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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part I: Chapter 4


The ancient Jurisdiction of Zetland—The Great Foude—District Foudes—Ranselmen, their Duties —Lawrightman—Stewartrv erected—Steward-Depute—Bailies—“Book of the Law ’ destroyed—“ Country Acts The Ting.

A HISTORICAL sketch of these islands would scarcely be complete without some account of the ancient mode of jurisdiction. In the Scandinavian times Shetland formed a Foudrie under the jurisdiction of the Great Foude, Lagman, or Governor. He presided at meetings of the Ting or open-air Parliament, guided its judicial functions, expounded the ancient Book of the Law, and took a general superintendence of the administration of justice throughout the islands. The country was at this period divided into five large districts, each of which was presided over by an inferior Foude, who, when holding a local court or ting, was assisted, in the execution of hi£ duties, by the udallers of the district. Before him were decided local causes, subject to appeal to the Great Foude.

Under the District Foude were ten or twelve “honest” men termed Ranselmen, in whom were vested the most extensive inquisitorial powers. On their election by the assembled householders of the parish, under the chairmanship of the District Foude, they solemnly swore to observe a code of twelve somewhat lengthy instructions, which was then read over to them. Let us endeavour to summarise their instructions :—

1st The Ranselmen were guardians of the domestic peace and morality of the community; they were to “inquire into the lives and conversations of families,” to prevent discord between man and wife, parent and child, master and servant, between one neighbour and another, administering suitable rebukes and exhortations. In each case of cursing or swearing they were to impose a fine of twenty shillings Scots.

2d. They were to “take particular notice anent keeping the Sabbath-day,” and to fine any one “who sits home from the kirk and from diets of catechising without sufficient reason.”

3d. They were to take a general superintendence of the agricultural interests of the neighbourhood, seeing that “none injure others in their grass and corn,” “that tenants do not abuse their lands nor demolish their houses,” that the country acts for regulating the pastures be strictly observed.

4th. To suppress vagrancy by acquainting “idle vagabond persons that they must take themselves to some honest employ.”

5th. To see that the poor be taken care of in their respective quarters, and that beggars and tiggers from a distance return to their own parishes.

6th. “You are to inquire in your quarters anent all persons using any manner of witchcraft, charms, or any abominable or devilish superstitions, and faithfully inform against such, so that they may be brought to condign punishment.”

7th. “You are to examine all tradesmen in your bounds, and see that they make sufficient work, and do not impose on any in their prices; and if you find any such transgressors, inform against them, so as they may be punished as law directs.”

8th. In any case of theft, either in their own or the neighbouring parish, to search or ranael, if necessary force locks and use every means.of detecting the crime.

Should in any case resistance be offered or their exhortations pass unheeded, they were to report to the Foude of the district.

Conjoined with each set of Ranselmen was a Lawrightman, “ whose business it was to weigh and measure the rent butter and oil: he was sworn to do justice, and to keep just weights and measures.’ The Ranselman, uniting in his person the functions of policeman, detective, elder, inspector of poor, inspector of agriculture, and other offices not readily expressed in modern phraseology, appears to have exerted a very favourable influence on public morality.

Under the Scottish regime, a resident magistrate was appointed to each of the ten parishes into which the islands were then divided, and the old Scandinavian word Foude gave place to the more homely title Bailie. On the re-annexation of the islands to the British crown, in 1669, Shetland was erected into a stewartry. The Earl of Morton became hereditary Steward, but exercised his functions through a Steward-Depute, who at first performed the same duties as the Grand Foude, only he soon transferred his court from an islet in the Loch of Tingwall to a hall in the Castle of Scalloway. Early in the seventeenth century the ancient Book of the Law, derived originally from Norway, was destroyed. This deficiency was supplied by the enactment of numerous laws by the Ting of Zetland, which were known as the “country acts,” and together formed for a long period the statute-book according to which justice was administered.

Legislation by means of Law-tings continued so late as 1670. At the law-ting, every udaller, whether king, earl, or peasant, had an equal voice and vote. The senators assembling at this curious parliament came on horseback, and compensation was allowed to the owners of lands near the Loch of Tingwall for the damage done to their pastures by the large number of ponies thus brought together.

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