MacGregor name still stood. One reason the head of the illegal Clan Gregor, the son of its most famous leader, Rob Roy, joined the revolt in 1745 was the vain hope that Prince Charles might rescind the ban. In fact, it was not until 1774 that it was finally stricken off the statute books.
The real winner in the destruction of the MacGregors was Clan Campbell, which moved in and occupied their former territory. In fact, the Campbells and their most important chiefs, the Dukes of Argyll, rose to power by serving as the Crown’s principal tool in controlling the other western clans. This reached its climax on the night of February 13, 1692, when the Campbells were ordered to put to death the MacDonalds of Glencoe, including women and children. The plan was botched. Most of the MacDonalds escaped, but the Campbell soldiers managed to drag thirty-six of them out into the snow and murder them, including children four and five years old. The massacre caused an uproar in Parliament and elsewhere. Lowlanders often shuddered at the barbarity and savagery of the Highland clans; but it is worth remembering that the worst examples, the massacre at Glencoe and the extermination of the MacGregors, were both done at royal order.
What was life like in a clan? Every outside observer noted that crossing the Firth of Forth into the Highlands meant entering a different world. For one thing, normal law and order did not follow him across the border. A different law, the code of the clan, applied instead. This often meant that a Highlander who came into a town such as Aberdeen or Greenock to do business or find employment, where he got into an argument with a local and killed him, could count on getting away free if he could get back home. It was the official rash enough to pursue, not the murderer, whose life was in danger. The only recourse was an appeal to the chieftain, whose concern was not guilt or innocence, but honor.
An English visitor in the 1720s stopped at one chieftain’s house and remarked casually that some of the chief’s clansmen had behaved with less than the sort of courtesy one expected from Highland hospitality. The chieftain, the Englishman recalled, “clapped his hand to his broadsword and said, if I required it, he would send me two or three of their heads.” The visitor laughed, thinking this was a joke, “but the chief insisted he was a man of his word.” Eventually the visitor talked his host out of his gruesome offer.
In his natural habitat, surrounded by his henchmen, his bard, his piper, and his servants or gillies, the Highland chieftain could be an awe-inspiring figure. What generally struck most outsiders, however, was the shabbiness and poverty of the average chief’s existence. Like his followers, he was the product of a fundamental and intractable poverty.
People lived by raising cattle, sheep, and goats, and maintaining tiny plots of land for growing stands of oat and barley. In winter, “they have no diversions to amuse them,” said an observer, “but sit brooding in the smoke of their fire til their legs and thighs are scorched to an extraordinary degree.” Most of the year food was scarce, so clansmen supplemented their income by stealing from neighboring clans, with elaborate and daring cattle raids. A burning cross, made of two sticks tied together with a strip of linen stained in blood, summoned clansmen together, as they saw it blazing forth from mountaintop to mountaintop. As the warriors passed along the mountain trails, they watched for portents of future victory or defeat. A stag or hare or fox that crossed their path and was not immediately hunted and slain boded evil. If a bare-footed woman was sighted, she had to be seized and blood drawn from her forehead with a dirk before the men could go on.
The cattle raid, the creach, was not only a test of leadership and honor, celebrated in bardic song. It also paid a tidy profit, when the clan could charge ransom to return the stolen cattle. The term in Scots was blackmail—mail being the word for “rent” or “tribute,” and black the typical color of the Highlander’s cattle. Blackmail determined the rhythm of life in many parts of the Highlands. Some observers estimated that at any given moment the average chief had half his warriors out stealing his neighbor’s cattle, and the other half out recovering the cattle his neighbors had stolen from him.
In summer, families lived on milk and whey from their cattle, and little else. Bread was available only in the spring, which was when most work had to be done. In winter the scarcity cut deep. Deprived of other sources of protein, Highlanders often had to bleed their cattle, mixing the blood with oatmeal and frying it in the fire. Sometimes cows were bled so frequently they could barely stand. It is worth remembering that a “traditional” Highland dish such as haggis, the stuffed sheep’s stomach that is the bane of visitors to Scotland and such a source of pride to its natives, would have been a great luxury to an average Highland family. “Where flocks and corn are the only wealth,” Dr. Johnson observed, “he who is poor never can be rich. The son merely occupies the place of the father, and life knows nothing of progress or advancement.”
Families lived in a one-room hut of mud and stone, called a bothy. The typical Highland village was a collection of bothies; to visitors at a distance, it looked like heaps of dirt in a field. It was only when they grew closer that they saw that these heaps of dirt housed human beings, with dogs, goats, and half-naked children roaming among the huts and peat fires. In poorer clans the only way to tell a chief’s children from the other half-naked urchins was that they were the ones who could speak English. In fact, these were people much poorer than Plains Indians or the other pastoral-nomadic peoples civil-society theorists knew about. Poverty was the keynote to everything in the Highlands. It even determined who was loyal, and who was not, in the Forty-five. Twenty-two clans joined up with the Stuarts; ten remained loyal to the British. But the ten who stayed loyal were the most prosperous, including the Clan Campbell. By contrast, many who joined the revolt, such as the MacDonnells of Keppoch and the MacDonalds of Glencoe, were either landless or on the edges of bankruptcy. One contemporary estimated that the total yearly income of all the clans that marched for Prince Charlie did not add up to 1,500 pounds.
The Highlander’s poverty was compensated by one thing: his pride as a warrior. The crucial distinction in the clans was between those who worked and those who fought. Peasants and women did the former; men, the clansmen, did the latter. Visitors found this hard to fathom. In the early nineteenth century an Englishwoman became fed up at the sight of a Highland woman laboring wearily on her family’s meager plot of ground while her husband, in full Highland regalia, sat and watched. She upbraided the man’s mother: How could she allow her son to sit idle like this, while her daughter-in-law did all the work? The old woman stoutly replied that if her son lifted his hand to till the soil, he would cease to be a gentleman.
As Dr. Johnson observed, in the Highlands “every man was a soldier.” The clansman was trained to fight from boyhood. Armed with his double-edged broadsword,14 which measured a yard long and two inches wide; his dagger or dirk; and his shield or targe, and screaming his clan’s motto as he rushed headlong at his opponent, he was a formidable sight. But he was no Iron Age throwback, the “bare-arsed banditti” of English legend. He could be as familiar with handling a musket, and fighting in formation, as any British grenadier. For generations the principal export of the Highlands had been its surplus males, as soldiers and mercenaries for the armies of Europe. In the Middle Ages, Irish chieftains had hired them: nicknamed galloglasses or redshanks because of their exposed knees below their kilts, Scottish mercenaries had kept the Gaelic parts of Ireland safe from the English for four hundred years. They fought for the Dutch against the Spanish as the Scots Brigade, and served the princes of Germany and central Europe in their frequent internecine conflicts. Clan Mackay kept Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus supplied with a Scottish regiment during the Thirty Years’ War. The men who fought at Culloden were in large part seasoned, hardened professionals, led by men with commissions in various European armies.
So, if poverty was one keynote of Highland life, war and violence was another. It is what made the Highlander admired, and feared. Daniel Defoe watched them walk the streets of Edinburgh: “They are formidable fellows. . . . They are all gentlemen, will take no affront from any man, and insolent to the last degree.” But he also noted the incongruity of one of these proud men with his weapons and tartan (another myth: genuine Highlanders wore plaids in any color that pleased them, regardless of their clan) walking “as upright and haughty as if he were a lord,” while driving a cow in front of him. Duels, murder, and feuding were constants in the Highlands, as was “scorning,” or taking food and shelter by force from tenants of other clans when a feud was under way. Lairds routinely burned down the houses and seized the livestock of tenants who displeased them. When Lord Lochiel brought the Camerons in on Prince Charles’s side in 1745, his brother Archibald passed through Cameron country warning villagers that “if they did not come off directly he would burn their houses and cut them in pieces.” When some Cameron males refused, he beat them with his whip. When another hesitated, he killed four of the man’s cows until he agreed to join him.
It was a way of life most Lowlanders had not known for generations, and they avoided it as much as they could. Contact could be dangerous, or even fatal. Once a member of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe passed a Lowlander on the road near Achnacone and gave him a traditional Gaelic greeting: “Beannachd Dia duit, a duine!” (God’s blessing on you, sir!) The Lowlander knew no Gaelic, but replied nervously it was indeed a fine day. “Foolish man,” said the Highlander, “do you despise the word of God?” With that he drew his sword and killed him, and then robbed the body, taking his shoes, his musket, and a guinea piece he found in the man’s coat pocket. Later he told his laird what he had done, “adding that to his mind it had been a profitable morning.” Big Archie MacPhail, as he was known, was a famed cattle stealer and was never prosecuted for the murder. But he did worry at night, he told others, about being haunted by the dead man’s spirit.
The English usually dismissed Highlanders as “savages” and barbarians. Enlightened Scots could be more understanding, although just as censorious. One such was Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Session in the 1740s and friend to Lord Kames. From his estate in Inverness-shire, overlooking Drummossie Moor, he watched the clansmen around him with a critical, if sympathetic, eye. They were, he wrote, “unacquainted with industry and the fruits of it, and united in some degree by the singularity of dress and language, stick close to their antient way of life.” They “depend generally on the Chiefs, as their sovereign Lords and masters; and being accustomed to the use of arms, and inured to hard living, are dangerous to the public peace.” He noted that their isolation left them “the prey of their accustomed sloth and barbarity,” and made enforcement of the laws impossible.
Like other enlightened Scots, what Forbes wanted for the Highlands was civilization, of which the chief beneficiary would be the Highlander himself. The key to this, according to Forbes, was to take away their weapons. “Their successors . . . must be as harmless as the commonality” in the Lowlands. When the Highlander “could not longer live by Rapine,” Forbes wrote, he would be forced to “think of living by Industry.” The other key was roads. “The want of Roads . . . [has] proved hitherto a bar to all free intercourse between the High and Lowlands,” and prevented the spread of civilizing influences to the north.
Beginning in the 1720s, after the failed Jacobite revolt in 1715 and another in 1719, the government began building roads. General George Wade was dispatched with garrison troops to lay out an ambitious network of roads and forts. Between 1725 and 1740, General Wade boasted of having constructed 250 miles of highway, designed to link Fort William and Fort Augustus in the west to Inverness. Communication, along with military fortification, was supposed to counterbalance the Highlanders’ chief military advantage: numbers.
In 1715 the Earl of Mar, a man with no military experience, had assembled a Highland force of nearly six thousand warriors in a matter of weeks. MacDonnell of Keppoch alone boasted of being able to raise five hundred fighting men. The Campbells could summon up two or three thousand. Duncan Forbes calculated that if all the Highland clans joined together in a single enterprise, they could raise more than thirty thousand troops. There was no military force in Britain capable of standing up to an army such as that. The possibility of a general rising in the Highlands frightened government officials, just as it frightened Duncan Forbes. But in 1745, Wade’s network of roads was still not finished. Even worse, other events, very far away from Scotland, had drawn away the bulk of his garrisons. The roads that were completed would enable soldiers to move with speed across the heart of the Highlands, just as Forbes predicted—except that they were soldiers in the army of Prince Charlie. And Drummossie Moor, beside Forbes’s house at Culloden, would become the bloody ground on which the struggle for Scotland’s future would be played out.