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General History of the Highlands
Scoto-Irish Kings


The history of the Scoto-Irish kings affords few materials either amusing or instructive; but it was impossible, from the connexion between that history and the events that will follow in detail, to pass it over in silence. The Scoto-Irish tribes appear to have adopted much the same form of goverment as existed in Ireland at the time of their departure from that kingdom; the sovereignty of which, though nominally under one head, was in reality a pentarchy, which allowed four provincial kings to dispute the monarchy of the fifth. This system was the prolific source of anarchy, assassinations and civil wars. The Dalriads were constantly kept in a state of internecine commotion and mutual hostility by the pretensions of their rival chiefs, or princes of the three races, who contended with the common sovereign for pre-eminence or exemption. The dlighe-tanaiste, or law of tanistry, which appears to have been generally followed as in Ireland, as well in the succession of kings as in that of chieftains, rather increased than mitigated these disorders; for the claim to rule not being regulated by any fixed law of hereditary succession, but depending upon the capricious will of the tribe, rivals were not found wanting to dispute the rights so conferred. There was always, both in Ireland and in Argyle, an heir presumtive to the Crown chosen, under the name of tanist, who commanded the army during the life of the reigning sovereign, and who succeeded to him after his demise. Budgets, and committees of supply, and taxes, were wholly unknown in those times among the Scots, and the monarch was obliged to support his dignity by voluntary contributions of clothers, cattle, furniture, and other neccessaries.

There is reason to believe that tradition supplied the place of written records for many ages after the extinction of the Druidical superstition. Hence among the Scots, traditionary usages and local customs long supplied the place of positive or written laws. It is a mistake to suppose, as some writers have done, that the law consisted in the mere will of the Brehon or judge. The office of Breitheamhuin or Brehon was hereditary, and it is quite natural to infer, that under such a system of jurisprudence, the dictum of the judge might not always comport with what was understood to be the common law or practice; but from thence, to argue that the will of the judge was to be regarded as the law itself, is absurd, and contrary to every idea of justice. As the principle of the rude jurisprudence of the Celtic tribes has for its object the reparation, rather than the prevention of crimes, almost every crime, even of the blackest kind, was commuted by a multct or payment. Tacitus observes in allusion to this practice, that it was "a temper wholesome to the commonwealth, that homicide and lighter transgressions were settled by the payment of horses or cattle, part to the king or community, part to him or his friends who had been wronged". The law of Scotland long recognised this system of compensation. The fine was termed, under the Brehon law, eric, which not only signifies a reparation, but also a fine, a ranson, a forfeit. Among the Albanian Scots it was called cro, a term preserved in the Regiam Majestatem, which has a whole chapter showing "the cro of ilk man, now mikil it is". This law of reparation, according to O'Connor, was first promulgated in Ireland, in the year 164. According to the Regiam Majestatem, the cro of a villan was sixteen cows; of an earl's son or thane, one hundred; of an earl, one hundred and forty; and that of the king of Scots, one thousand cows, or three thousand oras, that is to say, three oras for every cow.

Besides a share of the fines imposed, the Brehom or judge obtained a piece of arable land for his support. When he administered justice, he used to sit sometimes on the top of a hillock or heap of stones, sometimes on turf, and sometimes even on the middle of a bridge, surrounded by the suitors, who, of course, pleaded their own cause. We have already seen that, under the system of the Druids, the offices of religion, the instruction of youth, and the administration of the laws, were conducted in the open air; and hence the prevalence of the practice alluded to. But this practice was not peculiar to the Druids; for all nations, in the early stages of society, have followed a similar custom. The Tings of the Scandinavians, which consisted of circular enclosures of stone, without any covering, and within which both the judical and legislative powers were exercised, afford a striking instance of this. According to Pliny, even the Roman Senate first met in the open air, and the sittings of the Court of the Areopagus, at Athens, were so held. The present custom of holding courts of justice in halls is not of a very remote antiquity in Scotland, and among the Scoto-Irish, the baron bailie long continued to dispense justice to the baron's vassals from a moothill or eminence, which was generally on the bank of a river, and near to a religious edifice.

Of the various customs and peculiarites which distinguished the ancient Irish, as well as the Scoto-Irish, none has given rise to greater speculation than that of fosterage; which consisted in the mutual exchnagem by different families, of their children for the purpose of being nursed and bred. Even the son of the chief was so entrusted during pupilarity with an inferior member of the clan. An adequate reward was either given or accepted in every case, and the lower orders, to whom the trust was committed, regarded it as an honour rather than a service. "Five hundred kyne and better", says Campion, "were sometimes given by the Irish to procure the nursing of a great man's child". A firm and indissoluble attachment always took place among foster-brothers, and it continues in consequence to be a saying among Highlanders, that "affectionate to a man is a friend, but a foster-brother is as the life-blood of his heart". Camden observes, that no love in the world is comparable by many degrees to that of foster-brethren in Ireland. The close connexion which the practice of fosterage created between families, while it frequently prevented civil feuds, often led to them. But the strong attachment thus created was not confined to foster-brothers, it also extended to their parents. Spenser relates of the foster-mother to Murrough O'Brien, that, at his execution, she sucked the blood from his head, and bathed her face and breast with it, saying that is was too precious to fall to the earth.


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