Ross-shire Summary

Land-assessment in Ross


In any discussion of early land-assessment in Ross we must distinguish between the east and west coasts. Ross was first and foremost what we now call Easter Ross. Until the thirteenth century Wester Ross was part of what was then known as North Argyll. Even within Easter Ross I think we can distinguish between the Black Isle and the peninsula to the north of it. The Black Isle was referred to as Ardmeanach – the middle peninsula – which suggests it stood slightly apart from Ross proper. The oldest form of Ross probably refers to the parishes between the Cromarty and Dornoch Firths.


Wester Ross


Kintail, Lochalsh and Lochcarron, which are the three most southerly parishes of Wester Ross, have pennylands as well as davachs and these pennylands were probably reckoned at 20 to the ounceland. The system in these three parishes is an extension of the Norse system that prevailed throughout the northern Hebrides and Western Inverness-shire. It is probably fair to view Druim Alban as the eastern boundary of the Norse land-assessment system found in this part of Wester Ross.


One of the difficulties we face in the far north-west is in drawing boundaries between those areas which were thought of in terms of pennylands and those which were thought of in terms of davachs. Previous observers have drawn attention to a gap in pennyland coverage between Lochcarron parish (Ross) and Durness parish (Sutherland). Both of these parishes have pennylands but they appear to be absent from Applecross, Gairloch, Loch Broom (Wester Ross) and Assynt (Sutherland). They are also absent from mainland Edderachylis (Sutherland) and only appear on the island of Handa. Were they truly absent or is that just an impression given by the attrition of history? The place-name record tells us that the Norse settled these districts so why don’t they behave like other Norse colonies?


I can certainly believe that these areas were relatively sparsely settled by the Norse. Equally I can understand that the absence of early documents about these areas may be concealing previous systems from us. However it is also possible that they represent a sort of no-man’s-land stranded between two different focal points with two different fiscal systems. I think the west coast, as far north as Lochcarron, looked to Man and Dublin and the Hiberno-Norse coinage while the north and north-east coasts of Sutherland and Caithness looked to Orkney and its distinct penny coinage. For the moment I would rather leave the question in abeyance since further research may reveal more data.


Easter Ross


Easter Ross is different. We know it was extensively settled by the Norse because their place-names stretch south as far as Scatwell and Eskidale in Strathconon and Eskadale in Strathglass. However we do not find the Norse system of land-assessment in Easter Ross. The Kyle of Sutherland is a definitive boundary. In parishes north of the Kyle we have lots of evidence of pennylands – but none to the south of it.


Was Easter Ross always free of pennylands – or did they just fade at an early date? We have records from the thirteenth century – not that long after the period when Norse earls like Thorfinn dominated the north of Scotland – but they offer no trace of pennylands. Nor is there any trace in place-names. This contrasts with an area like Kintyre where pennylands are present both in thirteenth-century documents and as names in the landscape. The safest conclusion to draw is that there were never any pennylands in Easter Ross.


However it is possible that we see the shadow of ouncelands. In Sutherland davachs were worth 6d each and quite often we find them in groups of 3 amounting to 18d – which was an ounceland locally. In Tarbat and Fearn parishes, in Easter Ross, we find 4 farms (Tarbat, Geanies, Cadboll and Allan) which were probably each worth 3 davachs. What we cannot know is whether this parallels the system of 3 davachs to an ounceland found in Sutherland or whether it is a sign that Pictish land-assessment sometimes favoured 3-davach units.


Given that the Kyle of Sutherland marks a definitive boundary between a Norse land-assessment system in Sutherland and a native land-assessment system in Easter Ross, what does this tell us about the nature and chronology of Norse rule in the north? There has long been an awareness that the Norse system of land-assessment on the west coast and in the Hebrides was different to that in the far north. On the West coast an ounceland was everywhere 20d, in the far north it was 18d. For the northern Hebrides and the west coast as far south as Ardnamurchan we can confidently say that an ounceland was equivalent to a davach. In the far north one ounceland was worth three davachs. I have argued that the Norse system on the west coast derives from the period of Hiberno-Norse coinage which started c. 995 AD. I would date the adoption of pennylands on the west coast to the first decades of the eleventh century although ouncelands may be considerably earlier.


Gareth Williams has argued that the pennylands of Orkney originate in the silver penny of Cologne dating from … This would mean pennylands in the far north are up to a century later than those on the west coast. Whether or not Gareth Williams is correct I think that a reason such as this lies behind the absence of the Norse land-assessment system in Easter Ross. Norse land-assessment in the far north came long after Norse settlement. When Norse land-assessment was eventually imposed the Norse authorities plainly could not enforce it any further south than the Kyle of Sutherland. There will have been political reasons for this. Where the system is found helps us to date it.



What is the nature of the system we find in Ross?


Essentially it is Pictish. The unit which we find throughout Ross, on both east and west coasts, is the davach. We often find it subdivided into halves, quarters and eighthlands. Both davachs and their subdivisions are reflected in place-names – but not particularly frequently. We have places like Davachcarne and Dochmaluag (Fodderty), Lettoch (Knockbain), Balcherry (Tain), Ochtobeg (Kiltearn) and Ochtow (Kincardine) – from dabhach, leth-dabhach (½), ceathramh (¼) and ochdamh (⅛) respectively. Overwhelmingly the evidence gives us this Pictish version of land-assessment – but there is also a sort of anglicised record which reflects a process – met throughout Scotland – whereby a native system was accommodated to forms more familiar to a government based in SE Scotland. I only know of one reference to a ‘carucate’ in Ross, but there are some to ‘ploughs’ (quarterlands) and plenty to ‘bovates’, ‘oxgates’ or ‘oxgangs’ (eighthlands).


Crofts, wards, butts, rigs, ells


Smaller subdivisions were sometimes required and here it seems that the people of Ross used a different method of reckoning rather than just smaller and smaller subdivisions of the davach. Instead they assessed in terms of ‘bolls of sowing’. Such a means of assessment offers a much greater degree of refinement. Every boll was 4 firlots and each firlot was 4 pecks. This was ideal for minute subdivision and in some contexts we find bolls, firlots and pecks of sowing. We also occasionally find ‘sheaves’, as in Rosskeen, but these do not seem to have been widespread.


However we then have to grapple with a further complication which is the difference between ‘bolls sowing’ and ‘bolls pay’. The former measured how many bolls of seed corn were required; the latter measured how much return you could expect. We find examples of each in the historical record.


Where we do find pennylands – as in Kintail, Lochalsh and Lochcarron – they sit on top of davachs. They allowed easier subdivision but both methods appear in the documents and seem to have coexisted quite happily in the public consciousness.


Land-assessment measures wealth, specifically the productive capacity of the land – which was usually the only form of wealth in the early history of Scotland. Given the nature of the Scottish landscape, that wealth was, as we would expect, concentrated along the fertile east coast. The accompanying summary map of land-assessment in Ross quantifies this. There are still gaps in the record, some of which will be filled over time, but the picture is pretty clear. Even during the Pictish period the wealth of Ross was concentrated along the east coast. The Summary Table shows a minimum of 259⅝ davachs in the whole of Ross. In almost every parish I think my figures will slightly underestimate the true situation. The total number of davachs in Ross was most probably between 270 and 300 davachs.



Waste lands?


The parishes of Kincardine, Contin and Urray comprise huge areas of the hinterland where most of the land was relatively unproductive. These are also areas for which I have little data. Accordingly I have to leave unresolved the issue of whether these areas were never assessed – or whether their assessments have been lost. Even during the mediaeval period I think this was an open question. RMS III (2817) 1542 reveals an attempt to procure some revenues from two such areas. The authorities plainly state that they had never before appeared in the king’s rental. (See also OPS II, II p 392 & PNRC pp 167 & 190).


If I had to hazard a guess I would say that we should only expect to find davachs in areas where there had been, at some time, permanent occupation and tillage. I can believe that large areas of the wilder hinterland may never have had these – and were therefore never assessed. They were possibly just regarded as grazings and hunting areas.



Quarters and fearanns


We also need to remember that davachs were not the only features of native administration. What about fearann place-names such as Ferintosh and Ferindonald? (A fearann was a large portion of land). What of the ‘quarters’ of Ross listed in the fifteenth-century Exchequer Rolls. What of the native officers or mairs, and their mairdoms?


These are whole new areas of study and introduce new complications. What was the relationship between mairdoms and baronies? How did these relate to parishes as collections of davachs? What differences were there between mairs and serjeands and bailies? These are all important questions but because they are peripheral to the core issues of land-assessment I am not going to discuss them beyond pointing to a few Ross-shire examples.


In the fifteenth-century Exchequer Rolls evidence we learn of no less than five ‘quarters’ in Ross. Ross was not alone in having ‘quarters’ – Fife had quarters too. I have roughly delineated the ‘quarters’ of Ross on the accompanying map. But questions remain. What exactly were they ‘quarters’ of. And since there were 5 of them was Ross composed of two (or more) of the larger unnamed units. Was each of the quarters composed of an equal number of davachs?


Or is it the case that the Latin word ‘quarterium’ which has come down to us in the documents misleads into thinking of quarters. Perhaps the Pictish or Gaelic word which underlay this translation  had a slightly different meaning. Perhaps ‘quarters’ were not actually quarters of larger units?


Secondly we have native administrative officers called mair – each of whom had a ‘maragium’ or mairdom. The same set of Exchequer Rolls that tell us of quarters also tell us of payments to these mairs. There was a mair for Avach (Avoch) and Ettirdule (now Killearnan parish) in Ardmeanach (the Black Isle). But there was also a serjeand for Ardmeanach and both mair and serjeand had crofts. There was probably another mair’s croft at Balconie and the principal mair of Ross had 1m of Tullich in Kilmuir Easter for a croft. Did mairdoms match quarters?


And what about fearanns? We know of three in Ross: Ferintosh, Ferindonald and Fernewyr and possibly two more in Sutherland: Fernecostry and Fernebieldin. Did fearanns match quarters, or parishes? Were any of those units composed of specific numbers of davachs? (See Fearann map for rough outlines of the three in Ross).



Finally – how did the Scottish system of merklands sit on top of all this?


It is striking how shallow sits the Scottish system in Ross. By comparison with Argyllshire we really have very little evidence of how many merklands there were to a davach. Secondly, whilst the evidence in Argyllshire is always consistent across an area this is less obvious in Ross. There are plenty of examples where the merkland assessment seems erratic and inexplicable. Were the clerks who wrote down the figures equally confused?


What evidence there is points to two possibilities. In parts of Ross, e.g. Cromarty and some of the western areas of Contin, we get the impression that 1 davach was worth 4m Old Extent. This would be consistent with much of the earliest data for the Northern Hebrides and the west coast from Glenelg northwards.


Secondly there is a good deal of data suggesting that in the fifteenth century a davach was regarded as worth 10m. I think this will be a New Extent valuation. However this seems to have obtained in Ross before the end of the fourteenth century which is much earlier than previously thought. (See CWMF (5) 1350-71). However there is simply too little data to build a compelling picture of merklands in Ross. Ross used Pictish davachs. They were used throughout Ross and were still an active (but not new-coined) unit in the eighteenth century. They served the fiscal authorities well. We can still map Ross’s agricultural wealth by using them.


As a by-note it may be that the place-name Drumnamarg (Killearnan) is one of the more significant in Ross-shire as far as land-assessment is concerned. This ‘Ridge of the merk’ may, like Margmonagach in Killean parish, Kintyre, refer to an ‘old merk’. It was probably a davach, as I think Margmonagach was. If I am correct then this is virtually our only glimpse, in Ross-shire, of the first merkland assessment which the mediaeval Scots kings imposed on their expanding realm. They inherited davachs in Kintyre and Ross. They were developing a coinage and currency system based round the merk (13s 4d or 160d) from at least the 1130s when they first started minting their own coins. It is probable that one davach of land was expected to provide an annual return of one ‘old merk’. This predates what we tend to think of as ‘Old Extent’ where 1 davach was, in large parts of Scotland, equated with 4 merklands. This latter system may have developed as early as the second half of the twelfth century but it was in full swing during the thirteenth century. All of the Northern Hebrides (and some at least of the west coast from Glenelg northwards) were assessed at 4m to the davach when they came to the Scottish crown after 1266. (There is also a Tobar na Marg at NH 7564 in Cromarty parish).





Although all my land-assessment data is given in parish tables we should remember that parishes themselves have a history. I have given a fixed form to entities that were themselves fluid. It is still valuable to present the data this way as long as we remember that parishes have often changed. In Ross, for instance, the parishes of Kinnettes, Lemlair, Suddy and Kilchrist were all absorbed by larger neighbours. My maps therefore are only indicative. For the tables I have tried to be as accurate as possible. I have used historic data (such as when a document states that a farm is in such-and-such a parish), cartographic data, the Statistical Accounts and Watson’s Place-names of Ross and Cromarty to assign farms to parishes. I have generally ignored the ‘detached’ parts of parishes since I think that parishes, in their earliest forms, were physically compact. The ‘detached parts’ of parishes, or counties, usually reflect the complexities of ownership. We have little knowledge of what happened to parishes in the mediaeval period. We have some knowledge of changes (or proposed changes) after the Reformation. We have firm knowledge of some relatively minor changes made in the late 19th century (see Shennan). We must do what we can with what we have but such uncertainties must be reflected in any conclusions.



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Posted in General Files for Ross
3 comments on “Ross-shire Summary
  1. Ronald Scott says:

    I have an interest In Caithness, Sutherland, Orkney and their connections with Norway from mid 12th to 13th Century although I claim no expertise

    Thank you for making this detailed information available.

    I’ll give your material some thought and may be in touch

    • drixson says:

      Thank you. Sutherland approaching completion – but I still work so progress is not as fast as I would like. Denis

  2. Ronald Scott says:

    Good to know and I will check back soon

    Early Sutherland seems difficult so will be very interested in what you have.

    I don’t know how I found the time to work. Tee Tee!

    Best wishes

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