Scottish History – The Highlands

The Scottish Highlands - Image by aaranged

The Highlands is Scotland’s rugged edge and arguably, its cultural home. With bagpipes, tartan and the Highland Games all originating from Scotland’s northern and wilder region, you could say that the Highlands made Scotland what it is today.

The bleak, beautiful landscapes of this region have witnessed many defining moments in Scottish history – from the Highland Clearances to the first alleged sighting of the Loch Ness Monster.

Here, we take a look into the rich history of the Highlands, exploring landmark moments, which have shaped Scottish culture.  


The Highland Clans: The Culture that Defines Scottish History

Scottish History – Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle, the home of Clan MacRae - Image by conner395

Highland Clans

For centuries, the Highlands could be split into territories marked by clans – you can see a map here, also covering the Lowland families.

This clan system was the basis of Highland life and each clan’s distinguishing badges, bonnets and tartan patterns gave clans a strong identity – an identity which many Scots are proud of today. Just last year a group of Highland clans held an anniversary celebration in Inverness to mark the Battle of Culloden.

For centuries, the sovereign had no authority in the Highlands, which led to a self-contained, self-governed culture of clans, each with fortresses in their own rugged territory. As you can probably imagine, this way of life was far from peaceful, with longstanding feuds between clans.

The Massacre at Glencoe

The massacre at Glencoe in 1692 was a defining moment in the history of the Highlands. Some 37 people from the MacDonald clan were murdered by the guests, the Campbell clan, all because they had angered King William III. The King had insisted that all Highland chiefs should take an oath of allegiance to him before January 1692, and MacDonald of Glencoe (chief of the MacDonald clan) had missed this deadline.

The Highland Clearances

By the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, the ‘tribal’ clan system of the Highlands was dying, and the Highland Clearances was to blame. Partly an attempt by the British establishment to destroy the clan structure which facilitated the Jacobite risings of the early 18th century, but also an attempt to break up what was considered archaic and destructive, The Clearances led to a slow decline in the population of the Highlands. However, many also consider The Clearances as an example of the greed of the ruling Highlanders, as they sacrificed their people in an attempt to hold on to their land.

The Clearances began when the British Government introduced sheep farming in 1780, leading to surplus tenants being ‘cleared’ off the estates over the next 70 years. Some Highlanders were brutally forced off the land, while others left voluntarily when their livelihood was replaced by sheep farming. There was a mass emigration year in 1792, known as ‘The Year of the Sheep’, as clansmen left for America, Canada and beyond. 

Today the tartan remains, but the Highland Clans are part of a vanished world. The result? The Highlands became one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe.


Tartan: The Pattern of the Highlands

Scottish History – tartan

The Macdonald tartan - Image by † Jimmy MacDonald †

Today tartan is synonymous with Scotland. When you see those rough and rugged checks, the Highlands comes to mind. To Scotland, tartan is more than just a pattern, and it’s more than just a part of national identity. Each Highland clan had its own tartan pattern and it was the symbol of clan kinship.

As dyeing processes developed, weavers began to introduce more elaborate patterns as clans evolved through births, deaths or marriages. The effect is almost like a family tree, woven in tartan.

Tartan was such a powerful symbol of the Scottish Highlands that after the Battle of Culloden, the British government tried to destroy the rebellious clans with the Dress Act of 1746, which banned the wearing of tartan as a punishable offence: six months’ imprisonment for the first offence and transportation to “His Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas” for the second offence. Fortunately, this was repealed in 1782, but it goes to show the power of the tartan pattern.


The Piob Mhor, or the Great Highland Bagpipes

Scottish History – Highland bagpipes

Bagpiper - Image by Jonathan Stonehouse

There are many stories as to how bagpipes arrived in Scotland. Some historians suggest that bagpipes were brought to Scotland by invading Roman legions, while others believe the instruments arrived on Scottish shores from Ireland.

Wherever bagpipes originated from, the Highlanders certainly made the instrument what it is today. Bagpipes were popular in the Highlands, first replacing trumpets in the 1549 Battle of Pinkie (and becoming the instrument of choice for battle from then on). The penetrating noise of the pipes was ideal for war, as their shrill sound could carry across the landscape to distances of up to 10 miles away.

The piper also replaced the harpist by the 17th century, as the Celtic musician of choice, within the Highland clans.

Today, this musical tradition continues, with the World Pipe Band Championships held every year, attracting pipe bands from 14 nations. The traditional music of the Highlands has spread across the world, with International Bagpipe Day held each year and The Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association promoting pipe band music internationally. 


The Highland Games: a Very Scottish Sporting Event 

Scottish History – the Highland Games

173rd Lonach Highland Gathering & Games at Bellabeg, Strathdon in Aberdeenshire, Scotland - Image by Michael Elleray

Originally a competition for warriors to prove their strength and bravery, some say the Highland Games started as a clan chieftain's way of choosing the best bodyguards and fighters. The events were such that only the bravest and strongest warriors would win the Games and it was an opportunity for rival clans to compete in a friendly context.

From shot-put to tossing the caber (a Scots pine trunk shorn of its branches), the Games was a real test of strength – and still is today. Each year, the Games still takes place, with traditional Highland dancers and pipers adding colour and music to the proceedings.

The year of 2015 marked the 200th anniversary of the society which runs the Braemar Royal Highland Gathering – an event, which has been attended virtually every year by the Queen, since she came to the throne in 1952. Alongside the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, this year’s Highland Games was attended by around 17,000 spectators.


Loch Ness: The Highlands’ Best-Known Legend

Scottish History – Loch Ness

Loch Ness - Image by amateur photography by michel

Whether you believe there is a monster lurking in the depths of Loch Ness or not, the legend has become part of Scotland and is a big attraction for tourists. Located in the Great Glen, Loch Ness is deeper than the North Sea and, in its depths, a legend began.

Tales of the monster date back 1,500 years, but the first sighting of this mythical creature (with photographic evidence) was in 1933, and the story has snowballed in just under a century since. From a £20,000 reward for its capture for a circus to a bounty hunter hired by the Daily Mail, a media storm hit the quiet Loch Ness.

Arguments as to whether this is a primitive whale, an aquatic plesiosaur, a monster, or just a trick of the light continue, but it’s a story that’s really gripped the public imagination.


Visit the Culture and Landscape of the Highlands

While the majority of people settled in the Lowlands, the Highlands gave Scotland its cultural identity. From tartan to bagpipes and the Highland Games, the majority of things that have become a symbol of Scotland have their roots in the Highland clan culture and the landscape itself.

Experience the landscape and culture of the Highlands for yourself, with one of our tours. From trips which take you to important locations for the history of the Highlands – such as Glencoe – plus traditional Highland dancing concerts, try Alexandra Short Break Summer Five Day Tour. Or for stunning Highland scenery, try The Alexandra Short Break Spring April – plus many more.