Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Scot in British North America
Chapter I --- The Land and the People

O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood,
Land of my sires! what mortal hand
Can e’er untie the filial band,
That knits me to thy rugged strand?
- Scott

Caledonia! thou land of the mountain and rock,
Of the ocean, the mist, and the wind –
Thou land of the torrent, the pine and the oak,
Of the roebuck, the hart, and the hind;
Though bare are thy cliffs, and though barren thy glens,
Though bleak thy dun islands appear,
Yet kind are the hearts and undaunted the clans,
That roam in the mountains so drear!
- James Hogg

The two little islands which stand forth in bold relief from the North Atlantic, as outposts of European civilization, have exerted a beneficial influence upon the entire world, exceedingly disproportionate to the figure they make upon the map, or their numerical and fighting strength. The cradle of the English-speaking race, they have reared and sent forth over the globe a vast progeny of sturdy sons and daughters to conquer nature and to elevate the race of man. In the spirit of prophecy which the bard in Cowper mistakenly addressed to Boadicea, it may be vaunted now with still more significance, after the event -

"Regions Caesar never knew,
Thy posterity shall sway,
Where his eagles never flew,
None invincible as they."

It is with the northern part of Great Britain - the rugged and stern Caledonia - the least promising part of the mother-land - that we are immediately concerned. Scotland is the smallest of this group of nations, contains a smaller aggregate of natural advantages than her sisters, and has improved those advantages under circumstances far less encouraging and hopeful. And yet no country of its size and intrinsic importance can show a more glorious record. Ancient Greece, Switzerland, Holland and Denmark, naturally occur to the student as furnishing analogies to the unique history and influence of Scotland; yet they furnish no parallel. The first was small, rocky and barren, but it possessed the vantage ground of position in the great southern inland sea. Greece was a naval and colonizing country and, as the rival powers of Egypt and Phoenicia waned, she stood unrivalled until the rod of empire was stretched forth from the banks of the Tiber. She had her foes from the east and north, but valiantly held her own so long as she was true to herself, and the intellectual legacy she bequeathed to mankind remains an everlasting possession. Scotland, during a millennium and more, had no outlet for her energy; beset by foes on every side, and yet more than a match for them all; without a navy, without cities, with rude agriculture and a precarious commerce, she has yet accomplished the mightiest results. Switzerland achieved freedom, but remained isolated; Holland passed through the fire and quenched it with her dykes; the Danes, or rather the Scandinavian stock, of which they only formed a small section, were early sea-rovers, who preyed upon every land within their reach. In all these cases, where the colonizing, raiding, or merely voyaging, spirit has been the earliest characteristic of a small country, it has been sure to leave a broad mark upon human history. Scotland alone was the victim in its youth and early manhood; there was always enough to do there at home, and not over much to get. The greater part of the small territory must have always been hopelessly barren; and even the fertile straths, haughs and plains of the east and south, were so constantly under the harrow, not of tillage, but of rapine and invasion, that progress, wealth and culture were out of the question for centuries.

Scotland contains about 30,000 square miles, or 19,496,132 acres, about one-third, or slightly over, of the entire area of Britain; but of these less than four millions and a half are cultivated. The population, at the time of Bruce, was about 300,000; when James VI. ascended the Throne it was about 900,000, and at the union, in 1707, not much more than a million. In 1801, the census gave 1,678,452; in 1821, 2,137,325; in 1861, 3,096,808; and at the latest enumeration (1871), it stood 3,360,018, as against 22,712,266 in England and Wales, and 5,411,416 in Ireland. Adding the population of the Islands, the soldiers and sailors at home and abroad, Scotland contributes but one-ninth to the total number of inhabitants in the United Kingdom. The country, as it lies before us on the map, is in the main rocky, the land of mountain, frith and flood; the land of hardy shepherds and fishermen; of stout fighters and frugal husbandmen. The thin-soiled glens of the Highlands, the straths and carses of Perthshire, the haughs and dales of the Lowlands, generally form but a comparatively small portion of the surface, and, for the most part, life is sustained throughout Scotland under hard conditions. The east and north, on the coasts of the North Sea, are fertile, and it is on the former side that the large streams are found - the Tweed, Forth, Tay and Dee. On the west side, the Clyde, although certainly of high renown, is the only river of considerable size. Scotland, then, presents an uncouth and not altogether alluring prospect to the eye of the superficial observer; if so, it is merely because of his superficiality. That western coast, and the stern ribs of rock which strike towards it, is, for the most part, the home of the Celt; but, as we go northward, to where the Western Isles glitter in the Atlantic, like the crest on Minerva's helmet, the blood of the Norseman begins to tell, as it does over the entire North of Scotland. The Highlands will always maintain their place in the feelings and imagination of more than Scotsmen. It is the custom, in the practical vein of Anglo-Saxondom, to sneer at the Gael, as a cateran, a dreamer, or something worse; but there never was a greater mistake conceived in the unreasoning prejudice of race. The grandeur of Highland scenery, the precarious labours of peace, and a long, sad history of suffering and sorrow, culminating in the massacre of Glencoe, have all made men frugal, imaginative, pensive, and poetical in that

"Land of proud hearts and mountains grey,
Where Fingal fought and Ossian sung."

Mr. Lecky, in his History,* insists upon a fact which the Lowland Scot is apt to forget in contempt for his Gaelic countrymen: "It would be a great mistake to suppose that the Highlands contributed nothing beneficial to the Scotch character. The distinctive beauty and the great philosophic interest of that character sprang from the very singular combination it displays of a romantic and chivalrous with a practical and industrial spirit. In no other nation do we find the enthusiasm of loyalty blended so happily with the enthusiasm for liberty, and so strong a vein of poetic sensibility and romantic feeling qualifying a type that is essentially industrial. It is not difficult to trace the Highland source of this spirit."

There are in Scotland, as every one knows, two races, recognisable by certain broad characteristics, the Gaelic Celt and the Lowland Scot, the latter somewhat loosely termed Anglo-Saxon, whenever he speaks a language which is not Gaelic. But in the school days of most people not yet past middle age, there were two giants, who met them on the threshold of British history – the Pict and the Scot. These ogres were always doing something that had better have been left undone, especially during the Roman time. To unsophisticated youth, unlearned in modern ethnology, the Scots were, of course, the people of Scotland proper. That, at any rate, seemed to admit of no dispute; but the Picts, who were they? Did any body then know, or does anybody know even now, when men appear to know all but everything? The Scots were certainly a branch of the Irish Celts, who took their caracoles and rowed over the narrow North Channel to the Scottish coast. That there was an interchange of rough civility between the islands we know, because there is geological evidence of it in the basaltic columns of Fingal's Cave at Staffa, and Giant's Causeway in Antrim. If the courtesy of Fian Mac Coull, the Irish giant, did not spread those stepping-stones originally to accommodate his Scottish antagonist, how came they there on both sides of the channel? The Mull of Cantire is only twelve miles from the Irish coast, and, although legend may be safely dismissed, it is certain that the Scots of the Irish Dalriada, crossed over and established a footing for themselves on the isles and mainland of Argyleshire, early in the Christian era. They were not addicted like the Norsemen to long sea-trips, which may probably account for Mac Coull's politeness in providing a rude viaduct for his antagonist; but they were an active, impetuous, warlike race, and they wandered over their new-found territory until some of them returned, and but for the battle of Moyra, the Albanian Scots bade fair to make Ireland a vassal of Scotland. That battle, as Mr. Burton remarks, although little known, was the Bannockburn of early Ireland. The historian, whose sympathies are evidently not with the Celts, hints that the difference between them and their Saxon rivals thereafter, may be stated as a case of peat versus coal. "They were an indolent race," he says, "to whom the elements of value are not the resources capable of development but those which offer the readiest supply of the necessaries of life." "It is a curious coincidence, worth remembering, that those very lands in Northern Ireland, which the ancestors of the Scottish Highlanders abandoned, were afterwards eagerly sought and occupied by Scottish Lowlanders as a promising field of industrial enterprise."** - a comparison which strikes one as rather unfair to the Celts both of Ireland and Scotland.

Whatever they may afterwards have effected in the way of conquest, the Irish Scots held sway, in St. Columba's time, no further north than the latitude of Iona - that is, over the moiety of Argyleshire and perhaps all the isles off the coast. In the new histories, notably those of Mr. Green, they occupy a somewhat larger figure on the map; but all the rest of northern Scotland down to the Firths of Forth and Clyde, - the boundary of the old Roman Province, was under the rule of the mysterious Picts. What were they, Celt, Norse, or Saxon? If Celtic, they evidently sprang from the Cymric or Welsh branch, or they would have been indistinguishable from the Irish Scoti. Tacitus, in his life of Agricola, writing of a period long antecedent to the establishment of the Dalriadic kingdom in Argyleshire, contrasts them with the old Britons of the Cymric stock. He traces an affinity between them and the Germans, because, unlike the Britons of the south, the Caledonians were fair-haired and large-boned. Columba, it is said, made conversions to Christianity in Pictland, but his intercourse with the people was through the medium of an interpreter. Bede, early in the eighth century, relates that the New Testament had been translated into four native languages, the English, the British or Welsh, the Scots (or Irish), and the Pictish. Philology has tried its hand in vain; the names of rivers and other forms of local nomenclature are made Celtic, Norse or Saxon, according to the bias of the philologist. On the whole, we may give up the matter in despair, unless we accept the rational view that the east and north of Scotland, like England, were subject to long and overpowering incursions of Scandinavians and Saxons, and that the people known as Picts was a conglomerate made up of the three races or subraces rather, Celt, Norse and Teutonic. The Pictish controversy, says Mr. Burton, "leaves nothing but a melancholy record of wasted labour and defeated ambition;" and that being so, we may be content to let it alone. There was also the kingdom of Strathclyde. It formed part of that Cymric territory which, in 600, extended down the entire west coast of Britain from the Clyde to Land's End; was bounded on the east by the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, North Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. The Saxon kingdom of Northumbria consisted of Bernicia, from the Forth to the Tees in England, and Deira which met North Anglia at the Humber. In process of time the Cymric Celts were cut in two and the Scottish portion became isolated by the Anglian conquest of Cumbria. But not only have we the Cymric Celts and the Saxons in Scotland to deal with, but the Scandinavian element, through the entire Lowlands, up the entire east, north and north-west coasts. Through some of its numerous branches, Norse, Icelandic or Danish, it has left too broad a stamp upon the language, especially in the names of places, to be accounted for by mere temporary inroads of the "sea-kings." Whatever the Picts may have been, their kingdom never was, except nominally, and by the imposition of a monarch from Dalriada, a Celtic country within the historic period. Mr. Burton makes this clear enough in his work.*** It was no mere stampede of Saxons under Edgar Atheling, at the conquest, that made eastern Scotland Teutonic, modified by Scandinavian. Indeed, many of the conquering bands that pass under the generic name of Norse were, like the Angles of Northumbria, from that debateable territory known as Schleswick.

Whether, however, the people were more or less tinged with Norse blood, their language was Saxon, more entirely so than the English has been since the Norman conquest. In the regions of the early Norman Kings and under the Plantagenets, "the pure well of English undefiled" was adulterated with the French of the conquering race, and the literature of England, as we find it in Chaucer, is more difficult for a modern reader than that of John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, and chaplain of David Bruce, who was Chaucer’s contemporary. Take this passage from Barbour’s "Bruce," for example, and let any one compare it with a passage taken at random from "Canterbury Tales." It is just before Bannockburn: -

"When this was said –
The Scottismen commonally
Kneelt all doun, to God to pray,
And a short prayer, there made they,
To God to help them in that ficht.
And when the English king had sicht
Of them kneeland, he said in hy:
‘Yon folk kneel to ask mercy.’
Sir Ingram said: ‘Ye say sooth now,
They ask mercy, but not of you;
For their trespass to God they cry:
I tell you a thing sickerly,
That yon men will win or die;
For doubt of deid (fear of death) they sall not flee."

Barbour lived from 1316 to 1396, and Chaucer from 1328 to 1400; and yet the Scottish poet, a few archaisms excepted, speaks something like modern English, whilst the great "father of English poetry" abounds in the Normanized dialect of the court and literature of the fourteenth century London. There evidently is no greater mistake made by historians than to attribute the Saxon element all up the east coast, at St. Andrews’, Montrose or Aberdeen, and round by Moray Firth to Inverness, as either the effect of Anglian rule in Bernicia, or of immigration, on a large scale, after the conquest in England. One might as well believe that all the Britons were driven into the Welsh mountains, as folks used to say, or that the Norsemen, who obtained so strong a hold in the north-western Highlands, perished after their victory over the Gaels, instead of being absorbed, and lost sight of, in the superior civilization, such as it was, of the ancient Celt. If there were four tongues, what were they? Certainly Pictish was not one of them. In Macbeth or Malcolm’s time it is possible that four languages may have been spoken; if so, they must have been Norse in Ross and the North-west, Gaelic in the west and centre, Cymric in Strathclyde, and Saxon all over the east from the border, and all the way round to Inverness. The Scots’ kings, in fact, ruled over but a small portion of the Lowlands, even after Bannockburn, and there were petty jarls or earls in Ross and Caithness long after Kenneth or Duncan. These last were Norse rulers; but concerning Scandinavian inroads more will be said in the next chapter. It is sufficient here to note that the Saxon character of the entire east and north was of much older date than most historians suppose, and that neither the conquest of the Lowlands, the transfer of the government to Edinburgh, nor the marriage of Malcolm Canmore with St. Margaret, whatever these have done for the dynasty, effected any more than a superficial change upon the people.

*A History of England in the Eighteenth Century. By E.H. Lecky. (Amer. Ed.) Vol. II. p. 99.

** Burton; His. of Scot., Vol. I, 213.

***Mr. Burton's remarks are worth quoting: "Overlying the little that we absolutely know of the Picts, there is a great fact, that at a very early period - whenever, indeed, the inhabitants of Scotland come forward in European history - the territory of old assigned to the Picts was occupied by a people thoroughly Gothic or Teutonic, whether they were the descendants of the large limbed and red-haired Caledonians of Tacitus, or subsequently found their way into the country. To the southward of the Frith, we know pretty well that they were Saxons of Deira and Bernicia, superseding the Romanized Britons; but all along northward the Lowlands were people of the same origin. Those who see their descendants of the present day, acknowledge the Teutonic type to be purer in them than in the people of England. How far Celtic blood may have mingled with the race we cannot tell, but it was the nature of the language obstinately to resist all admixture with the Gaelic. The broadest and purest Lowland Scots is spoken on the edge of the Highland line. It ought, one would think, to be a curious and instructive topic for philosophy to deal with, that while the established language of our country - of England and Scotland - borrows at all hands - from the Greek, from Latin, from French, it takes nothing whatever, either in its structure or vocabulary, from the Celtic race, who have lived for centuries in the same island with the Saxon-speaking races, English and Scots." History of Scotland, Vo1. i. pp. 206. 207.

Previous Page | Return to Index Page | Next Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus