…Yet had I not trailed my coat we would never have had this fine essay. And said with the politeness of one with Highland blood…
By Mike MacKenzie
I find myself nodding unconsciously in agreement with what Ian has written about the Highlander and yet something in my mongrel blood shrieks out in protest at this treatment. It is a point of view, certainly and it is undoubtedly both a Scottish and a Lowland point of view. It is characteristically Scottish in that we are the first to criticize our own people and view ourselves with such an unsparing eye and it is a Lowland eye that has to measure and judge and assess value in this way.
Iâ€™m not sure if the Highland way of life that persisted for so long can be described as a civilisation. If it was a civilisation how do we compare it with other civilisations? It is quite reasonable to look at its accomplishments as Ian has done, to list them and perhaps find ourselves wanting in respect of these accomplishments. It occurs to me though that the Highland accomplishments may have been more subtle and on a more human scale than those of some other civilisations.
Certainly none of our buildings compare with some of the structures of ancient or more recent civilisations but many of those of the ancients were built on slavery on a substantial scale. More recent buildings were built on the exploitation of artisans and working people. In a way Iâ€™m quite pleased that our Highland civilisation did not practice such exploitation nor was it as egotistical as to feel the need to leave such monuments to posterity, nor did it seem to feel the need to impress others or ourselves with such grandiose structures. Such buildings as were built were built for common utility which is perhaps the only and the best reason for building any structure. Perhaps this speaks of a more mature civilisation than many.
It may be said that theirs was an unhygienic civilisation except if you read accounts of contemporary Edinburgh or indeed of any town or city prior to the late Victorian age. The lifestyle of the Highlander was positively antiseptic by comparison. It is amazing just how long it took our Lowland civilisation to invent and adopt the water closet or to install decent water and sewage systems to serve those fabulous cities of which we are so proud. As for medicine none of it was much good around 1745 although modern science is still discovering yet more amazing properties of willow bark an ancient remedy known in the Highlands as elsewhere.
Roads were often built to facilitate the movement of armies. Nowadays they are used for cars but as a surface to walk on they are over rated. They are hard miles those walked on a road and there is little joy in the walking. Many people enjoy hill walking but I have yet to hear of the person who enjoys road walking. Certainly they facilitate the movement of large armies and this may have much more to do with the discipline implicit in controlling a large army and the logistics of supplying it than comfort or ease or speed of movement on foot. We tend to equate civilisation with peace and an absence of war and it is difficult therefore to think of military infrastructure such as roads as the hallmark of a successful civilisation.
As the infrastructure of trade and commerce it is much more sensible then as now to conduct such transport by sea. It is more efficient and our Highland civilisation used sea transport quite well developing a number of craft well suited to this purpose.
I am forced to wonder if an elaborate system of Law is really the hallmark of civilisation. If we were truly civilised and well behaved would we really need much Law? The Law is often described as an ass and there continues to be a gap between law and justice and it seems doubtful whether this gap closes as time goes on and law becomes more elaborate still. Is a society that functions without much Law and persists not rather better than one that needs an awful lot of it to hold all these so called civilised people together and prevent them murdering each other.
Certainly there is not much by way of physical art that has been passed down but it seems to me that we have more need of art in the more cheerless streets of Glasgow or London than we do amidst the beauty of the Highlands. It must have been much more beautiful then before the Lowlanders began to destroy it for the sake of a few quid. Art tends mostly to be a solitary pursuit and many an artist seems to be a tortured soul. Perhaps the happier we are the less art we need.
The very oldest art, the rock cave art is surely an attempt to brighten up a hole in the ground. A life spent outdoors or in sociable company perhaps does not need the solace of art. A civilisation that does not require art to reinforce social status or rank is perhaps a more honest civilisation than those that need to use art for this purpose and historically this has very often been the purpose for which it has been used. Perhaps a civilisation that judges a person for who and how they are rather than how much art they possess or adorn themselves with is a more human and more honest civilisation than many.
As far as literature goes not much was written down. McPhersonâ€™s Ossianic legends have uncertain provenance but then so of course have Homerâ€™s. Some of the old stories which were never written down persist to this day and when we did take to writing, later than some, not as late as others, we took to it with a vengeance. For such a small nation Scotland has produced more than its share of literature and much of it is informed by the Highland experience.
I donâ€™t know how you measure loyalty on the scale of a civilisation. Was there more or less loyalty in other civilisations then? Is there now? Which is the most loyal civilisation of our era? Which is the most honourable? Which has the most integrity? I have no idea but I suspect as we all have much in common as humans that we are all much the same in this respect.
Was there music and was it good music? I suspect it was rather better than the Spice girls and I suspect they had more fun than did the â€˜White Heather Clubâ€™. Certainly we can be quite satisfied with the quality of that which was written down and has survived. Mozart became famous but are those musicians who play just for the fun of it and for the joy of entertaining others any less musical because they do not seek fame or wealth.
Is the music any the worse for this or is it perhaps better? Is music that the untrained ear can enjoy worse than music that depends on the formality of training? I honestly donâ€™t know and would not like to assume a position where I felt I was qualified to judge this.
We Lowlanders didnâ€™t understand the Highlander, his civilisation or his culture and perhaps we still donâ€™t. It is the basest of human emotions that drives us to destroy that which we donâ€™t understand. Typically we vilify the cultures we intend to destroy; then we need the excuse almost always presented to us by a rash leader arising from this culture to justify its destruction. The Americans did it with the Native Americans. We did it with the Highlanders.
Then as Ian says we have pangs of guilt. We try and justify our actions. People seek to understand this and assume it was inevitable that the culture had to be destroyed. Authors write about it and they imbue the annihilated culture as a tragic and fatally flawed structure that carried the seeds of and brought about its own destruction. Our so called and much lauded civilisations find it impossible to face up to our own inhumanity: our own lack of civilisation.
Even Geronimo realised that further fighting was pointless. The Highlanders were smart enough to realise this too. This was a wise decision and they adapted to change, left, or were driven off and many prospered in situations perhaps more fortuitous than those they had left. Certainly most retained their dignity in a way that the butcher Cumberland did not. Certainly they are well regarded the world over andÂ under more favourable circumstances they have left their mark in all kinds of ways and in every sphere of human endeavour. That, Ian I am sure, would admit to.
Perhaps the mark of Highland civilisation was what it did not do. It did not conquer other civilisations and practice genocide on any significant scale. It did not subjugate and exploit other peoples or its own people to any great extent. It did not invent terrible weapons or practice large scale warfare. It did not overly exploit or devastate the environment. It persisted for a long time and it persists still and such benefit as it has brought to other civilisations has been mainly benevolent.
How then can you judge this Highland race other than as the ultimate survivors? A race that faced and overcame oblivion and genocide practised on them by what was then the worlds most successful and ruthless military power. A race that went forth and multiplied in every corner of the globe, that brought a uniquely Highland civilisation and culture with them which continues to grow and to prosper in a uniquely good humoured way.
With this fine piece of writing, Ian Hamilton brings the first edition of his paper to an end.
IN THE NEXT ISSUE
IT SLUMBERS ON AND SLEEPS
Ian Hamilton deals with the Church of Scotland and the Law.
Published by Ian Hamilton PA37 1QX :: firstname.lastname@example.org