The Paradox of Medieval Scotland

The title of this blogpost refers to a major project involving three UK universities (Glasgow, Edinburgh and King’s College London) with funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council. According to the project’s website, the main objective was to investigate ‘how a recognisably modern Scottish identity was formed during the period 1093-1286’. The ‘paradox’ of the title is the emergence of a powerful Scotland (and a strong sense of ‘Scottishness’) in a period when the kingdom was exposed to a huge amount of English influence. Responsibility for the barrage of Anglicisation lay with the Scottish kings themselves, an example being David I (reigned 1124-53) whose English connections led to Anglo-Norman nobles being invited north to settle in Scottish lands.

King David I of Scotland

King David I

The PoMS project has resulted in three excellent resources being made available online. The main one is a searchable database of charters and other landholding documents. Remarkably, it aims to give biographical information on ‘all known people in Scotland between 1093 and 1286’. Quite an achievement in terms of data-input alone! The other two resources are a collection of twelve essays (under the heading ‘Feature of the Month’) and a book which is scheduled for publication this summer.

The book’s title is The reality behind charter diplomatic in Anglo-Norman Britain. Edited by Dauvit Broun and published by the University of Glasgow. In this context, the term ‘diplomatic’ refers not to ‘diplomacy’ but to the ‘diploma’ or royal charter issued by a monarch to confirm a grant of land. ‘Charter diplomatic’ refers to the formal features of charters and other landholding documents.

The book’s four chapters – each an important study by an eminent scholar – are listed below. These are currently accessible as pdf files on the PoMS website.

Richard Sharpe, ‘People and languages in eleventh- and twelfth-century Britain and Ireland: reading the charter evidence’
John Reuben Davies, ‘The donor and the duty of warrandice: giving and granting in Scottish charters’
Alice Taylor, ‘Common burdens in the regnum Scottorum: the evidence of charter diplomatic’
Dauvit Broun, ‘The presence of witnesses and the making of charters’

Cynthia Neville's 'Native lordship in medieval Scotland'

Cynthia Neville's 'Native lordship in medieval Scotland'

I’ve used the database a few times to look up charters relating to lands within the former kingdom of Strathclyde. These searches were a kind of follow-up to my recent reading of Cynthia Neville’s book (above) on the earldoms of Strathearn and Lennox, the latter being one of the lordships created after the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde in the 11th century. I also tracked references to several Paisley Abbey charters cited by Alexander Grant in his paper on the landholdings of 12th century Clydesdale (see ref below). Although the main focus of PoMS is a period outside my pre-1100 ‘comfort zone’, these searches proved useful in casting a few faint beams of light here and there. Strathclyde ceased to be a kingdom c.1060, but I’ve been using PoMS to trace what happened to places that had been important to the Britons, such as the ancient church at Inchinnan near Renfrew.

Inchinnan cross-slab

Cross-slab from Inchinnan, 10th-11th C. Photo © B. Keeling

Regular visitors to Senchus will know that one of my interests is the history of Clan Galbraith, especially the clan’s presumed origins in the old Strathclyde aristocracy. A search in PoMS found a number of charters in which various Galbraiths turn up as landholders in Lennox. The Latin of these documents is formulaic and technical, a daunting prospect to the non-specialist. On the PoMS database they appear in English translation, which is a big help to people like me whose limited Latinity wouldn’t get very far with the original text.

Just to give a bit of context, here’s one example of the type of document I found during my PoMS searches. This is an authentic charter dated 2nd March 1238 which granted land to an early member of Clan Galbraith:

‘Maldoven, earl of Lennox, has given, granted, and established by this his present charter, to William son of Arthur son of Galbraith, three ploughgates of land in the Lennox, namely the two Baldernocks and a third ploughgate of land called Kincaid, with all their pertinents, liberties and easements; to hold and have of him and his heirs by their right bounds, with the advowson of churches, and without any withholding; for an annual render of a half mark at the Glasgow Fair, and doing the forinsec* service of the lord king, for all secular service, exaction and demand. And Earl Maldoven will warrant, acquit, and defend the said lands to the said William and his heirs against all men and women.’

The value of this kind of information depends on what the user wants to do with it, and where his/her interests lie, e.g. in Scottish history, charter studies, medieval law or place-names. Anyone seeking raw data on topics such as lordship, clientship and land-ownership will find much to get their teeth into at PoMS. Merely being able to access this data is a bonus: not everyone has easy access to printed collections of Scottish charters, and not everyone will be aware that Sir Archibald Lawrie’s classic volume is now available online (see link below). The PoMS database opens up this important area of Scottish medieval history to a wider audience as well as providing a major service to students and specialists.

I can’t think of a better way to end this post than by quoting from the PoMS website, which gives an eloquent description of the project’s main resource: ‘it is not first-and-foremost a charter database, but a database of individuals, their interrelationships and identities as seen through the lens of these documents.’

The Paradox of Medieval Scotland Project

PoMS: The Paradox of Medieval Scotland

Notes & References

Grant, Alexander, (2007) ‘Lordship and society in twelfth-century Clydesdale’, pp.98-124 in Huw Price and John Watts (eds.), Power and identity in the Middle Ages: essays in memory of Rees Davies (Oxford, 2007).

Neville, Cynthia J., Native lordship in medieval Scotland: the earldoms of Strathearn and Lennox, c.1140–1365 (Dublin, 2005).

Lawrie, Archibald Campbell, (ed.) Early Scottish charters: prior to AD 1153 (Glasgow, 1905). Full text online

Scottish charter studies have moved on quite a bit since Lawrie’s time. Professor Geoffrey Barrow is one of the leading modern scholars in this field, with works such as this:
Barrow, G. W. S., (ed.) The charters of David I: the written acts of David, King of Scots, 1124—53, and of his son Henry, Earl of Northumberland, 1139—52 (Woodbridge, 1999).

* forinsec: although it looks like a mis-spelling of ‘forensic’, this old feudal term actually means ‘additional service rendered to the lord’.

Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of a Scottish charter for this post, but Jonathan Jarrett showed a fine example from Catalonia on his blog last month.

18 comments on “The Paradox of Medieval Scotland

  1. As a resident of the upper Clyde valley, at 300m on a hill unoccupied since the Mesolithic, the subject of the history (including medieval) of Strathclyde interests me greatly. My house overlooks Glenochar, where Tam Ward of Biggar Archaeology has excavated a fermtoun and bastle house, and Watermeetings – a house which I suspect has very early foundations. Does anyone know why the burn that I pump up my water supply from, and the farm at my road end is/are called ‘Nunnerie’?

    • Tim says:

      Maybe the farm and burn are on land formerly owned by a convent? Medieval religious houses often held land in upland areas as grazing for livestock. Or perhaps a small chapel was established there by nuns from a convent in Upper Clydesdale, as a refuge for travellers? Off the top of my head, I think the A702 at this point follows the line of an important Roman road from Nithsdale.

      I’m very interested in this whole area around Crawford and Beattock. In my view, Liz, you’re living right on the southern frontier of the old kingdom of Strathclyde, as defined by King David I in his ‘inquest’ of the kingdom’s landholdings c.1120.

      • Sorry! I repeated the question before I read your very helpful reply. Yes, there is a Roman road that goes past here. It comes up from Durisdeer on a different route through the hills (still walkable) from the modern road up the Dalveen Pass to the lead and gold mines at Leadhills. There is a short stretch of road called Dere St or Watling St in Crawford and a chapel dedicated to St Thomas Beckett. Do come and visit if you can.

        • Tim says:

          It’s an area I’d like to explore at some point in the future. Many years ago I walked up to Hartfell Spa on the other side of the M74 (in what I think of as ‘Merlin Country’) but the hills on the western side of the motorway are still virgin territory to me.

  2. Tim – can you cast any light on why the ancient farm house and farm next to my property in the upper Clyde valley, also the burn which supplies my water, are known as ‘Nunnerie’ ? Is there charter or other evidence for a religious foundation here (ML12 6TJ)? We are on Crookedstane Rig above the junction of the Daer & the Potrail Water in south Lanarkshire/Strathclyde. Where the two little rivers meet there is another ancient house called ‘Watermeetings’, and the two streams become the Clyde. The ‘crookedstane’ is a megalith marking the spot where the two rivers meet in the valley (see my website

  3. ps the word or name ‘Daer’ (the burn that runs near Nunnerie) is supposed to form a punning part of the Douglas clan motto Wha Daer(Dare) – their lands are nearby at the appropriately-named village of… Douglas

    • Tim says:

      The name Daer is interesting. Watson’s History of the Celtic place names of Scotland equates it with the Welsh river Dare (as in Aberdare). The name is Brittonic and means ‘river of oak trees’. At first, I wondered if there might be a connection with the final element of Durisdeer until I checked the map and saw that the village is about 4 miles away from the nearest stretch of the burn (assuming this rises at Deerhead). In another book of Scottish place names (by George Mackay) Durisdeer is derived from Gaelic dorus doire ‘entrance of the forest’.

  4. Tam Ward our local archaeologist commented: place name evidence is notoriously awkward in some places, Nunnerie was Nonre in the 17th C as depicted on our earliest map of Clydsdale, so place names change over time. There has never been any known historical reference to a religious establishment of any kind there, so that is a dead end. When most names became finally established by the Ordnance Survey in the early 19th C it is likely that spurious information came about. The surveyors simply asked the locals for names of burns hills etc and recorded what they were told, unless there is a previous historical record of place names, then we now have places and features with names which may have been made up for all sorts of reasons and fed to the OS surveyors. There is a book called the OS Name Book which accords the sources of all place names given on their maps to sources of the information. However, the simple truth is that no one knows why Nunnerie is so called. Hope this helps, Tam

    • Tim says:

      If the oldest known form of the name is 17th century we’re unlikely to get very far with a derivation. But I still vaguely wonder about a religious connection, even if there wasn’t a convent in the immediate vicinity. If the first element of Nonre isn’t a contraction of some Gaelic term, it could be one of the old forms of ‘nun’, perhaps from Norman times (e.g. OFr nonne, OE nunne), as in ‘Nuneaton’ (Nonne Eton in 1247). That’s about as far as I can run with this before it turns down a blind alley. As Tam points out, the true origin of the name is probably irretrievable.

  5. NB Nikolai Tolstoy is coming up to talk about the Merlin connection in Moffat on Sat Oct 15 (see; also, Alistair Moffat will be talking about Scottish DNA. Can you come to that day?

    • Tim says:

      I would like to hear Tolstoy’s Merlin talk. I’ll try to attend it, and the DNA one too. I took part in Alistair’s recent BBC radio series, the one that accompanied his book. We went to the top of Dumbarton Rock and talked about the Strathclyde Britons.

  6. A geographical feature called Nonre in Mozambique is classified as
    > ‘hydrographic’ and ‘a stream’. Tam Ward suggests there might be a French connection?
    > ique

  7. […] Clarkson has a review of the Paradox of Medieval Scotland project on […]

  8. Fantastic information I run the local website and it has a page for Paisley Abbey too if you want to have a look all the very best..

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