Highland Scots

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Highland Scots (Scottish Gaelic: Albannaich), also simply Highlanders or Scots, are a Gaelic ethnic group in Scotland, descended primarily from the Irish Gaels of Dál Riata and Argyll, the Norsemen of the Hebrides and to a lesser degree the Picts. The original group established an Irish colony from Ulster in the 5th century, before conquering the Picts and founding the nation of Scotland under the MacAlpin clan. Their native language is Scottish Gaelic and was widespread until the 19th century Highland Clearences, many today speak English, but there is a Gàidhealtachd area in the Highlands and living communities in Cape Breton. Through the British Empire they also moved to other places, particularly Canada, the Scottish Lowlands, England, the United States, New Zealand and Australia.



Dál Riata to the Lordship of the Isles

The origin of the Highland people can be traced to their foundation of Dál Riata in the 5th century by Irish Gaels from Ulster. The most senior family who were their kings, were the MacAlpin clan (their descendents include the MacGregor, Mackinnon, MacDuff, MacLaren, Mackintosh and other clans). Although the Gaels were the founding element of Scotland as a nation (and the ethnonym "Scot" in a purist sense technically only refers to them), they ruled over a multi-ethnic Northern European miniature empire. From the early 11th century, the Gaelic Dunkeld dynasty came to rule over an English-speaking population who would later become the Lowland Scots people. Around this time the regal centre of power moved to the Lowlands and an internal cultural change known as the Davidian Revolution saw the elites move from a Gaelic, to a Norman based ruling culture.

The Normans wormed their way into Scottish life and by the 13th century, they had taken control of the kingdom with the Bruce, Balliol and Stewart families. The Gaels were thus reduced to the Lordship of the Isles and the most prominent element of this was the Norse-Gaelic element (what we known today as the MacDonald and MacLeod clans, amongst others). During the Wars of the Scottish Succession, the Gaels fearing the new Norman aristocracy, sometimes tried to ally with Plantagenet England to ensure their autonomy. Some Gaels on the mainland, for example the Campbell clan, tried to Uncle Tom to the Normans and abandoned their Gaelic heritage, becoming agents of Normanisation.

The Gaelic culture of the Highlanders held out, beyond the direct administrative control of Edinburgh for a long time (although their Lordship fell under Normano-Scotland's technical overlordship since the Treaty of Perth, when Norway gave up any claims). The warrior clan system was the normative way of life for the people. The Stewarts were particularly bad news for the Highlanders; James IV Stewart brought to an end the autonomy of the Hebrides in 1493 through conquest and taking the titles of John MacDonald of Islay, merging them with the crown. The MacDonalds claimed the title into the start of the 16th century, with a failed Gaelic rebellion under Donald Dubh MacDonald from 1491 to 1505.

Cultural genocide and displacement

The advent of Protestantism further confounded things, as the English-speaking Lowlands became either Episcopalian or, as the majority would turn out Calvinist-Presbytarian, the Highlanders remained in their Catholic faith and Gaelic tongue. The system of Freemasonry would also develop amongst the Lowlanders, which further emphasised their more mercantile outlook compared to the Highlanders and their traditional way of life. As an attempt to pull the rug from under the Gael's feet and sow conflict in their society, the Lowland Parliament in Edinburgh instituted the Statutes of Iona in 1609, which ordered that Highland chiefs must send their heirs to be indoctrinated in Lowland Protestant English-speaking schools. The Privy Council of Scotland, packed with Norman descended slime, followed this up with the School Establishment Act 1616 to create parish schools all over Scotland which would be Protestant and aim to "obliterate" the "barbaric" Gaelic language and their culture. It is no coincidence at the same time James VI Stewart, who then ascended to the throne of England, devised the Ulster Plantation to attack the Gaelic race in Ireland also.


For much of its history Scotland has contained two nations, the Celtic Highlanders and the Anglo-Saxon Lowlanders, enjoying different social organizations, different customs, different languages and a mutual distrust. The consequent interaction between the two races had cultural, social and political effects and of these the political are the most immediately evident. As in other European border regions, the threatening proximity of an alien race animated the ballad society with continual political and military tensions.

—David Buchan, 1972, The Ballad and the Folk.

The Minutes of the Committee and of the General Meetings of the SSPCK are of the greatest interest - religious, political, social, and economic - for the history of the Highlands and Islands between the Union of 1707 and the accession of King George III in 1760. They show what the majority of the Highlanders were rebelling against in 1715 and again in 1745 - a calculated, well-financed attempt, backed by constant political pressure, to destroy their language and their religion. The Minutes of the SPCK were only placed in the National Register House in Edinburgh in 1933. Since then no Scottish Historical society has ventured to publish them; presumably they are still politically too embarrassing.

John Lorne Campbell.[1]

The SPCK schools continued the work of intergrating the Highlands and Islands into a Protestant, English-speaking kingdom and by the time the Evangelicals modified that hostility to the Gaels, hatred had become self-hatred and Scottish Gaels - like their Irish counterparts - could not be persuaded of the worth of their own culture. John Maculloch wrote in a published letter to Walter Scott in 1824 that Gaelic was "indebted for a long series of misrule, rebellion, rapine and disorder which it was involved before the termination of Highland independence."

—Marcus Tanner, 2004, The Last of the Celts.

The Gaels were always one step removed from the hothouse nationalism of the Lowlands with its flags, battles and medieval heroes. In the early middle ages, the Celts of the west and north in the Lordship of the Isles allied often with England against a common enemy, the Scottish crown. The wars which stir Scottish patriotic passions today, glamorised in the popular Hollywood film Braveheart (1995), had nothing to do them them and they took place in the English-speaking south. Robert Bruce, William Wallace, James Douglas, Andrew Moray, Christopher Seton and Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, were all of Anglo-Norman or Flemish descent.

—Marcus Tanner, 2004, The Last of the Celts.


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