Highland Scots

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Highland Scots

ETHNONYMS: Celts, Celtic, Highlander, Scots, Scottish, and sometimes Scotch. West coast islanders sometimes refer to themselves and others by island names, such as a Lewis man, a Barra woman.

Middle English "Scottes," Old English "Scottasi Ute Latin "Scotus" are references to Gaelic people from northern Ireland who settled in Scotland about a.d. 500.


Identification and Location. The Highlands of Scotland include the lands north of a line from the town of Inverness on the northeast running south and west to a point 56° N and 5° W in Scotland, encompassing the shires of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness, and Argyll, as well as the islands making up the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Geographically, this area is characterized by rolling rock-faced hills and scattered lakes and rivers, interspersed with land covered by a thin layer of peaty soil. Temperatures along the coasts are fairly consistent (4.4° to 13° C) with colder temperatures inland. In mid-June, daylight may extend to midnight; in mid-December, there is daylight for only a few hours.

Demography. The 1981 census reported a population of 200,000, an increase of 14.3 percent over the previous decade. There was also a slight increase in population from 1951 to 1971. These figures indicate a change in what had been a steady decline in population beginning in the mid-1700s. These increases are the result of gains in the number of People in the urban and burgh populations, which have offset losses in rural areas.

Linguistic Affiliation. Historically, the early settlers spoke Gaelic. English has been the official language since 1754, but there remain some local dialect variations of Gaelic spoken in a few areas of the west coast, Argyll, Sutherland, Skye, and the Western Isles. Recent attempts to renew interest in written and spoken Gaelic have been undertaken, including Gaelic programming on BBC-Scotland.

History and Cultural Relations

The division of Scotland into two cultural areas, the Highlands and the Lowlands, can be traced to the works of early writers who romanticized rural life in northern Scotland. Anthropological research, which began in the 1950s, accepted this distinction, and most of the ethnographic data have been collected in small rural communities.

The history of the Highlands has been characterized by a number of events that have led to the present-day conditions. There has been a steady deforestation of the Highlands since 1700. The clan system was broken up following the 1715 and 1745 conflicts with England. An increase in population, coupled with declining resources, placed great hardships on the people throughout the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century proved even more calamitous. In the Hebrides, for example, the cheviot was introduced in 1810; the kelp industry diminished after 1821; the potato blight occurred in 1828; and the herring disappeared in 1830. The cheviot, a species of sheep able to withstand severe winter conditions, replaced people who were cleared from the land beginning in 1828. The years 1846 and 1847 witnessed the potato famine throughout the Highlands. The policy of the government was that the laird was responsible for the welfare of the people living on estates. In 1883 the Napier Commission redefined the responsibility of government, an action which eventually led to the government's becoming the largest landholder in the Highlands and thus having greater responsibility for the Social and economic needs of the residents. The 1886 Crofter Act gave lands to individuals and established the crofting system.


Inverness is the largest city, with a population of 57,000 in 1981. On the east coast, the town of Wick is the largest remaining sea-fishing port. On the west coast, Kyle of Lochalsh, Ullapool, Mallaig, and Stornaway have active fish sales and harbor facilities. The settlement pattern in these communities focuses on the harbor. Houses are close together and there are few streets. Another settlement pattern is associated with crofting. Crofting was established with the 1886 Crofting Act. The croft is a 0.4- to 2-hectare parcel of land, on which the crofter has the right to build a house. In addition, the crofter enjoys common rights to grazing land and access to peat as a source of fuel. Crofting has largely disappeared, and crofts today are often holiday homes used only during the summer months, with the grazing rights given or rented to others. The majority of crofting townships are located along the coast at an elevation lower than 75 meters. This pattern reflects the dual adaptation of crofting-fishing. Croft houses are usually one-story dwellings arranged in a scattered or lineal pattern with wide separation between dwellings. The crofting community might contain a post office and a small shop. The most recent housing and settlement pattern is attached flats built by the Forestry Commission to house employees engaged in reforestation efforts.


Work Cycles in Crofting. While the Highland Scots have a somewhat mixed economy, most of the literature focuses on crofting and fishing. The intensity of participation in these activities is partially determined by seasonal changes. In crofting communities agricultural work requires interHousehold cooperation for tilling, planting, and peat cutting from March to April. Potatoes and oats are the main agricultural products. Harvesting of oats is in August; potatoes in October. Intense and extended cooperation is required in April or May when lambing takes place.

Work Cycles in Fishing. Fishing has had a differential Impact on local economies, either as a food source or wage labor. In the Outer Hebrides, agriculture has never provided enough for self-sufficiency, and incomes have been supplemented by exporting cattle or by fishing. During the summer months, herring is available fresh; for the winter, salt herring is purchased. In the nineteenth and the early twentieth Century, crofters worked on foreign-owned boats engaged in Commercial herring fishing. The crofter-fishermen, and sometimes women, would follow the migrating herring north to Shetland and then down the east coast to East Anglia in England. In other locations (e.g., Skye) there was very little fishing by crofters. Since World War II some Highland Scots have obtained grants and loans, along with training, to become commercial fishermen. They are found at the major ports on both the east and west coasts. Smaller boats are sometimes used by the crofter-fishermen to catch lobsters, which can provide a cash income. There has been some attempt to develop small fish-processing factories that employ local labor. In general, since the turn of the twentieth century there has been a decline in the numbers of crofter-fishermen. But in those areas that have specialized in fishing the population has either remained constant or has increased.

Tourism. Another contribution to local economies is tourism. The clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not only responsible for the depopulation of the Highlands; they also introduced tourism. Deer and salmon, once a source of food, attracted and continue to attract outsiders who are willing to pay for the rights to hunt and fish these animals. The pheasant was even introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century as a sport bird. Hunting and fishing do provide employment for gamekeepers and gillies, along with temporary work for beaters who drive the game to waiting hunters. Poaching of deer, salmon, and sea trout may provide some illegal income for Highlanders. But the major source of tourist income comes during the summer months. These temporary visitors require housing, camping sites, food, and other services that employ local labor and younger workers from other parts of Great Britain. When the migrant labor and the tourists leave at the end of the summer, public entertainments, such as galas and dances, disappear.

Industrial Arts. Knitting, weaving, and craft work for export provide income for some Highlanders. This is largely a home industry.

Division of Labor. In crofting communities, male/female distinctions in labor vary by activity and historical time period. In the Hebrides, during the herring days, the most Significant group of wage earners were the "herring girls," women who followed the herring fleet, gutting and packing the fish. On Lewis, when the men were away fishing, the croft and home were operated by women. In traditional activities such as peat gathering, men cut the peat blocks while women lifted them into creels and took them to where they were stacked. In Glen Fhraoich, the household was Democratic in principle, but two major activity domains existed. The women's domain included the interior of the house, the "green" and the "byre." The area between the house and the byre, which contained the peat pile, henhouse, and clothes-line were also included in her domain. The men's domain encompassed the wider croft area, the fields, peat bogs, and common grazing area. In addition, men were the only wage laborers. This same pattern was observed on Lewis, except that the men's domain included the fishing boat as well. Decisions involving major purchases were joint unless one partner relinquished his/her authority. In crofting, the Household is the economic unit, and regardless of the number of people in the household, there is only one male and one female in charge. Armstrong found that women in Kilmory worked in the fish factory, shops, or in activities associated with tourism. With the decline of the male-dominated fishing industry, the role of women has become increasingly important. On Barra, Valee found decreasing differences in the sexual division of labor. In the study of Kinlochleven, an industrial community, there were fewer and lower-paying jobs for females than for males.

Outside the household, the division of labor is rooted in occupational differences. On Harris, this distinction is sometimes marked by language. Crofters or fishermen speak Gaelic; professionals speak English. In Kintyre there is casual labor including road work, forestry, and seasonal services to tourists. On Islay the major occupations are working in the distillery, limestone quarrying, and farm and estate work. The historical trend has been away from employment in agriculture. For the Highlands, including Orkney and Shetland, Between 1871 and 1971 the proportion of agricultural workers declined from 40.5 percent of the work force to 9.9 percent.

Development. In 1965, the Highlands were designated a development area, and the Highlands and Islands Development Board was established to increase industrial production, alleviate unemployment, and stem out-migration. Grants have been given to maintain crofting and develop local industries. Another development scheme has been the reforestation of certain areas of the Highlands. Although Forestry accounts for just over 2 percent of the total employment, it is four times more important to the Highlands than to the United Kingdom as a whole. The oil industry has contributed to some local commercial, service, and construction industries. A major theoretical dispute related to the role of development has emerged in the recent literature on the Highlands. One observation is that the Highlands are simply underdeveloped and have had a history of boom-and-bust Cycles since 1700. Others suggest that the Highlands are part of a larger capitalistic economy, and "traditionalism" is an adaptive response to that economy, not some form of vestigial survival from a past state of peasantry. Condry observes that characteristics associated with "traditional" Highlands Culture were "modern" practices of the past, and he suggests that such "modern" practices of the present will become absorbed into future "traditionalism."

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. While descent is bilateral, there is an emphasis upon patrilateral kin in actual practice. The household is the organizational unit of descent and consists of an unbroken line of males.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology differs Depending on whether English or Gaelic is used. Gaelic has fewer terms than English (e.g., English "uncle" is "mother's brother" in Gaelic). Naming of children usually follows the tradition of "turn and turn about": one spouse chooses a name for one child; the other spouse selects the name of the next child.

Marriage. The selection of spouses depends upon demographic possibilities and economic conditions. Where there are inheritance considerations, marriages are often postponed until the person is over the age of 30 or until after the death of parents. Marriages are sometimes postponed if there is a shortage of housing. If women have migrated from an area, the remaining men may face a shortage of eligible women that necessitates their going outside the community for wives. The overall pattern seems to be a shift from Community endogamy to exogamy. There are few reports on nuptial rituals. However, one study reported that wedding gifts tend to be lavish and are publicly displayed. Weddings are usually held in hotels, and guests are transported to the Wedding and the postnuptial celebration by bus.

Domestic Unit. The household is the organizational unit of kinship, and much of crofting life can be understood in reference to problems related to the formation of households. Spinsters, for example, are explained as those reluctant to give away inherited property and the power associated with that property when they marry. Property is a consideration prior to marriage, especially among crofters where extended families may occupy the croft. Under these conditions, the person who moves into the croft of their spouse is subservient to the spouse's parents until they die. In noncroft settings the pattern is neolocality. Regardless of the economic base, the function of marriage is to produce children, and the Household is established for this purpose.

Family. The boundaries of "family" are determined by propinquity. Kin living nearby are included as family; those who have moved away, even if they are closer kin, are not. The household is the smallest unit with which one identifies and through which one is identified. The attributes of the male head of the household characterize all members of that household. Thus, if the male is viewed as clever, all members of the household are viewed as clever. The household consists of the male head, his wife, their children, and, if only daughters, the eldest's husband. Adult siblings have equal rights to remain in the household, but each is expected to contribute to the household. Outside the household, emotions are rarely publicly expressed. However, members of the household engage in intimate joking relationships. The structure of the household can produce conflict. In disputes between wife and mother, husband is expected to support his wife. In Households where there is a wife and sister-in-law and the wife is the female head of house by virtue of her marriage, the sister-inlaw may feel proprietary rights because she was a member of the household first. Beyond the household are more inclusive identifiers. From less to more inclusive are the household, the croft, the township, the glen (demarcated by a steep hill dividing townships), and the parish.

Inheritance. In croft systems, propinquity and sex are determinates of inheritance. The eldest and remaining son Usually inherits the croft. When there is only a daughter, her husband becomes the head of the household after his fatherin-law dies, and his sons will inherit.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The clan was a historical political group with a hereditary chief who controlled lands in Common. Consanguine links between members was either demonstrated or stipulated. The clan system was abolished in 1746 after the battle of Culloden. Today the term "clan" is used to designate all the descendants of a particular person, usually cognates.

In general, few distinctions in social status are found. Where a laird is present in a community, he is recognized as a leader. A laird is the traditional landowner. The factor, the man who manages land for the laird, is usually respected Because of his role in mediating relationships between laird and crofters. High status or prestige may vary by institutional arrangement. Religious prestige is highest for ministers, missionaries, and lay elders. Cultural prestige is awarded to bards, musicians, and "Gaelic scholars." Political-communal prestige is associated with "good" works such as participation in local committees. In Gaelic-speaking communities this category is usually occupied by "outsiders" whose work is done in Englishfor example, the schoolteacher(s), the local doctor, and the nurse(s). Prestige distinctions are governed by Calvinistic virtues, which, if pursued, will result in high standing in the bank and the community. Display of wealth is considered immoral and there is a marked absence of distinctions in housing, food, and clothing. Vocatively, Social distinctions are often reflected in terms of address. Professionals (most often outsiders) are addressed by formal title (e.g., Mr., Mrs., Dr.). Persons from the community are addressed by first name.

Political Organization. The principal units of local Government are either the town or the county councils, which are made up of elected and appointed officials.

Social Control. Leveling seems to be a powerful force in maintaining social similarities. Locals who return to the Community with a formal education are often disliked because they showed evidence of a desire to "get ahead." Persons whose peat stacks are not neat will lose prestige. One is expected to carry out business relationships with people one knows and on a personal basis. Outsiders, and agencies outside the community, are viewed as too far away for meaningful interaction.

Alcoholism rates are high for Scotland in general and the Highlands in particular. The islands of Lewis and Harris have an alcoholism rate six times higher than Scotland. They also have the highest admission rates for involutional melancholia in the United Kingdom. The ethic that one does not publicly criticize others takes precedence over drunken behavior, which often leads to a general disregard for the problem at the local level. Very low rates are reported for delinquency.

Conflict. Personal disputes do occur. Darling reports that petty bickering often occurs about precise boundary lines Between properties. In households where no will has been left, intense intrafamily conflict may occur.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Both Catholicism and Protestantism are practiced in the Highlands. Evangelical Protestantism came in the early nineteenth century. It is associated with the breakup of the clan and opposition to the System of laird-appointed ministers of the Church of Scotland. The Free Church broke from the Established Church (Presbyterian) in 1843 over the issue of land reform. It has become the church of the people and has the largest number of adherents. The Church of Scotland has a smaller number of parishioners and tends to be the church of those with official power. On Lewis, the three principal churches are the Free Church of Scotland, the Established Church of Scotland, and the Free Presbyterian Church. The Free Church is the largest, but the Free Presbyterian is perhaps the most influential regarding community sentiment. It espouses the Calvinistic doctrine of self-denial, otherworldly orientation, and the notion of the elect. The elect are those chosen by God. The church offers the greatest single social outlet for women, who otherwise lead a life largely restricted to the household. Women are also a majority in both the Free Church and the Church of Scotland.

Catholic and Protestant communities vary in their involvement in social issues. The Protestants are most active. In Protestant communities the rates of alcoholism and mental disorders are highest.

Medicine. Medical care is provided by local physicians under the National Health system. For those illnesses or accidents outside the capability of local health-care units, patients are transported to regional or national hospitals. The aging of the population has led to greater demand for Home Help Services and a large percentage of social-service funding is allocated for this government program. Home Help provides services for the aged and infirm who are unable to take care of themselves, and it provides employment for women who might otherwise be ineligible for other support.

Death and Afterlife. In Catholic Barra, when death is imminent, the priest is called to deliver the last rites, after which the close relatives maintain a constant vigil. After death, the responsibilities for the funeral are assumed by the oldest able-bodied male relative. Women usually volunteer to wash and clothe the body. Some social activities may be curtailed for the period between death and the funeral. Usually this includes the neighborhood of the deceased as well as close Family members. Pallbearers are male. The eldest responsible male walks in front of the casket; the eldest responsible female follows the casket. Catholics and Protestants are buried in the same cemetery.


Condry, Edward (1983). Scottish Ethnography. Association for Scottish Ethnography, Monograph no. 1. Social Science Research Council. New York.

Ennew, J. (1977). "The Impact of Oil-Related Industry on the Outer Hebrides, with Particular Reference to Stornoway, Isle of Lewis." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge.

Parman, Susan M. (1972). "Sociocultural Change in a Scottish Crofting Township." Ph.D. dissertation, Rice University, Houston, Tex.

Vallee, F. G. (1954). "Social Structure and Organization in a Hebridean Community: A Study of Social Change." Ph.D. dissertation, London School of Economics.