Friday, 7 December 2012

Highlanders Physical culture 2

"Their bodies were splendid, flexible, nimble, skillful, enduring, resistant and yet they had no other tutor in gymnastics but their lives in nature." Georges Herbert
 The Highlander may be characterised a short dexterous individual with reddish or dark hair and fair skin. Tacitus describes the Caledonians as "The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a German origin" an origin perhaps confirmed by the BBC programme "blood of the Vikings" in its DNA testing of the British population. Jordanes wrote too that the Caledonians had red hair and "loose jointed bodies"(dexterous) the idea of nimble red heads has some pedigree.

 Highland prisoners from Culloden averaged at 5'4" a figure confirmed by recruits joining the British army for the seven years war some 10 years later. With a range from 5'1" to 5'10" the recruits were described as "healthy, young, and well built, but not tall. Highlanders seldom are".These men would not be drawn from the upper ranks of the society and we may expect tacksmen etc to have been taller and indeed some of these men were true giants over 6', though Rob Roy was of this class and was no taller than average though apparently thickly muscled and with Harry Grebb length arms.
 The terrible climate and increased economic inequality in the highlands of the 17th-18th century surely stunted the growth of the highland people as it did across Europe. Male average height decreased by two inches from earlier periods so we may expect to see the heights of medieval highlanders being closer to an average of 5'6". Documentation for women's heights remains elusive but we would expect women's heights to follow the same general trend as men.
 From Tacitus we learn that the highlanders' Caledonian ancestors have big limbs writers through to the 17th century confirm that later generations were also well built, "I generally observed the men to be large-bodied, stout, subtle, active, patient of cold and hunger." but in general the physical attributes which impressed their contemporaries were their dexterity, their endurance and their tolerance of cold.
 In the Culloden campaign armies comprised mostly of highlanders continually out marched and out manoeuvred British armies,  this ability could be exploited by commanders like Montrose or Dundee to allow armies of highlanders to defeat conventional armies with an advantage in materiel or numbers. Even the dispassionate Edmund Burt notes that highlanders were graceful in their movements echoing the earlier more enthusiastic travelogue by William Schaverell "in all their actions a certain generous air of freedom". Such skill and natural athleticism has been noted in many "primitive people" across the world and seems to be a consequence of living in hostile or wild environments, the highlanders made little attempt to "improve" their environment much to the disgust and dismay of English and Lowland Scots and the mountains are still famously taxing to traverse today. Transhumance and fishing would require greater cross country travel than the average farming European lifestyle and probably led to a higher degree of physical fitness and prowess than a plough pushing pig farmer in Denmark, Germany. or Suffolk. In addition in a world dominated by a warrior ethic martial training was not an option but a necessity. Certainly this was what attracted the attention of early writers and those who met highlanders abroad inevitably met mercenaries resulting in something of a selection bias, that said all men were obliged to fight and all in the society faced the very real prospect of violence particularly after the collapse of the Lordship of the Isles. 

 Hunting is frequently given as an activity engaged in by highlanders for the deer and the wolf, on the islands and coasts seals and whales provided dangerous hunting, "but also in rynninge, leapinge, swymmynge, shootynge, and thrawinge of dartis (compare with this from Leslie "with the sleeves open below for the convenience of throwing their darts"):...wrestling,swimming,jumping,dancing,shooting with bows and arrows". Tossing logs (oh alright, cabers) throwing and lifting of stones and other pursuits built strong, ready bodies as did wrestling.  Camanachd or shinty was and is popular in the highlands, a similar game to Hurley it was considered superb for training the body for war, and was known as shinty for the amount of cracked shins the game produced.Boys could learn the art of the sword with cudgels and numerous tests and trials of martial ability can be found in the folklore of Celtic peoples. Boys raced from their sword schools up to the tops of nearby hills the winner rewarded with an extra lump of bannock, in a competition which has parallels with Apache warrior training.Martial training was provided by local gentry for the boys but not much is really known about the forms in which it took. It was presumably performed outside and in armed combat ash saplings were used no thicker than a thumb to provide reasonably safe tools for sparring. There is no known method or organisations as existed in mainstream European society such as the marxbruder of Germany and much of what is known of highland training is uncomfortably close to mythology and folktales.In later periods training and techniques seem to have mirrored other European (certainly British) styles  though because of the paramount place of melee prowess and the endemic nature of violence in the highlands, many techniques may have seemed more brutal or expedient than what was practised south of the highland line. Certainly contemporary sword masters such as Sir William Hope and Thomas Page note that Highlanders differed somewhat in technique.
 " all their care was to excel in glory of warfare and victory" with such an ethos and in such a rugged physically challenging environment  a dexterity and highly developed physical awareness would be a natural consequence of such a background.
 So what might we see if we walked through a medieval highland village? Supposing we haven't arrived during a famine people would look more or less the same as they do now in term of colouration and facial features. We would note a great deal of children and indeed people might seem younger in general as the demographic features of the population would be skewed to the young. Highlanders were noted not only for their good health but also (barring accident) for living to a ripe old age, so we should expect to see a few older people but less than we might see today.. Faces would be broad and teeth straight and white. Bad teeth are very much a modern phenomenon. The people would certainly seem shorter though they would be much, much slimmer than the modern British population, in fact overweight or obese people would stand out markedly. Obese people are know from archaeology and contrary to what some obesity researchers might say a traditional diet a plenty of farm chores is not an automatic defence against this condition. Men and caterans may well have been muscular though more in the manner of old prize fighters than modern crossfit athletes it is likely however that most people wold just look, well, like people. The grace and dexterity that contemporary writers spoke of I would have thought would be manifest rather than a romanticism of exotic flavour this is spoken of almost universally and from writers enthusiastic to indifferent (to hostile). It is difficult to imagine how this would have looked, I interview a man who had spent time in the Kalahari bushmen and he told me that he had never felt so physically incompetent.  

Monday, 3 December 2012

Highlander's physical culture 1

"Men bred in the rough bounds" while their clothing culture and arms were considered distinct from mainstream European culture, the physicality of the highlanders was also remarked upon by contemporaries. The following is a general view. Much changed over the centuries in Agriculture and culture but is factual in general. Changes in climate (especially severe in the 16th-17th centuries) will also have affected practices.
 The Highlands while not entirely homogeneous can be characterised as rough mountains with unpredictable weather (to say the least) and a land not particularly suitable to arable farming. Pastoralism and fishing were the mainstays of the culture though wherever possible crops were grown. Lazy beds, that is fields made from sea weed were also used to increase crop land.
 Cattle, sheep chickens and goats were the domesticated animals of choice Highland cattle are still famous for the quality of their meat and at the time were famous for their marbling. I have read contradictory things about deer in Scotland, both that deer were hunted exclusively by the clan elite and conversely that they were free to be hunted by all men. I suspect the former to be true as my sources for this are older and it makes more sense in a feudal system. Whether this protection would extend to the smaller Roe deer (it didn't in England) or other smaller game I can't say. Poaching and gamekeeping are attested to in period sources Martin Martin states that deer "licenses" had to be applied for on Lewis but does not mention any social distinction in their allocation, tracts were set aside exclusively for the Chieftain's hunting.
Fish trap Torridon
 Sea food was a major source of nutrition to those in reach of the sea, Scotland is  famous for the quality of its sea food, in the 16th century Scotland provided much of the fish for England and the Low Countries. Herring were a staple of most Europeans and salted and hung in the rafters could provide (pretty tasty) calories during the "hungry gaps of the year" "The natives preserve and dry their herring without salt, for the space of eight months, provided they be taken after the tenth of September, they use no other art in it but take out their guts, and then tying a rush about their necks, hang them by pairs upon a rope made of heath cross a house; and they eat well, and free from putrefaction, after eight months keeping in this manner."

Sea birds and their eggs were also consumed sometimes in vast numbers. I have seen fish traps in the Western Lochs which work by stranding fish at low tide in artificial rock pools this must have provided a some pretty easy meals for communities on sea lochs. A friend from Lewis also taught me how to make salmon weirs which work in a similar fashion. Mesolithic middens attest to the importance of shellfish in the diet going back beyond agriculture,  I have also read that silverweed and other wild plant foods were important starch sources for upland peoples before the introduction of the potato.
 Dairy products are of incredible importance to a pastoralist people. Highlanders practised transhumance and lived in sheilings with their herds in the summer months butter and cheeses would be made to preserve the milk which was presumably not drunk in any quantity.
 I have eaten wild blueberries on the tops of Glencoe, hazel trees grow in the sheltered valleys and honey was also produced however sugar would presumably not be eaten at all by anyone save the very rich or connected . So we can see that Highlanders had access to a fairly wide range of food stuffs but we must be aware that life was hard and getting enough to fuel a life spent farming in a marginal environment must have been a struggle the year marked with a feast/famine cycle without the amelioration of an established market system or extensive grain storage.
Martin Martin was a highlander, and was in a position better than most writers to tell of the Islands in which he lived. He was a sober writer though his work deals often with mysteries and miracles. Of the highland middle class ,he was a Tacksman, he has been accused of not understanding the differences between the clans system and mainstream European society  he wrote in the 17th century.
 Martin describes an Island economy which was rich in corn  and made great use of the rich seas the common people ate a great deal of meat from marine mammals "This I have been assured of by several persons, but particularly by some poor meagre people, who became plump and lusty by this food in the space of a week: they call it Seapork, for so it signifies in their language. The bigger whales are more purgative than these lesser ones, but the latter are better for nourishment........The amphibia here are seals and otters; the former are eaten by the vulgar, who find them to be as nourishing as beef and mutton........The natives salt the seals with the ashes of burnt sea-ware, and say they are good food: the vulgar eat them commonly in the springtime with a long pointed stick instead of a fork, to prevent the strong smell which their hands would otherwise have for several hours after. The flesh and broth of fresh young seals is by experience known to be pectoral; the meat is astringent, and used as an effectual remedy against the diarrhoea and dysentery; the liver of a seal being dried and pulverized, and afterwards a little of it drunk with milk, aquavitæ, or red wine, is also good against fluxes."
   Froissart in his 14th Century chronicle written from his own and others travels writes that the Scots were hardy and simple, able to march 20-24 miles in a  day, they used no baggage train but lived off the land eating only sodden meat and drinking river water. He states that they used no pan but cooked animals in their skins. They carried bags of oats with which they made oatcakes cooked on small metal griddles. He adds that they were capable of outmarching and outmanoeuvring any army.  He makes no distinction between Highlanders and lowlanders but we can easily recognise this description in descriptions of later Jacobite "hill skippers", perhaps Froissart is describing only Highlanders or perhaps all Scots marched this way in the medieval period. Cooking animals in their skins is seen in many depictions (such as Derricks images of Ireland)  of Irish armies and described in the Dewar Mss.
 Silvius states that the Scots lived on a diet of fish and flesh whereas bread was a luxury. His account of the highlands being a land of woods possessing no tilled land reads like hearsay and we should treat his reference to Highlanders eating wood with suspicion. Pine cambium has been used by other cultures to make a starchy flour though. Indeed the meaty ways of the Highlanders are related by a few period writers with one writer maintaining that Highlanders ate meat raw after squeezing the blood from it. Blood was also drained from living animals and mixed with oats to make puddings by drovers on the move.
 Cattle and other livestock were slaughtered in the autumn and salted for preservation cattle were wintered within the house and were frequently too weak to stand in the spring despite the toughness of highland breeds.
 Pork was spurned, in the French Indian war Highland troops threw away their salted pork rations on patrol. This probably stems from a religious proscription (And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be cloven footed, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.Leviticus) though these soldiers at least were "happy" to eat pork when they realised they had no choice.
 There was a dog-like pig raised in the Highlands though now extinct. I cannot find reference to this animal being used for food. Cattle were rarely eaten especially after the concentration on ranching in the 17th Century. Sheep were eaten frequently and theft of sheep (unlike of cattle) was a capital offence. Goats were also kept.
 It is hard to talk with any certainty about the ratios and make up of meals from the choices available. Certainly in coastal communities the fecundity of the oceans would make fish at every meal a real possibility but as with nearly every other society in Europe cereal grains presumably made up the single greatest intake of calories with declining importance up the social scale. This could well have lead to problems with scurvy and iron deficiency problems when the supply of meat fish or vegetables ran out. Local wild foods certainly were used to help with these agricultural problems, nettles ,for example, are an excellent source of both iron and vitamin C.
Plant sources are discussed less commonly than animal foods in the period sources, perhaps displaying a bias to more "noble" foods or areas of male preserve or that animals foods were considered to be more useful/important. Alternatively vegetables and plant foods were eaten less commonly as is the case in many Northern cultures.Boswell noted in the late 18th century that a poor family "  will live all the spring without meat upon milk and curd, etc.., alone. " but he also noted a garden "gooseberries, raspberries, currant, strawberries, apple-trees." he also describes eating turnips, greens (probably kale) though by far the main repast is flesh.
 On the Islands seaweed was eaten and kale has a long and famous association with the highlands with kale yards (walled gardens to protect the kale from the wind) featuring in many folk stories. Onions were also mockingly associated with highlander penury in the 17th-18th centuries.
From W.Price
 The highlands themselves are a hostile environment in which to farm while there were many sources of food shortage and hunger must have been endemic at points of the year and famine or bad harvests making life hard for those wresting a living from the hills. Highlanders were (and are) shorter than other Europeans but were healthy in comparison according to contemporary sources and though the Scottish diet is today synonymous with tunnocks tea cakes and clogged arteries it was in recent history wonderfully healthy, Indeed in the 1930's residents of Lewis were used as examples of healthy living by the Dentist Weston Price in his exemplary work. 

 In the next post I will go on to look at the exercises, martial arts and physicality of the Gaelic culture.