John Brown Square

Life in the Highlands, Then and Then

Hamish Gobson’s diary: the view from across the Uisge

          Saturday 1st June 2024

NOW THAT Humble Humza’s world had ended, and Alister Jack has put himself out to pastures new, Scottish politics is heading in a new direction. Since no-one takes Holyrood seriously anymore, the future is green – by which I mean the field of legitimate conflict about the way forward for this country has moved to the green benches of the House of Commons. That is where the independence struggle should be fought and won or lost. Everything else is an insolent abuse of the devolution arrangement. Given that, the burning question is how many seats the Anglophobes will get in the UK election on 4th July?

I consulted the seaweed and the fronds tell me 12 is the “mid-market guess” for rump SNP representation on 5th July. Anyone want to take a bet on the outcome? Having only 12 MPs will reduce the SNP’s income and could well lead to another outbreak of abusing public funds.

It is not hard to understand. If your expectations have been formed by the behaviour of the Uddingston Two, you will be ashamed of your pathetic £70k/annum salaries (plus pension, expenses, on-line football watching, etc.). You, the kleptocrat for Ballimory Central, will want to augment your take-home pay by benefitting from party funds or the public purse. I hope the incoming Secretary of State for Scotland will take a less tolerant approach to the SNP’s banana republic standards of financial probity, and administer a sound thrashing in public to anyone caught with their hand in the honey-pot.

All of which is a distraction from the more interesting world of the real Scotland.

I have recently read two books which merit attention in that regard. The first is a classic, namely Dugald Mitchell’s masterly History of the Highlands and Gaelic Scotland. It was published in 1900 and compares favourably with most of the output of modern universities, being readable because it was aimed at—well, er—the reader. It was not an exercise in academic self-advertisement. Many people think it still the best general treatment (at 700 pages) of this important subject, despite being written by a Gaelic speaker from Tarbert, Argyll, who worked all his life as a medical doctor in Rothesay and Falkirk (d. 1915).

If there is one lesson which this book conveys to the modern reader it is the incredible, self-defeating violence of Highland history in the period from Bannockburn to Culloden. No wonder there was no economic progress. For most of that period, private property was, in practice, less safe even than it is in Putin’s Russia today. Investment to improve productivity was therefore irrational. Why spend money and/or time breeding quality stock when your neighbours will only steal your beasts, and kill you if you resist?

After Scotland “rose up and became a nation” it proved to be ungovernable due to the lawlessness of the highland chieftains. The Crown was incapable of controlling them. It was like England during the Anarchy of Stephen of Blois in the 1140s, the main difference being that it lasted not a decade plus but over five hundred years.

Mitchell writes: “For centuries the Highlands had been a theatre of constant petty warfare. Upon the central government lay, in large measure, the responsibility for this, for so weak were successive governments, and so ill-executed were the laws, that upon individuals devolved the vindication of those rights which public justice failed to protect. So little were the clans under rightful government… that they flew to arms on the slightest provocation, and fought out their quarrels as if they were little independent states. Revenge came to be accounted a duty and the destruction of a neighbour a meritorious exploit, and rapine an honourable occupation.” (p. 476)

Parallel with that, I have been reading a book, which was re-published last month in a completely new edition, by no less acute an observer of the Highland scene than Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901). It is called Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands. As is well known, the Queen and her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, bought the old Royal hunting lodge at Balmoral on Deeside. It dates from Robert II but was cleared for sheep in the 1830s and for deer in the 1840s. That reflected the move from a subsistence economy to a consumer one. In the 1850s, Albert oversaw the building of a palatial Royal residence there, which remains.

The Queen’s “life in the Highlands” centred around this estate in the middle of what was once one of the most turbulent areas of Scotland, the Grampian territories of the Earls and Marquesses of Huntly. But no longer. The rule of law had been imposed, and the habit of reiving your neighbours’ stock had been stamped out. (Only poaching remained as a semi-blind-eye crime in rural Britain and Ireland.) Scotland now had an expanding economy and a burgeoning civic culture, out of which came people like Dugald Mitchell.

The Queen’s journal has recently been republished in a handsome edition by Oxford University Press. It has a long Introduction full of interesting background information and the body of the text is illuminated by pen and ink drawings. There is also an excellent chronology, a 33-page “Cast of Characters”, full and informative footnotes and a glossary of unusual terms. In short, this is a “definitive” edition.

The Queen was a fluent writer (though it is clear her text went through more hands than her own) and she took trouble over both her text and its publication (Vol 1 in  1868 and Vol II in 1884). She was a quirky but acute observer of the scene around her. She even refers forward in time to me: “Hamis [sic] is Gaelic for James, and is pronounced ‘Hamish’…. [Gaelic] is a very difficult language, for it is pronounced in a totally different way from that in which it is written.” (p. 67)

And it is true that she did write this: “We were in the habit of conversing with the Highlanders – with whom one comes into contact so much in the Highlands.” (p. 111) However, she added: “The Prince [Albert] highly appreciated the good breeding, simplicity and intelligence which make it so pleasant, even instructive, to talk to them.” These were the same people who had been butchering and beggaring their neighbours for half a millennium before the final defeat of the Jacobites. Now they could hardly make better company, especially John Brown (illustrated above) who became an especial favourite of the Queen’s (and who Billy Connolly played in a film about their relationship).

Obviously there were no nationalist thugs or ministerial internet thieves among the gracious Highlanders of the mid-nineteenth century, but it is nonetheless surprising how often the theme of mannerly behaviour crops up. Today “manners” have been replaced by the manipulative and mechanical concept of “social skills”. But then, comments like those above were common. One final example: after describing  how Brown and a companion carried her over wet ground by rigging a plaid between their shoulders on which the Queen sat, dry-shod, she comments: “All the Highlanders are so amusing, and really pleasant and instructive to talk to—women as well as men—and the latter so gentlemanlike.” (p. 102)

If I may make one other observation, it is interesting to read the day-to-day thoughts of a person travelling about in pre-mechanical conveyances, including on foot, without having any idea of what the weather might be in an hour or two. Today, it is today almost impossible to imagine life without the weather forecast, though it hardly matters to completely indoor people like Hamza Whosaff. Perhaps it was ignorance of continual change in the weather—political as much as meteorological—that led to his glorious downfall.


Hamish Gobson lives on the Hebridean isle of Great Todday (Todaidh Mór) and features in Nicola Sturgeon: the Years of Ascent (1970-2007) – A Citizen’s Biography of a Driven Woman in a Drifting Parliament (Ian Mitchell, 2022) – available on Amazon and also reviewed here by Tom Gallagher.

Also written by Ian Mitchell is The Justice Factory (second edition): Can the Rule of Law Survive in Twenty-First Century Scotland? which considers the future of liberal democracy, taking Scotland as an example.

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Photos of illustrations by author and of Queen Victoria fording the Poll Tarf by Internet Archive Book Images – book page:, No restrictions,


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