lairds

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lairds. The Scots word ‘laird’ is a shortened form of ‘laverd’, an older Scots word deriving from an Anglo-Saxon term meaning lord. It implied ownership of landed property in the form of an estate. By the 15th cent. it was widely used of lesser landowners holding directly of the crown and therefore entitled to go to Parliament, but lairds were clearly distinguished from the higher aristocracy or lords of Parliament. In the 16th and 17th cents. it was commonly applied to the chief of a Highland clan with no other title, as in ‘the laird of McGregor’.

The feuing movement which peaked at the time of the 16th-cent. Reformation enabled tenants to buy for a steep price feu charters which apart from a small ongoing feu duty bestowed virtual ownership. Some of these tenants, really small proprietors, were known as ‘bonnet lairds’, but the term is jocular, and it is best to equate the rank of laird with the possession of a barony held either of the crown or of a great lord of regality such as Argyll, who had the right to create his own baronage.

Lairds were therefore a numerous class in rural Scotland, though decreasing relative to the higher nobility over time. Baronial jurisdiction was extensive, though subject to appeal to the royal sheriff court or the regality court. The lairdly particle was the word ‘of’, as in ‘Irvine of Drum’ or ‘Ferguson of Kilkerran’. The number of lairds is difficult to state before the 18th cent., but allowing for the large number of baronies directly in crown or noble hands, equating the laird class with all others, and remembering that in a Fife parish such as Creich there were at one stage three baronies, a figure in the lowish thousands seems the maximum. They were not a homogeneous class: Orkney and Shetland produced merchant-lairds. When great landlords, defined as those with a rental over £2,000 Scots (£166 13s. 4d. sterling), already held by 1770 half the agrarian wealth of Scotland and were consolidating their ascendancy, businessmen were buying into the laird class around the larger cities. As baronies survived after 1747, it is still possible to buy laird status with an estate which is a barony.

Bruce Philip Lenman