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Scotland c1000-1200: The Shire, the Thane, the Sheriff and the Sheriffdom

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

© 1994

Synopsis:  This essay describes the origins and development of the shire, thane, sheriff and sheriffdom in Scotland in the early middle ages.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

| Abbreviations | 1 | 2 | 3 | Thanes and Thanages | Bibliography | Printer Friendly |

In Scotia, there are many recorded shires, although generally smaller than those in Northumbria, due almost certainly to the nature of the area.31 These shires tend to be confined to the east and plains of Scotia and not in the west or more upland areas.32

The manager of the shire tended to be the thane, there were others whose duties were to manage desmesne land for their overlord: administering it, leading its inhabitants in battle, supervising justice and paying the renders due from it to the king or earl.33 The granting to feudal barons -where they replaced thanes- of jurisdiction of sake, soke, toll, team, infangtheif, pit and gallows in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, points to the role played by the thane in justice with the aid of the judex.

The time scale involved with the introduction of the institutions of the ‘shire’ and the ‘thane’ is important here. These two words shared a common origin with England and cannot have come into use in Scotland until at least the beginning of the tenth century at a time of Anglian influence.34 There is no clear evidence about the time of the adoption of the word ‘scir’, although given the interrelation of the two terms they must come into use about the same time.

If as Grant suggested,35 the introduction of the thane was a step along the road of increasing royal power, who should we attribute it’s introduction to? Certainly, Kenneth II (971-95) had witnessed the various aspects of Anglo-Saxon kingship at its height, or do we look to Malcolm II (1005-34) for the innovation. That he was an innovator is clear, he succeeded in diverting the main rival line of kingship into the mormaership of Fife, he extended Scottish power south after his victory at Carham in 1018 and he went against custom by making his daughters son his successor. Cowen showed that he was also regarded as ‘King of the Mounth’ ruling both north and south of it unlike his predecessors.36 Interestingly, John of Fordun associated the origins of the thanage to Malcolm stating:

"From Ancient times indeed kings had been in the habit of giving to their knights greater or smaller tracts from their own lands in feu-ferme, a portion of some province or a thanage. For at that time almost the whole kingdom was divided up into thanages. He [Malcolm II] apportioned these lands to each man as he saw fit either for one year, or for a term of ten or twenty years or life with at least one or two heirs permitted, as in the case of certain freemen and gentlemen, and to some likewise (but these only a few) in perpetuity, as in the case of knights, thanes and magnates, with the restriction however that each should make a fixed annual payment to the lord king."37

Is Fordun’s association with Malcolm a coincidence or is it a reflection of folk history which had come down to him?

At the upper level of pre-feudal Scotland’s Gaelic community there were the mormaer and the toísech; the mormaer became anglicised to earl and the toísech would therefore be expected to become the thane, although not every toísech was a thane.38 Jackson noted that a distinction should be made between the two concepts of toísech where "the Anglo-Saxon thane" was "borrowed and accommodated with a vaguely appropriate Gaelic title".39 Given that the many recorded names of the early thanes are generally Gaelic in origin,40 we can see how this happened. We should see therefore, the thane and local landlords existing side by side, with both having the status of toísech.

The records which survive provide a list of some 48 thanages and 23 places which had or almost certainly had thanes (see maps III & IV). The evidence for them is in general of thirteenth and fourteenth century origin but as there are unlikely to have been any created after David I came to the throne, these later references point to their existence in or before the time of David I. Although there were probably considerably more in existence at that time. As map III shows, thanages were confined almost entirely to eastern Scotia, between the Moray Firth and the Forth, the area which was held and controlled by the MacAlpins in the tenth and eleventh century. In the north and west there is only Dingwall, which may have been incorporated into Scotland earlier than the 1060s. South of the Forth, there are territories which bear similarities to those north of the forth. Despite the several shires however, there are only thanes found at Callendar and Haddington.

Looking at map III we can see that the thanages coincide to a great degree with the early earldoms of northern Scotland. While earls could have thanes, there are few instances of this and it would appear that most of the thanages were in royal hands in the early twelfth century. As we can see they cut a swathe through all of the northern earldoms from Fife to Moray. In the case of Moray, there is a problem regarding whether the thanages belonged to the crown or to the mormaers and earls of Moray before the forfeiture of the earldom in 1130.41

The thanes were essential to the smooth running and consolidation of the early Scottish kingdom. Their role in the delivery of either cain or coneveth (in the case of royal thanes both were given) was essential. Grant showed the extent to which coneveth involved the delivery of large quantities of cattle and food -including in one case over eight tons of cheese.42 This facilitated a peripatetic style of kingship, essential to ensure political power within the kingdom. The thanages from Fife to Moray certainly provided this and thus it could be claimed that they were the catalyst for the consolidation and extension of royal power, especially between the Forth and the Mounth.

When David I came to the throne, the thane did not lose out to any royal policy of endowing Normans with thanages. One thanage was given to the church while Haddington was alienated briefly as part of the dower for Ada de Warenne his son’s wife. As Barrow has shown, David I managed to maintain "the balance of new and old"43 with the thane an extremely significant representative of the old.

The thanage was to have a role in post-feudal Scotland. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as feudalism north of the Forth gathered pace, the thanage, while losing importance, became the base for the introduction of the sheriffdom (see map IV). Outside Moray, over half of the twelfth and thirteenth century sheriffdoms were based upon thanages. It could be said that the sheriff while superior to the thane was not actually carrying out a role much different to that which the thane had been doing. Perhaps there is a case for Grant’s "super-thane" idea rather than the imposition of a new agent of government.44

The thanages of Scotland had a remarkably long life span. Of the 71 known thanages, 41 survived intact into the fourteenth century. Of the others, 14 were alienated by the crown to lay landlords between the reigns of Malcolm IV and Alexander III45, and 4 were alienated to the church by Malcolm IV46, William I and Alexander II. While it was fairly common for thanages to be slimmed down47, in a few cases they were cut back to a point at which they ceased to exist (see map IV).48

This points to an interesting situation. It is clear that the thanages were not swept away as a result of feudalism. Indeed, there were only two cases of outright and permanent alienation to members of the new ‘Norman’ families.49 In general, the alienations of thanages tended to be to close members of the king’s kin,50 with some grants only temporary.51

Where then did the land come from with which the incoming Normans were endowed? Barrow suggested that after Moray was forfeited, the comital lands were used for feudal grants there, while the existing royal thanages were held by the crown.52 In the rest of Scotland north of the Forth, the same pattern does tend to hold true.53

If the thanage survives into the fourteenth century, does the thane? The answer seems to be not necessarily. By the thirteenth century it was not a prerequisite for a thanage to be run by a thane. Where a sheriffdom was based on a thanage, the sheriff no doubt took over the thane’s duties (except in Aberdeen where there was both a sheriff and a thane). Magnates could also replace thanes without the feudal grant of the thanage, although this did not generally occur. It seems to be the case that whilst the thane lost his role as the crown’s main local representative, he still maintained a function within the locality.54 These functions, supervising the payment of teind, swearing not to harbour or assist criminals, recruiting and performing common army service, and suit at the sheriff court point to men who were part of an heritable landowning society, with all of the pluses and minuses involved.55

While the thanage no doubt meant the territory of a thane at the end of the twelfth century, during the thirteenth century, the terms diverged to such an extent that by the end of the thirteenth century we can find thanages run by sheriffs, feu-fermers -both lay magnates and ecclesiastical institutions- and fermers as well as by thanes. The crown would not mind who ran them however so long as they still received the revenue expected from them. A revenue which by the end of the thirteenth century was considerable.56

The thanage as an institution lasted into the fourteenth century when it received a mortal blow. The land policy of Robert I, meant the granting out of vast areas of land including many of the thanages, especially in Moray.57 The subsequent alienation of land by subsequent kings and the economic problems of the later fourteenth century would ensure the thanage’s demise.58

We have remarked already, that thanages were sometimes replaced at a later date by sheriffdoms, we should look therefore at these institutions and see their development. By the end of the twelfth century, the introduction of the sheriffdom had still to be completed. Although an artificial crown creation, the boundaries of the sheriffdoms coincided with the boundaries of other older administrative districts, and thanages. The reason for this must surely lie in the kin-based society into which the sheriffdom was thrust. It was impossible to ignore the kin and their territory in this respect, therefore the bounds of the sheriffdom never cut across kindred territorial bounds.

The earliest sheriffdom which we know of south of the Forth is possibly Haddingtonshire.59 This was controlled by a thane in David’s reign and had, probably before, but certainly by, 1184 become a sheriffdom.60 This sheriffdom, in conjunction with the later sheriffdoms of Linlithgow and Edinburgh was later to coalesce to form the sheriffdom of Edinburgh.61 Between David I and William I, there were several sheriffdoms created in the south of Scotland. The pace of their creation seems to have fairly slow if not ponderous - there was no sudden introduction of Anglo-Norman institutions in Scotland, so it proceeded at a pace to suit the situation on the ground.

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| Abbreviations | 1 | 2 | 3 | Thanes and Thanages | Bibliography | Printer Friendly |