« PreviousContinue »
scattered remnants of the Celtic nations, driven to the remote and mountainous regions of Caledonia,
a people untouched by the Roman or Saxon invasions of the south, and by those of the Danes on the east and west skirts of their country: the unmixed remains of that Celtic empire, which once stretched from the pillars of Hercules to Archangel.”
When the military discipline of the Romans had prevailed, and driven the ancient Albions to preserve their independence among the bleak mountains of Caledonia, they carried with them and fondly cherished the arts, language, customs, and manners of their forefathers, to the entire exclusion of every thing Roman. The south of Britain soon afterwards became the prey of the Saxons, who conquered and desolated the country. The Saxons, in their turn, gave way to the Danes; and the Norman invaders completed the subjection of that part of Britain. While desolation was thus laying waste the south, as well as the east and the west, feuds and conflicts among the Highland clans (confined to their fastnesses in the mountains of Caledonia) sprung up with the feudal system, and usurped the dignified independence, the refined manners, and elevated sentiments, which had prevailed in the days of Fingal.
The history of those domestic feuds, which disgrace the Celtic race, and the descendants of Fingal and his warriors, during a period of nearly seven centuries, namely, from the beginning of the eleventh to the latter end of the seventeenth century, exhibits to the cultivated mind a melancholy picture of
Dalrymple's Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland.
the savage fierceness and degenerated state of the Scottish Higlanders :* and this, while it indisputably proves that Ossian's poems cannot be a production of the fifteenth century, is undoubtedly one of the greatest obstacles to a belief in their authenticity; because it is difficult to believe that an ancestor of such a people can have been the author of the noble and manly sentiments with which those poems are replete.
After these unhappy times, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, civilization began again to dawn on the Highlanders, “like the returning beam that was set;" and they appeared gradually to emerge from that state of worse than Gothic barbarism, which had succeeded the refined age of Fingal. A mortal blow was fortunately given to the feudal system, which had so long prevailed, by an act of the British legislature, passed in 1748, abolishing for ever hereditary jurisdiction in Scotland.
The manners of the Highlanders have within half a century undergone a wonderful change; and although we have to regret the decline of the ancient language, in which Fingal spoke and Ossian sung, yet in a political point of view, this is much more than compensated by the rapid strides which have been made, and are daily making, in the civilization of the Highlanders, and the consequent improvement of their country.
* Hist. of the Feuds and Conflicts, published from a manuscript in the reign of James VI. by Foules of Glasgow, 1764.
II. OF THE ANCIENT NAME AND INHABITANTS OF
BRITAIN, AND PROGRESS OF LETTERS AMONG THE
WRITERS have differed in their definitions of the word Albin, or Albion, the ancient name of the island of Great Britain. Dr. John Macpherson, late minister of Slate in the Isle of Sky, father of Sir John Macpherson, Bart. in his Critical Dissertation on the origin of the ancient Caledonians, has given the most rational and decided opinion upon it.* His words are, “The indigenal name of the Caledonians is the only one hitherto known among their genuine descendants, the Highlanders of Scotland. They call themselves Albanich to this day. All the illiterate Highlanders are as perfect strangers to the national name of Scot, as they are to that of Parthian or Arabian. If a common Highlander is asked of what country he is, he immediately answers that he is an Albanach or Gael. It is unnecessary to produce authorities to shew, that the island, which now goes under the name of Britain, was in early ages called Albion. To search for a Hebrew or Phoenician etymon of Albion has been the folly of some learned writers. In vain have some attempted to derive it from the white cliffs near Dover, or from a Greek word which signifies a certain species of grain, or from a gigantic son of Neptune. In the Celtic language, of which so many different dialects were diffused over
* Dr. Macpherson's Critical Dissertation, p. 115. See also La Martiniere's Dict. Geog. tit. Albion.
all the European nations of the west and north, and, let me add, the Scythians of Asia, the vocable alp, or alba, signifies high. Of the Alpes Grajæ, Alpes Pæninæ, or Penninæ, and the Alpes Bastarnicæ, every man of letters has read. In the ancient language of Scotland alp signifies invariably an eminence. The Albani near the Caspian sea, the Albani of Macedon, the Albani of Italy, and the Albanich of Britain, had all the same right to a name founded on the same characteristical reason, the height or roughness of their respective countries. The same thing may be said of the Gaulish Albici near Massilia."
It is well known, to those even but indifferently conversant in the Gaelic language, that most of the words are peculiarly energetic, and expressive of some property or quality of their object, more especially of the external appearance of countries, mountains, rivers, &c. Albin, or Alpin, which in that language signifies high or mountainous country, is the ancient name of our island, Britain ; and the word is compounded of Alb, or Alp, high, and in, land. That the Celts of Gaul were the progenitors of the first inhabitants of Britain has an air of probability, from the vicinity of the two countries, and the testimony of several ancient writers. But Julius Cæsar thinks, that the inmost inhabitants were indigenous; because, after diligent inquiry, he could discover nothing of their first coming hither, neither had they any monuments of learning whence he could receive information. Although a veil of obscurity be thus thrown over the aborigines of this island, and the remote period when the first migration of the Celts of Gaul is supposed to have happened; yet there are more than conjectural arguments to prove, that the appellation of Albins, or Albions, given to the natives, was of the remotest antiquity, and is derived from the Celtic root Alpin, or Albin; and, as observed by Dr. Macpherson and La Martiniere, the term is now retained and pronounced in the Gaelic language Albanich, signifying natives of the High lands. The appellation of Albion appears to have been given to Britain by Strabo, and other Greek as well as Roman writers ; * but Buchanan mentions, that several Greek and Latin authors called the whole island Britannia, and all its inhabitants Britons, without making any distinction. Strabo has remarked (lib. iv.), that no one can doubt that the name of Albion, which is given to Britain, comes from the same source as that indiscriminately given to the Alps, namely, Alpia, and Albia. Martiniere, in his Geographical Dictionary (before referred to), under the article Celts, tells us, on the authority of Strabo, that the word Alps is of Celtic origin, borrowed by the Romans and Greeks.f Stephanus of Byzantium,
Pliny says, in speaking of our island, “ Albion ipsi nomen fuit, cum Britanniæ vocarentur omnes insulæ. Lib. IV. c. 16.
+ " J'ai remarqué, au mot Alpes, que, de l'aveu même de Strabon, c'étoit un mot Celtique emprunté par les Latins et par les Grecs." Dictionnaire Geographique par Bruzen La Martiniere,
Innes has given in his Critical Essay, two ancient fragments of Scottish history, which throw some light on the extensive boundaries of Fingal's kingdom. “ Fergus the son of Erc reigned over Albany from Drumalbin to the sea of Ireland and Innsegall (or Hebrides).” Lhuyd, in his Archælogia Britannica, when giving a catalogue of Irish manuscripts in Trinity College, Dublin, mentions one called the Book of