Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Scottish Nation

BARON [Latin baro, or vir, a man, German bar, a freeman, Spanish varo, a stout noble person], a feudal honour of great antiquity. Barons were those who held their lands of a superior by military and other services. For some time before the Norman Conquest this name was commonly used in France to denote a person of the first dignity; but after that event it was introduced into England, and used to signify an immediate vassal of the Crown, bound for his lands to give personal service to the king in his wars, to attend at his court and council when summoned, and to do homage to him and acknowledge himself his “man” or baron. The name is now used as the title of the lowest order of the nobility.

      The feudal system, of which the baronage formed so important a part, and which exerted so beneficial an influence on Scottish civilization, was, as exhibited in its most flourishing state during the middle ages, introduced into Scotland by the Anglo-Norman adventurers (a term used to distinguish not only Normans, but French, Flemings, and others speaking the French language, all, however, knights of reputation), who accompanied David the First, when, after spending his youth and receiving his education in England, he, as independent Count or Prince of Cumbria, undertook the subjugation of the West Lothians and Galloway, as well as afterwards on his accession to the throne, and to whom he granted lands in all parts of the country. “His education and tastes,” says Mr. Burton, (Life of Lord Lovat, page 3.) “Attached him to the gallant race who, wherever they went, were first in arms and arts, and mingled the sternest powers of man with his finest social enjoyments. He courted the presence of the lordly Normans. They had nearly exhausted England; and the new territory opened to them, if less rich and fertile, was still worth commanding. The charters and other law documents anterior to the war of independence, are full of high-sounding Norman names, many of which subsequently disappeared from the Scottish nomenclature – Morevilles, De Viponts, D’Umfravilles, DeQuinceys, D’Angains, & c.” In reference to this remark it may be stated that, except ecclesiastics, from David the First downwards, none were admitted as witnesses in the royal charters but tenants in capite, barons or magnates. “It was chiefly,” continues Mr. Burton, “in the fertile plains of the south, and in the neighbourhood of the English border, that they (the Anglo-Norman knights) were most thickly congregated; but some of them had found their way far north, to the wild districts beyond the Grampians, where the greatness of the estate was some compensation for its barrenness. But wherever their lot was cast – among the Saxons of Mid-Lothian, the Celts of Inverness, or their brother Norsemen of Caithness – these heroes, who united the courage and fierceness of the old sea-king to the polished suavity of the Frank, became the lords of the land, and the old inhabitants of the soil became their subordinates.” These Anglo-Norman barons and their successors, in the then state of society in Scotland, acquired powers and privileges of a high order, and in some sense, were independent even of the monarch to whom they owed their homage, and who possessed the right of resumption of their lands. Partly by direct grants, but more frequently by marriages with the heiresses of Celtic nobles, the entire nobility and great part of the baronage of the kingdom had soon nearly become Norman in name as well as in blood.

      The powers of a feudal baron were very great. Within his own lands he had high and even sovereign jurisdiction, both civil and criminal, which in the general sense he might exercise, either by himself or by his deputy, called a bailie. His criminal jurisdiction, in particular, was most extensive. According to the laws ascribed to Malcolm M’Kenneth (c. 13) it reached to all crimes except treason, and what lawyers call the four pleas of the crown, namely, robbery, murder, rape, and fire-raising; and even in some cases he could judge as to the latter, and in processes for breaking of orchards, destroying of green wood and of planting, provided the offenders were taken in the fact, and in riots and bloodwits, the fines of which he had the power to appropriate to himself. [Erskine’s Institutes, Book I, Title iv. p. 91.]

      Our parliaments or national councils, for the word parliament was not in use till long after, consisted at first only of the king’s barons, or freeholders, and under the same appellation, it would seem that the dignified clergy were included, on account of their freeholds. [Erskine’s Institutes, Book I. Title iii. p. 50] Every Scottish baron, whatever were his holdings, if he had a barony and the power of pit and gallows, had a right to sit and vote in the national council. Few or none of the smaller lairds, however, availed themselves of a privilege involving the obligation of distant journeys and much expense, and the consequence was a great accession of power to the higher nobles. Hence came the distinction of the greater and lesser barons, which was not known in Scotland till towards the end of the reign of James the First. In a general council held at Perth, on the 1st March 1427, an act was passed dispensing with the attendance of the lesser barons and free tenants in parliament, on condition of their electing from each sheriffdom, in proportion to its extent, two or more commissioners as their representatives. [Act 1427. c. 101.] From this dispensation, however, the greater barons were expressly excepted. These were sufficiently distinguished from the lesser barons by their grants or patents of peerage, whereby they were dignified by the titles of duke, earl, or baron.

      In England the distinction between greater and lesser barons seems to have arisen from the latter holding of the former. Dugdale says, “Those who were the king’s chief tenants, id est, his principal freeholders, had the title of barones majores. And as they thus holding of the king in capite by barony were called his barons, so had most of the great earls, in those elder times, their great freeholders under them, whom they also called barons, as is evident by their charters, wherein they usually wrote Omnibus Baronibus suis, tam Francis quam Anglicis, &c. And as these great tenants of the king, who had their titles from their principal seats or heads of their baronies, were called his barones majores, so were his other tenants or freeholders who held of him by military service in capite termed barones minores; of which two sorts of tenants, together with the bishops and earls, the parliaments of this realm did anciently consist, only the barones majores had summons by several writs, and the others, who held by military service in capite, by one general summons from the sheriff in each county.” [Preface to Baronage, p. 3]

      It is worthy of notice, that while the English feudal barons are frequently styled lords by the English genealogists, as Lord Percy, Lord Neville, Lord Mowbray, & c., it was not usual so to designate the Magnates Scotiae, or great barons of Scotland, although their tenure, status, and rank were precisely the same. On this point Lord Lindsay aptly remarks: “There might have been differences in wealth and power, but all the magnates, strictly speaking, were peers. Neither the Bruces till the marriage of the elder Bruce with the countess of Carrick, nor the Baliols till their elevation to the throne, nor the High Stewards till after the middle of the fourteenth century, possessed any title higher than that of ‘Sire,’ or Seigneur – like the de Coucys of France.” [Lives of the Lindsays, vol. i. p. 57. note.] It may be added, that of the thirteen competitors for the Scottish crown, on the death of Margaret of Norway, eight were untitled barons, while two others were styled lords of their respective possessions, as Comyn, lord of Badenoch, and Bruce, lord of Annandale.

      In England the barons ceased to be peers, unless so created, during the thirteenth century, but in Scotland, up to the year 1587, – in which year, various acts, drawn up by Lord Menmuir [see article BALCARRES] were passed for regulating the form and order of parliament and the vote of the barons,– the title of baron was common to all the landed proprietors or lairds, holding their lands directly of the Crown. As one object of these acts was to free the barons from their dependence on noblemen, they were bitterly opposed by the nobility, headed by the earl of Crawford who, in name of his order, protested against their receiving the small barons to a voice in parliament by their commissioners.

      Under the feudal system, the king, when he gave a grant of lands for military service, conferred on the grantee a jurisdiction within them of sheriffship, barony, or regality, and as they descended to his heirs, each new possessor, on inheriting the lands, doing homage for them, the jurisdiction also became heritable.

      Regalities were feudal rights of land granted by the king in liberam regalitatem. Those to whom they were granted, though sometimes only commoners, were called “lords of regality,” on account of the high and regal jurisdiction which they conveyed. The civil jurisdiction of a lord of regality was in all respects equal to that of a sheriff; but his criminal was, as Erskine observes, “truly royal.” He had, says Burton, “at least as many of the privileges of an independent prince as a Margrave or Pfalzgrave. His courts were competent to try all questions, civil or criminal, that of high treason against the sovereign alone excepted. He appointed judges and executive officers, who were responsible only to himself. He had within his territory a series of municipal systems – corporations with their municipal officers, privileged markets, harbours, and mills, with internally administered regulations fo police, applicable to weights and measures, fishing privileges, and other like useful institutions. He could build prisons and coin money. When any of his people were put on trial before the king’s courts he could ‘repledge’ the accused to his own court, only finding recognizances to execute justice in the matter,– a nominal check, which would seldom divert the lord and his ‘bailie’ or judge from acting according to their own particular views.” [Burton’s Life of Simon Lord Lovat, p. 162.] “An Analogy,” adds Mr. Burton in a note, “will be seen between the regalities and the palatinates created in England. The jealousy with which any dispersal of the privileges of the Crown among the great barons was watched in England brought back two of the three palatinates to the king at a very early period, while the third (Durham) being in the hands of a bishop, could not be the means of throwing any dangerous power into the hands of a particular house, and remained in existence till the year 1836.” Mr. Riddell, in his Remarks on peerage law (p. 57), observes, “Although we had, in fact, many palatinates, according to English notion, that is to say, fiefs invested with royal jurisdiction, yet the term was almost wholly unknown in Scotland. Only one earldom, that of Strathern, was styled a palatinate; but what the peculiar nature of the distinction was does not appear.”

      Some ecclesiastics, as bishops and abbots, possessed the rights of barons, and some of the abbeys had a right of regality over their lands. These hereditary jurisdictions passed from hand to hand with the lands to which they were attached; and the regality of Dunfermline abbey continuing attached to the temporal lordship after the dissolution of the monasteries, we find the newspapers, so late as the year 1732, recording a conviction by the judge of the regality, of some gypsies who lived in a cave and plundered the neighbourhood, in these terms: “This day was finished here a very tedious trial of four gypsies, (or gypsies habit and repute,) strollers, or vagabonds, which lasted between eighteen and nineteen hours, by the honoured Captain Halkett, James Dewar of Lassodie, and Henry Walwood of Garvock, deputies of the most honourable the marquis of Tweeddale, as heritable bailie of the justiciary and regality courts of Dunfermline, when on a full and plain proof, James Ramsay, one of the gang, was sentenced to be hanged the 22d of March next, and the other three to be whipped, the first Wednesday of each month, for one half year, and afterwards to be banished the regality for ever.” [Extract from Caledonian Mercury, Chalmers, p. 246.]

      The power which their heritable jurisdictions conferred on the greater barons became at last formidable to the state, and enabled some of them openly to defy the law. The history of the reigns of the first Jameses is but the record of the struggle of the Crown against the feudal aristocracy. Immediately upon the forfeiture of the earl of Douglas, June 10, 1455, an act was passed whereby it was ordained that no regality should be granted for the future without the authority of parliament; and another that no office should be given afterwards in fee or heritage. Our sovereigns, nevertheless, continued to make grants of heritable jurisdictions, most of which were confirmed by parliament; others, without such ratification, were strengthened by the immemorial exercise of their jurisdictions, till it became at last the general opinion that those statutes of 1455 had lost their authority. By the treaty of Union, article 20, all heritable offices and jurisdictions were reserved to the owners as rights of property. The heritable jurisdictions in Scotland were finally abolished in 1747, the holders of them receiving compensation for the same, parliament having voted one hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling for the purpose. By the act abolishing them (20 George II. c. 43) the civil jurisdiction of a baron in Scotland was reduced to the power of recovering from his vassals and tenants the rents of his lands, and of condemning them in mill services; and also of judging in causes where the debt and damages do not exceed forty shillings sterling. His criminal jurisdiction was, by the same statute, limited to assaults, batteries, and other smaller offences, which may be punished by a fine not exceeding twenty shillings sterling, or by setting the offender in the stocks (now disused). The obligation which was long imposed by the law of Scotland on barony vassals to attend the baron’s head courts was about the same time prohibited.

      The power of the high feudal aristocracy within their own territories was as great as that of the monarch himself, and many of them, as the Douglases, the Lindsays, the Hamiltons and others, affected a state and magnificence equal to those of the sovereign. An account of the feudal state of one of the great barons will be found under the head of the earl of Crawford as described by Lord Lindsay [see CRAWFORD, earls of]. The picture drawn by him bears a close resemblance to the feudalism of England and the continent. “But,” adds his lordship, “owning to the mixture of Celtic and Norman blood, a peculiar element mingled from the first in the feudality of Scotland, and has left its indelible impress on the manners and habits of thought of the country. Differently from what was the case in England, the Scoto-Norman races were peculiarly prolific, and population was encouraged as much as possible. This was evinced by the ramifying tendency of the Scotch Stuarts, Douglases, Hamiltons, Lindsays, & c., as compared with the Howards, Percies, Mowbrays, De Veres, & c., many of which houses have become entirely extinct, while most of the old Scottish families number their hundreds and thousands, in every class and station of life. The earl or baron bestowed a fief, for example, on each of his four sons, who paid him tribute in rent and service; each son subdivided his fief again among his own children, and they again among theirs, till the blood of the highest noble in the land was flowing in that of the working peasant, at no remote interval. This was a subject of pride, not shame, in Scotland.” [Lives of the Lindsays, vol. i. p. 117.]

      A BURGH OF BARONY was a corporation holding of a baron within his domain and governed by magistrates, the right of electing whom was sometimes vested in the inhabitants themselves and sometimes in the baron their superior. The ground granted to the burgh, and on which it was erected, continued as truly a portion of the barony as if it were the holding of a single vassal. When the magistrate who ruled such a burgh was appointed by the superior he was styled a baron bailie, and, as the baron’s deputy, possessed within the burgh all the rights belonging to the baron himself. This was a class of magistrates peculiar to Scotland. The right of the barons, and some of them of no great note, to constitute burghs, and appoint magistrates, or to give authority to the feuars of burgesses to elect their own magistrates, who, by such authority only, were legally authorised to administer justice and pass laws for maintaining peace and order in the burgh, is one proof of the great and peculiar powers of the Scottish aristocracy, which distinguishes Scotland from all the other nations of Europe. Greenock, now a flourishing seaport, and the sixth town in Scotland in point of population, is a case in point. In 1635, being then a mere village, it was erected into a burgh of barony holding of John Shaw, proprietor of the barony, and till 1741 the affairs of the burgh were superintended by the superior or by a baron bailie appointed by him. By a charter dated in that year, and by another in 1751, Sir John Shaw, the superior, empowered the feuars and subfeuars to meet yearly for the purpose of choosing nine feuars residing in Greenock to be managers of the burgh funds, of whom two were to be bailies, one treasurer, and six councillors. The last-mentioned charter gave power to hold weekly markets, to imprison and punish delinquents, to choose officers of court, to make laws for maintaining order, and to admit merchants and tradesmen as burgesses on payment of a small sum. This instance is one of many that might be cited of the extent to which the pure feudal system had prevailed, and of its continuance in Scotland after it had disappeared everywhere else in Europe. The Burgh Reform act of 1833 put the jurisdiction and government of Greenock on a different footing, as it did all the other burghs of Scotland.


      BARON, not generally spelled Barron, a surname derived from the feudal title of Baron. A family of this name formerly possessed the lands of Kinniard in Fife. In the time of James the Fifth, Magdalen, prioress of Elcho, feued these lands to Alexander Leslie, whose grand-daughter and heiress married James Baron, merchant in Edinburgh, who thus acquired the lands. Of this family were two learned doctors of divinity, named John and Robert Baron. The latter was professor of theology in Marischal College, Aberdeen, and the author of various philosophical works. He was elected bishop of Orkney, but died at Berwich in 1639, before he could be consecrated. The son of Mr. Baron disposed the lands to Sir Michael Balfour of Denmiln, the father of Sir James Balfour, lord Lyon. Sir James was, during his father’s life, invested with the lands of Kinniard, and was always designed of Kinniard.

There was a family of the name of Baron in the dukedom of Florence, from Scotland. The first of them is said to have accompanied William, the brother of Achaius, to assist Charlemagne in his wars, and he settled in Italy. His family continued for a long time, but failed at last, much regretted by a Florentine author, Ugolinus Verinius, (De Reparatione Florentiae, lib. iii.) In these verses:

                        “Clara potensque diu, sed nune est nulla BARONUM
                        Extra progenies, extremisque orta Britannis.”

Return to The Scottish Nation Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus