Caithness Summary Text File



General Sources – see also under Parish Text files


Robertson’s Index p 34 No 17, p 62 No 22


RMS I (228) 1366, (742) 1382

RMS I App. 1, (150) 1362 on original of 1344

RMS I App. 2, Index A No. 716, Index B No. 24, 1330.

RMS I App. 2, Index A No. 1317, Index B No. 22.

RMS I App. 2, Index A No. 1383, Index B No. 34.

RMS I App. 2, Index A No. 1537, Index B No. 17.

RMS II (148, 149) 1429-30, (152) 1430, (549, 550) 1452, (802) 1464, (1002) 1470, (1267) 1476, (1404) 1478 on original of 1455, (1489) 1481, (2506) 1499 (3103) 1507

RMS III (475, 476) 1527, (891) 1529-30, (1798) 1538, (2047, 2048) 1539, (2450) 1541, (2882) 1542-3 on original of 1539, (3164, 3165) 1545, (3215) 1545-6

RMS IV (745) 1552-3, (1635, 1669) 1565, (1705) 1565-6 on original of 1560, (1726) 1566, (1767) 1566-7, (2130) 1572-3, (2315) 1574, (2421) 1575, (2578) 1576 on original of 1560, (2782) 1578, (2840) 1578-9 on original of 1578

RMS V (277) 1581 on original of 1580, (1341) 1587, (1729, 1766) 1590, (1977) 1591, (2078) 1592, (2127, 2176) 1592, (2180) 1592 on original dated 1591,

RMS VI (2) 1593, (421) 1595-6, (803) 1598, (1038, 1089) 1600, (1467) 1603, (1547) 1604, (1729) 1606, (1758) 1606, (2155) 1608 (on original of 1607)

RMS VII (129) 1609, (409.2) 1610 on original of 1583, (766) 1612, (1440) 1616 on original of 1615, (1508) 1616, (2008) 1619

RMS VIII (251) 1622, (481) 1623 on original of 1622, (689) 1624, (884) 1625, (1211) 1628, (1917) 1632, (2207) 1633

RMS IX (1098) 1642

RMS XI (53) 1661, (551, 558) 1664, (1065, 1070) 1667


RSS I (119, 120, 136, 138, 145) 1497, (426) 1499, (541, 607) 1500, (3649) 1526-7

RSS II (624) 1530, (3340) 1539-40, (4212) 1541, (4437) 1541-2

RSS III (1570) 1545-6, (2046) 1546, (2336, 2342) 1547

RSS IV (202) 1549, (333) 1549 (1374-5) 1551, (3067) 1555

RSS V Pt II (3034) 1566, (3465) 1567

RSS VII (989) 1577

RSS VIII (1551) 1583


GD90/1/50/1 1478

GD96/46 1549, GD96/54, 56-57 1550, GD96/59 1553, GD96/83 1561

GD96/106-8 1565,

GD96/125, 128, 130-1, 134-5 1573

GD96/196 1582

GD96/223A 1586

GD280/7/4 No 29 1787

GD297/229/2 1485 on original of 1387


ER I pp 569-570 1359 for ‘Lawyeld’ payment

ER XVII pp 754-5 1538

ER XVIII pp 380-1, 384, 1543-5; 589, 1555

ER XXI pp 466, 469-70 1581-2, p 525, 1586


E106/8/1 Copy of Valuation Roll for Caithness in 1702 with revised version 1751

E106/8/2 Valuation Roll for Caithness in 1802


RHP1217 nd, Assery, Brawllbin, Lurrery and Achscrabster

RHP1218/1 & 2 1866, Brawlbin, Lambsdale, Assery

RHP 4418/1/28 Halkirk parish


RS36/2/35v 1606

RS36/2/116v 1606

RS37/1/158r 1619

RS37/1/159r 1619

RS37/3/24r 1624

RS37/3/59v 1624


Retours (Caithness) (5) 1604, (7) 1605, (25) 1657


NLS Dep.313/3312/1 1577 (Thurso)


Bayne, Aneas, ‘A Short Geographical Survey of the County of Caithness’, Manuscript dated 1735, Identifier P189 in Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives. (Hereafter ‘Bayne (1735)’).



Acts of the Lords of Council in Civil Causes, Vol 1 (1478-95), 1839,  pp 345-6, (hereafter ADC). £40 of Subist(er) 30/6/1494


Acts of the Lords of Council in Civil Causes, Vol II (1496-1501), Edinburgh, 1918, pp 36-7, 98, 477-8, 481


‘Testament of Alexander Suthyrland of Dunbeath, 1456,’ printed in The Bannatyne Miscellany Vol. III, p 98 ff, Edinburgh, 1855.


New Statistical Account, Vol XV 1845 (written in 1840 for all parishes save Wick which was 1841)


Illustrations of the Topography and Antiquities of the Shires of Aberdeen and Banff, Vol IV, Spalding Club, Aberdeen, 1862, pp 611-614, 618-624, 628-9


Book of the Thanes of Cawdor pp 54-5 1472.


The Book of Ross by D. Macdonald and Sutherland & Caithness by A. Polson, Dingwall, 1931


Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections, Vol. II, SHS, Edinburgh, 1907, pp 450-453

Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections, Vol. III, SHS, Edinburgh, 1908, pp 82-87


Caithness and Sutherland Records Vol I, Parts I-XI, London, 1909-1928 viz.:-

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part I, Old-lore Series No 13, London, 1909.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part II, Old-lore Series No 16, London, 1909.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part III, Old-lore Series No 19, London, 1909.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part IV, Old-lore Series No 22, London, 1910.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part V, Old-lore Series No 30, London, 1911.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part VI, Old-lore Series No 35, London, 1912.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part VII, Old-lore Series No 40, London, 1913.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part VIII, Old-lore Series No 52, London, 1914.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part IX, Old-lore Series No 60, London, 1922.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part X, Old-lore Series No 63, London, 1928.

Caithness & Sutherland Records Vol 1 Part XI, Old-lore Series No 64, London, 1928.


Old-Lore Miscellany of Orkney, Shetland, Caithness and Sutherland, Vol X, Viking Society for Northern Research, London, 1935-46. (Hereafter Miscellany Vol X).

(NB Place-names pp 176-184)


Baldwin, J.R., (ed.), Caithness: A Cultural Crossroads, Edinburgh, 1982

Bangor-Jones, M., Ouncelands and Pennylands in Sutherland and Caithness, in MacGregor & Crawford (1987), pp 13-23

Collingwood, W.G., King William the Wanderer, London, 1904

Collingwood, W.G., King William the Wanderer, Saga-Book of the Viking Club, Vol IV, London 1905-6, pp 171-181

Craven, J.B., A History of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Caithness, Kirkwall, 1908.

Crawford, B.E., ‘The earldom of Caithness and the kingdom of Scotland, 1150-1266’, Northern Scotland Vol 2 No 2: 1976-77, Aberdeen

Crawford, B.E., ‘Scots and Scandinavians in Mediaeval Caithness’ pp 61-74 in Baldwin, J.R. (ed.), Edinburgh, 1982.

Crawford, B.E., Earl & Mormaer, Norse-Pictish relationships in Northern Scotland, Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie, 1995

Crawford, B.E.,  The Northern Earldoms, Edinburgh, 2013

Donaldson, J.E., Caithness in the 18th Century, Edinburgh, 1938

Donaldson, J.E., The Mey Letters, Sydney, 1984

Fraser, W., The Sutherland Book, Vol III – Charters, Edinburgh, 1892

Gray, J., Boundaries of Estates in Caithness Diocese shortly after 1222, SHR 20, 1923.

Gray, J., The Caithness and Sutherland Topography of ‘William the Wanderer’, Old Lore Miscellany Vol IX, Part 1 June 1921 pp 33- 36

Henderson, J., General View of the Agriculture of the County of Caithness, London, 1815 (hereafter, ‘Henderson, Agriculture’)

Henderson, J., Caithness Family History, Edinburgh, 1884

Kirk, J., (ed.) The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices, Oxford, 1995, pp 418, 420-1, 627-633, 638, 648, 657, 670, 680

Macgill, W., Old Ross-shire and Scotland as seen in the Tain and Balnagown Documents, Inverness, 1909, pp 81, 315

MacGregor, L., & Crawford, B., (eds), Ouncelands and Pennylands, University of St Andrews, 1987

Mackay, R., History of the House and Clan of Mackay, Edinburgh, 1829, p 218

Macquarrie, A., (ed.), Legends of Scottish Saints, Dublin, 2012

Miller, D.B., ‘Oldwick and Berriedale Castles – The Cheynes, Sutherlands of Duffus, and the Oliphants’, Caithness Field Club Bulletin, October 1976

Munro, J. & Munro R.W., (eds.), Acts of the Lords of the Isles 1336-1493, Scottish History Society, Edinburgh, 1986 (hereafter ‘ALI’).

Myatt, L.J., Saint Drostan in Caithness, Caithness Field Club Bulletin, April 1987

Nicolaisen, W.F.H., ‘Scandinavians and Celts in Caithness: the Place-Name evidence’ pp 75-85, in Baldwin, J.R. (ed.), Edinburgh, 1982.

Omand, D. (ed.), The New Caithness Book, Wick, 1989

Pennant, T., A Tour in Scotland 1769, 5th edition, London, 1790, Appendix No V, p 338 ff, ‘Of Caithness, Strathnaver and Sutherland’ by Rev. Mr Alexander Pope, Minister of Reay.

Peterkin, A., Rentals of the Ancient Earldom and Bishoprick of Orkney, Edinburgh, 1820. (This book is arranged in Sections: I – VI. Hereafter ‘Peterkin’ + Section No.).

Pitcairn, R., Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, Vol 1 Parts I & II, Bannatyne Club, Edinburgh, 1833

PSAS 11 (1875) pp 87-102: John Stuart, ‘Articles by Robert, Bishop of Caithness, against George, Earl of Caithness’, … AD 1549.

PSAS 12 (1876-8) pp 571-576: W.F. Skene, ‘Notes on the Earldom of Caithness’

PSAS 100 (1967-8) pp 123-127 of Macdonald, A.D.S., & Laing, L.R., Early Ecclesiastical Sites in Scotland: a Field Survey, Part I. (Hereafter ‘PSAS 100’).

Ross, A., Land Assessment and Lordship in Medieval Northern Scotland, Brepols, 2015, (hereafter TMC 14). (Especially Chapter 3 and pp 292-5, 353-4).

Scott, A.B., S. Drostan of Buchan and Caithness, TGSI XXVII, 1909 (Hereafter ‘Scott, 1909’)

Shennan, Hay, Boundaries of Counties and Parishes in Scotland. As settled by the Boundary Commissioners under the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1889. Edinburgh, 1892 (hereafter ‘Shennan’).

Sinclair, T., Caithness Events (Second edition), Wick, 1899

Sutherland, Iain, Caithness 1770 to 1832, Wick, 1995

The Royal Commission on The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions of Scotland. Third Report and Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the County of Caithness, Edinburgh, 1911. (Hereafter ‘RCAHMS – Caithness (1911)’).

Watson, G., Roads and Tracks through Local History Part 3: Tracks, Fords and Chapels, Caithness Field Club Bulletin, October 1986 (hereafter ‘Watson (1986)’).


HHER + No. = Highland Historic Environment Record, an online database of historic sites maintained by Highland Council.




Caithness is that part of mainland Scotland where Norse influence penetrated most deeply and lasted longest. Its land-assessment reflects that influence. From its first colonization by the Norse in the ninth century, it was torn between the competing claims of Orkney and Norway on the one hand, and the realm of Scotland on the other. This gradual process of attrition has been studied by a number of historians but the detail is outside the scope of this project.


We have lots of references to the internal division of the province, both during the period of Norse domination and afterwards. We know about the ‘quarters’ of Caithness, held by different claimants, and we have detailed information from the sixteenth century about the estates of the principal families. It is possible to map these but the picture is complicated by the fact that although properties could be allocated – as discrete units – to different families, so also they could be divided internally before allocation. Since our land-assessment data is incomplete this makes it very difficult to know how much each portion of a property was worth. Our arguments would be more persuasive if we could paint a comprehensive picture from the bottom up.


What did these ‘quarters’ reflect? Presumably a quarter of the total value of Caithness – but probably excluding all church lands. Listing the farms only takes us so far. We also need to know their individual values. Some Caithness farms (such as Clyth in Latheron parish) were physically big and extremely valuable. Others (such as Toftingall in Watten parish) were not worth one-tenth as much. To arrive at a true picture of the quarters of Caithness we need to know the assessments of all the farms.


Besides, should we also be thinking in thirds? There is an interesting tradition that the Sinclair Earls, the Keiths and the Oliphants each had the ‘third rig’ of Caithness.


The pattern set by the Norse may have been radically changed under Scottish dominion. In the earlier period of Scottish overlordship it looks as if most land was owned by a very small number of families. As time went on so the financial demands placed on these families by political and social ambition served to weaken their hold. Properties were wadset to lesser families and if these properties could not be redeemed then they fell into the ownership of others. (A wadset occurs when a landowner borrows money in exchange for the lender using the property as their own until the loan is repaid).


In the future it may be possible to reconstruct these early divisions of Caithness. If more information becomes available then perhaps we can give a fuller picture of landholding in the province – whether under Norse or Scot. Skene and Gray (see Bibliography above) made early stabs at this and Barbara Crawford has returned to the theme in a number of her works.


James Gray (1923) offered an important insight into the relationship between estates and parishes. He wrote:


The seaward boundaries of all parishes and estates would, of course, be as now; but the inland boundaries of the estates of the various Superior Lords would coincide with some part of the inland boundaries of certain parishes.


Gray was matching (some) parish boundaries with (some) estate boundaries. It is very likely that early parish boundaries matched the estates of their patrons. Certain families entertained tutelary saints – i.e. they swore to and by certain holy men and women to whom they felt a particular allegiance. We have good examples of this in the Old Statistical Account for South Knapdale (Vol XIX No XIII p 318, 1797). Bayne (1735), pp 19-20 gives instances from the Caithness parishes.


But we can take this argument a step further. Parishes can be seen as aggregates of davachs. That they were composed by grouping davachs together seems much the most likely explanation. Parishes themselves have a history and, over the years, they were grouped, regrouped and redefined. But enough survive either intact, or with their changes recorded, for us to detect patterns. In Easter Ross parishes often consisted of 10 davachs.


For the purposes of this study I have avoided trying to map these estates, concentrating instead on the base system of land-assessment. Ouncelands, pennylands and davachs underlay everything and, if we can elucidate that system it should also serve to shed light on estate patterns.



We have little in the way of early assessment evidence for Caithness. Two fifteenth century documents are found in the Book of the Thanes of Cawdor (p 54) and RMS II (1404). The first of these lists the possessions of Mariota de Sudirlande, wife of William of Cawdor:


Tanach (Tannach, Wick parish)

Blensary (Blingery, Wick parish)

Forsy (probably Forsie in Halkirk parish)

Bycht Glausacht (I do not know if these represent one or two places. The only name that seems possible is a misreading of Lyth).

8d in Murkill (Murkle, Thurso or Olrig parish)

9d in Thursacht (Thurso)

6d in Laythrynkirk (Latheronkirk, Latheron parish)

2d in Blaneskirk (Banniskirk, Halkirk parish)

Schan vaile (Shinvall, Latheron parish)

Cambustum (Camster, Latheron parish)


We have some slight evidence for the period between about 1455 and 1570 that a pennyland returned an annual rent of 10s. In RMS II (1404) 1478 on original of 1455 we are told that 10 merklands consisted of:

9d in Wick

1m of Alterwelle

20s of Stroma

10s of Dorrary.


This means that 9d was the same as 90s or 6¾m (10m less (1m + 20s + 10s)). It would also imply that the pennyland valuations for Alterwall (Bower), Stroma (Canisbay) and Dorrery (Thurso) were 1⅓d, 2d and 1d respectively. Similarly, amongst the Groat of Warse titles given by Calder, Numbers 2, 15, 19 & 22 all suggest a rent of 10 shillings per pennyland per year during the 16th century.


Ouncelands and davachs

In the far north an ounceland was 18d and equivalent to three davachs of 6d. This is quite different to the northern Hebrides where an ounceland was 20d and equivalent to 1 davach. But, just as in the Hebrides, the system remained in use for centuries.


An ounceland was worth 18d so a half-ounceland would be worth 9d, a quarter-ounceland 4½d and ⅛ ounceland 2¼d. We commonly come across such units in Caithness which suggests that local people were reckoning in terms of the ounceland fiscal overlay, and subdivisions of it. Farm boundaries may still have followed davach boundaries but the Norse system must have rooted successfully. There are signs of some very large Norse farms which may have been composed of several davachs each. For instance:


Dounreay in Reay parish was 24d or 4 davachs.

Greenland in Dunnet parish was 36d or 6 davachs. Killimster (Wick) was the same.

Clyth in Latheron parish was at least 38d.


We know of a number of farms which were worth 6d (e.g. Ulbster in Wick). But there are also three separate examples of properties simply called ‘Sixpennyland’. This is not so much a place-name as a descriptive term for a unit of land. So why didn’t it have its own name? Probably because it had once been part of a larger, named, unit from which it had now been hived off. The evidence is clear that there had been, in Norse times, some very large farms in Caithness. Units of 18d (an ounceland), or more, are not uncommon. Over time, and with the claims of heirs and heiresses, so these became divided.


A sixpennyland unit is one-third of an ounceland. But one-third units are generally not as common as halves and quarters. The reason we find sixpennyland units must be, at least in part, because 6d represented a davach. Davachs underlay ouncelands and sixpennyland units may be signs of the submerged Pictish fiscal structure. A ‘sixpennyland’ unit makes sense in pre-Norse terms.


There was a sixpennyland unit by the Bordland of Murkle in Thurso parish – RMS III (475) 1527. There was another in Halkirk parish – RMS VII (1508) 1616, RMS VIII (2207) 1633. There was a third in Latheron – RMS IV (745) 1552-3 – probably near either Ousdale or Camster. In the Caithness Summary Table there is a column representing the number of 6d units per parish. These help to make the case that throughout Caithness a davach was the same as 6d and 3 davachs (or 18d) made an ounceland. We can prove this in Latheron and almost prove it in Reay – but in the other Caithness parishes we have to rely on the balance of probabilities.


I Sutherland (p 29) offers evidence that extent could also be measured in terms of bolls or firlots sowing. This chimes with data, (provided by Alasdair Ross), for Ross and Moray which suggests this was a widespread method of reckoning. He also (pp 30-31) gives the souming arrangements for a pennyland unit. This too must have been pervasive and Pennant gives details for The Small Isles off the mainland west coast. Sutherland’s comments (p 29 – cf NSA for Wick) about land-redders makes me wonder if new or extra pennylands may have been developed in post-Norse times. Our difficulty would then lie in distinguishing the new from the old.


Arable land the determinant of value

Donaldson (1938) has an interesting quote from John Brand who visited Caithness in 1700:

It is observable, that if any buy a piece of land, only what is arable is accounted for, as for what serveth for pasture they used not to take notice of …


This appears to be more or less always the case with land-assessment in Scotland. The capacity of pasture was measured by souming – but assessment was always of arable. Even as centuries of attrition wore down the pennyland system it was still arable that was measured. In Henderson, Agriculture (1815), p 39, we find:


All the estates are not actually measured, they commonly therefore reckon the arable land, by the boll of bear’s sowing, which is about a Scotch acre.


‘Bolls sowing’ (i.e. bolls of seed required for sowing) and ‘bolls pay’ (bolls harvested) were practical, working assessments. The formal system of valuation was still in pennylands. With ‘bolls pay’ we come across other phrases such as ‘the third corn’ or ‘the fourth corn’. What these refer to is the return or yield – just as with Biblical references to threefold or fourfold. These were an index of productivity – and land varied in this respect. Land could be damaged or become exhausted, but it could also be maintained or improved, kept ‘in good heart’.


Davachs and parish boundaries

For most parishes throughout north and west Scotland, it is probably safe to say that parish (and davach) boundaries aligned with farm boundaries. A parish might consist of several davachs; a davach might contain several farms. But parishes were aggregates of davachs and so followed davach boundaries around their perimeter. Each davach contained – wholly – its component farms. (Except in the case of very large farms which might comprise more than one davach).


This concept is expressed by the writer of ‘The New Statistical Account’ for Bower (p 114):


The boundary of the parish was formerly, in the greater part of its extent, the boundary of distinct properties.


At first sight this rule does not seem to apply consistently in Caithness. There are at least two, possibly four, cases where farms cross parish boundaries. Murkle is split (unequally) between Olrig and Thurso. Camster is divided (equally) between Wick and Latheron. Bilbster may have been split between Watten and Wick. RMS VII (1508) 1616 lists Aimstir under both Thurso and Halkirk/Skennand parishes.


This suggests that parish division came after the establishment of these farms. Three of the farms appear extremely large. They probably date to early in the period of Norse colonisation – perhaps the ninth century. Parish organisation may have followed the establishment of the bishopric of Caithness. The date of this is uncertain but the first bishop (Andrew) was probably in place by 1146.


What may have happened is that Norse ouncelands were imposed on top of collections of Pictish davachs, and a new, Norse farm-name given. Then, over three centuries later, parishes were laid down, in some cases crossing Norse farm boundaries. But it could be the case that the parish system followed the earlier, remembered, boundaries of Pictish davachs.



Land-assessment is a means to an end. It establishes a method by which land can be assessed according to its estimated productive capacity. It was designed to persuade all who worked the land (i.e. virtually everybody) that this was a safe and objective measure of value. That value, once assessed, was then extracted by means of rent and casualties which, ideally, should reflect the nominal value of the land. Those who paid the rent of land paid ‘ferme’ and eventually became known as farmers.


The value of land was expressed as its ‘extent’ – the agreed, measured valuation of the land and the way that was transmitted down the generations. But almost from the moment of conception the abstract measure of value (extent) and what could be extracted from it on a yearly basis (‘ferme’ or rent), began to part company. Over time, weather, climate change, erosion, deforestation, changing river courses, sand-blow, leaching, good or bad farming practice, drainage, hard work and indolence, all worked their changes on the farmed landscape. Some of these factors might be recognised and addressed. Others were beyond the power of individuals to alter, either for technological or social reasons. Rural society was deeply conservative and farming practices, once established, were desperately difficult to change. Runrig, ‘graddan’ meal, souming arrangements, transhumance, payments in kind, all put a brake on initiative and innovation.


One really striking factor about land-assessment, and a great help to historians, is that assessed value did not change. Alasdair Ross demonstrated this in Moray where davach values could be shown to have lasted over many hundreds of years. The same can be said for pennylands. Where there was change it was noted as exceptional and the reasons publicised: river erosion and sand-blow being two acceptable causes. This is not quite the same for the merkland system of valuation where we are troubled by issues of Old and New Extent. However, this too, can be understood if we can establish fixed arithmetic ratios between them. In the far north, Ross, and more especially Sutherland and Caithness, merklands are almost an afterthought. They were shallow-rooted and for land-assessment purposes we can often bypass them.


Initially, rents were wholly in kind. After the establishment of a Hiberno-Norse currency about 995 AD, and, later on, the creation of a Scottish coinage in the 1130s, so a monetary economy gradually evolved. To begin with, only the greatest lords were given charters where a return was laid down. For most of the population there would have been no written documents, just custom, or ‘use and wont’ as the old phrase goes.


As money gradually increased in circulation so more rent was paid in cash. But old habits die hard and it was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century that rapid change swept away much of the old rural economy. When the Old Statistical Account was written in the 1790s the Caithness ministers talked increasingly of acreage and new crops and payments in cash. They bemoaned the old inefficiencies; they were disappointed that services, formerly given as part of the rent, were so hard to eradicate. They favoured a cash economy where individual enterprise could flourish.


So what did the old rents look like? We don’t have surviving early rentals for Caithness but we do have a number of sixteenth-century documents which give us a good flavour of how rent was then paid. There were a bewildering variety of charges and I list some of them below:


Monetary payments

A fixed payment in £ s d (pounds, shillings and pence) or in merks (1 merk = 13s 4d). Pounds and merks were currency units which operated alongside each other for centuries and contemporaries could switch quite easily between the two systems. So a figure such as £133-6s-8d doesn’t at first sight strike us as likely – until we reflect that it is the same as 200 merks. Until the eighteenth century £ were always Scots pounds, from then gradually replaced by £ sterling. (By this stage £1 sterling = £12 Scots, but conversion between the two stretched over many centuries and has its own history).


Grassum – a fixed payment, often in cash, and often the same as the cash portion of rent. Payable at the entry of an heir or after a fixed period of years.


Plough-silver – money payment in place of an obligation to plough


Huik-silver – money payment in place of an obligation to reap



This could be classed as victual (for human consumption) or ‘hors corne’ (animal consumption). Commonly oats or barley. Supplied in measures of chalders, bolls, pecks, firlots. (1 chalder = 16 bolls, 1 boll = 4 pecks, 1 peck = 4 firlots)


Flour (Farina in Latin). Supplied in bolls etc as above.


Sheaves of oats. In Caithness rentals these are sometimes listed separately.


Hallows (bundles) of straw. Again, listed separately in Caithness rentals.



Marts – cows for slaughter. In some parts of the Highlands it looks certain that there was a set payment of so many marts per davach. This was the most valuable form of animal rent.


Sheep – usually classified as ‘wedders’ i.e. castrated male sheep. Sometimes we meet ‘bidentes’ or ‘aries’ – (Latin for ‘sheep’ or ‘ram’ respectively).




Haulk-hens (hens to feed hawks owned by the lord)

Reek-hens – hens per house (reek=smoke, a way of identifying individual houses)



In almost all the above cases each item could be given a monetary value, so that theoretically at least, there could be a cash component at payment.



There were a great many personal services required of tenants. The Old Statistical Account for Watten, or the New Statistical Account for Wick, both specify just how numerous and burdensome these could be. There might be obligations to harvest the landowner’s corn, win his peats etc. In early days one of the most important was military service – and as late as the eighteenth century this could still be expected even when it entered no formal written agreement. In the West Highlands in 1745 many clansmen enlisted under Bonnie Prince Charlie. Most of them probably had no choice.

Lots of services were not formalised into the rental agreement. Those that were include:


Arriages and Carriages

These were transport obligations. Tenants might be required to do so many journeys, or transport goods, for their master. These journeys could be ‘long’ or ‘short’.



Teinds were not, in the early days, paid to landlords. They were renders to the church of one-tenth of produce. (The equivalent of tithes in England). They were of two sorts: garbal teinds and small teinds. Garbal teinds were the more important and were composed of the tenth sheaf of corn. They were to support the rector of the parish church. The small teinds or ‘vicarage’ teinds were not levied on grain crops but instead on other items of farm produce, sheep, horses etc. The ‘vicar’ was lower than the rector in the parish hierarchy and was employed to actually perform the services in church etc. Many parish churches had been appropriated to senior cathedral officers such as archdeacon, treasurer, chantor, who arranged for a vicar to conduct services on their behalf. In other counties many parish churches were appropriated to monasteries and nunneries, which did likewise.


Following the Reformation teinds have a whole fraught history of their own and were often the subject of bitter legal disputes involving minister and landowner. For our purposes we only need to be aware of the fact that teinds represent another form of agricultural taxation.


Rents were not random, however arbitrary they might sometimes seem. They reflected local circumstances and local resources. In parts of Sutherland some of the rent was paid in iron, where local iron production warranted. In some of the Hebrides, geese were part of the rent, arguably still should be. In early Lennox the principal payment in kind seems to have been in cheese – one of the few foodstuffs that was easily transported and had a relatively long shelf-life. This probably also explains the importance of marts over such a wide area. They could be walked to the payment-point.


There is little doubt that there were standard rentals. In other words lands with the same assessment, would give the same rent. One davach’s rent would generally accord with that of another. This applied whether the unit was a davach or fraction thereof; pennyland or fraction thereof. Obviously subdivisions gave complications. If one davach rendered a mart then half a davach rendered half a mart. But this couldn’t be rendered every year, so either it was rendered once every two years or some other compensatory mechanism employed. It is easy to see how rentals became complicated.


There were also a host of other special circumstances. Apart from religious functionaries there were a variety of lay officers within rural society. The judge or lawman, the poet, the harper, the piper, the doctor, the standard-bearer, all might hold some land and render service in their own particular way – for which their rent might be wholly or partly forgiven. A good example is 6d (1 davach) of Brabsterdorran in Bower parish. The render was a dog collar which suggests the holder was a huntsman employed in giving his lord service in the chase.


Rentals provide excellent evidence of the relationship between different farms. We may not have valuations but it may be quite straightforward to see in the rental that Farm A pays at twice the rate of Farm B. If we have one valuation it is always tempting to infer others on the basis of comparative rents. In origin, I’m sure rentals were broadly similar between farms of comparable value. But across Scotland we are talking about many distinct provinces over long periods of time. There has been divergence from any former standard and local idiosyncracies have appeared. For these reasons I have always avoided using evidence from rentals to infer valuations. However, historians must use every tool at their disposal and where we struggle to come up with evidence from other sources there is a strong argument in favour of inference.


Inferring pennylands from Rentals

Early rentals in Caithness encourage a little latitude. The most detailed rentals we have are from the mid-sixteenth century – specifically bishopric rentals. The bishops of Caithness held enormous estates. Almost none of the county was appropriated to monastic or other institutions. (In 1525 the Trinity Friars of Aberdeen were given an annuity of 10 merks from Stroma). About half the parishes were appropriated to the cathedral chapter. According to the consitution (c. 1222-1245) the Archdeacon held Bower and Watten. Olrig, Dunnet and Canisbay were each assigned to one of the canons. Scynend (Skinnet) was assigned to the whole community of canons (8 + Abbot of Scone and Bishop of Caithness). This leaves the parishes of Latheron (and possibly Dunbeath), Wick (and possibly Freswick), Thurso, Reay, and possibly Halkirk (which may not have been joined to Skinnet at this stage). There was also the ‘hospitality’ of Spittal which presumably held land around Spittal.


We also have some detail of the holdings of the Bishop of Orkney who held significant lands in Caithness – designed to help him travel to and from his island diocese.


There is one other advantage of looking at religious rentals which is the sense that they were generally conservative. Religious functionaries came and went. There is no evidence that they were any less avaricious than their lay brethren but they never held their estates for very long. It may be that the forces of tradition acted as something of a brake on the cupidity of any one religious official.


What rentals are we talking of? In 1557 we have a bishopric rental which is given in Sutherland Book III No 97. In 1559 we have another – printed in OPS II, II pp 611-613. In RMS IV (1669) 1565 (on original of 1564) we have another. We can also make some comparisons on the basis of the data given in the Books of Assumption. Some ex-bishopric lands are given in RMS VIII (481) 1623 on original of 1622. We also have some lay data such as RMS IV (745) 1552-3.


Within these rentals there are two items in particular which may reflect pennyland values. One is ‘garbas avenarum’ or ‘aitscheaves’ (oat-sheaves). The second is ‘sarcinas straminum’ or ‘hallowes of stray’ (bundles of straw). These are minor items but may embody conservative aspects of render. Since there is little doubt that there was once ‘a going rate’, can we use them to infer pennylands? In the accompanying table ‘Pennylands from rentals’ I have confined myself to properties where we have sufficient data. I have only made these inferences in Caithness.




This blog is about land-assessment, not place-names. Nevertheless, Caithness has such a treasury of names from Norse and Gaelic that it is worth drawing attention to some of them.


The most obvious surviving Norse settlement names in Caithness are those ending in ‘-ster’. The written records show that most of these are contractions of earlier forms in ‘-buster’ (or similar). Attached to these settlement sites we have shielings with endings in the Norse term ‘-setr/saetr’ (shieling), now often appearing as ‘-side’. There are also frequent examples, in some parishes, of ‘quoys’ which derive from the Norse ‘kví’ (a fold or pen, often for sheep). In other parishes quoys are conspicuous by their absence but instead we find place-names beginning in Bual- (from Gaelic ‘buaile’, a fold for sheep or cattle). It seems reasonable to assume that, in this case, the gradually-encroaching Gaelic language offered a straight translation from the Norse to inhabitants who were, initially at least, bilingual.


Shieling-names throw up further complications. By definition we would expect shielings to be summer pasture-grounds attached to principal farms in more favourable settings. But then we find shielings with pennyland valuations, indicating they were used as arable at some stage during their history. In fact, this change of function is a widespread feature of shieling-sites in Scotland. We find it also in the Central Highlands and the West Highlands. Improved agricultural techniques may have been one factor but land hunger caused by population pressure was probably the prime determinant. Where shieling-grounds could be tilled, they often were. As they became cultivated so they must have been assessed for part of the tax burden. This raises the possibility that pennyland valuations were not everywhere fixed from inception but evolved with local practice. I doubt the total valuation changed at all. But it may be that cultivated shielings took on a part of the total assessment.


The complexities of shieling-arrangements appear in the various names. We have examples of  Norse –setr/saetr by itself (in simplex form), or as a suffix. We then have the Gaelic term àiridh (shieling) used as a prefix. Finally we have the suffix –aray which appears to have been a Gaelic/Norse hybrid. All of these occur in Caithness. It is a complex landscape of names.


Another development is where a wholly Norse name is prefixed with a Gaelic term such as achadh (field). Examples include Achlibster, Achkeepster, Achscoriclate, Achscrabster (all Halkirk), or Achsmerral (Watten). The last of these offers a good example of redundancy – when a new name is coined as a result of locals having lost knowledge of the original meaning of the old name. Smerral comes from a combination of Norse smjőr (butter) and vőllr (field) – literally a ‘butter-field’ of rich pasture. Achsmerral thus means ‘field-butter-field’ and demonstrates that those responsible for the new prefix no longer understood the old place-name. Logically you would expect this process to be relatively late. So, today’s Achforsiescye (Reay, ND 0256) was simply Forsyfur in 1538.


It is also interesting how often the documents use the Latin word campus (field) to describe one of the minor appendages of a settlement. Smerarie (Latheron), originally a shieling-name compounded from Norse smjőr (butter) and the suffix –aray, was stated to be a ‘field’ of Campster. Such a description may have implied cultivation.


It is entirely impressionistic but anybody who looks at the Roy maps of Caithness will be struck by the sheer quantity of tillage which is portrayed. It is in striking contrast to some of the wilder landscapes of the west. I doubt the surveyors did this for visual effect. There are parts of North Morar, shown as cultivated in the Roy map, which have long since been abandoned but which can still be traced on the ground. Their accuracy was commendable.


A caveat should be entered about the number of repeated names in Caithness. There were two of each of the following:

Holme (Reay & Dunnet)

Camster (Bower & Latheron)

Forss (Thurso & Latheron)

Smerral (Bower & Latheron)

Thurdistoft (Olrig & Thurso)

Lybster (Latheron & Reay)

Smerary (Halkirk & Latheron)

Brabster (Canisbay & Bower, at least)


There were also two Sibsters (Wick & Halkirk) as well as a Sibmister (Olrig). In the documents the first two are sometimes referred to as Sibsterwick and Sibsterbraal – meaning the Sibster by Wick and the Sibster by Braal (in Halkirk).


Then there were three of:

Houstry (Halkirk, Latheron & Watten)

Wester (Dunnet, Watten & Wick) – while Wester Olrig was also just referred to as Wester


And four of:

Stemster (Canisbay, Reay, Latheron and Bower)!


This list is not comprehensive and is merely to illustrate the difficulties facing the researcher, and the potential for confusion. Usually, we can place each name within its geographical context – but that is not always straightforward. Then we have to proceed on probabilities.




Professor Barbara Crawford (2013), pp 168-9, draws attention to the contentious issue of farms called Houseby and what they might signify. This is beyond the scope of this blog but it is worth drawing attention to a number of Caithness and Sutherland names which include the Norse element hús (house). The most prominent is Bighouse in the Sutherland portion of Reay parish. It was certainly one of the most important sites in Strath Halladale. (Byghosse in RMS II (149) 1429-30).


There is also Dalveghouse (NC 7155) in Strathnaver, in Farr parish, which may be the same name with the prefix Dal-.


In GD139/53 1519/20 we learn of a Barony of Housbustyr which included Brabustyrmyr (Brabstermire) and Slecle (Slickly). The maps by Blaeu and Gordon imply that Howbuster lay at the west end of the Loch of Wester.


We then have a number of names in the southern part of Wick parish which, either in the past or now,  incorporate the word ‘house’ but for which I do not have early record evidence. They include Warehouse, Yarrows/Yarhouse, Swarthouse and Grudgehouse. They are very localised. There is also one name in Halkirk, Drakerous ND 1158, which may be relevant but for which I also lack any early forms.




I am only aware of four references to skatlands on the north mainland of Scotland.


In Olrig parish, RS20/1/p 296 1672 refers to the ‘lands of half Scatland in the toun of Stangergill’.


In Wick parish, GD96/189 1580 refers to a ‘skatland’ of Reiss (possibly 4½d or a quarter-ounceland?).


In Reay parish, GD112/58/200 No 3 1528 refers to 5½ scatlands of Skaill. Given Skaill’s high value (>=32d) it is tempting to equate them to 5½ davachs or 33d. If, however, a scatland was 4½d then the total would be 22½d.


M Bangor-Jones (1987), p 15, has discovered a reference to skatlands in Dounreay (Reay parish).



Guillaume le Roi or King William the Wanderer


In 1904 WG Collingwood published a translation of a twelfth-century romance with a Caithness connection. His book was entitled King William the Wanderer. (Strictly speaking it was based on two separate originals). In 1905-6 he followed this up with an article in the Saga-Book of the Viking Club, Vol IV. In 1921 James Gray wrote a further article on the Caithness and Sutherland topography of the tale. (See Bibliography above).


It is a great tale – and it certainly seems to have a strong connection with our province. It continues to generate research although the authorship is a subject of debate.


Some of the narrative chimes well with the far north. The coast line is described as unfriendly to merchant boats. There is an abbot who might be connected to Kildonan parish. Two provinces are separated by a river with a ford. A rowing-galley is mentioned. There is hunting in forests. There is reckoning in merks. But there is only one solid place-name given for this area and that is Surclin or Sorlinc. Since a single, possibly garbled, unidentifiable, place-name adds little to our toponymic knowledge, and nothing to our knowledge of early land-assessment, I digress no further. But, as a literary window on the contemporary world I strongly commend it.



Summary from Table

The Summary Table gives over 1190 pennylands or over 198 davachs – with considerable gaps in the record.


The land-assessment table for Caithness is not as complete as I would wish it to be. I publish it in the hope that it will stimulate further research and eventually generate a better picture.


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