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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

VI. The Highlands

31. Clans in the Highlands, 1724

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1Edmund Burt (died 1755) was appointed Receiver General and Collector of the Unsold Forfeited Estates in North Britain in 1725. He was also in charge of supervising the construction of military roads in the Highlands from 1725 to 1728. From 1725 to 1726 he wrote twenty-six letters to a friend in London that were published thirty years later in 1754. Burt’s emphasis in his Letters on dirt, poverty, barbarity and superstition infuriated many Scots.

2Field Marshal George Wade (1673-1748), an Anglo-Irish soldier, was appointed commander-in-chief of military forces in Scotland in 1725. Between 1726 and 1738 he built 250 miles of roads and bridges deep into the western and central Highlands to facilitate the movement of government troops. Ironically, the Jacobites used these roads in their progress south in 1745.

3“An Authentic Narrative of Marshal Wade’s Proceedings in the Highlands of Scotland” in Edmund Burt, Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London Containing the Description of a Capital Town (Inverness) in that Northern Country, likewise an Account of the Highlands, with the Customs and Manners of the Highlanders (1754), vol. 2, London: 1822, p. 269-273 (appendix).

“The Highlands are the mountainous parts of Scotland, not defined or described by any precise limits or boundaries of counties or shires; but are tracts of mountains, in extent of land more than one half of the kingdom of Scotland, and are for the most part on the Western Ocean, extending from Dunbarton to the north end of the Island of Great Britain, near two hundred miles in length, and from about forty to fourscore miles in breadth. All the Islands on the West and North West Seas, are called Highlands, as well from their mountainous situation, as from the habits, customes, manners and language of their inhabitants. The Lowlands, are all that part of Scotland on the south of the Firth and Clyde; and on the east side of the kingdom from the Firth of Edinburgh to Caithness near the Orkneys, is a tract of low country, from four to twenty miles in breadth.

  • 7 Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788), grandson of king James II and VII. Charles’s opponents r (...)

“The number of men able to bear arms in the Highlands (including the inhabitants of the Isles) are by the nearest computation about 22,000 men, of which number, about 10,000 are vassals to Superiors, well-affected to your Majesty’s Government; most of the remaining 12,000 have been engaged in rebellions against your Majesty, and are ready, when ever encouraged by their Superiors, or Heads of Clans, to create new-troubles, and rise in arms to favour the Pretender7.

“Their notions of virtue and vice are very different from the more civilized part of mankind. They think it the most sublime virtue, to pay a servile and abject obedience to the commands of their Chieftains, although in opposition to their Sovereign and the laws of the Kingdom; and to encourage this their fidelity, they are treated by their chiefs, with great familiarity: they partake with them in their diversions, and shake them by the hand wherever they meet them.

“The virtue next to this in esteem amongst them is the love they bear to that particular branch of which they are a part; and, in a second degree, to the whole Clan or name, by assisting each other (right or wrong) against any other Clan with whom they are at variance; and great barbarities are often committed by one, to revenge the quarrels of others. They have a still more extensive adherence one to another as Highlanders, in opposition to the people who inhabit the Low Countries, whom they hold in the utmost contempt, imagining them inferiour to themselves in courage, resolution, and the use of arms; and accuse them of being proud, avaritious, and breakers of their word. They have also a tradition among them, that the Lowlands were in ancient times the inheritance of their ancestors, and therefore believe they have a right to committ depredations, whenever it is in their power to put them in execution.

“The Highlanders are divided into tribes or clans, under lairds or chieftains, (as they are called in the laws of Scotland;) each Tribe or Clan is subdivided into little branches springing from the main stock, who have also Chieftains over them; and, from these are still smaller branches of 50 or 60 men, who deduce their original from them, and on whom they rely as their protectors and defenders.

The arms they make use of in war are a musket, a broad sword and target, a pistol, and a durk or dagger hanging by their side, with a powder horn, and pouch for their ammunition. They form themselves into bodies of unequal numbers, according to the strength of their Clan, which is commanded by their respective Superior or Chieftain. When in sight of the enemy, they endeavour to possess themselves of the highest ground, believing they descend on them with greater force; They generally give their fire at a distance, then lay down their arms on the ground, and make a vigorous attack with their broad swords; but if repulsed, seldom or never rally again. — They dread engaging with the cavalry, and seldom venture to descend from the mountains, when apprehensive of being charged by them.

“On sudden alarms, or when any chieftain is in distress, they give notice to their clans, or those in alliance with them, by sending a man with what they call the fiery cross, which is a stick in the form a cross, burnt at the end; who send it forward to the next Tribe or Clan. They carry with it a written paper directing them where to assemble; upon sight of which they leave their habitation, and with great expedition repair to the place of rendezvous with arms, ammunition, and meal for their provision.


7 Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788), grandson of king James II and VII. Charles’s opponents referred to him as “The Young Pretender”. He also became known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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