this capacity enjoyed the rights and privileges of an aire. Sir H. S. Maine directed attention to this kind of family as an important feature of the early institutions of all Indo-European nations. Beside the “joint and undivided family,” there was another kind of family which we might call “the joint family.” This was a partnership composed of three or four members of a sept whose individual wealth was not sufficient to qualify each of them to be an aire, but whose joint wealth qualified one of the co-partners as head of the joint family to be one.
So long as there was abundance of land each family grazed its cattle upon the tribe-land without restriction; unequal increase of wealth and growth of population naturally led to its limitation, each head of a homestead being entitled to graze an amount of stock in proportion to his wealth, the size of his homestead, and his acquired position. The arable land was no doubt applotted annually at first; gradually, however, some of the richer families of the tribe succeeded in evading this exchange of allotments and converting part of the common land into an estate in sevralty. Septs were at first colonies of the tribe which settled on the march-land; afterwards the conversion of part of the common land into an estate in sevralty enabled the family that acquired it to become the parent of a new sept. The same process might, however, take place within a sept without dividing it; in other words, several members of the sept might hold part of the land of the sept as separate estate. The possession of land in sevralty introduced an important distinction into the tribal system—it created an aristocracy. An aire whose family held the same land for three generations was called a flaith, or lord, of which rank there were several grades according to their wealth in land and chattels. The aires whose wealth consisted in cattle only were called bó-aires, or cow-aires, of whom there were also several grades, depending on their wealth in stock. When a bó-aire had twice the wealth of the lowest class of flaith he might enclose part of the land adjoining his house as a lawn; this was the first step towards his becoming a flaith. The relations which subsisted between the flaiths and the bó-aires formed the most curious part of the Celtic tribal system, and throw a flood of light on the origin of the feudal system. Every tribesman without exception owed ceilsinne to the ríg, or chief, that is, he was bound to become his ceile, or vassal. This consisted in paying the ríg a tribute in kind, for which the ceile was entitled to receive a proportionate amount of stock without having to give any bond for their return, giving him service, e.g. in building his dun, or stronghold, reaping his harvest, keeping his roads clean and in repair, killing wolves, and especially service in the field, and doing him homage three times while seated every time he made his return of tribute. Paying the “calpe” to the Highland chiefs represented this kind of vassalage, a colpdach or heifer being in many cases the amount of food-rent paid by a free or saer ceile. A tribesman might, however, if he pleased, pay a higher rent on receiving more stock together with certain other chattels for which no rent was chargeable. In this case he entered into a contract, and was therefore a bond or daer ceile. No one need have accepted stock on these terms, nor could he do so without the consent of his sept, and he might free himself at any time from his obligation by returning what he had received, and the rent due thereon.
What every one was bound to do to his ríg, or chief, he might do voluntarily to the flaith of his sept, to any flaith of the tribe, or even to one of another tribe. He might also become a bond ceile. In either case he might renounce his ceileship by returning a greater or lesser amount of stock than what he had received according to the circumstances under which he terminated his vassalage. In cases of disputed succession to the chiefship of a tribe the rival claimants were always anxious to get as many as possible to become their vassals. Hence the anxiety of minor chieftains, in later times in the Highlands of Scotland, to induce the clansmen to pay the “calpe” where there happened to be a doubt as to who was entitled to be chief.
The effect of the custom of gavel-kind was to equalize the wealth of each and leave no one wealthy enough to be chief. The “joint and undivided family” and the formation of “joint families,” or gilds, was one way of obviating this result; another way was the custom of tanistry. The headship of the tribe was practically confined to the members of one family; this was also the case with the headship of a sept. Sometimes a son succeeded his father, but the rule was that the eldest and most capable member of the geilfine, that is, the relatives of the actual chief to the fifth degree, was selected during his lifetime to be his successor—generally the eldest surviving brother or son of the preceding chief. The man selected as successor to a chief of a tribe, or chieftain of a sept, was called the tanist, and should be “the most experienced, the most noble, the most wealthy, the wisest, the most learned, the most truly popular, the most powerful to oppose, the most steadfast to sue for profits and (be sued) for losses.” In addition to these qualities he should be free from personal blemishes and deformities and of fit age to lead his tribe or sept, as the case may be, to battle. So far as selecting the man of the geilfine who was supposed to possess all those qualities, the office of chief of a tribe or chieftain of a sept was elective, but as the geilfine was represented by four persons, together with the chief or chieftain, the election was practically confined to one of the four. In order to support the dignity of the chief or chieftain a certain portion of the tribe or sept land was attached as an apanage to the office; this land, with the duns or fortified residences upon it, went to the successor, but a chief’s own property might be gavelled. This custom of tanistry applied at first probably to the selection of the successors of a ríg, but was gradually so extended that even a bó-aire had a tanist.
A sept might have only one flaith, or lord, connected with it, or might have several. It sometimes happened, however, that a sept might be so broken and reduced as not to have even one man qualified to rank as a flaith. The rank of a flaith depended upon the number of his ceiles, that is, upon his wealth. The flaith of a sept, and the highest when there was more than one, was ceann fine, or head of the sept, or as he was usually called in Scotland, the chieftain. He was also called the flaith geilfine, or head of the geilfine, that is, the kinsmen to the fifth degree from among whom should be chosen the tanist, and who, according to the custom of gavel-kind, were the immediate heirs who received the personal property and were answerable for the liabilities of the sept. The flaiths of the different septs were the vassals of the ríg, or chief of the tribe, and performed certain functions which were no doubt at first individual, but in time became the hereditary right of the sept. One of those was the office of maer, or steward of the chief’s rents, &c.; and another that of aire tuisi, leading aire, or taoisech, a word cognate with the Latin duc-s or dux, and Anglo-Saxon here-tog, leader of the “here,” or army. The taoisech was leader of the tribe in battle; in later times the term seems to have been extended to several offices of rank. The cadet of a Highland clan was always called the taoisech, which has been translated captain; after the conquest of Wales the same term, tywysaug, was used for a ruling prince. Slavery was very common in Ireland and Scotland;
- The explanation here given of geilfine is different from that given in the introduction to the third volume of the Ancient Laws of Ireland, which was followed by Sir H. S. Maine in his account of it in his Early History of Institutions, and which the present writer believes to be erroneous.
- It should also be mentioned that illegitimacy was not a bar. The issue of “handfast” marriages in Scotland were eligible to be chiefs, and even sometimes claimed under feudal law.
- This office is of considerable importance in connexion with early Scottish history. In the Irish annals the ríg, or chief of a great tribe (mor tuath), such as of Ross, Moray, Marr, Buchan, &c., is called a mor maer, or great maer. Sometimes the same person is called king also in these annals. Thus Findlaec, or Finlay, son of Ruadhri, the father of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is called king of Moray in the Annals of Ulster, and mor maer in the Annals of Tighernach. The term is never found in Scottish charters, but it occurs in the Book of the Abbey of Deir in Buchan, now in the library of the university of Cambridge. The Scotic kings and their successors obviously regarded the chiefs of the great tribes in question merely as their maers, while their tribesmen only knew them as kings. From these “mor-maerships,” which corresponded with the ancient mor tuatha, came most, if not all, the ancient Scottish earldoms.