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The Highlands pre 1745

For centuries land in the Highlands whilst ultimately belonging to the King, was held in large blocks by traditional Clan Chiefs or lairds. The population of a Clan all owed allegiance to their chief to whom they would pay a form of rent, or "cuid-oidhche", this being a proportion of their production of grain, cattle etc. In addition they would fight for him on behalf of the Clan when the need arose. As most Clans were constantly involved in cattle theft and raiding their neighbours, the fighting could be an considerable commitment.  


Whilst all of the members of a Clan would share the same surname, they were not necessarily related. The more prominent Clansmen would be  relatives, albeit distant of the chief, and many more would claim kinship of some sort to justify their membership of the Clan., This did not however make the Clan a totally closed group, people did move around, particularly some of the more prominent warriors who would fight for whoever would pay them the best. If they lived long enough to retire with a  reasonably complete set of arms, legs etc, they would settle down in the midst of one Clan or another, then once accepted they would adopt the Clan surname. This was the same for any incomers to the Clan, if they were allowed to adopt the name then they were accepted into the Clan. This sense of kinship made the Clan, led by its Laird a close knit, interdependent community and frequently a potent fighting force.



At the local level, the land was managed and farmed with a system known as RUNRIG. This was similar to the open field system of medieval feudal England. The land was divided into strips and worked so that each strip would have a central ridge of better drained soil with the intervening dips helping the vast amounts of Highland rain to drain.


The strips would be allocated so that no tenant had adjoining strips. Each year the strips were re-allocated so that nobody kept the same strips in successive years, this ensured that the good and not so good land was fairly distributed and prevented one person getting adjoining strips and claiming that to be "his patch". These strips were used to grow oats, barley and whatever else could be coaxed out of the ground in such a cold, wet  and miserable climate.

Outside of the cultivated fields on the higher ground, cattle roamed free, the tenants would all try to keep them off the crops with varying success.

As there were virtually no roads or market towns in the highlands, the food produced was for local consumption. Not that there would often be a surplus to sell anyway, shortage and famine were never more than one poor harvest away. A few years of poor weather and disastrous harvests resulted in some appalling famines in the late 17th Century when tens of thousands died.

The land that the tenants lived on and farmed was held by the Laird, the local clan chief with rents being paid in kind as a proportion of that produced and by service to the Laird. Most lairds were flexible in their demands and would not leave tenants to starve in lean years, whilst he still took his full share. 

Traditionally the Laird's claim to ownership of their lands was somewhat nebulous. Whilst a few had Royal Charters granting them title to their land and defining its boundaries, most were based on an oral tradition and somewhat fluid boundaries, enforced by whichever Clan had the bigger stick with which to hit their neighbours.

Whilst the Crown was the ultimate owner of all lands, little was required from the Lairds in return, other than their loyalty to the King as liege-lord in times of war. This loyalty proved to be somewhat dubious for some Clans. At this time if a Clan misbehaved or it's Laird naffed off the King, then with a few notable exceptions, there was not a whole lot that the King could usually do about it.  The Highland Clans were just too far away from any central authority for its writ to run very convincingly. Through the 15th and 16th Centuries this started to change. The Lairds wanted more certain title to their lands and more certainty as to  the exact extent of "their patch". To allow this there was a general move towards the Crown giving Royal Charters that designated who owned what and where. Presumably the Crown got some payback for this in terms of oaths of loyalty and acceptance of the king as landlord of last resort.  However Charter or no Charter, the King was the King and the Lairds held their lands at his favour, a Royal Charter could of course be revoked.

The Laird as Clan chief, held his lands for the common good of the clan, whilst some of the rents paid to him in kind, supported the Laird and his family without their having to get their hands muddy, some was held and distributed in times of need.  The system traditionally worked for the common good, not for the personal enrichment of the Laird, or that was at least the theory. As social & political change, together with roads started to penetrate even the North West Highlands, this started to break down.

Gradually basic transport links developed and this allowed more contact between the Highlands and the more prosperous lowlands. Some better placed Lairds started to sell the goods they received in the lowland markets. In particular cattle were sold. With a large expanse of virtually road-less territory it was very much easier to transport animals that could walk rather than produce that needed carts and at least a track to run on. There had long been traditional "Drovers Roads" across the Highlands so these were put to use. This gradual improvement of communications & transport did however bring, at least the more southern Highlands, more within the reach of The Crown.

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