Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 86

WE have hitherto only detailed the penal procedure taken against the principal actors in the rebellion 1745. Before proceeding to narrate the legislative measures which Parliament thought proper to adopt to prevent the recurrence of such a calamity, it may be necessary, in this place, to take a review of the character of the insurrection, and the result which it actually did or might have produced.

Looking at the whole in a general point of view, there can be no doubt that it presents a dazzling picture to the imagination, being a romance of real life equal in splendour and interest to any which could be devised by fiction. A primitive people, residing in a remote quarter of the empire, and themselves but a small portion of the Scottish Highlanders, fearlessly attempted to place the British Crown on the head of the last scion of those ancient kings, whose descent was traced to their own mountains. This gigantic task they undertook in favour of a youth of twenty-five, who landed on their shore without support of any kind, and threw himself on their generosity — they assembled an army in his behalf — their speech, their tactics, their arms, were alike unknown to their countrymen and to the English, — holding themselves free from the obligations imposed by common law or positive statute, they were yet governed by rules of their own, derived from a general sense of honour, extending from the chief to the lowest of his tribe. With men unaccustomed to arms, the amount of the most efficient part of which never exceeded 2000, they defeated two disciplined armies commanded by officers of experience and reputation, penetrated deep into England, approached within a hundred miles of the capital, and made the crown tremble on the king’s head; retreated with the like success, when they appeared on the point of being intercepted between three hostile armies; checked effectually the attack of a superior body detached in pursuit of them; reached the North in safety, and were only suppressed by a concurrence of disadvantages which it was impossible for human nature to surmount. All this has much that is splendid to the imagination, nor is it possible to regard without admiration, the little band of determined men by whom such actions were achieved, or the interesting young Prince by whom their energies were directed. It is therefore natural that the civil strife of 1745 should have been long the chosen theme of the poet, the musician, and the novelist, and each has in turn found it possessed of an interest highly suitable to his purpose. In a work founded on history, we must look more closely into the circumstances of the rebellion, and deprive it of some part of the show which pleases the fancy, in order to judge of it by the sound rules of reason. The best mode of doing this, is to suppose that Charles had accomplished his romantic adventure, and seated himself in temporary security in the palace of St James’s; when common sense must admit that nothing could have been expected from such a counter-revolution, excepting new strife and fiercer civil wars. The opinion and conduct of the whole British empire, with very few exceptions, had shown their disinclination to have this man to rule over them; nor were all the clans in his army numerous enough to furnish more than two battalions of guards to have defended his throne, had they been able to place him upon it. It was not to be supposed that England, so opulent, so populous, so high-spirited, could be held under a galling yoke by a few men of unknown language and manners, who could only be regarded as a sort of strelitzes or janissaries, and detested in that capacity. By far the greater part of Scotland itself was attached to the House of Hanover, and the principles which placed them on the throne; and its inhabitants were votaries of the Presbyterian religion, a form of church government which it had been long the object of the Stewart family to destroy. From that quarter, therefore, Charles, in his supposed state of perilous exaltation, could have drawn no support, but must have looked for opposition. The interference of a French force, had such taken place, could only have increased the danger of the restored dynasty, by rousing against them the ancient feelings of national hatred and emulation; nor is it likely that they could have offered successful resistance to the general opposition which such unpopular aid would have accumulated around them.

Neither is it probable that Charles Edward, educated as he had been in foreign courts, and in the antiquated principles of passive obedience and arbitrary power, would have endeavoured to conciliate the affections of the great mass of his subjects, by disavowing those sentiments of despotic government which had cost his grandfather so dear. Even while his enterprise was in progress, there existed a great schism in his camp, between Lord George Murray, Lord Elcho, and others, who, though engaged with the Prince and favouring his pretensions to the throne, conceived themselves entitled, as their lives and fortunes were depending on the issue, to remonstrate against measures of which they did not always approve. Charles Edward naturally, but fatally for himself and his family, preferred and followed the counsels of those who made it a point to coincide with him in opinion; so that had the strength of this army been adequate to place him upon the throne, he must nevertheless have speedily been precipitated into civil war, the seeds of which existed even among his own followers, since they did not agree among themselves on what principles he was to govern, whether as a despotic or constitutional monarch. From all this it would appear, that however severe upon the Highlanders and their country at the moment when it happened, the defeat of Prince Charles at Culloden could alone have ended the internal divisions of Great Britain; and that any victory which he might have obtained, would only have added to the protraction of civil strife, and the continuance and increase of national calamity.

Neither were the actions of the Highlanders under Prince Charles, though sufficiently glorious for their arms, altogether so wonderful as to be regarded as miraculous. Without detracting from their undoubted bravery, it must be said that the Chevalier was fortunate in meeting with two such antagonists as Cope and Hawley, neither of whom appears to have dreamed of maintaining a second line or effectual reserve, though rendered so necessary by the violence and precipitance of the Highland attack, which must always have thrown a certain degree of disorder into those troops who were first exposed to its fury, but at the same time have brought confusion among the assailants themselves. The two regiments of dragoons who fought, or rather fled, at Preston, having previously lost their character by a succession of panics, must be also looked upon as affording to the Highlanders an advantage unusual to those who encounter an English army. Of the general plan of insurrection, it may be safely said to have been a rash scheme, devised by a very young man, who felt his hopes from France to be rendered absolutely desperate; and by piqueing the honour of Lochiel and his friends, wrought them to such a height of feeling as to induce them to engage in what their common sense assured them was positive ruin. We may also observe, that though the small number of this Prince’s forces was in a great measure the cause of his ultimate defeat, yet the same circumstance contributed to his partial success. This may appear paradoxical, but you are to remember, that the imperfections of an undisciplined army increase in proportion to its numbers, as an ill-constructed machine becomes more unmanageable in proportion to its size. The powerful army of clans commanded by Mar in the year 1715, could not have acted with the same speed and decision as the comparatively small body which was arrayed under Charles. And if, on the latter occasion, the Prince wanted the aid of such large forces as were brought to Perth in 1715 by the Marquis of Huntly and the Earls of Breadalbane and Seaforth, his councils were also unembarrassed by the respect and deference claimed by these dignitaries, and by the discords which often arose between them, either amongst themselves, or with the Commander-inchief. It is also worthy of remark, that without derogating from the desire to maintain discipline, which was certainly entertained by the Highland chiefs during the enterprise, the small number of the Prince’s army must also have occasioned among themselves a consciousness of weakness, and they were perhaps the more disposed to attend to orders and abstain from all unnecessary violence, because they saw from the beginning that their safety depended on mutual concord, and on preserving or acquiring the good opinion of the country.

Upon the whole, it was perhaps fortunate for the history of Highland clanship, that in point of effective and recognised influence, the system may be considered as having closed with the gallant and generous display of its character which took place in 1745. We have said already that the patriarchal spirit was gradually decaying, and that the system had been insensibly innovated upon in each successive generation. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, it probably would not have existed, if the chiefs had not sedulously nursed and kept it alive, to maintain in their persons that peculiar military power, which most of them expected to render the means of distinguishing themselves in the civil war that was yearly expected. If the country had remained in profound peace, the chiefs, like the Lowland barons, would have been induced to exchange the command of their clansmen, whose services they had no prospect of requiring, for other advantages, which increased rents, and improved possessions, would have procured them. The slow but certain operation of those changes would have finally dissolved, though perhaps at a later period, the connexion between the clan and the chief, and under circumstances, perhaps, less creditable to the latter. It is therefore better, even for the fame of the Highlands, that the spirit of the patriarchal system, like the light of a dying lamp, should have collected itself into one bright flash before its final extinction; and in the short period of a few months, should have exhibited itself in a purer and more brilliant character than it had displayed during the course of ages.

It must also be remarked, that the period at which the patriarchial system was totally broken up, was that at which it presented the most interesting appearance. The Highland chiefs of the eighteenth century, at least those who were persons of consideration, were so much influenced by the general civilisation of Britain, as to be not only averse to the abuse of power over their clansmen, but disposed, as well as from policy as from higher motives, to restrain their followers from predatory habits, and, discouraging what was rude and fierce, to cultivate what was honourable and noble in their character. It is probable the patriarchal system was never exercised, generally speaking, in a mode so beneficial to humanity, as at the time when it was remotely affected by the causes, which must ultimately have dissolved it. In this respect, it resembled the wood of certain trees, which never afford such beautiful materials for the cabinet-maker, as when they have felt the touch of decay.

For these and other reasons, the view which we cast upon the system of clanship, as it existed in the time of the last generation, is like looking back upon a Highland prospect, enlivened by the tints of a beautiful summer evening. On such an occasion, the distant hills, lakes, woods, and precipices, are touched by the brilliancy of the atmosphere with a glow of beauty, which is not properly their own, and it requires an exertion to recall to our mind the desolate, barren, and wild character, which properly belong to the objects we look upon. For the same reason, it requires an effort of the understanding to remind us, that the system of society under which the Highland clans were governed, although having much in it which awakens both the heart and the fancy, was hostile to liberty, and to the progress both of religious and moral improvement, by placing the happiness, and indeed the whole existence, of tribes at the disposal of individuals, whose power of administration was influenced by no restraint saving their own pleasure. Like other men, the heads of the clans were liable to be seduced into the misuse of unlimited authority; and you have only to recall what I have said in these pages of Lovat and others, to be aware what a curse and a plague a violent or crafty chief might prove to his own clan, to the general government, to the peace of his neighbours, and indeed to the whole country in which he lived. The possession of such power by a few men made it always possible for them to erect the standard of civil war in a country otherwise disposed to peace; and their own bravery and that of their retainers, only rendered the case more dangerous, the provocation more easily taken, and their powers of attack or resistance more bloody and desperate. Even in peace, the power of ravaging the estates of a neighbour or of the Lowlands, by letting loose upon them troops of banditti, kennelled like blood-hounds in some obscure valley, till their services were required, was giving to every petty chieftain the means of spreading robbery and desolation through the country at his pleasure. With whatever sympathy, therefore, we may regard the immediate sufferers, with whatever general regret we may look upon the extinction, by violence, of a state of society which was so much connected with honour, fidelity, and the tenets of romantic chivalry, it is impossible, in sober sense, to wish that it should have continued, or to say that, in political wisdom, the government of Great Britain ought to have tolerated its longer existence.

The motives, however, of the legislature, in destroying the character of the patriarchal system adopted in the Highlands, were more pressing than those arising out of general expedience and utility. The measures struck less at what was inexpedient in general principles, than at the constant source of repeated rebellions against the Royal Family; and we cannot wonder, that being now completely masters of the disaffected districts by the fate of war, they aimed at totally eradicating all marks of distinction between the Highlander and Lowlander, and reducing the mountains to the quiet and peaceful state which the Lowlands of Scotland had presented for many years.

The system of disarming the Highlands had been repeatedly resorted to upon former occasions but the object had been only partially attained. It was now resolved, not only to deprive the Highlanders of their arms, but of the ancient garb of their country; a picturesque habit, the custom of wearing which was peculiarly associated with the use of warlike weapons. The sword, the dirk, the pistol, were all as complete parts of the Highland dress as the plaid and the bonnet, and the habit of using the latter was sure to remind the wearer of the want of the former. It was proposed to destroy this association of ideas, by rendering the use of the Highland garb, in any of its peculiar forms, highly penal.

Many objections, indeed some which appealed to compassion, and others founded upon utility, were urged against this interdiction of an ancient national costume. It was represented that the form of the dress, light, warm, and convenient for the use of those who were accustomed to it, was essentially necessary to men who had to perform long journeys through a wild and desolate country; or discharge the labours of the shepherd or herds-men among extensive mountains and deserts, which must necessarily be applied to pasture. The proscription also of a national garb, to which the people had been long accustomed, and were necessarily much attached, was complained of as a stretch of arbitrary power, especially as the law was declared to extend to large districts and tracts of country, the inhabitants of which had not only refrained from aiding the rebellion, but had given ready and effectual assistance in its suppression. Notwithstanding these reasons, and notwithstanding the representation of the loyal chiefs that it was unjust to deprive them of the swords which they had used in the Government’s defence, it was judged necessary to proceed with the proposed measure, as one which, rigidly enforced by the proposed severity of Government, promised completely to break the martial spirit of the Highlanders, so far as it had been found inconsistent with the peace and safety of the country at large. A law was accordingly passed, forbidding the use of what is called tartan, in all its various checkers and modifications, under penalties which, at that time, might be necessary to overcome the reluctance of the Highlanders to part with their national dress, but which certainly now appear disproportioned to the offence. The wearing any part of what is called the Highland garb, that is, the plaid, philabeg, trews, shoulder-belt, or any other distinctive part of the dress, or the use of any garment composed of tartan, or parti-coloured cloth, made the offender liable, for the first offence, to six months’ imprisonment; and for the second, to transportation to the colonies. At the same time, the wearing or even possession of arms subjected a Highlander to serve as a common soldier, if he should prove unable to pay a fine of fifteen pounds. A second offence was to be punished with transportation for seven years. The statute is 20th George II. chap 51. Whatever may be thought of these two statutes, not only restraining the use of arms under the highest penalties, but proscribing the dress of a whole nation, no objection can be made to another Act of Parliament, passed in the year 1748, for abolishing the last effectual remnant of the feudal system, viz., the hereditary jurisdictions throughout Scotland. These last remains of the feudal system I have repeatedly alluded to, as contrary alike to common sense, and to the free and impartial administration of justice. In fact, they vested the power of deciding all ordinary actions at law in the persons of great landholders, neither educated to the legal profession, nor in the habit of separating their own interests and passions from the causes which they were to decide as judges. The statute appointed sums of money to be paid as a compensation to the possessors of those judicial rights, whose existence was inimical to the progress of a free country. The administration of justice was vested in professional persons, called Sheriffs-depute (so called as deputed by the Crown, in contradistinction to the Sheriffs principal, formerly enjoying jurisdiction as attached to their patrimony). Such a Sheriff-depute was named for each county, to discharge the judicial duties formerly exercised by hereditary judges.

This last Act was not intended for the Highlands alone, its influence being extended throughout Scotland. By the Act of 20th King Geo. II. cap. 5, all tenures by wardholding, that is, where the vassal held lands for the performance of military service, were declared unlawful, and those which existed were changed into holdings for feu, or for blanch tenures, — that is to say, either for payment of an annual sum of money, or some honorary acknowledgment of vassalage, — so that it became impossible for any superior or overlord, in future, to impose upon his vassals the fatal service of following him to battle, or to discharge the oppressive duties of what were called hunting, hosting, watching, and warding. Thus, although the feudal forms of investiture were retained, all the essential influence of the superior or overlord over the vassal or tenant, and especially the right which he had to bring him into the field of battle, in consequence of his own quarrels, was in future abrogated and disallowed. The consequence of these great alterations we reserve for the next chapter.


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