So what is nobility? Well I guess we need to begin somewhere with a good historical reference point so lets say we take a look at the Normans. In 900 AD, a certain fierce and hairy Viking by the name of Rollo, along with his supporting cast of similarly hairy desperados, were to be found frenziedly sailing up the river Seine in France bent on plunder, pillage, rapine and general despicable shenanigans.
These Norsemen from the chilly and inhospitable fjords of Scandinavia were on a mission of self- enrichment and adventure at the expense of the French. A favourite pastime of many European nations it must be admitted, right up until the 20th century. They had been raiding along the French coast and deep inland for many decades but now something changed.
In the year 911 AD, they were granted the lands of Normandy by a desperate French king who went by the name of ‘Charles the Simple’. Charles had the simple idea of fighting fire with fire, and at least keeping control of some of his realm. Rollo’s band of cutthroats could settle in Normandy and in return, Rollo would ensure that any other fellow Norse raiders received a swift toe up the backside and were pointed back in the direction of the snowy north.
Rollo became the Duke of Normandy and virtually a king in his own realm. Not a bad advancement for somebody who was not much more than a brigand, gangster, robber, murderer and rapist, pretty much like many leaders of third world nations in the current age. There we have the beginnings of nobility, a ‘noble’ family born from the worst excesses of criminality and anti-social mayhem imaginable. Today in America, Rollo would have received a spell on death row and a lethal injection after due process, back then he got a Dukedom and the kudos of being extremely ‘noble’ and second only to the king of France.
Rollo and his motley band settled down to the good life in Normandy, as did his descendents. Titles and land grants flew like confetti and all were controlled by that other Norman invention, the asphyxiating system of feudalism. This ensured loyalty to the Duke and in return, his vassals were pretty much able to do what they liked on their own lands. Beneath them were the peasantry, surfs who were virtual slaves beholden to their lordly master and who were expected to give military service as and when required. In this system can be seen the first inkling of capitalism, the 21st century's version of feudalism, which ties the lower orders to their so-called ‘betters’ by far more subtle financial shackles and chains, all wrapped up in the illusion of a democratic process and the promise of social mobility.
Of course, the nobility itself had to be graded with a caste system all its own, so we have Knights, Barons, Counts, Earls, Viscounts, Marquess’s and Dukes, and all kinds of permutations and pretentious titles with the King sitting right at the top of the feudal pyramid. The poor lowly peasantry were nothing but commodities to be worked like donkeys, or slaughtered like sheep on the battlefield in petty disputes amongst the nobility, or in wars waged by the King. Being a peasant back then was a very hard life, no wonder the church was so popular with its earnest promise of a paradise in the next world for the downtrodden and poverty stricken.
All this feudal development happened very quickly indeed and by the time of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, it was well established and entrenched. Once the Normans were settled in England and had consolidated their plunder, feudalism was firmly established in that occupied nation too. It then crept up to Scotland where it was to change the clan system forever, especially as many of today’s noble Scottish families and Clans are descended from Norman forebears. They truly established themselves in the country from the reign of King David I onwards. In time they provided the Scottish royal families themselves in the form of the Bruce’s and the Stuarts.
Originally the ancient clans of Scotland were run on a pretty democratic and communal basis. The Chief was elected by the clan to be their head, the best man was chosen for the job by the ancient merit based system of Tanistry. Basically put, he was voted into office by a meeting of the clan members. The title of Chief did not pass from father to son, although it may have done if the son was proven to be the best and most able man for the job. The lands held by the clan were not owned by the chief, but rather they were the property of the clan as a whole on a communal basis. It was the duty of the chief to protect the clan and its territory and he could call people to military service when needed, and they frequently were in the Highlands as clan fought against clan, seemingly on an almost permanent basis.
With the growing Norman influence in Scotland this all changed, and it certainly changed for the worst from the point of view of the ordinary people of the clans. Clan chiefs were given charters for their lands by the king in accordance with feudal practice. In effect they were given sole ownership of the clan lands, subject to staying in favour with the king. At the stroke of a pen, the people of the clans were dispossessed and a chief’s son became the hereditary lord of ‘his’ lands down the decades and centuries.
Many clan chiefs also began to acquire noble titles, Sir This, Lord That, The Earl of Whatnot or the Duke of Whatever. This further distanced the clan chiefs from their roots and made it far easier to act as a feudal landlord rather than the paternal protector of the people of the clans. Now not only did this new nobility demand military service from their clansmen, but they levied rents upon them too, which the lordly Chief lived off like some fatted parasite. The comparisons with capitalism become ever more apparent here, with the wealthy and arrogant few living off the backs and endeavours of the hard-working many.
In the end, feudalism and the noble leeches it fed tore the heart out of the Highlands and forced the Highland people into poverty, despair and emigration, as rents were continuously jacked-up to fund their noble landlords expensive and louche lifestyle in Edinburgh or London. When they could squeeze no more from their wretched tenants, these noble landlords replaced their clansmen with sheep and Lowland shepherds, all in the name of greed and the generation of profit on ‘their’ land.
Many of these greedy nobles so mismanaged, squeezed and sucked dry their lands that they became bankrupt and were forced to sell them to outsiders. This created another wave of evictions of the Highland people and created the vast sporting estates we find in Scotland today, many there for the enjoyment of a rich individual or global corporate owner.
Many of the evicted Highlanders either went to the colonies, especially North America and Australia, or they drifted into the dirty, unsanitary and horribly crowded cities of the Lowlands There they and their children provided the labour to fuel the industrial revolution. Again they sweated, toiled and bent their backs to enrich a new elite, the new ‘nobility’ of capitalism. These in turn began to gain their aristocratic and lordly titles and their arrogant attitudes towards those who created their wealth, many of who were young children working at the coalface of industry.
These new capitalist industrialists were the people who bought many of the old Highland estates from the bankrupt nobility and tried to run them as commercial enterprises for profit. This was a task beyond the majority of them, who after failing to make a profit sold them on to a new owner.
Feudalism has not only been catastrophic for the proud and industrious Highlanders who it robbed of their ancestral lands, it has been catastrophic for Scotland itself. Amazingly and shockingly, fully 80% of Scotland today is owned by around four thousand people, many of whom are foreign nationals and not even resident in Scotland. How can that ever be healthy for any sovereign nation, let alone an ancient and proud one such as Scotland? The cake is not cut very evenly at this point in time, and the slices definitely need to be a lot thinner for some and a lot larger for many more.
©Copyright - James of Glencarr