Chapter 5: National Identities: The Highlanders
Of all possible identities, national identity is one of the most obvious to modern eyes, yet in practice the most difficult to define. On the surface the concept is simple enough; a person who is born in, lives in, or otherwise identifies with a particular nation can be said to have that particular ‘national’ identity. This statement brings up two particular problems in understanding national identity, one being how a ‘nation’ is defined, the other being how a person becomes a part of it, the two issues being closely intertwined. Much has been made of the development of national identity as it is seen today, though the claim that France became a nation-state as a result of the Revolution is itself controversial. To avoid wandering too far off-topic, this chapter and the one that follows will cover national identity insofar as it existed in the requisite period, as opposed to more recent conceptions. To use the term ‘national’ in this case is essentially arbitrary, seeking to avoid an unhelpful anthropological and sociological tangent as to the precise definition thereof.
The ultimate focus of these case studies will be on perceptions, that is to say how the Highlanders and the Irish perceived themselves, and how others perceived them. In the course of these analyses one particular concept will arise, that of the ‘martial race.’ The term itself derives from nineteenth century British rule in India, being used to refer to any particular tribe or grouping that fitted certain qualifications in British perception. The most obvious feature of a martial race was that it was martial, possessed of a certain willingness to engage in armed violence. The other crucial feature was loyalty, which meant obedience to the British-led order in India, and was the main factor dividing a ‘martial’ race from a ‘criminal’ race.0 The concept is relevant to the end of the eighteenth century, for the underlying ideas existed then as well as later. Of those underlying ideas, the most important was that certain people possessed certain characteristics, specifically characteristics that made them well suited and willing to engage in warfare. The Highlanders were, in many respects, the archetype for this approach. The fact that so many Highland Scots went into the British service, with all apparent willingness, must have given the impression to a casual observer that they were both able and willing to fight. What also grew up around the Highlanders was the idea that they were ‘loyal’, that far from being self-interested mercenaries, they would give their lives for Crown and Empire. This idea of loyalty, coming from a British perspective, can be explained to a great extent by their history. Their ‘loyalty’ was marvelled-at in contrast to their past ‘treachery’ in rebelling against the Hanoverian dynasty.
The vision of the Highlanders as a ‘martial race’, or in the more common parlance as a ‘warrior people’ or ‘natural fighters’, is based on a series of factors both perceived and real. The image of the Highland warrior that existed in the eighteenth century, prior to post-Culloden romanticism, developed over many centuries. The Highland Gaels had been a part of the Scottish polity since its appearance, arriving over time from Ireland and gradually spreading over the Highlands, either removing or absorbing the native Picts. Many of the clan chiefs were descended from Scottish nobles of Anglo-Flemish origin, holding their lands as vassals of the Scottish crown. On that basis, the structure of the Highland clans that developed over the centuries was not very different from any other feudal structure that existed in Europe at the time. Indeed, observers as late as the fourteenth century made no distinction between Highlands and lowlands, implying that at the time there was little noticeable social or cultural difference between the two. 0
The basis of the Highland clan in its military context was, therefore, an institution for the feudal levying of soldiers, a function it would continuously serve for centuries. When put in the medieval context in which they originally developed, the Highland clans lose some of their romantic gloss. Their military service, Gaelic language and Catholic religion, features that made them distinctive in the early eighteenth century, made them as much a part of medieval Scotland as any other. The Highland Gaels only began to stand out when some of them decided to treat war as a profession rather than a feudal duty. First appearing in the thirteenth century, the gallóglaigh or gallowglasses, so-called because of their intermarriage with Norse settlers, were Scotland’s answer to the Swiss pikemen and the Genoese crossbowmen, though they primarily fought alongside their fellow Gaels in Ireland. It was in Ireland that the Scottish mercenaries acquired the nickname redshanks, referring to their habit of wading barelegged through rivers, though in the sixteenth century the term referred to seasonal mercenaries rather than the Gallowglasses who tended to settle down. Highlanders would continue to involve themselves in Ireland as late as the 1640’s.
Here can be seen one of the main features of a supposed martial race, namely a tendency and willingness to fight. The fact that so many became involved in other people’s wars, with a preference for helping their Irish relations against the English, makes it hard to deny that they were willing. That the Highlanders celebrated such battles in their songs and poetry, and associated success in battle with masculine achievement, suggests that they went even further, actually valuing combat for its own sake or the rewards it could bring.0 The question then arises as to why Highland Gaels developed such a distinctive military presence, and why this lasted so much longer than that of other warlike groups, such as the Border Reivers. A conception of their motives can be drawn from the development of the wider mercenary tendency in late medieval and Renaissance Europe. Mercenaries played an increasingly important role in European wars from the Hundred Years War onward, as rulers sought to balance the need for military professionalism with the expense of maintaining a standing army. The Swiss became mercenaries in considerable numbers, their availability and willingness being their major selling points. The underlying reason for this was not simply that the Swiss cantons were seriously overpopulated, hence their availability, but that they were also poverty-stricken, hence their willingness.0
Any polity or group capable of providing large numbers of trained and willing mercenaries stood to benefit, and Scotland could boast of both. When Donald ‘Dubh’ Macdonald sailed to Ireland in 1545, he was at the head of a force of four thousand armed men, with the same number remaining behind to defend his holdings. When Macdonald of Sleat did likewise fifty years later, his force numbered four thousand from his own clan. 0 As late as 1724, it was believed that the Highlands as a whole could field over twenty-thousand men.0 A financial incentive provides a clear motive for Highland military involvement, and one that will become relevant again later, but another motive can be found in the living conditions prevalent in the Highlands. As will be shown, the Highlands were not merely a poverty-stricken region, but at times a violent one.
The situation in the Highlands in the eighteenth century was the product of a chain of events beginning in at the end of the fifteenth century. By 1493 the Highlanders were already prolific mercenaries, but their reputation for violence would be given a boost by a period of internecine warfare lasting for a century and a half. This period was known as ‘Linn nach Creach’, the time of Feuds and Forays. The main identifiable cause was a lack of effective central leadership, with the crown weakened by a series of guardianships and the dissolution of the Lordship of the Isles. Held by the Clan Donald since the fourteenth century the Lordship, also known as the Kingdom of the Hebrides, covered a substantial portion of the Highlands at its height, making its holder the de facto leader of the Highlands. This arrangement made for a period of relative peace and stability, which itself may have contributed to so many Highland warriors choosing to seek glory abroad. It also, somewhat ironically, served to foster a sense of lowland identity, if only in opposition to and suspicion of the relatively united Highlands.0 The forfeiture of the Lordship in 1493 removed this unifying element and left the Highlands effectively lawless. Perhaps the most famous conflict in this period was the enmity between the Macdonald and Macleod clans. Samuel Johnson, writing two centuries later, described how a particular bout of that feud came about:
As the inhabitants of the Hebrides lived, for many ages, in continual expectation of hostilities, the chief of every clan resided in a fortress. This house was accessible only from the water, till the last possessor opened an entrance by flairs upon the land. They had formerly reason to be afraid, not only of declared wars and authorized invaders, or of roving pirates, which, in the northern seas, must have been very common; but of inroads and insults from rival clans, who, in the plenitude of feudal independence, asked no leave of their Sovereign to make war on one another. Skye has been ravaged by a feud between the two mighty powers of Macdonald and Macleod. Macdonald having married a Macleod, upon some discontent dismissed her, perhaps because she had brought him no children. Before the reign of James the Fifth, a Highland Laird made a trial of his wife for a certain time, and if she did not please him, he was then at liberty to send her away. This however must always have offended, and Macleod resenting the injury, whatever were its circumstances, declared, that the wedding had been solemnized without a bonfire, but that the separation should be better illuminated; and raising a little army, set fire to the territories of Macdonald who returned the visit, and prevailed.0
This state of affairs severely damaged the image and standing of Scotland’s Gaelic element. What had once been in many respects an alternative cultural, economic, and political centre was by the eighteenth century regarded as a nest of barbarism and pointless violence. Though most feuds were ended in 1609, when King James VI forced the clan chiefs to sign the Statutes of Iona in return for legal charters to their land, the causes of Highland conflict became more complex and wide-ranging. Religion and politics intertwined in the mid-seventeenth century, with Presbyterians fighting Episcopalians and Royalists fighting Covenanters. This final process culminated in three Jacobite rebellions of 1689, 1715, and 1745, which involved the Highlanders over three generations. The practical effect of these developments was that the clans had maintained their military capabilities, and engaged from time to time in active combat, almost non-stop for over two-hundred years. This almost certainly served to entrench the militaristic aspect of Highland culture.