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13th Century Alba - Socialism and Tolerance?

Published by Gallowglass in the blog Gallowglass's blog. Views: 121

No matter your nationality, there is something to be learned, in this age of violent intolerance, from the Hebridean sea kings who achieved complete religious and racial tolerance in the 13th century and lessened discrimination on the grounds of a person’s gender to such a degree that it was barely noticeable to foreign guests.

The fact that they also achieved a golden glimpse of socialism in these distant centuries, with each social rank from retainer to thane having an equal representation on their council, is a clear indication that, rather than backwards agrarian warlords and unclean peasant classes, we are dealing with a dynamic cosmopolitan nobility and well-fed and valued clansmen and their families?

The following is a summary of what I have learned from oral stories, written documents, and architectural evidence about many of the things used to determine how civilised a people are, such as the status of women, the availability of education, tolerance, and system of government.

Council of the Isles​

It was, of course, common practice in the medieval era for kings to have parliaments. Usually, these were made up of the most powerful clergy and noblemen in the realm, as well as the king himself. They had the authority to debate the king’s decisions and make suggestions, as well as provide him with news about events in the lands under their jurisdiction. At first, the Lordship of the Isles may appear to be exactly the same. But there are very important differences.

Whilst its Council included the most powerful noblemen, it also included every other level of influence in equal numbers, and the clergy were usually not present at the Council to avoid religion, in a religiously diverse society, from becoming too important.

The Council of the Isles was considerably more powerful than the parliaments of other countries, such as Scotland. Everything that a Lord of the Isles proposed had to be discussed by the Council first, and the different opinions amongst the Council would argue their case to the Lord of the Isles, who would decide upon the strongest argument.

However, his inauguration oaths demanded that a Lord of the Isles must act mostly on behalf of his people rather than himself, which limited his ability to simply choose the argument that he supported as the strongest. It also meant he could not use intimidation against members of the Council who disagreed with him, and that he could have his power limited further if he did otherwise.

Whilst he was capable of commanding his clansmen and their families as an absolute leader, the power of a Lord of the Isles was loaned from the people, and, if the Council thought that a Lord of the Isles had broken his oath to them, they would legally be able to restrict his power and even take his power away.

How would a Council know what the people wanted? There were judges for each island and administrative district in the Lordship of the Isles, whose role it was to manage the local tacksmen, who were each responsible for small villages and areas of land, and settle legal disputes. However, the local people could also ask them to take their concerns to the Lord of the Isles, as most judges were often present at Eilean na Comhairle, whether they had a seat on the Council itself or not. This brought the people’s opinions to the centre of political power, and anyone could find their question answered by the Lord of the Isles himself.

This efficient system of government, whilst not a democracy (positions on the Council were chosen through tanistry), was clearly a sure step towards the socialist government in the United Kingdom at the moment. It could be argued that it was, in fact, more practical, without parties fighting for influence or legislation holding back good suggestions.

Of particular interest is the fact that the clergy were not present at the Council, when the Lordship of the Isles included Iona, the centre of Celtic Christianity and an important place for Christians across the British Isles. This is likely a response to the fact that, in a state where there were many different religions and local practices of worship, the ideas of a single religious group could not be allowed to gain any more influence than the others.

It was a very radical design, and not a favoured one amongst medieval Catholic leaders. But not once is religious conflict mentioned in the Lordship of the Isles, even though it was likely one of the most religiously diverse places in Europe, and we must assume that this is solely because of the lack of religious interference in politics.

Racial and Religious Tolerance​

The Lordship of the Isles was a diverse place, with Highland Gaels making up almost half of the population, with a similar proportion of various Norse races, with the remaining amount being divided between the Irish Gaels, the Manx Gaels, and the Scots. Religiously, many of these groups had their own practices, even between different groups of Christians, and there were several large pagan groups worshipping Norse, Irish, and Gaelic-Pictish pantheons. The architecture, clothing, and languages of each were present in their communities, and some of them were monolingual with their native language.

Whilst the Lordship of the Isles was not unique in being very diverse, it certainly is an example of racial equality long before such things became an issue, a melting pot before the phrase existed. Its leaders themselves were of mixed Norse-Gaelic origins.

However, no records of racial conflict exist, where contemporary sources would make mention of it. If we ignore the fact that it is not mentioned in oral or written stories, it can be argued that we know nothing about the status of different races in the Lordship of the Isles.

But this argument can be countered with the fact that many of the most powerful clans were mixed Norse-Gaelic, or even entirely Norse, in origin, and if they felt oppressed then they would have had the militarily capability to do something about it. Instead, these clans, the foremost of which is Macleod, became loyal supporters of Clan Donald, intermarrying with and fostering the sons of Gaelic dynasties.

This is contrary to almost every other state that has existed in the last three thousand years, modern countries included, and although we do not know whether or not laws were passed against racism or religious intolerance, it does seem likely because of the complete lack of persecution.

The Status of Women​

Gaelic society in the medieval era was a patriarchal one, although earlier Gaels had allowed women to fight in their armies and to hold important positions. However, whilst this does mean that women could not inherit land from their fathers or become leaders, it says nothing about their status in general, and this is where people who say that women had the same status in the Highlands as elsewhere are getting confused.

The practice of handfasting was one of the things in which evidence for the roughly equal status of women can be found. It essentially makes forced marriage impossible, or at least forced marriage which one of the partners is not happy with. A couple would live together for a year and a day, and if, by that time, a child was born or expected, and there were no complaints from either partner, then they were married. If not, they were free to marry elsewhere.

Women, although not allowed to have titles, would have to be gifted by brothers or cousins that inherited titles through tanistry, whereas in other lands they would be left with nothing.

They could also do most jobs, with the exception of the military, that men were allowed to do, with many becoming famous musicians, sculptors, and actresses, whose names may be recorded in the names of places scattered across the Highlands.

At home the production of clothes and of keeping the home warm and clean was shared by men and women.

Women also had full access to the legal system, and were allowed to be witnesses and people who had committed a crime against them were subject to the same punishments as people who had committed a similar crime against a man.


Whilst there was no real formal education, there were vocational schools that specialised in teaching particular talents that were accessible to everyone, although some different schools, largely military, were by far more or less accessible to different genders. Many areas became renowned for the standards of education they provided for individual professions, and often schools were family-run for generations.

These schools usually required an annual donation, often of something related to what they taught. For instance, a school for Irish martial arts would possibly require weapons.

Although many of the smaller schools would ask for payment from each family who had one or more people there, the larger ones would be supplied out of the rations of food and equipment allocated by the local tacksman, or many local tacksmen, and education at such schools would be almost, if not entirely, free.

Elsewhere, education was paid for, and only available to male members of the upper classes. It was not formal and received little sponsorship from central government, but in practicality and accessibility the education in the Lordship of the Isles was still ahead of that of other areas.
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