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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

XI. The Highlands

73. The Highlands of Scotland, 1805

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1Like many landowners of his time Thomas Selkirk (1771-1820) showed great interest in improvement. He was also an advocate of emigration and sponsored different immigrant settlements in Canada at the Red River Colony.

2The following passage is an extract taken from Thomas Selkirk’s Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland published in 1805.

3Thomas Douglas Selkirk, Observation on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland, Edinburgh: Constable, 1805, p. 47-50.

Sheep-farming, though it is the most prominent occasion, is not the radical cause of the difficulties to which the peasantry of the Highlands are reduced: the disposition to extend farms by throwing several possessions into one, in the manner that has already been alluded to, must produce the same effect, in whatever mode the land is afterwards to be managed.

To the dispossessed tenantry, as well as to the cotters, who by the same progress of things are deprived of their situation and livelihood, two different resources present themselves. They know that in the Low Country of Scotland, and particularly in the manufacturing towns, labour will procure them good wages: they know likewise that in America the wages of labour are still higher, and that from the moderate price of land they may expect to obtain not only the possession of a farm, but an absolute property.

Of these alternatives, every one who is acquainted with the country must admit that emigration is by far the most likely to suit the inclination and habits of the Highlanders. It requires a great momentary effort; but holds out a speedy prospect of a situation and mode of life similar to that in which they have been educated. Accustomed to possess land, to derive from it all the comforts they enjoy, they naturally consider it as indispensable, and can form no ideas of happiness without such a possession. No prospect of an accommodation of this kind can enter into the views of any one who seeks for employment as a day labourer, still less of those who resort to a manufacturing town.

The manners of a town, the practise of sedentary labour under the roof of a manufactory, present to the Highlander a most irksome contrast to his former life. The independence and irregularity to which he is accustomed, approach to that of the savage: his activity is occasionally called forth to the utmost stretch in conducting his boat through boisterous waves, or in traversing the wildest mountains amidst the storms of winter. But these efforts are succeeded by intervals of indolence equally extreme. He is accustomed to occasional exertions of agricultural labour, but without any habits of regular and steady industry; and he has not the least experience of sedentary employments, for which, most frequently, the prejudices of his infancy have taught him to entertain a contempt.

To a person of such habits, the business of a manufactory can have no attraction except in a case of necessity; it can never be his choice, when any resources can be found more congenial to his native habits and disposition. The occupations of an agricultural labourer, though very different, would not be so great a contrast to his former life; but the limited demand for labour leaves him little prospect of employment in this line. Both in this, and in manufacturing establishments, every desirable situation is pre-occupied by men of such greater skill than the untutored Highlander. He has therefore little chance of finding employment but in works of the lowest drudgery.

To this it is to be added, that the situation of a mere day-labourer, is one which must appear degrading to a person who has been accustomed to consider himself as in the rank of a farmer, and has been the possessor even of a small portion of land. In America, on the contrary, he has a prospect of superior rank; of holding his land on a permanent tenure, instead of a temporary, precarious, and dependent possession. It is not to be forgotten, that every motive of this nature has a peculiar degree of force on the minds of the Highland Peasantry. The pride, which formerly pervaded even the lowest classes, has always been a prominent feature of their national character: and this feeling is deeply wounded by the distant behaviour they now experience from their chieftains – a mortifying contrast to the cordiality that subsisted in the feudal times.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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