Early Medieval Society in North-East Scotland

Early medieval society in the north-east of Scotland would have been very different from what we are familiar with today. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of people would have lived in the countryside and they would have been of mixed cultural heritage – Pictish and Gaelic. This is partly why the Book of Deer is so important; it provides many clues towards understanding the structure of this mix of cultures in the North-East during the early twelfth century, at least among the upper ranks of society.

The evidence from the Gaelic Notes implies that early medieval society in the North-East was hierarchical. Two ‘Clanns’ are mentioned, Clann Chanann and Clann Morgainn . ‘Clann’, Gaelic for ‘children’, when used in this context, is probably closer in meaning to the word ‘Cenél’: a kindred believed to be descended from a common ancestor. Therefore, it is likely that Comgell mac Cainnich and Donnchad mac Síthich, the toísig (leaders) of these groups, were the heads of their respective kindreds ( Morgann is probably originally Pictish and Morgan is still a common surname in the North-East. It occurs in at least one place-name in Aberdeenshire, Tillymorgan). Here, in the case of Donnchad mac Síthich, we appear to have good evidence for a man with a Gaelic name and title leading a kin-group whose name is of Pictish origin.

However, the word toísech also seems to occur in the Gaelic Notes in a different context where it is not associated with a kin-group. In these other instances, the tóisech functions as an official, who was owed dues from land, but inferior in rank to a mormaer . It has been suggested that this type of toísech was the leader of the kindred in battle and his position has been equated with the Anglo-Saxon rank of thane. In medieval Scotland, the thane was usually a subordinate official of the king, charged with managing a piece of territory in return for a share of the produce, whose main functions were the administration of justice, the collection of taxes (not money) and with leading the men of the thanage in war. This may be why the men identified as a toísech of this type in the Notes do not explicitly grant lands to Deer, only dues.The land they managed was not theirs to give away.

The third level of society mentioned in the Notes is the mormaer , ‘great steward’. In Latin sources the equivalent of this rank is comes , translated ‘earl’. Mormaír were rulers, often related to the king, of districts of Scotland (like Buchan, Atholl and Mar) and they may have been of equivalent rank to the highest grade of king in Ireland, the rí ruirech or rí cóicid , king of a province like Ulster or Leinster. Representatives of the highest level of society in Scotland, kings, also appear in the Notes, such as Máel Coluim mac Cináeda (Malcolm II). Like the mormaír , kings were entitled to dues from landowners who acknowledged their superiority.

We are also fortunate that a member of the óes dána (men of learning) appears in the Gaelic Notes. This is Matadín brithem , Matadín the judge (the Latin equivalent of brithem is judex ). Evidence from elsewhere in Scotland indicates that a number of judges (including the king’s judge) could be attached to a particular province. The judges of a province played an important role in the administration of law and justice and one of their main duties seems to have been the perambulation of marches to determine estate boundaries. It is perhaps likely that Matadín was the name of the judge employed by the mormaer of Buchan, in return for land.