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Social History of the Highlands

Amid the violence and turbulence which existed in the Highlands, no appeal for redress of wrongs committed, or injuries sustained, could be effectually made to the legal tribunals of the country; but to prevent the utter anarchy which would have ensued from such a state of society, voluntary and associated tribunals, composed of the principle men of the tribes, were appointed. A composition in cattle being the mode of compensating injuries, these tribunals generally determined the amount of the compensation according to the nature of the injury, and the wealth and rank of the parties. These compensations were called Erig.

Besides these tribunals, every chief held a court, in which he decided all disputes occurring among his clansmen. He generally resided among them. "His castle was the court where rewards were distributed, and the most enviable distinctions conferred. All disputes were settled by his decision, and the prosperity or poverty of his tenants depended on his proper or improper treatment of them. These tenants followed his standard in war -attended him in his hunting excursions - supplied his table with the produce of their farms - assembled to reap his corn, and to prepare and bring home his fuel. They looked up to him as their adviser and protector. The cadets of his family, respected in proportion to the proximity of the relation in which they stood to him, became a species of sub-chiefs, scattered over different parts of his domains, holding their lands and properties of him, with a sort of subordinate jurisdiction over a portion of his people, and were ever ready to afford him their counsel or assistance in all emergencies.

Great part of the rent of land was paid in kind, and generally consumed where it was produced. One chief was distinguished from another, not by any additional splendour of dress or equipage, but by being followed by more dependents, and by entertaining a greater number of guests. What his retainers gave from their individual property was spent amongst them in the kindest and most liberal manner. At the castle every individual was made welcome, and was treated according to his station, with a degree of courtesy and regard to his feelings unknown in any other country.4 This condescension, while it raised the clansman in his own estimation, and drew closer the ties between him and his superior, seldom tempted him to use any improper familiarities. He believed himself well born, and was taught to respect himself in the respect which he showed to his chief; and thus, instead of complaining of the difference of station and fortune, or considering a ready obedience to his chieftain's call as a slavish oppression, he felt convinced that he was supporting his own honour in showing his gratitude and duty to the generous head of his family. 'Hence, the Highlanders, whom more savage nations called savage, carried in the outward expression of their manners the politeness of courts without their vices, and in their bosoms the high point of honour without its follies'".

The authority which the generality of the chiefs exercised, was acquired from ancient usage and the weakness of the government; but the lords of regality, and the great barons and chiefs, had jurisdiction conferred on them by the Crown, both in civil and criminal cases, which they sometimes exercised in person and sometimes by deputy. The persons to whom they delegated this authority were called bailies. In civil matters the baron or chief could judge in questions of debt within his barony, as well as in most of those cases known by the technical term of possessory actions. And though it has always been an established rule of law, that no person can be judge in his own cause, a baron might judge in all actions between himself and his vassals and tenants, necessary for making his rents and feu-duties effectual. Thus, he could ascertain the price of corn due by a tenant, and pronounce sentence against him for arrears of rent; but in all cases where the chief was a party, he could not judge in person. The criminal jurisdiction of a baron, according to the laws ascribed to Malcolm Mackenneth, extended to all crimes except treason, and the four pleas of the Crown, viz., robbery, murder, rape and fire-raising. Freemen could be tried by none but their peers. Whenever the baron held a court, his vassals were bound to attend and afford such assistance as might be required. On these occasions many useful regulations for the good of the community were often made, and supplies were sometimes voluntarily granted to the chief to support his dignity. The bounty of the vassals was especially and liberally bestowed on the marriage of the chief, and in the portioning of his daughters and younger sons. These donations consisted of cattle, which constituted the principal riches of the country in those patriarchal days. In this way the younger sons of the chief were frequently provided for on their settlement in life.

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