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Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition

Whenever Walter Scott launched one of his deathless works on an astonished world, many, both in this and in more distant countries, were eager to make closer acquaintance with the land that furnished such splendid material to his glowing pen, and neither the rain, nor mist, nor angry seas have been able to damp the ardour of his admirers.

His readers for generations to come will probably visit the scenes made romantic by his pen. Be it his wondrous prose, or the fiery lines of poetry, which are ever recurring to the mind as we sweep past the mountains or the islands of the West. Close study will show what the state of the Highlands was. In the rude days there was plenty wherewithal to weave, to a mind such as his, a web of splendid fiction.

Deeds of daring are common deeds of violence more so. Passionate love-tales abound. The very depths of devotion appear to be reached in the commonest narration of the "following" of the chieftain, who seldom hesitated to place their lives as forfeit for the master. One of the great links between the nobles and gentry generally and the people was the system of fosterage, by which the very characters of the children of the richer class became imbued with the traits of the lower orders, with their mode of life and their thoughts. These were the rivets in the armour of the Highlanders, the rivets of love—none stronger could be forged. Were we to judge of the Highlands from the tales that have been laboriously gathered by trustworthy Celtic scholars; were we to judge impartially, we should be forced to acknowledge a country denuded to an astounding extent of law and order. What wonder that when certain families produced some master mind, some born ruler of men, who forced the "fighting" or kept the peace; that the Executive, who could not get at these wild regions, gratefully acknowledged such service to the State, and rewarded such men with lands, forfeit to the Crown for some signal act of violence or bloodshed? Such men did appear at various periods, and had it not been for them, the Highlanders would have long since been exterminated through internecine warfare and battle.

Again, when some great man appeared, the weaker septs of a clan readily adopted his name and, for lands granted, came out in war time under one banner. Such men—men who created an oasis of comparative peace—were the saviours of Scotland.

The calmness of the "follower" who executes a savage murder early one morning, in order to save his master the trouble, is typical of the spirit of the Highlander, whose conscience lay in acting faithfully in all things towards his chief. The extraordinary traits shown in tales such as the following are the same as were shown in later centuries towards Prince Charles Edward. The man who could butcher another to save his master the danger he might possibly run, is the same man—or the breed is the same —that spurned the gold offered for the betrayal of an unfortunate prince. They could commit the most cruel and ghastly murder, and yet be full of sentiment and tender feeling. These memorable traits should be remembered when dealing with the Celtic race; for the blood contains to this day the same characteristics, the same elements, discordant as they are—battle and murder and tender love.

The Celt of Ireland and the Celt of Western Scotland were in close and perpetual commune, and, until the days of the Reformation came, there were few events stirring Ireland that did not also, in a measure, stir the Western Highlands of Scotland. Peace was oftenest obtained in the Highlands by the fiery arbitrament of war. It took centuries to settle the southern district of Kintyre, and it was done at last by the introduction of Lowlanders. Such was the eloquent tribute paid to the latter by one of the ablest men of the 17th century— namely, Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll.

It is true that he gave them the land because they were persecuted elsewhere; but he probably thought a leaven of Lowland blood would be conducive to the prosperity of the country.

It may be that Scott, when he wrote about the sorrows and sufferings of Captain Dugald Dalgetty, had another and a true incident in his head as to the treatment of a messenger who landed at Inverary and brought the grim Marquis a message. It is on record that on a certain occasion a messenger did land from a boat near to the Castle, and was promptly hit on the head by one of the Marquis' retainers, who probably thought that was only proper and right. The messenger, smarting from the blow, when he finally did get to the interview, complained of the way he had been treated—namely, struck over the head on landing. The answer of the Marquis was significant enough. Whether he felt the same irritation that exasperated his retainers or not is uncertain; but, for all answer, "he left the room, banging the door violently after him." Now that is not poetic, but probably exceedingly true to the life, and it may well have given Scott an invaluable clue to the manner of dealing affected by the great Marquis. So rough did this messenger consider the inhabitants that he got into the boat, grateful enough to receive no more blows! When a man could be thus treated when acting as a messenger to the great Marquis of Argyll, small as the incident may seem, it throws a flood of light on the unceremonious ways of those days.

Modern research in the Highlands leads us to give episodes as they happened, without gilding and varnishing the picture at all. When the Athol people "made a stable of Inverary", as Islay used to say, what is the first episode we know of Sixteen gentlemen are hanged as a beginning, and the famous list of "Depredations" committed is a continuation. Not a cow or a horse remains, nor a shawl or a petticoat is left, clocks, all disappear into Athol arms, plaids—"Hieland" plaids and "Lowland" —all are taken. It would be difficult to wax romantic over the desolation, or the absurd load of goods the Athol men took on their backs; or the feasts they made on the heather on the captured cattle. Scott would have given us a brilliant volume, and he would doubtless have made the Athol man die another death than that recorded —namely, entering a house near Inverary during the raid, and drinking so much milk that, falling on the threshold coming out, he burst!

"Mine own romantic land" was far from a land of romance to those who had to live through those rough times, when men made howling wildernesses of the neighbour's lands, and a place of desolation for the wretched people to dwell in. The condition of the people was one of great discomfort, perpetual foray, and constant war. Their halcyon days were few indeed! The land of romance was one which only the very young and ignorant could venture to imagine themselves to be in. Let us continue to read the glorious romance of Scott, tempered every now and then with a glance at the Highlands as they really were—full of storms of all sorts.

That lovely land, fringed with idyllic woods and watered by the glorious lakes, will remain for all time ideal; but the real history of the land is one which presents much that is terrible and miserable to our gaze.


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