Ross of Mull Summary

The Ross of Mull


The Ross of Mull provides a good example of the attrition of the Norse pennyland valuation that once extended along most of the west coast. The Ross belonged to the monastery of Iona and was accounted a £20 land in 1509 and 1561. It was quite possibly part of Iona’s patrimony from very early times. In 1203 the island of Mull is listed as one of Iona’s possessions. I am sceptical that these then included the whole island but certainly Ross is the peninsula you would expect to belong to Iona. It is physically the closest and from the sixth century the monastic community would be interested in acquiring lands on neighbouring parts of Mull. Such lands would be easier to exploit and supervise. Ties with distant possessions were more difficult and expensive to maintain.


It may be that the process of acquisition was gradual. The rental of 1587-8 printed in Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis refers to two different systems of weights employed in the lands of Ross. These were “mensura lapidis Mccoull” and “mensura lapidis abbatis”. Plainly the stone weight as measured by the Macdougalls was not quite the same as that measured by the abbots. It may be that the survival of these two types of measure reflects a former pattern of ownership. The Macdougall stone was used in one of the pennylands of Kilvickeon, 1d of Lee, at least 2d of Ardtun and possibly 1d of Shiaba, all towards the eastern end of the Ross.


Another variation concerns the imposition of quowart (CRA p 172). For instance 1d of Shiaba was free of quowart (CRA p 165). If this was a render raised to support military expeditions (< Gaelic cuairt) it would be interesting to know why.


There are other pieces of circumstantial evidence which reinforce the notion that the Ross of Mull was an early possession of Iona’s:


  1. a) There are very few unambiguously Norse names and only one of these (Stokadill) is at the west end of the Ross. Lee and Assapol lie at the eastern end whilst Eorabus (also at the east end) is plainly Norse but is a name for which I have not found any reference before the nineteenth century. (If early, Eorabus may have been absorbed by Ardtun before 1587-8).


  1. b) There are very few names which derive directly from the Norse assessment system. Whereas islands like Skye are full of names beginning with Peighinn (penny), and even mainland districts like Kintyre and Cowal have names including Leth-pheighinn (halfpenny) and Feoirling (farthing), the Ross of Mull has virtually nothing. The only name which survives today is Saorphin (Saor-pheighinn). Pennymoir was probably the same as Ballymoir but vanished long ago whilst I only know of one reference to Hafforlane (i.e. half-farthing – HP I p 298 of 1675). This seems to imply an English prefix to a Gaelic word of Norse origin!


  1. c) There are no farm names which include the Gaelic dun or the Norse borg which might point to some local political or military power-base. Politically the Norse controlled the island of Mull from c. 800-1266 but seem to have left the Ross largely in the hands of the monastery of Iona. They imposed their assessment system but do not seem to have moved in to occupy the lands of Ross except at the eastern end.


  1. d) In the Rental of the Bishopric of the Isles in 1561 (printed in CRA pp 1-4) there is a list of the teinds and parsonages belonging to the bishop. These include:

the thrid pairt of all personagis perteining to the Abbatt, the personag of Ecomkill and Rosse onlie exceptit.


If the Bishop of the Isles had one-third of all the parsonages belonging to the Abbot of Iona – except for Iona and the Ross of Mull – this might imply that Iona’s ownership of the Ross predated the foundation of the Bishopric. The latter is uncertain but seems to have been before 1079.


The place-name element tir or land is found in a number of places along the west coast as well as Brythonic areas of Britain outside Scotland. It is particularly frequent in this part of Mull. There are certainly 9, possibly 10, examples of tir in the Ross, four of them appearing as farms in 1587-8. These four were worth a total of 6½d or just over a tenth of the total value of the peninsula.


The Norse systems of ouncelands and pennylands overlay an earlier Pictish/British system of davachs. Through all the Hebrides (except Mull), in Iona and even in the Ross of Mull one ounceland seems to have been equal to one davach. (In the rest of Mull one ounceland was equal to 2½ davachs). Davachs were usually subdivided into quarterlands and eighthlands but there is little sign of these in Ross. However it is likely that the element tir- was used in coining names before the arrival of the Norse and it is possible that it once commonly applied to a specific fraction of a davach such as an eighthland. Alternatively it could be something to do with the elusive ‘houses’ of the Dalriadic Scots – perhaps one-twentieth of a davach.


Finally, the Ross of Mull gives us a salutary lesson in how misleading the partial survival of evidence can be. If we had only the tack of 1694 (Clan Campbell Vol 1 p 42) or the Argyll Valuation Roll of 1751 to go on we would conclude that the Ross comprised 25½d. Fortunately we also have a decreet of 1672 which takes the total up to 46¼d. Lastly we have the rental of 1587-8 which shows that the 1672 list is partly miscopied and that the actual assessment was at least 54½d. It seems probable, therefore, that the Ross of Mull was once assessed as 3 ouncelands or 60d. These were regarded as equivalent to £20 or 30 merks so the exchange rate for this area was 1oz : 10 merks or 1d : ½ merk.


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