The Scottish Nobility

Until relatively recently rural Scotland was dominated by a narrow clique of aristocrats and landowners; some of whom with titles, deeds and rights stretching back centuries. Often living in castles and mansion houses, these men owned vast tracts of land, counted in the hundreds of thousands of acres; dominated the local political environment and controlled the bulk of the wealth. Virtually everyone else either worked directly on their estates or paid rent to farm them.

The times they have a changed. The Great Estates are still there, but are a shadow of their former glories; the castles now lie open to the public to raise enough revenue to heat the huge halls and ballrooms that once sat at the fulcrum of society; and the lords of the manor themselves reduced to living in former servants quarters to save on the electric bill. Political changes over the last 100 years have altered the role the nobility play in our legislative procedures, and no longer is the wealth concentrated in their hands. The Middle Class, political creatures and the Nuevo Riche have stolen a march on their erstwhile lords and masters. Still, the fire is not quite out. Having a noble title still infers a certain amount of wealth; a large degree of privilege and influence and will certainly open doors (there are plenty lords of the realm sitting on boardroom tables); and of course a residual amount of deference. To visitors from overseas our castles and titles, lords and ladies can be archaic if not downright incomprehensible. But, thousand year old ways are ingrained and hard to shift.

Dunrobin Castle – Seat of the Countess Sutherland

Scotland was born out of warring factions and semi-kingdoms; a baptism of fire, and any king ruled only by the grace of his great lords. Traditionally, the nation was split into six provinces, each governed by a sub-king; such as Atholl, Moray and Fife. Our understanding of this social organisation comes from ancient, but not contemporary texts and may give an unclear, politically motivated or distorted view of Scotland1200 years ago. Indeed, like all Celtic-based societies of the time it is likely to have been far more complex, fluid and personal. The Church too played a big role and was a major landowner. The king had lots of juggling to do. By 1100, Scotland following on from the revolution in England after the Norman Conquest was introducing the Feudal System – a body politick that placed the king at the apex and then a screed of layered nobility below him ranked in order of precedence. At the bottom of course as always was the peasant who propped up the system.

The Feudal System involved reorganising trade, erecting towns and markets, streamlining authority and the wielding of real power. It was fully introduced into Lowland Scotland by 1200, but its adoption in the Highlands was far more haphazard, and in truth never fully implemented. Instead there was a two-tier system layering the aristocratic feudal structure against a traditional clan heritage. As authority became increasingly centralised around a powerful monarchy the royal house took control of lordships across the country as a tool in maintaining their authority, often displacing the native nobility: it was an omelette out of which our modern nobility was born.

From the early kinglets and a patchwork of lordships new titles emerge around 1000 – Mormaers, Thanes and Toisichs: the first two perhaps an interchangeable title that conveyed either noble rights or as placemen of the king and second only to him; the term toisich is Gaelic and probably equates to Chief, as would emerge in the developed clan system. The earliest mormaers are noted as far back as the 960s with the lords of Atholl; but by the middle of the 12th century the title had been merged with others, including thanages, to become Earl. This is an Anglo-Saxon title, similar to the Scandinavian Jarl and comparable to the continental title Count. The adoption of the English title is symptomatic of the changes in Scottish society and language away from a traditional Celtic one; and part of a wider reorganisation.

William the Conqueror had tried to supplant the title Earl with Count in England, but without success; however, the wife of an earl would be Countess, his son a Viscount and the land under his jurisdiction a County – all European terms. In England, as in the emerging feudal Scotland, the king had parcelled the land into Shires; counties were essentially the same thing and then as now the term is interchangeable. Women can hold the rank under their own right and pass it on to their children, but use the title Countess; for example the Countess of Sutherland (her son will be the next earl).

Some earls had greater responsibilities – perhaps their lands lay along important boundaries, or controlled valuable resources; and they were given a higher rank to donate this added role. From the old French Marchis meaning a border, the title of Marquess emerged. Today there are only four marquisettes in Scotland, the oldest and most senior being the Marquess of Huntly, who is the head of the Gordon family. Ranked even higher than a marquess is that of a Duke. From the Latin Dux, the title was originally a military one, given in Roman times to province commanders. In some countries Dukes or Archdukes are ruling monarchs; and in Scotland the title was originally reserved only for senior members of the royal family – the Duke of Rothesay for example is the official Scottish title for the heir to the throne (not Prince of Wales). Not until 1643 did a non-royal receive the title – the Duke of Hamilton. Today there are seven Scottish dukes, including the Duke of Buccleuch –Britain’s largest landowner – and the Duke of Montrose, who still sits in the House of Lords.

Arms of the now extinct Earldom of Breadalbane

The wife of a duke is called a duchess, but a woman cannot hold the title on her own accord; even if she’s a queen. Thus a king is also Duke of Normandy (for the Channel Islands) and Duke of Lancaster; but the present Queen is not – although she holds the titles in privilege. She is the Duchess of Edinburgh however, as she is married to the Duke of Edinburgh. There are several Royal Dukes, Edinburgh being one, including the Duke of York (Prince Andrew) and Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) – dukes are addressed as ‘your grace’, but royal dukes as ‘your royal highness’.

Ranked lower than an earl are viscounts (often the courtesy title for the eldest son of an earl), such as the Viscount Falkland; and Lords of Parliament, such as Lord Lovat. There are no Barons in the peerage of Scotland as such, and Lord of Parliament is the equivalent. However, none were created after the Union of Parliaments in 1707 instead new hereditary Scottish lords were ennobled as United Kingdom barons.

By 1900 the aristocracy owned virtually every square inch of Scotland, with vast estates such as those held by the Dukes of Sutherland, Dukes of Atholl, Earls of Breadalbane, Dukes of Argyll, Dukes of Montrose, Earls of Angus and so on. Some titles are now extinct; two world wars and subsequent social upheaval changed the landscape forever. Many have found a new role, perhaps in business; others spending more time in their roles as clan chiefs, while others a quiet life on their estates. But, the age of the warrior aristocracy which has ruled Scotland for 2500 years is in its twilight and it will probably be gone by the end of the century.


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3 thoughts on “The Scottish Nobility

  1. Mary Cannaday-Anderson

    This is extremely fascinating! I am a historian, and I would love to do some research into Scotland–and the aristocracy has always fascinated me. This is an enlightening article, and I thank you very much!

  2. Joan Menslage

    My grand parents came from Edinburgh Scotland . My mother was born in USA She was a Johnston and married an Englishman.
    Is there a chance our ancestors were barons dukes and Earls.
    Thank u
    Joan Menslage
    My Fathers name was Wilkinson.

    • Bertram Weatherall

      I am from Scotland and have Johnston blood, like your mother. Clan Johnston(e) is a Lowland Scottish clan with its ancient roots in Annandale, Dumfriesshire. There is to this day a clan chief who is called The Earl of Annandale & Hartfell who holds the family name Hope-Johnstone. His son and heir is styled Lord Johnstone. It is very possible that anybody who has Scottish roots and is called Johnston (multiple spellings) has a link to these Johnstones. Traditionally they all lived in the same area. The earl’s home (the clan seat) is called Raehills.


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