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The Scottish Nation

THANE, (from the German word degan or thegan, a sword,) a title in use among the Anglo-Saxons, and supposed by Skene to have been equal in rank to an earl’s son. Camden says the thanes were only dignified by the offices which they bore. Chalmers has given a very clear account of the office of a thane, which he shows to have been one of a subordinate nature. The thanes were mere land-stewards or bailiffs, who had the management of the villeyns, that is, the bondmen or nativi, as the serfs were called. The author last mentioned says, (Caledonia, vol. i. p. 716,) they “are more dignified by fiction than memorable from fact. Thanes and thanedoms were unknown to Celtic Scotland, as they were equally unheard of in Celtic Ireland.” He adds in a note, “It is a still more instructive fact that the thanedoms of Scotland lay all on the east coast, the proper country of the Scoto-Saxons, and not on the western shores of Galloway, Argyle, and Ross, the appropriate districts of the Gaelic people. The Scottish historians, indeed, speak of the existence of thanes in North Britain during the Celtic times of Macbeth; but they are not to be believed when they scribble of improbabilities, whereof, either as writers or as witnesses, they knew nothing but the name; yet sober inquiry resists in vain, the overpowering magic of Shakspere, which will for ever convince the eye and the understanding that ‘The thane of Cawdor lives.’” The name and office did not come into use in Scotland till they were falling into desuetude in England, “Because,” as Chalmers remarks, “the Scoto-Saxon period in Scotland did not commence till after the Saxon period of the English annals had ended.” In England, a freeman not noble was raised to the rank of a thane by acquiring a certain portion of land, by making three voyages at sea, or by receiving holy orders. It is doubtful whether the office of thane was hereditary. That of Cawdor appears to have been so.
The abthane, that is, the thane of an abbot, or ecclesiastical bailiff or steward, was of higher dignity than the thane, the royal bailiff or steward, (see ABTHANE).

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