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mormaers

mormaers were provincial rulers in the Gaelic kingdom of Scotland from the 10th to the 12th cents. The original area of the kingdom, stretching east of the Grampians from the Forth in the south to the Spey in the north, was divided into a patchwork of provinces ruled by a mormaer. They raised the men of their province for the defence of the kingdom, collected tribute from the province's peasants, and administered justice, assisted by the lawman of the province. The provinces were not large. Modern Perthshire included the provinces of Strathearn, Atholl, most of Menteith, and the Gowrie; Aberdeenshire included Mar and Buchan; the province of Fife was (at least by c.1100) confined to east Fife. South of the Spey only Angus and the Mearns corresponded to later counties. Outside the kingdom's core area the mormaers of Ross in the north of Scotland and the Lennox in the south (focused on Dumbarton and Loch Lomond) may have been created in the 12th cent.; while the ruler of Moray, an abnormally large province, stretching from Glenelg on the west coast to the Spey in the east, called himself a king, and was only referred to as a mormaer by the king of Scots or his allies. Mormaers are first mentioned in 918, soon after the emergence of the new kingdom of the Scots. Some provinces, such as Angus, Strathearn, and the Gowrie, are almost certainly no older than the 10th cent. It might be supposed, therefore, that the position of mormaer was a creation of the new Gaelic kingdom of the Scots. A linguistic case, however, has been put for regarding mormaer as a Pictish word meaning ‘great steward’, and that it belonged to a Pictish system of local administration. The argument is complicated by mormaer's later philological development in Gaelic which can more readily be explained if mormaer was originally Gaelic ‘sea steward’, rather than a borrowing from a Pictish word meaning ‘great steward’. It is true that mormaers are found inland, but an analogy may be made with Carolingian border officials ‘margrave’ and ‘marquis’ which became titles for members of the nobility far away from a frontier. It is possible, therefore, that mormaers were created c.900 as guardians against Scandinavian raids. In the 12th cent., chiefly by virtue of adopting primogeniture and ‘military feudalism’, mormaers developed into provincial earls.

Dauvit Broun

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