Islay Text

Islay Summary


The land-assessment pattern in Islay is important not only because it was, with Kintyre, at the heart of the old Lordship of the Isles but also because it shares many features with Man. This takes us back to the earlier Norse kingdom of Man and the Isles and raises the question of the relationship between Norse and British land-assessment systems. WD Lamont tried to work out the pattern in Islay many years ago (see Source-List) and D Caldwell has had another stab at it more recently (Islay, Birlinn, 2008 pp 143-9 & footnotes p 355). The basic facts are, of course, the same for all of us – but in neither case do I agree with their conclusions.


Where are the facts? We have a number of sources for land-assessment in Islay from 1408 onwards and I have detailed the main documents in the Source-List. The principal units of valuation in Islay were quarterlands and eighthlands but not once, in all the hundreds of documents which give us land-assessment evidence, are we told what they are quarters and eighths of. The base unit eludes us – which is one of the reaons why there is so much room for speculation. However I shall argue that the base unit was actually the davach (or ounceland) just like the rest of the mainland west coast and Hebrides; that the evidence from Islay is internally consistent; that it is consistent with the evidence from neighbouring areas; and that our conclusions should be founded upon a simple and straightforward interpretation of the evidence – without recourse to practices imported from outwith the Hebrides or innovations introduced after the collapse of the Lordship of the Isles.


I do not intend to refute Lamont or Caldwell’s conclusions in detail – (their arguments can be read in the sources noted above) – but essentially Lamont tried to derive the Islay system from Irish practice. Caldwell rejects this but ends up with a 5m ounceland which I do not think fits with the evidence. In both cases they attach particular importance to the work of John MacIan who acted as a royal agent in securing control of Islay after the final forfeiture of the Lordship in 1493. I do not think MacIan was responsible for any sort of fiscal revaluation of Islay. He simply tried to ensure that the tenants of Islay rendered dues to the Kingdom of Scotland rather than the Lordship of the Isles. He rearticulated the existing valuation of Islay and stated the rent that was expected. The 1541 tack and rental can be seen as a logical extension of his work – a thorough attempt by central monarchy to extract dues from Islay. This has to be regarded as a failure because by 1562 the Crown had abandoned its increased fiscal demands and reverted to a 1 merk per merkland rental which had probably been the basis of the original merkland assessment system some three centuries earlier.


How can I prove this? Since MacIain’s assessment of Islay in 1507 is our first detailed valuation of most of the island it is difficult to disprove the claim that it was new simply because we do not have a great deal of earlier evidence. But we do have some. We have the 1408 Gaelic charter; we have the grants of 1494 and 1499; and we have the Exchequer Roll evidence for 1506. To my mind these all fit with the general pattern we see after 1507. There is no break, no disjunction. The primary fiscal units in Islay were the quarterland, eighthland and leorheis (which was a one-sixteenth-land, although the word is not found before 1587-8). It is also clear that the base unit (davach or ounceland) was worth 10m under the Scottish extent. The 1408 charter does not give individual assessments but we can work these out retrospectively and they fit well with the total given in 1408 and the post-1507 evidence. The evidence from 1494 and 1499 is also consistent.


The 1408 charter has been written about on several occasions (see Source-List) and I am only going to look at those aspects which have to do with land-assessment. The lands are said to be worth 11½m and are situated mainly in the NW section of the Oa. The list runs in an orderly geographical fashion – starting with Ballyvicar and then going round in an anti-clockwise direction to finish with Ballynaughton. (Earlier commentators have assumed that Ballynaughton is beside Kilnaughton Bay rather than the Ballynaughton further east in the Largie. I agree with them). Machaire Learga Riabhoige was located by Lamont (PRIA p 174) at the Machrie Hotel. I wonder if it was possibly on the south side of the Kintra River and I would be inclined to place Inverloskyn on the north side of the river near the Hotel. The name Learga Riabhoige reappears in later documents as Lagrivug or Legrivoig(1617), Lingrivoig(1623), Lagrivog(1636) and Lagrevog(1686). Lamont did not locate Wgasgog but it appears as Uikiscaig at NR 315464 on the 1878 OS 6″ Sheet CCXXXI.


We are not given the individual farm-valuations in 1408 but we can establish these retrospectively. I have laid out the relevant data in the following table:


Farm-name in 1408 Later farm-name Value Date
Baile Bhicare Ballyvicar (⅝m) 1686
Machaire Learga Riabhoige Lagrivug 1¼m 1617
Ciontragha Kintra 1¼m 1562
Grastol Grasdale 1¼m 1562
Tocamol Tockmal ⅝m 1541
Wgasgog Uikiscaig ⅝m 1562
Da ghleann Astol Two Glenastle (Upper & Lower) 1¾m 1541
Cracobus Cragabus 1¼m 1541
Cornubus Cornabus ¾m 1541
Baile Neaghtoin Kilnaughton 1⅞m 1507
Total (excl.Baile Bhicare)   10⅝m  


(The figure for Ballyvicar is derived rather than stated. I have not included it in the total since it may have been part of Kilnaughton in 1507. Cragabus was in two parts, each worth an eighthland or 16s 8d. One of these belonged to Texa in 1541 and almost certainly in 1507. It may well have belonged to Texa in 1408).


On the basis of later evidence it looks as if the value of these lands was 10⅝m which is ⅞m short of the total stated in 1408. Given that our data comes from documents written over a century later it is easy to see that a farm might have been divided in some way. The most doubtful figure is that for Baile Neaghtoin. In later times there were three holdings here – Kilnaughton, Balepherson and Balevicar (i.e. the church’s land, the parson’s township and the vicar’s township). We can only speculate as to the true extent of Baile Neaghtoin in 1408.


The real problem arises with the render to be paid by Brian Vicar Mackay. It is set at 4 cows or, failing these, forty-two merks. Now for a cow to be valued at 10½m in 1408 seems completely wrong. Even in 1541 they were only converted at 2m each. Is there a mistake here? Unfortunately the manuscript is much worn and more than one of the later editions has relied on an earlier transcript for the relevant words. The document would make a lot more sense if we took the render to be 40 cows for 42 merks, or 4 cows for 2m 40d (2¼m). However a rent of 40 cows on 11½ merklands would be unrealistic. (In 1506 and 1541 the rate was 18 cows for 11¼ merklands). Four cows at 2¼m looks much more reasonable since each cow would then be valued at 7s 6d. However we cannot rewrite the charter to suit our desired interpretation and so we must leave this problem unresolved.


In 1494 (RMS II (2216)) we have references to quarterlands and eighthlands. In this charter James IV gave John MacIan the lands in Islay which John had formerly held of the Lord of the Isles. To accommodate the idea that somehow quarterlands were John MacIan’s innovation we would have to suppose he moved very quickly to establish his new system between the forfeiture in 1493 and this grant of June 1494.


In the 1499 charter nearly half (170m) of Islay is described but the smallest denomination is 5m or two quarterlands. This misled Caldwell into giving the 5m unit undue importance. But each 5m unit in 1499 can be decomposed into the correct number of quarterlands and eighthlands in accordance with the farm-names listed. All that we are seeing in 1499 is that the unit of disposal was either by davach (or ounceland) or half-davach. In 1499 no less than 120 merklands (one-third of the island) was given away in chunks of one davach or more. The largest parcel was for six davachs which was possibly an extended bordland to support the castle of Dunyvaig since something similar emerges a century later. (Compare with Book of Islay p 111 but see also ER XV pp 675-6). In addition a davach was given in the Rhinns, two davachs in Oa, two davachs in Largie and a davach centred on Kintour. The remaining 50m is given away in 5m (or half-davach) units – each of which can be refined into its component quarterlands and eighthlands.


A more conclusive objection to the idea of a fiscal revolution under John MacIan comes from place-names. In the 1494 charter is a farm called Ochtownwruch and in the 1499 charter we find Ochdowmullin. The first element in each of these place-names is for ochdamh (an eighth). It is extremely unlikely that farm-names were newly coined for these documents in the 1490s. It is far more likely that eighthlands were part of the physical and toponymic landscape of Islay long before 1494. Quarterlands and eighthlands were not introduced by John MacIan, they were already there. In fact by 1507 no fewer than eight of Islay’s farms had names beginning with Ocht- (or similar) and, with the exception of Octomore, they all seem to have been worth an eighthland.


But what was the base unit – what were the quarterlands a quarter of? Unfortunately this cannot be proven. It has long been held that Argyllshire is devoid of davachs. Broadly speaking this is true. We can point to davachs in the Outer Isles, Skye, the Small Isles and Lochaber and we can often prove they were equivalent to ouncelands. For Argyllshire we have virtually no evidence at all. However the records are not a complete blank and I suspect that davachs were here just as along the rest of the west coast. They represent a Pictish/British land-assessment system and the reason we do not see them in Argyllshire is probably because this was the area associated with Dalriadic invasion and/or settlement. The unit name became lost before the arrival of the Norse even though the names of the subdivisions survived. We find quarterlands and/or eighthlands in Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Gigha and Kintyre.


We do have two place-names in Islay which include the term davach. There is a Sruthan na Dabhaich just north of Ardtalla in NR 4654 and a Tobar na Dabhaich in NR 4047. The word davach means a vat or tub, as well as a land-assessment unit, and it is perfectly possible to argue that it is used here in a topographical sense. In both Tiree and Lewis we find shore-line place-names which include the word davach where perhaps what is being referred to is a tub-like feature in the rock. The same could possibly be said for a ‘tobar’ or well but I would argue that Sruthan na Dabhaich (the stream or channel of the davach) is different. There is a similar place-name in Skye and I am inclined to think that in both cases they represent a burn which acts as a boundary marker. In support of this argument I would point to the evidence recorded about the two Islay names in the nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey Name Book. Each name was vouched for by three Islay authorities. The meaning given for Tobar na Dabhaich was ‘Well of the Vat’ but for Sruthan na Dabhaich it was ‘Stream of the Lot’ – with ‘lot’ here having the sense of a parcel of land.


The common early land-assessment units in Islay were:


the quarterland – valued at 2½m or 33s 4d

the eighthland – valued at 1¼m or 16s 8d

the sixteenthland or leorheis – valued at 8s 4d.

(alternative spellings for leorheis are lewres, leor-theas, lewirheis, lewrheis, lorheis etc).


The earliest land-assessment units of Islay are nearly all expresssed in these fractions. We seldom come across any other denominations – there are only a handful of units at ½m or 1m.


Over time we learn of other subdivisions although it must be stressed that these do not appear publicly before the seventeenth century. They are given by Macdonald in his General View of the Agriculture of the Hebrides (1811, pp 624-5). He describes a cearabh (quarterland), an ochtobh (achten part) and a leor-theas (half an ochtobh) which are as above, and then:

a cota-ban or groat (4d) land (which was half a leor-theas and so a 1/32 land. This often appears in the rentals as a kerrowrane, kerrewrane, kerrowran, kerroran etc which is probably the older name for it).

a da-skillin or 2d land (which was half a cota-ban and so a 1/64 land).


Unfortunately these terms can easily become confused. An achten (or auchten) part is an eighth and not an eighteenth as it is sometimes mistaken for. A cota-ban or groat land gets its name from a conflation between the Scots and sterling monetary systems. In the eighteenth century 4 pence sterling had the same value as 4 shillings Scots (the exchange rate was 1:12 or 1d sterling = 12d (or 1 shilling) Scots). Half a leor-thas was technically 4s 2d Scots but came to be known as a cota-ban or groat land because 4s Scots was the same as a sterling groat (4d). Similarly half a cota-ban was technically 2s 1d (Scots) or 2d (sterling) but came to be known as a da-skillin (two-shilling) land. This led to a sort of Islay shorthand where the extra pence (Scots) were often left out of the nominal land-valuation in the rentals. The Book of Islay gives 4 rentals between 1686 and 1741 which often employ such contractions – as does the Argyll Valuation Roll of 1751. To save us from arithmetic error it is worth remembering that in such documents:

40s means 41s 8d

24s means 25s

16s means 16s 8d

8s means 8s 4d

6s means 6s 3d

4s means 4s 2d

2s means 2s 1d.



The extent of Islay


In trying to establish the valuation for the whole of Islay we can approach the problem in three ways. One is to take a ‘global’ figure – of which we have several:


360m in Purves, Revenues of the Scottish Crown, p 182, which must be based on a original just prior to the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493.


360m in Skene, Celtic Scotland, Vol III, Appendix III, p 437 (1577-1595).


360m (Old Extent) stated in a submission by James Macdonald in 1599 (RPC Vol VI pp 24-5 or Book of Islay p 111).


In the Stent Book of Islay the total number of quarterlands is stipulated as 132 (1718-1730) and then 135 (from 1730). This is equivalent to 33 or 33¾ units.


Similarly in the Day Book of Daniel Campbell of Shawfield p 188 (1781) and p 200 (1780):

“the number of quarterlands belonging to Shawfield within the island of Islay, is computed at 128 quarter lands, and one fourth of a quarter land”.

128¼ quarterlands = 32¼ units.


With the distance of time observers became confused and mistakes crept in. In 1798 (General View of the Agriculture of Argyll, p 319) Smith wrote:

“Before the last valuation of the county, this island was estimated in penny lands, the amount of which made £220 6s 2d”.

[This is mistaken – Islay was never reckoned in pennylands. £220 6s 2d is just over 330m].


In 1811 (General View of the Agriculture of the Hebrides, 1811, pp 624-5) J Macdonald wrote:

“The island was divided, according to the old valuation, into 337 half merk-lands”. [Half merk-lands must be a mistake for merklands – so the total was 337m].


On the basis of these figures Islay was likely to have been 36 ouncelands or davachs at 10m each. The problem here is that these statements are all summative. The only early, detailed, information we have is from the 1507, 1509 and 1541 rentals. The second method we can adopt, therefore, is to add together all the data from these early rentals.


Our first evidence comes from an account of 1507 (ER XII pp 587-590) and another of 1509 (ER XIII pp 219-221). Essentially these are the same and simply give the silver rents of most of the farms in Islay. (The 1507 account is by John MacIan of Ardnamurchan). In each account the church lands (63⅜m) are listed separately to the lay properties (254¼m). Since the silver rents have a one-to-one correspondence with the assessments we see in other documents, we can take these rentals as confirmation of the land-assessment pattern. The total for both 1507 and 1509 is £211-15s or 317⅝m. The rentals do not look quite complete. By mapping the farms which are named we can estimate those which have probably been omitted. In the Rhinns it looks as if virtually everything is “rentalled” or subsumed within another farm. In Kilmeny perhaps only Cove (⅝m) is missing. In Kilarrow it seems that Dluich (⅝m), Avinlussa (1¼m) and Cattadale (1¼m) are omitted (a total of 3⅛m). Unfortunately the figures for Kildalton are not sufficiently broken down for us to draw any conclusions. It appears we can only add another 3¾m to our total to take it to c. 321m.


In 1506 (ER XII p 709) we learn of another 60m 4d in Islay. These lands paid at the rate of £2 (3m) and 4 marts per quarterland. We have the names of the tenants and the amounts they held, but not the names of the farms. Since we do not have the names of any tenants in the 1507 and 1509 rentals we have no way of proving whether or not the 1506 lands are repeated in those years. However we can identify Gilchrist McVaig, ‘surrigico’ as one of the Beaton family of doctors who were linked with the farm of Ballinaby. Since Ballinaby also appears in the 1507 rental it looks as if we should regard the 1506 data as being included in the 1507 return and not as additional. The 1506 render of 4 marts per quarterland matches that demanded in 1541 and meant a theoretical total of 576 cattle per annum from Islay. In 1263 Hakon raised a tax of 300 cattle on Islay which, in the context of the sixteenth-century rentals looks not unreasonable. (Anderson, Early Sources II, p 635). Moreover, if we take each hundred to be a ‘long hundred’ (i.e. 120), then Islay raised 360 cattle – which works out at 10 per ounceland or davach.


In ER XVII (pp 611-620 & 633-641) we have two versions of a tack and rental for Islay dating to 1541. These are basically the same but the survival of both versions allows a useful cross-check. Islay is divided into three sections. The first, which is not named (but which was Largie or Kildalton), was worth c. 60m; the second is named Mydward (also referred to elsewhere as the Harie) and was worth 92⅜m; the third area was called the Rhinns and was worth 87⅞m. The total assessed value for the island in 1541 was 240 & 1/5th merks. (This largely excluded church lands).


In the 1541 rental we can identify a ‘going rate’ which we can see most clearly in the standard rental for a quarterland or 2½ merklands. This is repeated time and again and we also see a pro rata reduction for smaller holdings. Typically a quarterland returned 4 marts (cattle for slaughter), 10 shillings silver rent, 30 stones cheese, 30 stones meal, 4 wedders (gelded sheep), 4 geese and 4 hens. The rental for a davach therefore, (such as Kilchoman), was:- 16 marts, 40 shillings (or £2) silver, 120 stones cheese, 120 stones meal, 16 wedders, 16 geese and 16 hens.


If we assume Islay as a whole amounted to 36 davachs then the notional rental for the island in 1541 was (36 x 16=) 576 marts, £72 silver, 4320 stones cheese, 4320 stones meal, 576 sheep, 576 geese and 576 hens. (As we shall see below nothing like this was actually paid because of the various allowable deductions, fees etc). But how are we to explain the apparent disjunction between the rentals of 1507 & 1509 (where only a silver rental is given) and the silver rent for 1541 which is substantially less (typically 10s for a quarterland rather than 33s 4d)?


The rental of 1541 did not see a revaluation of the Isles but it did see a new rate of exaction. David Wod and his colleagues went into great detail for their royal master (see ER XVII pp 543-4). Total rents per quarterland now gave the silver rent as well as the rents in kind which, after conversion, came to substantially more than the silver rent alone in 1507. The silver element was less but the rents in kind were converted at the rate of 26s 8d (2m) per mart, 16d per stone meal, 16d per stone cheese, 2s per wedder, 4d per goose and 4d per hen. A quarterland like Balleneal was now theoretically due 15½ merks per year as opposed to 2½m in 1507.


If ER XVII pp 611-620 & 633-641 give the theory than pages 541-556 give the practice. These are the actual returns made by the three officers appointed by the new regime (although they may have performed exactly the same duties for the Lords of the Isles). In each case they record the payments due and then the many and various allowable deductions. They would note when the ground was ‘waste’ or not cultivated, and what fees were paid or allowed to the officers and servants. So £10 (15m) was granted to Sir John, rector of Kilchoman, for services rendered to the collectors and commissioners responsible for setting the king’s lands in the islands. There has been a tendency to see such documents as the work of outsiders, non-Gaelic speaking Lowlanders with little comprehension of Highland affairs. On the contrary, this ‘assedation’ or setting of the lands of Islay was based upon well-informed local knowledge.


These new setting arrangements and rental date to shortly after James V’s trip to the Hebrides in 1540. The practical result of this was to make the Hebrides more amenable to royal control, or at least to pay lip-service to it. Royal demands, though, were only effective if supported by force on the ground and this was simply not forthcoming. Fortunately other documents survive to show us what actually happened.


In the Book of Islay p 486 there is an Extract from a rental of the Isles dated 1542:


Ila and Rynnis, in money, £45 0s 1d

Meill, 2193 stanes.

Martis, 301 mart.

Mutoun, 301 muttoun.

Cheis, 2161 stane 3 pairtis.

Geis, 301 guis.

Pultrie, 301 pultre

Note – The stane of meill is sauld at 16d the stone, the mart 26s 8d, mutoun 2s, geis 4d the pece, pultrie 2d, cheis 16d.


I calculate that, on the basis of these conversions, Islay would have paid a total rent of £774 5s 7d in 1542 (or a little over 3m per merkland). This was considerably less than the hypothetical total rent but far more than the £211-15s due in 1507 & 1509. The document goes on to say:


Thir foirsaidis landis war sett in assedatioun at sindrie tymes to umquhile James Makconnell and to Angus, his sone, for payment onlie of £186 6s 8d, and payit neuir mair yeirlie sen the deceis of umquhile King James the Fyft.

(Denmylne MSS 34.2.17, f. 149, b – The figure of £186 6s 8d (279½m) includes lands in North & South Kintyre. James V died in 1542).


Fraser Mackintosh prints the same rental on p 25 of The Last Macdonalds of Isla. He adds:

There is a significant note attached in a later hand, and as it refers to James Macdonald’s son, probably Archibald, as dead, it would have been written after 1570. It is in these words:-

“Nota – The lands were let in assedation at sundry times, to umquhile James M’Connal, and to umquhile his son, for payment of £186 6s 8d, and was never paid since James V time.”


(This puts a slightly different complexion on the attached note and there are also some minor differences in the figures of the rental. It is possible that Fraser Mackintosh was working from a different version to that used by the Book of Islay).


At this point it is useful to look at the tacks made to James Macdonald and his son Angus as laid down in the Register of the Privy Seal:


RSS V Part I (1112) of 1562 is a tack to James Macdonald of 163m 8d Old Extent (163m 9s says the editor) in Islay – paying 1m per annum for every merkland.

RSS V Part I (1259) of 1562-3 is a tack to James Macdonald of 176m (176m 3s says the editor) in Islay – paying 1m for every merkland.

RSS V Part I (1879) of 1564 is a tack to James Macdonald of 160m Old Extent in Islay – paying 1m for every merkland.

RSS VIII (1743) of 1583-4 is a tack to Angus Macdonald of 168m Old Extent in Islay – paying 1m for every merkland.


Now the total rental for both Islay and Kintyre in the tack of 1583-4 is stated to be 279½m – (even though the internal arithmetic suggests the true total was 271½m). Since 279½m is the same as £186 6s 8d it seems fair to assume that the note quoted above was written after 1583-4. (Angus Macdonald died between 1612 and 1614).


The upshot of all this is that the attempts by the Kings of Scotland to secure more than a minimum render from Islay failed completely. They certainly managed to transplant their fiscal system after 1266. Merklands were sufficiently well embedded in 1507 and 1541. What they failed to do was increase the rate of return above that envisaged when the system was first imposed – one merk per merkland. That was all that was expected in 1507 and 1509. The flurry of activity from 1540-1542 raised it to a little over three merks per merkland. From 1562-1584 they again contented themselves with 1 merk per merkland. It wasn’t until 1599 that James Macdonald offered 3 merks cash per merkland. (Register of the Privy Council VI pp 24-5 or Book of Islay p 111).


The closest analogy I can give to the mediaeval land-assessment system is the rating process which previously applied to all domestic property in Britain – and which still applies to commercial property. A property will receive a valuation notice which expresses the rateable value of the property in absolute terms. (This remains fixed until there is a subsequent revaluation). The actual amount of rates raised is a variable tax which is expressed as so many pence in the (rateable) pound. The extent of a medieval farm was its rateable value. In practice this remained static for centuries. To begin with it is likely that rent enjoyed a one-to-one relationship with extent. A pennyland was probably thought to be capable of rendering one silver penny per annum, a merkland one merk. (Even if, in practice, rents might be all sorts of mixtures of cash and kind). As time went on so there was a growing disjunction between a medieval farm’s extent and its yearly rental. The actual rent paid came to reflect the value of the property in terms of its current productivity as opposed to some notional extent set centuries earlier. What is interesting is that although there were endless quarrels about farm boundaries, and doubtless about rent, disputes about extent are virtually unknown. The extent of the various farms became deeply embedded in the Highland psyche.


The 1541 rental was repeated almost exactly in RMS VII (1137) of 1614 but in the interval the exchequer had obviously learned that the 1541 data was incomplete. As a result eight farms are added at the end of the section dealing with the Mid Ward (the parishes of Kilarrow & Kilmeny) and six more at the end of the section on the Rhinns. (Three of which are in Kildalton, two of which are in Myd Ward, and only one of which is actually in the Rhinns). Their values add 3m 1s 8d to Kildalton (new total c. 63⅛m), 18m 8s to Mid Ward (new total c. 111m) and 5m to Rhinns (new total 92⅞m). This adds just under 26¾m to our previous total of 240 & 1/5th merks to bring it to c. 266m. (None of these numbers can be taken as absolute since some anomalies are beginning to appear in the charter). However these are mostly lay properties so to get a truer figure of the full extent of Islay during this period we should add in the church estates for 1617 listed in Book of Islay pp 353-361. These total over 39m and bring the whole lands of Islay to c. 306m. So whether we take the rentals of 1507 and 1509 as our basis or the rental of 1541 (supplemented by data from 1614 and 1617) it looks as if the extent of Islay was at least 300m.


The third and final method we have of working out Islay’s extent is to add up all the individual valuations we know and see what total we come to. My tables suggest a total of 350⅜m which confirms the sixteenth-century reckoning of 360m. The problem here is that it is difficult to be absolutely sure when one farm includes another. Farms are so often grouped together in the rentals and other documents that sorting out individual valuations is not an exact science – particularly when the references are scarce. The tendency in Islay was to classify farms as quarterlands or eighthlands. The problem is that many of the farms described as quarterlands were themselves composites – of eighthlands, one-sixteenth lands or even smaller fractions.


Some farms simply disappear from view. In the Rhinns the quarterland of Migirne vanishes after 1751. The eighthland of Kenchaillen seems to have been dismembered into individual cowlands. These were distributed between other properties and Kenchaillen ceased to have an independent existence. Its former extent dropped out of the reckoning. Some holdings floated between different neighbours, others remained attached to particular farms for long periods of time. As a result the totals from my table must carry a caveat. I am not absolutely sure that all the valuations are mutually exclusive. A good example is given by the farms of Archalloch, Arealaich and Erpheill in the Rhinns. I think these are three separate units but the spellings and the data are so erratic that it is difficult to distinguish them at all times.


This problem is not unique to Islay. Across the Highlands and Islands there are differing rates of attrition within the land-assessment data that survives. (I have dealt with this in some detail for the Ross of Mull). Some farms were always more marginal than others. For a few, conditions may have deteriorated over the centuries due to erosion, sand-blow, or the action of rivers or sea. For others, continued occupation may have been affected by their distance from the estate centre. In the rentals we often come across farms that were, for one reason or another, “waste”. (This means uncultivated rather than devastated). If a farm became perennially unprofitable then we can imagine it would be abandoned and its area absorbed by another as rough grazing or sheiling ground. When this happened it does not seem to be the case that the new enlarged farm had its nominal extent increased. Instead the extent of the abandoned farm seems to have simply dropped out of the reckoning and become lost. (Which is why we seldom find the number of surviving pennylands to add exactly to the number of ouncelands we know they should). This certainly happened in the Ross of Mull and in Glenelg. I think it probably also happened on the east side of South Uist as well as in Islay.





In the West Highlands and Hebrides cowlands only occur in Islay. I am confident that they are an Irish import but since they were locally significant we should look at the evidence. Much of this is to be found in the rentals for 1686-1741 printed in the Book of Islay but we also have sixteenth-century references to cowlands in Proaig, Sorn and Skeag. At first glance the evidence is perplexing because it seems hard to work out what a cowland was worth in merkland terms. The conversions seem contradictory. I think the problem here is that all the data in the 1722 rental should be disregarded. The compiler took great pains to give the extent of each farm under two headings. First was what might be called Scottish extent (i.e. merklands); second was what we could call Islay extent (i.e. quarterlands etc). He describes the latter as:


the names of the touns and extent thereof by quarter lands, auchten pairts, leorheis, and kerrorans and cowlands, conform to Isla computation.


The problem is that in this sentence he has muddled two different systems. ‘Isla computation’ is quite straightforward. Each unit is half the one above it. A kerroran (4s 2d) is half a leorheis (8s 4d), which is half an eighthland (16s 8d), which is half a quarterland (33s 4d). All the evidence, apart from the 1722 rental, points to cowlands being 3s 4d or ¼m. Arithmetically this doesn’t fit. It simply wasn’t part of the Islay system. This is the reason for the anomalous conversions between Scottish and Islay extent in 1722. Most of the time the author moved quite happily between one system and the other – incidentally confirming that the relationship between them was one davach to ten merks. Whenever the conversions involved cowlands he went awry.


At 3s 4d each, forty cowlands were the same as a davach or ounceland. We know of cowland reckonings in about 24 farms in Islay, about 10% of the total number of properties which have valuations. However we can assume they were once more widespread and although they lacked the depth and breadth of Islay Extent they may have been locally important for centuries. This could be because a single cowland was a very small parcel of land, a denomination that was clearly needed when there was a lot of subdivision or partition. At ten cowlands to a quarterland, if a farm like Kenchaillen was to be dismembered then reckoning by cowlands allowed a radical solution.


This helps explain some of the smaller holdings in Islay. We do have named units with ¼m values (Grulin, Port Ascog) and a few more with values such as ½m or ¾m or 1m. Whilst these are in a tiny minority in the overall context it is important to consider how they acquired these valuations. I think the likeliest scenario is the subdivision of a larger unit into a number of very small components. Cowlands were the smallest denomination available and probably survived by virtue of serving this useful function. As to the date of their introduction I think that dating them in Ireland will be the key to dating them in Islay.


Finally there is one other piece of apparent evidence we should deal with. In the Calendar of entries in the Papal Registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Papal Letters Vol VIII pp 407-9 there is a letter dated 6 Ides Jan 1443-4. The gist of this is that Dominic, Abbot of Iona, had appealed to Pope Martin V in his dispute with Fingonius Fingonii, grandson of a former abbot. Apparently Fingonius had made a contract:


cum dilecta in Christo filia Mariota Suigniei muliere prefate Sodoren. dioc. tractauerit ut dilectam in Christo filiam Mor ipsius Mariote filiam in concubinam haberet, ac cum effectu pepigerit et se obligauerit quod eidem Mor quodraginta vacas dotalicias ad extimacionem consuetam terrarum insularum illarum partiam (partium?) daret et persolueret, ac ipsi concubine esculenta et poculenta necnon pannos competentes ministraret et eciam ut concubinam honorifice tractaret.


which is translated as:


with Mariota Suigniei, of the said diocese of Sodor, that he should have her daughter Mor as his concubine, and pledged and bound himself that he would give and pay to the said Mor 40 cow-lands, of the valuation of these islands, provide her with meat and drink and becoming raiment and treat her honourably as concubine.


“Quodraginta vacas dotalicia” sounds like 40 cows as a dowry (see Revised Medieval Latin word-list under “dos”) but why should these be “according to the usual estimation of these islands”? The editor has chosen to translate this as 40 cow-lands but this would make one ounceland or davach which was a much more generous gift than 40 cows. What I think is meant here is that each cow came with its “followers” or calves which could be two or even three in number. Cattle in the Hebrides were usually reckoned with their young and this needed to be elaborated. If so, then we are not dealing with cow-lands at all – but with cattle.




A few, a very few, of Islay’s farms include reckonings in horsegangs. Again these are to be found in the rentals between 1686 and 1741. These were obviously a late import from practice elsewhere in Scotland. They are neither indigenous to Islay, nor integral to its land-assessment system.




There are no pennylands in Islay. The name Pennycraig is not a farm-name and looks to be a late rationalisation.


The Maclean Estate


The Macleans of Duart held c. £20 (30m) land in Islay before the forfeiture of the Lordship in 1493. Later documents refer to ‘Torlissay’ which may be the name of the estate. The lands are detailed in RMS III (2835) of 1542. See also Argyll Retours (16) of 1615 and (67) of 1662.


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