Once upon a time, long, long ago, people read. The world was a much different place back then. Phones were connected to the wall, and could only be used for talking. When people wanted easy-to-digest information, they’d reach for something called a “magazine.”
Magazines were filled with ads. Kilted men were a common sight in ads for scotch whisky. They were always presented the same way: sturdy, tough, folksy, masculine. Titanic tourism springs to mind. The resting place of the Titanic isn’t a theme park, it’s a graveyard, and something that shouldn’t be exploited for financial gain. Scottish Highlanders had to endure some pretty brutal stuff over the years. Using them as a one-dimensional prop has always rubbed me the wrong way. If you knew their backstory, it’d rub you the wrong way too.
They were banned from wearing traditional dress, and forced to swear allegiance to the ones who took everything away from them. If I would’ve started this piece using the sentence above, you’d probably think I was going to write about the residential school system in Canada, or the forced displacement of Native Americans in the mid-1800s. Colonialism can come in many different shapes and sizes. If you’re an obstruction to power, it doesn’t matter what colour you are.
In 1746, the British wanted to put an end to the clan system, and assimilate the Highlanders. A clan is a group of people who share a common ancestry. Scottish clans lived in settlements called townships. Each clan had their own unique symbol, crest, and tartan, a pattern of plaid made from wool. They worked pieces of land called crofts. The more productive the land, the easier it was to pay rent. Some paid their rent in whisky.
Fearing an uprising (Highlanders fought in the Jacobite rising of 1745, a failed attempt to overthrow the monarchy), British Parliament passed the Act of Proscription in 1746:
- Traditional “Highland Clothes” could no longer we worn.
- All weapons had to be forfeited. Stripping Highlanders of their weapons also took away their ability to hunt for food.
- Schoolchildren were forced to swear an oath, “To his Majesty, his heirs and successors.”
- All teachers had to, “Give evidence of their good affection to his Majesty's person and government.” This was done, “To prevent the rising generation being educated in disaffected or rebellious principles.”
The act didn’t apply to everyone. Highland dress was permitted for members of the military. This was an assimilation act after all, and Highlanders who fought for the Crown weren’t seen as a threat. For landed gentry (nobility), it was business as usual. As history has shown us time and time again, there’s one set of rules for the rich, and one set of rules for everyone else.
The act was in place for more than 3 decades. Its aim, to bring a lasting peace, was achieved, but it came at a cost. Many starved when crops underperformed. Weavers became obsolete (there were no tartans for them to weave). Resentment ran high, and continues to this day. The monarchy is still viewed unfavourably in many parts of Scotland. The Gaelic way of life, as it was known before the act, never fully recovered. (There’s more, like the clearances, but I’ll save that for another day.)
When it comes to things associated with tragedy or hardship, it’s important to reflect carefully and tread lightly. The Titanic wreckage site shouldn’t be seen as an untapped source of revenue. Likewise, the Gaelic Highland tradition should be respected for more than just its ability to sell whisky.