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Barons and the Feudal System


Scotland's Kings adopted the feudal system of landholding in the 12th century as the Picts, Scots, Gaels and Britons forged their diverse peoples into a nation. Lands were granted to loyal supporters of the Crown - many of them adventuring Flemings, Saxons and Normans - in exchange for armed service. These new tenants were the barons.

In the Highlands and the North, where Celtic princes held power for centuries with only nominal loyalty to the King of Scots, baronies were also granted by the local rulers.

The untitled nobility of the baronage, similar in status to Continental barons, were the King's officers of the law. They had considerable powers in their barony courts and could call on their own tenants to serve under them in times of war.

In medieval times, when the vast majority of the population lived on the land, the barony was the rural unit of self-sufficiency, with its own mill, dam, forge, brewery, bleach-field and so on. This unit was held together by the baron and his court, who not only punished troublemakers but also allocated grazing rights and made many of the community’s agricultural decisions, such as those involving the digging of drains and building dykes.

From the middle 1500s, the baronage of Scotland was gradually divided into Lords of Parliament (equivalent to English barons), who continued to attend Parliament in Edinburgh until 1707, and the lesser barons, of whom there were several thousands, each with his caput (manor house or castle), court, services, rights and privileges. These barons were given conditional relief from the burden of attending parliament by the Act of Relief of 1587: the condition being that they appointed two of their number from each shire to represent them.

The Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745 led to the feudal powers of these barons being reduced by the Westminster Parliament, which passed the Heritable Jurisdictions Act (1747) to weaken the grip of the clan chiefs in the Highlands and the Braes. Even though the Lowland barons tended to derive their power from their landholdings rather than family leadership, the Act removed many of their rights. The feudal system was eventually ended by a vote of the devolved Scottish Parliament and at the time of writing (2001) this abolition is scheduled to come into effect within two years. Although the barons' feudal rights have been taken away, the baronial titles continue as before.

"The early precocity of Scotland in legislative wisdom and the extraordinary provisions made by its native parliament in remote periods, not only for the well-being of the people, but for the coercion alike of regal tyranny and aristocratic oppression, and the instruction, relief and security of the poorer classes, is one of the most remarkable facts in the whole history of modern Europe and one deserving of the special attention of historians and statesmen both in that and the neighbouring country." Sir Archibald Alison, Blackwood's Magazine: November 1834.


 
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