Our Chief

Sir John M. Cuninghame of That Ilk, Baronet of Corsehill

Highlanders vs Lowlanders

​From our Chief, Sir John M. Cuninghame, of That Ilk
Highlanders vs Lowlanders
During the last few months I have spent some of my time refreshing my knowledge of the history of medieval Scotland. One of the subjects which interests me was the origins of the perceived differences between the Highlands and the Lowlands, or rather the Highlanders and the Lowlanders. I have no pretentions of being a scholar in Scottish history, but I thought the observations might be of interest to you.
I know that at least some of you have suffered from humiliation when some self-styled experts on Scottish history and heritage have stated that Cuninghames, being one of the Lowland families, are really Norman freebooters and not genuine Scots. These people state that genuine Scots are of highland Celtic origin and are the only people who should be wearing a kilt. Furthermore the notion of clan (clann in Gaelic) is a reference to the social structure in the Highlands and not the Lowlands.
This is such simplistic nonsense. In the first place it is equivalent to stating that Geronimo was a genuine American, while Abraham Lincoln came from a freebooting English/Welsh family who were not really American! These statements are only true in such a narrow sense, that they are meaningless.
What is true is that Malcom Canmore and, more particularly, his successors, David 1 (1124-1153) in particular, saw the Franco-Norman feudal system as a way to bring order and eventually law to a country riven by civil strife and lacking any central control. Thus men of Norman, Breton and Flemish origin were provided with land in return for attending the King’s Council meetings and supplying a specific number of armed men to fight for the King in time of need. In turn these new land charter holders, subdivided their territory into smaller parcels with similar usufruct and military obligations for the lesser gentry, some of whom might often be relations. At the bottom of the scale were the peasants who gave their farm labour and military service in exchange for protection. This is a crude description of the feudal system
At this time the concept of land tenure by a specific person in most parts of the Highlands was somewhat ephemeral. Most members of a Clan might live in a particular place, but the emphasis was on blood ties, real or imagined, linking all members into a powerful emotional relationship which had nothing to do with property.  They had a fierce loyalty to the Clan leader (Chief).  Following the old Celtic traditions of Alba, a Highland Chief would feel an obligation to support his King in time of trouble and his clansmen would follow his lead.  
It was probably only in the fourteenth century that Highlanders became conscious of their separate identity. A chronicler of Aberdeen called John of Fordun wrote in 1380 (put into modern English):
“The manners and customs of the Scots vary according to the difference in language. Among them two languages are spoken, Scottish (Gaelic)* and Teutonic (English). The latter is the language of those who live in the seaboard and plains, while those using the Scottish speech inhabit the highlands and outlying islands. The people of the coast (the Lowlanders) are of domestic and civilized habits, trustworthy, patient and urbane, decent in their attire ….. The Highlanders and people of the islands, on the other hand are a savage and untamed nation,   rude and independent, given to rapine, easy living …. good-looking but unsightly in dress, hostile to the English people and language and because of the different language, even to their own nation.”
*The words in italics are mine.
The fact is that by the late fourteenth century, English, or a Scottish version of it, had become the universal language of most of the Lowlands, just as Gaelic was of the Highlands. However, this important cultural difference should not hide the fact that by the sixteenth century most Highland chiefs held land by feudal charters from the crown or each other. In addition many of the leading families in the Highlands had intermarried with noble families in the Lowlands. After the massacre of the Scots at Halidon Hill in 1333 there followed a hundred years of conflict. During this time two Scottish kings were kept prisoner in England for twenty one years and two were totally incompetent. When James 1 finally got out of captivity, he proved to be a strong and able king, but in trying to restore the royal power of governorship he eventually was assassinated by some disgruntled nobles. For some two hundred year thereafter about half that time was spent in minority rule, because every monarch succeeded to the throne as a child. Regency rule meant that all the major nobles jockeyed for position, royal power was diminished, the feudal system was undermined and the rule of law was compromised.
One of the main consequences of this situation of uncertainty was that every manin the Lowlands outside the burghs became ever more closely tied to his local magnate either through his feudal rights and obligations as sub-vassal, or because the smaller lairds in the district wereco-opted into allegiance. Every nobleman surrounded himself with a network of lesser gentlemen who shared his surname and were fiercely loyal. Some might be little more than peasants but as kin they had a family right to be protected, both in their feuds with persons of another name, and in the event of war or civil strife.
Bishop Leslie in 1578 wrote of the Highlanders as Gaelic speaking, different in dress and culture and given to fighting, ‘if their master command them’. He also describes the Lowland nobles as maintaining ‘great families… partly to defend themselves from their neighbours with whom they have deadly feud, and partly to defend the realm’.
A modern historian has described the differences in social structure in the Highlands and the Lowlands outside the towns at that time as ‘mainly ones of emphasis – Highland society was based on kinship modified by feudalism, Lowland society on feudalism tempered by kinship. Both systems were aristocratic, unconscious of class, designed for war.’  James V1 brought in legislation to eradicate anarchy both in the Highlands and in the Scottish borders. He considered both to be identical problems. The Privy Council referred to both the Highlands and the Lowlands as ‘clannit’.  Whereas the Lowland nobles referred to members of their extended families as kinsmen, the Highland Chiefs referred in Gaelic to their clann, which means family or kin. By the sixteenth century, after two hundred years of intermittent fighting, the English to preserve the independence of Scotland, the Lowlanders because they considered themselves as unreservedly Scots, as did the Highlanders. Importantly each regarded the other as equally Scots.
As to the matter of wearing the kilt, the wearing of tartan was made illegal after the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, because so many of the Highland families had been involved. If any tartan was found it was destroyed. Penalties for wearing the tartan were so severe that none dared wear it, and weavers turned to other garments. However some sixty years later the Prince Regent decided to visit Scotland, and partly persuaded by two Polish princes with Scottish connections, he suddenly appeared at some event in full Highland dress adapted for the taste of the time. This was a huge success and a signal that the kilt could be worn again. Unfortunately the weavers of 1745 were all dead, there were no pattern books or colour prints or paintings. Some Highland Chiefs were frantic and quickly had a new pattern made for their family tartan. The Lowlanders not to be left out, quickly had tartans designed for their families. Everyone was happy except a few pedants who claimed that the new tartans were not authentic and that Lowlanders should not be wearing the kilt. But why not? There is a first time for everything.
So now you all can confidently ignore the jibes of ill-informed amateur historians. The first in the line of Cuninghames came in the entourage of Hugh de Morville in the early twelfth century. His son called himself Robertus de Cuninghame, being the district where his lands lay. Since that time as most of you will know the Cuninghames have played important part in the development of Scotland.