An ethnohraphic history of Scotland, Part III: Highlander and Lowlander

Within the endless romanticism of Scotland’s past, the conflict between the Gaelic Highlanders, representing ancient traditions, pastoralism and a ‘noble savage’ mythos; and the Germanic Lowlanders, representing the ruthless expansion of modern ideals from the towns and cities of Scotland into her countryside, has been a recurring theme. While these notions are based on historical reality, the idea that the ways of the Highlanders (as portrayed by the modern tourist industry and false nationalists) represent authentic Scottish culture, while the Lowlanders embody an invasive imitation of English culture (or, at the very least, is largely ignored in romanticism) is as absurd as it is false. Much of the animosity surrounding the Jacobite Wars and the later Highland Clearances has more to do with the increasing domination of British state authority on all the peoples of our island than on the desire for Germanic Lowland culture to become dominant (though, realistically, this has become the case). They both represent two sides of our overall culture that are suited to folk in different parts of the country.

At the dawn of the 12th Century, this division did not exist; at this time, Brittonic culture had been extinguished in Scotland with the annexing of Strathclyde and Gaelic was the predominant language spoken in Scotland (with the exceptions of the Borders and the Northern Isles). This began to change with the reforms of David I, whose establishment of the burghs and invitations to entrepreneurs (mainly from Flanders) to settle them marked the beginning of what would become Lowland culture. This process had already begun beforehand, as English refugees fleeing the Norman invasion settled mostly in Southern Scotland and had influenced the local culture since the 11th Century. While throughout the Wars of Independence from England, the Middle English (French influenced) tongue was restricted mainly to the South-East and the areas surrounding the burghs, there was a definite preference for this language among the Scottish nobles (as well as, of course, French).

It is at this point that I wish to clear up a misconception about one of our national heroes from the Wars of Independence: William Wallace. Though sometimes portrayed as a son of the Highlands, he was from Strathclyde, a place geographically part of the Lowlands. As a member of the nobility, he was taught how to read French and Latin, but probably conversed in English on a day-to-day basis. His comrade, Andrew Moray, was also a nobleman (of a higher rank than Wallace) and would have also been immersed in the culture of the burghs. Yet many of the common soldiers and clansmen that fought for Scotland’s freedom were Gaels, as they all fought against the tyranny of Edward the Hammer of Scots, despite their linguistic differences. Though Robert the Bruce was of a French-speaking Norman family, as King of Scots he would also needed to have been able to read Latin, and probably also knew at least some Gaelic (which would have been handy during his campaigns in Ireland). This began to change, however, in the Late Middle Ages. As the Norman influence began to wane among the nobility, both the nobles and the common folk in the South-East, the Central Belt and the North-East coast adopted English almost exclusively. Conversely, the inhabitants of the rest of the kingdom would have spoken Gaelic on a daily basis.

This linguistic separation continued right through the 15th Century, as the Scottish form of English diverged from that spoken in England. This language came to be known as ‘Scots’ (known to Scots speakers as ‘Lallans’) and its distinct literature became a feature of Scottish culture during the reign of the Stewart dynasty in the 15th and 16th Centuries. In this period, Scots and English became mutually unintelligible; as English underwent significant changes, Scots retained more features of Middle English and displayed considerably more influence from Norse and Latin. Scots wasn’t the only new language to have emerged in Scotland during the Middle Ages. The variety of Norse spoken in the Northern Isles was known as ‘Norn’ and was distinct from Norwegian. However, with the granting of sovereignty over Orkney and Shetland to Scotland by the King of Scandinavia, Eric of Pomerania (who, apparently, needed the money), Norn came to be replaced by Scots, though it was not extinct until the 19th Century.

Gradually, throughout the Early Modern Period, Lowland culture expanded in Southern and Eastern Scotland and Scots became the language of the folk in the hills and on the plans, while Gaelic was retained by those in the mountainous regions (with the exception of Galloway), creating the Highland/Lowland dichotomy we know today. While at the beginning of the Stewart’s reign, the whole of Scotland was Catholic, this was to change in the 16th Century during the reign of the first (and, arguably, last) Scottish queen: Mary Queen of Scots. Though she herself was a Catholic raised in France, many folk in Scotland became disillusioned with the corruption and dominance of the Catholic Church and sought to emulate those in England and elsewhere in Europe who had challenged its power and established Protestant churches. Protestantism appealed more to the Lowlanders, whose lives in the burghs and more densely populated communities felt the need for change, as many could not reconcile the poverty among their folk with the power of the fabulously wealthy Catholic Church. The Highlanders, on the other hand, saw less need for reform as their own pastoral traditions had continued from heathen times and the issues surrounding wealth distribution had less impact on their largely tribal way of life.

The Protestant Reformation in Scotland was spearheaded by a fiery preacher named John Knox, who preached a deterministic Protestant doctrine known as ‘Calvinism’, which maintained that only those chosen by God can attain ‘Salvation’ and that God is the supreme authority. Calvinism also made allowances for usury, which facilitated the beginning of banking and capitalism in Scotland, and so was favoured by the merchant class. Eventually, he and his followers persuaded many Lowlanders with his teachings and an orgy of destruction of all that was ‘popish’ ensued, resulting in a loss of literature and damage of architecture not seen since Edward’s invasion. The Church of Scotland was reformed with English support, and the new doctrine was known as ‘Presbyterianism’, which came to distinguish the Lowlanders from the still largely Catholic Highlanders, whom this cultural revolution did not affect. Now a sectarian divide reinforced the linguistic and cultural differences between the Highlanders and Lowlanders, and relations between the two deteriorated over time.

With the ascendancy of James VI of Scotland (who was our first Protestant king) to the English throne to form the United Kingdom, the 17th Century marked the beginning of the end of Gaelic Highland culture. By now, the Lowlanders referred to the Highlanders as ‘Erse’ (‘Irish’), while the Highlanders used the term ‘Sassenach’ (‘Saxon’) to describe the Lowlanders. This reflected the mutual animosity between the two and their desire to cast the other as foreign and not ‘true Scots’. This situation wasn’t helped by the fact that James VI settled Presbyterian Lowlanders in Northern Ireland to ‘de-Gaelify’ Ulster, introducing Lowland culture there and setting the stage for future sectarian troubles.With the outbreak of the civil war in Britain and Ireland in 1642, most Highlanders rallied behind the king, while many Lowlanders considered themselves ‘Covenanters’ and resented Charles I’s attempts to impose Anglican liturgy on their Presbyterian services. Despite the fact that Cromwell’s victorious regime was overthrown and Charles II restored as king, this was not the end of the struggle.

His successor, James VII, was an open Catholic, which proved to be enough reason for the English parliament to force him to abdicate in favour of the bankers’ choice, William of Orange from Holland (who was married to James’ sister, Mary II). The ensuing struggle came to be known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 by Protestants and continues to represent the bitter hatred between Catholics and Protestants over the next few centuries. The men that supported James VII came to be known as ‘Jacobites’ (after the Latin ‘Jacobus’ for ‘James’) and became synonymous with the Highlanders, despite the fact that this was a political rather than cultural affiliation. The Jacobites were successful at first, routing their enemies at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. However, their subsequent defeats at the Haughs of Cromdale in Scotland and the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland (both in 1690) saw the end of the revolution and victory for William.

The following uprisings occurred several times in the early 18th Century in response to a new monarchy beginning with George I of Hanover. The ‘Hanoverians’ represented the dominance of a degenerated Germanic culture characterized by capitalism and secularism, which was encroaching on peoples all over Northern Europe and other parts of the world. The most notable Jacobite uprising was that of the ‘Young Pretender’, Bonnie Prince Charlie, in 1745, as this time they were more successful and briefly managed to gain control of Scotland. Unfortunately, the Jacobite army was unsuccessful in taking England and they were driven back to the Highlands, where they were defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to France, and the retribution against the Highlanders was that their clan system was dismantled and their way of life degraded.

Many clan chieftains were replaced and the system of landownership was reorganized so as to make the chieftain the landowner rather than the clan using the land communally. This eventually resulted in what became known as the ‘Highland Clearances’, a painful memory for our folk as much of Highland culture was destroyed following the displacement of folk from their ancestral lands that were now tenants rather than clansmen in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. This happened because the traditional practice of cattle droving was unprofitable and the lairds struggled to receive enough rent from their tenants. An available alternative was to invest in the wool industry by replacing cattle droving with sheep farming. However, because sheep farmers were of a different occupation than the cattle drovers, they had to be imported from other parts of Scotland, so many of the previous tenants were evicted and had to move either to other parts of Scotland, or to British colonies like Canada or New Zealand. A similar process also occurred in the Lowlands, however, this mainly had to do with land reorganization, so most of the affected simply moved into the cities or other parts of the Lowlands, and so many Lowland communities remained intact. Highland society, on the other hand, was drastically altered (along with the Highland environment, which has been largely made barren by extensive sheep farming) and English replaced Gaelic all over the Highlands with the introduction of standardized education. Again, the same thing happened in the Lowlands, but with less vigour and likely with less ethnic hostility involved.

What was it that made the Highland and Lowland cultures seem to incompatible over the last few centuries? The answer has to do with long-standing cultural differences between the Celtic and Germanic peoples in addition to the division and strife that has characterized the most recent phase of Kali Yuga. In my last post, I described some of the differences between Celtic and Germanic culture, and these differences still applied in this period. Cattle-raiding was not a feature of Germanic culture, a fact which became bothersome to Lowland cattle-farmers who saw the Highlanders cattle-rustling as mere thievery, rather than a time-honoured tradition of proving their manhood and leadership capabilities to their folk. There were also noticeable differences in fashion; for example, trousers were ubiquitous to all of the Germanic peoples and remain a feature of their culture even in modern times.

In contrast, the Celtic peoples (beginning in the Dark Ages) saw trousers as the mark of a peasant and so most Highlanders went bare-legged in accordance with this custom. It is from their cloak and knee-length tunic combination without trousers that the modern kilt derives. The weaving of ‘tartan’ was not exclusive to the Highlands, but it was certainly the norm there, in contrast to the Lowlands where clothes were more likely to be of one colour. Unlike in modern times, a particular tartan was the mark of a local weaver rather than a particular clan and did not have this significance as it does today. Highland culture was also exclusively rural and pastoral, while Lowlanders could be found in urban or rural places. This led to the perception of the Gaelic Highlanders as ‘country bumpkins’, whole uncivilized lifestyles conflicted with those of folk in Lowland Scotland and England.

The organization of each society also differed; whereas Highland society retained the tribal bond between kinsmen as the basic structure of a clan, the Lowlands were centred on the burghs, which acted as redistribution centres for the surrounding countryside and worked on a financial rather than familial model. However, despite these differences, one area where they shared many similarities (especially towards the end of this era) was warfare. Despite the fact that most of the king’s army was drawn up from Lowland knights and commoners, while the Gaelic clansmen were used more like mercenaries, their weapons and tactics in battle were very similar. Both consisted of elite, armoured skirmisher cavalry supported by lightly or unarmoured infantry (though the Highlanders were less likely to be armoured) consisting of spearmen and archers. During the Wars of Independence, the ‘schiltron’ came into use, a tactic where pikemen were arranged in an oval formation similar to a phalanx. This tactic was used unsuccessfully as a defensive formation by William Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, only to be successfully utilized by Robert the Bruce to push the offensive at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

From this point on, Medieval European warfare came to be dominated by infantry, as innovation in creating new types of pole-arms resulted in a wider range of weapons that could be used against cavalry (including glaives, bill-hooks and war axes) in addition to pikes. In the Late Middle Ages, this necessitated the use of larger swords that could only be wielded with two hands, which paved the way for the creation of the weapon that signifies the Highland warrior: the claymore. ‘Claidheamh-Mor’ means ‘great sword’ and, despite its unique association with the Highlands, ‘great swords’ could be found all over Europe, even the Lowlanders had their own design. However, the style of the claymore was exclusive to the Highlanders, who were famed for their skills with the sword, which has come to represent strength and masculinity.

As firearms came to dominate the battlefield, armour became gradually obsolete, as it was more useful to be mobile than heavily protected in an age of long-range combat. The Highlanders never seriously lagged behind their Lowland counterparts and in the Early Modern Period, they used a combination of targe (shield with straps) and broadsword with pistol and musket. The fearsome ‘Highland charge’ gave the Jacobites many of their victories, but could be outmanoeuvred by cavalry. It was this factor that led to the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden rather than inferior military tactics or equipment. New research suggests that the Jacobites were as well trained as the British army, but that their lack of cavalry proved decisive in their defeat. The differences between Highlanders and Lowlanders were never so wide as so clearly show one society as superior to the other, and the perspective of Gaelic inferiority was simply used as propaganda by the British establishment to justify the suppression of the Jacobites and Highland culture.

Today, Scotland is somewhat more uniform in her culture; mass media and standardized education has made us more similar to the English and, more recently, to the Americans. The English tongue reigns supreme, as Scottish Gaelic is only spoken by a small minority of the population (mostly in the Western Isles), while Scots is still spoken interchangeably with Scottish English mostly in the North-East and Shetland. Yet, in addition to this, there are also immigrants from England and Ireland as well as other parts of Europe and the world. The large influx of Polish folk in particular is beginning to add a Slavic element to our culture. As the dichotomy between the Highlands and Lowlands now exists largely within geography rather than society, this current cultural climate will also change. What will the future of Scottish culture be? Hopefully it will incorporate our historical Celtic and Germanic traditions and help to reconnect our folk to their heritage in addition to borrowing customs from other Aryan brothers and sisters living on our land.

Wulf Willelmson

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