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The Kingdom of the Scots

The Kingdom of the Scots: Government,... Church and Society from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century

Abolition of Feudal Tenure in Scotland

Castle Sween

Dunnottar Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle


The Feudal System in Scotland

In the absence of land charters before 1094 and of reliable early statements of land law, many historians of pre—feudal Scotland have been to relying on analogies drawn from Irish and Welsh law tracts and comparisons with Scandinavian custom taken from Norwegian and Icelandic sources. Such analogies may mislead, and it seems safer to start with the evidence for modes and patterns of landholding in the feudal age and search for traces of native systems older than the twelfth century. This evidence points both to a kin-based system and to strong royal lordship. Land seems to have been inherited by all the freeborn males within a particular lineage and held, perhaps jointly, by the sons of a single owner as his equal heirs — hence place names such as Balcanquhal, Fife (Balemacanecol, farm of Anecol’s sons), and Petmacdufgille, Perthshire (farm of Dougal’s sons).

References to clans or lineages between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries concern either lesser free men below the rank of tenant-in-chief (e.g. the Clan Morgan in Buchan) or else men of even lower status, unfree or semi—free (e.g. the men of Tweeddale transferred by David I from dependence on the Crown to the service of Dunfermline Abbey). Lordship of a territorial type was nevertheless present well before 1100, involving the king, the provincial mormaer (governor) and the toisech (local officer: Scots toshach, or thane) who exercised the king’s or mormaer’s authority yet was also related to a local kindred group. Thus notices of twelfth century (and earlier) grants in the Book of Deer mention such a person as Donnchad, toisech of Clann Morgainn, while many documents of this and later date show thanes and toshachs associated with territorial units usually called ‘shires’ or ‘thanages’.

With the advent of military feudalism under Norman impact and royal initiative in the twelfth century, important modifications took place in the landholding pattern at the upper levels of Scottish society, though to a notably lesser extent in the Highlands than in the Lowlands. Monarchy and provincial rulers (now usually called earls) retained their dominant role, and the nature of their lordship proved slow to change, but a new aristocratic class, based on the knight’s fief, the barony and the castle, was brought into existence and spread from south to north between c.1120 and 1250. Feudalism made little headway in the west Highlands and none at all in the islands, yet the nobility of these areas was strongly influenced by feudalism. Some accepted specific military or naval service as the condition on which they held their estates; even more strikingly, from the early thirteenth century some began to build formidable stone fortresses, often on rocky islets or promontories (for example, Kisimul in Barra, Castle Tioram in Moidart, Dunstaffnage near Oban and Castle Sween in Knapdale).
Only a minority of these Gaelic-speaking lords were tenants-in—chief of the Crown, on a par with the greater baronial magnates of eastern and southern Scotland.

Most of the Highland nobility were tenants of the greater lords, enjoying hereditary pre­eminence, by virtue of their lineage and holding (often without any charter of infeftment), by an essentially kin-based tenure which was echoed by the ‘kindly (i.e. kin—based) tenure’ characteristic of their own lesser dependants. It was thus possible for a relatively fluid and vigorous clan organization to survive within the Highland area alongside a formally universal and Crown-imposed feudalism and for it to remain after feudalism had been reduced to little more than a set of legal rules governing the ownership of land.

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