14th Conference 1971

The 14th Conference of the Scottish Medievalists was held at the University of Stirling, 9-10 January 1971. Minutes Secretary Barbara E. Crawford.

14th Conference

14th Conference 3 p.m. Discussion Session. The Lords of the Isles

Chairman – Cr. E. Cowan

The first speaker on The Lordship of the Isles was Dr. John Bannerman, who examined the title Dominus Insularum, first recorded in 1354. It derives ultimately from the title Ri Innse Gall given in contemporary Gaelic sources to Somerled (d.1164) and his descendants who included the later Lords of the Isles. Ri Innse Gall, literally ‘king of the islands of the strangers’, was sometimes reduced to Ri na Innse, ‘king of the islands’, for which Rex Insularum was the direct Latin translation.

The term ri was applied to members of all three ruling grades of society in: early Ireland and Scotland, to the middle grade of which the Lords of the Isles. belonged. When authority over the Western Isles was transferred from Norway to the king of Scots in 1266, bringing the area into contact with a wholly Latin orientated system of communication, Rex Insularum, with its implications of sovereignty, could not be countenanced and dominus was substituted for rex as a reasonably neutral equivalent.

The second Speaker was Dr. Jean Munro, who presented the work done by her and her husband on the late Mediaeval Lords of the Isles. The period covered was from the first documented date of the title ‘lord of the Isles’ (1354) up to 1493 and the forfeiture of the title to the Crown. Some political factors were first mentioned, in particular the inheritance of the title to the earldom of Ross in 1435-6. A description of the documents then followed in which particular reference was made to the one Gaelic charter of the series; it was wondered why there should be only one. Tenure was dealt with of which galley service Sleet (1408) and Harris (1498) formed a part. Places where the grants were made and the names of witnesses were discussed. Many of these witnesses, along with the bishop of the Isles and the Abbot of Iona, formed a ‘Council’ of 16, known from traditional accounts and explicitly mentioned as assenting to ten charters. Details were then given of the lands appearing in the charters. Buchan and Kincardine estates, and Skye, came with the earldom of Ross in 1436. But how the Lords came to possess lands in Strathalladale, Dunbeith and Badenoch is not clear.

Professor Barrow started the discussion by asking about the officers of the household of the Lords of the Isles and also questioning whether the Gaelic titles in the west and those in eastern Scotland could be directly equated. ‘Mormaer’ meaning steward seems to be based on different principles from kingship as also ‘thane’ and ‘toiseach’. Further, was it possible for one king to allow another within his dominions. Finally, was the title ‘of the Isles’ only used by MacRuaridh. Dr. Bannerman replied that the title ‘de insulis’ was used by related families to the third and fourth generation. The title ‘de Ile’ (Islay) was used only by the Lords of the Isles and their sons and daughters. A discussion followed on the meaning of ‘rex’ and ‘dominus’ and whether the family would worry if they were called ‘rex’ in an island context and ‘dominus’ in a mainland context. Professor Barrow thought that they would. The discussion than turned to the meaning of mormaer and Dr. Bannerman explained that all officials in a kin-based society were of noble birth and that a mormaer did not lose status by being a steward; every mormaer in a Gaelic context was paralleled by comes in a Latin context. Doubts were expressed, however, as to whether toiseach and thane could be equated. On the later period, the problem of why Lewis never appears in the documents was discussed as was the ‘council’ of the Lords of the Isles, its Gaelic equivalent and the fourteenth century habit of imitating royal councils.