Lordship and Environmental Change in Central Highland Scotland c.1300–c.1400

Lordship and Environmental Change in Central Highland Scotland c.1300–c.1400

By Richard Oram and W. Paul Adderley

Journal of the North Atlantic, Vol.1 (2008)

Abstract: Whilst there has been an increasing recognition of the influence of natural agency on human society in Scotland in the medieval period, conventional historiography has generally presented the wholesale reconfiguration of structures of secular lordship in the Scottish central Highlands in the 14th century as an essentially political consequence of the sociopolitical dislocation associated with the Anglo-Scottish wars that occurred after 1296. The establishment within the region of militarised Gaelic kindreds from the West Highlands and Hebrides of Scotland has come to be regarded as either a symptom of efforts by externally based regional lords to bolster their authority, or an opportunistic territorial aggrandisement by newly dominant neighbouring lords. Feuding and predatory raiding associated with these kindreds is recognised as competition for resources but generally in a context of projection of superior lordship over weaker neighbours.

Evidence for long-term changes in climate extrapolated from North Atlantic proxy data, however, suggests that the cattle-based economy of Atlantic Scotland was experiencing protracted environmentally induced stress in the period c.1300–c.1350. Using this evidence, we discuss whether exchange systems operating within traditional lordship structures could offset localised and short-term pressures on the livestock-based regime, but could not be sustained long-term on the reduced fodder and contracting herd sizes caused by climatic deterioration. Territorial expansion and development of a predatory culture, it is argued, were responses to an environment-triggered economic crisis.

Introduction: One general feature of the historiography of later medieval Scotland is recognition of a major restructuring from the mid-1300s onwards of social organisation and political power in the Highlands and Islands. The main dimension of this change has been presented in terms of the rise of Clann Domhnuill, and by lesser kindreds like the Mackintoshes and Clann Donnchaidh or Robertsons. The heads of these kin groups are described as developing from the 1330s as ‘predatory and independent leaders of militarised followings ready to exploit a period of disorder and fragmentation’. The context for their emergence, it is argued, was the protracted period of war, disease and climatic deterioration that started in the 1290s; with some scholars adding the effects of these predatory war-bands to the combined impact of declining population and falling arable production in upland zones as major factors behind the growing inability of lay and ecclesiastical landholders from outside those areas to exploit them profitably. This position was aggravated by the collapse of the structures of authority which had formerly protected and enforced the rights of these landholders, for the period had witnessed the disintegration of the established political edifice, principally the complex of Highland lordships controlled by the Comyns and MacDougalls. Others, however, benefited from this situation; Highland and Hebridean kindreds who based their economies on non-arable agriculture, principally cattlerearing, and predation on their neighbours, have been regarded as cushioned from the impact of climate change and population decline and best positioned to capitalise on the political instability. The predatory culture of these kindreds arose from the existence within them of bands of armed retainers who formed the retinues of the heads of kin. Such warrior bands were known as ceatharn and their emergence represented the militarisation of the Highlands.

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