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Scotland c1000-1200: The Shire, the Thane, the Sheriff and the Sheriffdom

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

© 1994

Synopsis:  This essay describes the origins and development of the shire, thane, sheriff and sheriffdom in Scotland in the early middle ages.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

| Abbreviations | 1 | 2 | 3 | Thanes and Thanages | Bibliography | Printer Friendly |

Other sheriffdoms in the south before 1200, include Berwick, created by 1139. Lanark was created at some point during the reign of Malcolm, and was in existence by 1162.62 There was a sheriffdom at Traquair in 1184, which by 1233 had combine to form the sheriffdom of Peebles.63 The sheriffdoms of Ayr, Carrick and the district of Cunningham also combined to form a larger unit based on Ayr by the late thirteenth century.64 There was also a sheriffdom at Selkirk created during the reign of William I.65

North of the Forth, we have in David’s reign the sheriffdoms of Stirling, Stirlingshire and Callendar which were later to combine to form the sheriffdom of Stirling.66 The smallest and most unusual in that respect was the sheriffdom of Clackmannan which had been created a sheriffdom by the end of David’s reign. Exactly why this sheriffdom failed to undergo any form of coalescing is something of a mystery.67 The thanages of Kinross and Cromarty were turned into sheriffdoms, certainly by the late thirteenth century and possibly before.68 There were sheriffdoms created at Scone at some point between 1128 and 1136,69 Perth between 1147 and 1153,70 Forfar between 1162 and 116471 and Kincardine in the Mearns at some point between 1165 and 1178.72 Aberdeen and Banff were created about 1136.73 In Moray there were a number of sheriffs by the reign of William, although exactly where they were sheriffs is not clear.74

Large areas of Scotland south of the Forth were clearly outside the system by the end of the twelfth century although by the end of the next century much had been done to remedy this situation (see map V). Moreover, there is no evidence of any subdivision along the lines of the hundred or wapentake. The sub-divisions tended to be the smaller units which had formed the larger sheriffdom. The Scottish sheriffdom then, was not an exact replica of its English counterpart, it was a system, modified by the society into which it had been placed.

To turn then to the sheriff, we have seen how the sheriffdoms north of the forth tended to be based around thanages. The origins of his office were as like that of the thane, to be found in England. We have seen in our earlier look at the Anglo-Saxon institutions,75 that the sheriff had gained an important position, as the king’s representative and judicial officer. He was, by the eleventh century, at once the judicial, financial, administrative and military officer of the crown. When the Normans came in, they adopted the institution of the sheriff as they found it finding parallels with their similar office of Vicomte. As the chancery moved over to Latin, the sheriff became the Vicecomes and the sheriffdom the Vicecomitatus. As time went by, the sheriff remained an Anglo-Saxon institution, but was modified to fit in with the practices of the time.

To the Normans, the sheriffdom was more important than the Anglo-Saxon earldoms in which they were based. Consequently, the old earldoms were abolished, making the earl less of an official and more of a private lord holding no public duties unlike his predecessor. The development of separate ecclesiastical courts left the sheriff in sole possession of the shire court, and hence he soon became the only representative of the kings government in the shire. In order to ensure that the sheriff was respected by the magnates of the shire, he tended to be of baronial rank, and by holding the position of sheriff he enhanced his position -and was also to become the chief expression of Norman oppression. As Morris showed:

"The greater power and prestige of the Norman as compared to the Anglo-Saxon sheriff are evident. No longer was he a man of moderate means, overshadowed by the nobility and prelates of the shire; on the contrary, he was often himself the greatest man in all his region and not infrequently a benefactor of the church. Since no official superior stood between him and the king, he enjoyed great freedom of action. As a baron and a personal adherent of the king, he combined the prestige of a local magnate and the status of a trusted official."76

This was the situation which David I saw at work in England. To David the sheriff must have been very important, after all, here was a crown appointed official, in close proximity and relation to all sections of the population in the localities. The sheriff, as with the thane, was to be the means of extending and consolidating royal power to throughout Scotland. There is little doubt that David introduced the sheriff to Scotland and therefore we would expect to see some form of connection between the introduction of the sheriff and the existing society. As the sheriffdom adapted to the existing society, so we would expect the sheriff to adapt.

To see how David introduced the sheriff in Scotland, it is instructive to look at who the first sheriffs were. Of the 19 earliest sheriffs which we have on record, 11 were native Scots,77 4 were probably native,78 and 4 were definitely incomers.79 In no case was the first sheriff appointed an incomer. This last point is important. For the four incoming sheriffs to get the post, they must have lived within the sheriffdom and become accepted by that time. It made sense for David and his successors to appoint men with local knowledge.

The rank to which the sheriffs belong is important to look at next. The three upper grades of society, in Scotland, north of the Forth can be summarised thus:

East West South
Gaelic Latin Scots Gaelic Latin Scots
rex king rex king
mormaer comes earl dominus lord
toísech thanus thane rí / toísech dominus laird


because the area north of the Forth-Clyde line was conquered by the Scots, it became more centralised than Dalriada, this may well account for the fact that by the twelfth century, there were more crown officials there than in the west.

To the south of the Forth-Clyde line, it is difficult to see what is happening very clearly due to the paucity of evidence. It is a question of whether the offices are coming south from Scotia or north from Northumbria. As we have seen, it was often the thane / toísech who became the sheriff north of the Forth, while in south, the evidence also points to this third grade as the one from which the sheriff was chosen.

The reasons for this are twofold. David had seen that the baronial sheriff was becoming to powerful in England and so chose to use the next rank to ensure their loyalty to the crown. Secondly, while it would seem a more obvious choice to have the brithem as the sheriff, (after all, these hereditary lawmen had the knowledge and legal standing to take on that side of the sheriffs responsibilities) they were themselves, despite having the the privileges of a noble, not noble. Moreover, the legal side of the sheriffs responsibilities was not so important in the twelfth century.

Evidence of the rank of the sheriff within society can be drawn from both north and south of the Forth. In Haddingtonshire, we have seen that there was a sheriff in 1184 and that it was administered by a thane before that. North of the Forth, we have seen that thanes became sheriffs with their thanages becoming sheriffdoms. Where a district was too small and amalgamation took place, the most important sheriff ruled the new larger unit with the subordinate sheriffs becoming his deputies.80 A brieve of William I relating to the payment of teinds also shows the grade of sheriff north of the Forth. Here a defaulting villanus was to be compelled to pay by the toísech, should the toísech default, he was to be compelled to pay by the sheriff with a penalty of 8 cows, a defaulting sheriff was to be compelled by the justiciar and also pay a penalty of 8 cows. The sheriff therefore was equal to the toísech in his private capacity.

There is not much evidence of the functions which the sheriff carried out in Scotland. Later evidence of the sheriff can be traced back to give us an idea of the general duties of the sheriff. There were three head courts held at the caput of the sheriffdom each year which were summoned publicly with 40 days notice. In addition, there were lesser courts which were held elsewhere within the sheriffdom, in some instances at the caputs of the constabularies of the sheriffdom, once the centres of the smaller amalgamated sheriffdoms.81

The sheriff court was composed of the local landowners who owed suit to the court in respect of their land. The suitors were there to decide on a judgment either as a jury or as a whole body. At the end of the thirteenth century, the sheriff did not have the judicial role which he was later to hold.

The sheriff was essentially an executive officer, addressed by name in charters, he witnessed royal documents, received royal brieves, and perambulated the marches if there was a dispute. In this respect he is not any different to his Anglo-Norman counterpart, where he seems to differ is in the military role appointed to him. There are slightly conflicting ideas about this. Dickinson pointed to the Scottish sheriff’s military role. He noted the references in the exchequer rolls at the time of the invasion by Haakon of Norway to the building works of sheriff of Inverness, the inventory of arms of the sheriff of Roxburgh, the watchmen appointed by the sheriff of Stirling and the stores of bolts, quarrels and oars provided by the sheriff of Ayr.82

In Scotland clearly, the sheriff had a logistical as opposed to an offensive role in military matters. In combination with the thane he made sure that all members of the locality were prepared for campaign if required to under Scottish service. It may have been the earl who led them in battle, but it was the sheriff who made sure that they would be effective when they got there. Dickinson may be missing the mark when he states:

"In England the sheriff was the leader of the local levy from the earliest times, but when such a system was introduced into Scotland, or when the earl ceased to be the local military leader (a position always accorded to him in the Sagas) we cannot say."83

As the sheriff was a crown appointee, the crown had to have a method of controlling him. In consequence the crown appointed justiciars to oversee the work of the sheriff. These justiciars, modelled on the English justice, were appointed to Scotia, Lothian and Galloway, and their earliest reference comes from the reign of Malcolm IV84 - although it is probable that as David introduced the sheriff, he also introduced his supervisor. As the justiciar would be the next in rank behind the king, it is not surprising to find that the justiciars were invariably the great magnates, often hereditably,85 while in England the justice was a legally trained man of middle rank.

The sheriff in Scotland, as a man simply slipping into established society with little more than a change of name was not, in contrast to England, seen as a representative of alien oppression. The hereditary nature of the sheriffs office soon led to it becoming increasingly bound up with magnates holding the office of sheriff. By the thirteenth century earls were holding sheriffs offices hereditably.

In conclusion, we have seen how Anglo-Saxon and Celtic institutions were taken up by the early Scottish kings and modified to meet the conditions in Scotland. As time went on these institutions were used to extend and consolidate royal power in the localities. The different roles undertaken by the thane, the sheriff and the shire and thanage were vitally important to this. The strength of the early medieval Scottish kings was that they could rely on a strong base in the localities derived from the thanages and later the sheriffdoms, which was why they were loathe to alienate them. In contrast, the weakness of the later Stewart kings could, amongst other things, be put down to weakness because they had alienated their strongholds in the localities.

Ewan Innes, April 19 1994

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| Abbreviations | 1 | 2 | 3 | Thanes and Thanages | Bibliography | Printer Friendly |