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On the Causes of the destitution of food in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the years 1836 and 1837
By Mr Alexander Macgregor, Licentiate of the Church of Scotland, Manse of Kilmuir, Skye.

A thorough knowledge of Highland manners and character is essentially necessary to form a proper estimate as to the circumstances and condition of the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It is not enough to have a knowledge of their present state, but the different changes which have taken place from time to time in their condition as a people, must be traced back to remote periods. Various causes have combined to render the Highlanders of the present day, as if a race entirely different from that of their forefathers. Some centuries ago, when feudal law reigned with absolute sway in every Highland district, agriculture, even of the rudest description, was but little attended to or looked after. The young and hardy men, from the days of boyhood upwards, were destined for employments entirely different, and such as were more suited to their warlike temperament of mind, to the principles in which they were daily instructed, and to the usages of the periods in which they lived. It was then that the Highland chieftains, like petty kings over their respective domains, had each a stated number of followers or retainers, according to their power, as well as to the extent of their possessions. These possessions were not valued, as now, according to the amount of rents raised from them, but according to the number of men upon them able to carry arms, and willing to fight for their feudal lord in his combats with some neighbouring chief. Depending more on the chase, and on spoils from their enemies, for subsistence, than on agriculture, the “cranntaraidh,” or “gathering-beam,” commanded more attention than the plough. That such should be the case, will not appear so surprising, when it is considered that all who slighted the call of this mute messenger of death, were either irretrievably disgraced, or put mercilessly to the sword. In those rebellious times, however, the Highlands were not so densely peopled as at the present day. The population were more dispersed over the face of the country, and in reality less numerous. Even should a time have been when the Highland families would equal in number those of later times, it is rational to suppose that the dangers, hardships, and conflicts to which the Highland youth were then exposed, would have a direct tendency to decrease the population, or at least would prove an effectual check to its increase. The feuds and conflicts among the clans were not confined to any particular county or district, neither did they take place at the same period of time. On the contrary, every Highland territory suffered in its turn, for a revolution of centuries, from the ravages of intestine broils, and deadly skirmishes. So severe were the contests between the Clan-Chattan and the Mackays in the north of Scotland, in the reign of Robert III that that monarch deemed it proper to send the Earls of Crawford and Murray to effect a reconciliation between them. For this purpose the said noblemen, after due deliberation, deemed it advisable to have recourse to policy, and by appointing an equal number of men on each side, to fight as champions for their respective clans, the victorious party were to be honoured with royal favour, while the vanquished party were to receive free pardon for all their former offences. Reconciliation was thus effected between these bold and barbarous clans on the North Inch of Perth, in the year 1396. In the same manner bloody feuds were carried on with varied success, between the Qan-Donuill and the Macleans,—the Clan-Donuill and the Macleods,—Lord Kintail and Glengarry,—Rasay and Gairloch,—Sutherland and Caithness,—the Sioi-Torquil, or the Macleods of Lewis, and various enemies on the mainland of Scotland, &c. Under such a state of affairs, there was neither leisure nor desire to effect any such changes as would ameliorate the condition of the people in their domestic comforts. Lands were little valued by their owners in a pecuniary point of view; and the proprietors frequently awarded large shares of their possessions, during life, to their seanachies, bards, pipers, and to such of their retainers as distinguished themselves by acts of bravery and military prowess.

Such was the state of affairs in a more or less degree until the close of the Rebellion in 1745-6. When the last ray of hope in favour nf the house of Stuart had vanished, and when the house of Hanover had come to wield with undisputed right the British sceptre, things assumed a more gentle aspect. Feudalism vanished by degrees under the influence of Protestant laws judiciously enforced, and the wild spirit of the Highlanders was softened down to that pitch of tranquility, which enabled them to live on peaceable and easy terms with their neighbours and with each other. Their minds were no longer distracted by wars and deadly feuds with their surrounding clansmen. These were happily forgotten, except when rehearsed in their tales, or chanted in their ancient Gaelic songs.

The Highlanders (though not now exposed to the dangers of civil commotions around them, and though no longer called out by their liege lord to plunder the effects and to destroy the retainers of some contiguous enemy) were still possessed of much ardour in military affairs, and displayed courage which was surpassed by no race of men whatever. It therefore fell to the lot of many of them to enlist in the Highland regiments; and of this brave people these regiments were, at onetime, exclusively made up. Better soldiers never faced an enemy; and as Dr Macleod so justly said in his eloquent address at the Mansion-house,“ These are the men who in every field and in every clime had covered themselves with glory!The numbers who were thus engaged in fighting their country's battles, bore but a small proportion to the numbers of those at home, who had now to depend on industry and labour for their maintenance. But still the aggregate of population was but very small, when compared with that of the present day.

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