Gaelic Barbarity and Scottish Identity in the Later Middle Ages

17th century map of ScotlandGaelic Barbarity and Scottish Identity in the Later Middle Ages

By Martin MacGregor

Mìorun Mór nan Gall, ‘The Great Ill-Will of the Lowlander’? Lowland Perceptions of the Highlands, Medieval and Modern, edited by Dauvit Broun and Martin MacGregor (University of Glasgow, 2009)

Introduction: One point of reasonably clear consensus among Scottish historians during the twentieth century was that a ‘Highland/Lowland divide’ came into being in the second half of the fourteenth century. The terminus post quem and lynchpin of their evidence was the following passage from the beginning of Book II chapter 9 in John of Fordun’s Chronica Gentis Scotorum, which they dated variously from the 1360s to the 1390s:

The character of the Scots however varies according to the difference in language. For they have two languages, namely the Scottish language (lingua Scotica) and the Teutonic language (lingua Theutonica). The people who speak the Teutonic language occupy the coastal and lowland regions, while those who speak the Scottish language live in the mountainous regions and outer isles. The coastal people (maritima gens) are docile and civilised, trustworthy, longsuffering and courteous, decent in their dress, polite and peaceable, devout in their worship, but always ready to resist injuries threatened by their enemies. The island or mountain people (insulana sive montana gens) however are fierce and untameable, uncouth and unpleasant, much given to theft, fond of doing nothing, but their minds are quick to learn, and cunning. They are strikingly handsome in appearance, but their clothing is unsightly. They are always hostile and savage not only towards the people and language of England, but also towards their fellow Scots (proprie nacioni ) because of the difference in language. They are however loyal and obedient to the king and kingdom, and they are easily made to submit to the laws, if rule is exerted over them.

Fordun’s testimony was accepted at face value, and justified through a panoply of arguments whose most commonly voiced rallying-cry was ‘the emergence of the Highlander’. Since Fordun stood as the fountainhead of a lineage of commentators who basically echoed his refrain for 200 years, it followed that the Highland/Lowland divide remained an ever-present and inescapable reality in Scotland throughout the later middle ages. This way of thinking reached its zenith—or nadir—in a passage in Gordon Donaldson’s Scotland: James V–James VII. Here, the Fordunian strain of evidence was entwined with other elements—a racialist reading of the Scottish past which properly belonged to the nineteenth rather than the later twentieth century; the mindset and empiricism of the institutional historian; and, perhaps, a dash of personal prejudice—to present a late medieval Scotland fissured by apartheid. The Highland Line separated two races, and ‘one way of life from another’; the institutions (and, presumably, what they represented) of the Lowlands were almost wholly absent in the Highlands; monarchy and church alone were capable of crossing the divide.

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