By John Barrett and David Iredale
The Norman Conquest of Scotland - the words have an unfamiliar ring. Perhaps this is because there was for Scotland, unlike England, no decisive Battle of Hastings and no convenient 1066 date for every school pupil to remember as a turning-point in the nation's history. Nonetheless there was a "conquest" - an invasion of Norman people and ideas which reshaped Scottish life.
The Normans were originally Scandinavian Vikings (men of the North or the North-men). This warrior people settled in northern France (the Duchy of Normandy) where they developed a distinctive military culture which enabled them to spread their influence and carve out kingdoms from Ireland to Palestine.
We can trace the beginnings of the Norman "Conquest" of Scotland to the reign of King Macbeth (1040-1057). Macbeth was in the mainstream of European culture, and in Europe the people to watch were the Normans. In 1050 Macbeth travelled to Rome on a pilgrimage, a fact-finding mission which incidentally served notice on the independent Celtic church in Scotland. Upon his return Macbeth welcomed to his court two Frenchmen-Norman courtiers expelled from England by the Norman-educated King Edward the Confessor, during the ascendancy of the conservative Godwin faction, which included Harold Godwinson, the future king. The exiled Frenchmen arrived in Scotland, not as ragged refugees, but as proud warrior chiefs at the head of a caravan which included their numerous families, servants, men-at-arms, clerks and assorted hangers-on.
The Norman "Conquest" was completed under subsequent Kings of Scots and their influential English or French wives. Malcolm Canmore and his descendants - Edgar, Alexander, David, Malcolm (The Maiden) and William (The Lion) - studied Norman culture at first hand. As proud knights they fought alongside the Norman kings of England in their French and Welsh adventures and their civil wars. As Earls of Huntingdon, Scottish kings were feudal vassals of the English crown - mighty subjects of Europe's most powerful Norman rulers. Scottish kings fought against England, too, with invasions and captivities providing further lessons in Norman civilisation.
Kings of Scots actively encouraged immigration from Norman Europe. The newcomers might be younger sons of English or French knights who rode as mercenaries in the armies of the Scottish king. Other Norman immigrants arrived from England, Wales, Normandy, Flanders and Picardy as merchants. These entrepreneurs were deliberately settled in royal burghs-towns newly built to serve as centres of wealth-creation and royal administration in a largely Celtic countryside.
Norman and Breton names, such as Hugo, Alan, Comyn, Robert, Archibald and William, supplanted Celtic names in the roll of Scottish landowners. Norman lords of Scottish estates bore surnames which celebrated foreign origins: nicknames such as Fraser (from the French fraise, strawberry) and Grant (le grand); place-names such as Bruce and Sinclair (from Brix and St Clairsur-Elle in La Manche); and the commonplace Wallace/Walsh (Welsh), Inglis (English) Fleming (from Flanders) and Bremner (Brabant).
Norman go-getters got the best jobs and made the most of them. Thus mere servants in the royal household-butlers, marischals (grooms), gatekeepers (porters, doorwards/durwards) might rise through cunning, marriage and assassination - to the peerage. Descendants of Walter the Steward eventually seized the crown.
Service to the king, at court or on the battlefield, was rewarded with lands and lordships. Thus one soldier of fortune, Freskin the Fleming and his family, received estates from Lothian to Duffus, Duffus to Dun Robin. Land was held in return for military service, such as providing an armoured knight or so many footsoldiers when the king required. This was the basis of the feudal system.
The king had land aplenty to give. He possessed estates right across the country. Some were ancient patrimony, others were confiscated from rebels or seized when heirs failed. The king might marry off Celtic heiresses to his Norman favourites or he might simply grant land to Normans over the heads of native chiefs, just as land in America or Australia was granted to white settlers without reference to Indians or Aborigines.
The symbol of Norman lordship was the motte-and-bailey castle. These feudal strongholds erupted like carbuncles across Scotland marking stages in the Normanisation of the nation from Galloway to Moray - though not significantly in the Gaelic West or the Viking North. The word 'motte" (sometimes spelled mote) is Norman-French. It originally meant 'mound" or "hillock" but as often as not in the particular sense of 'castle-mound". The word "moat" for the ditched defences of a castle is also derived from motte. The word "bailey" is derived from the Norman French word baille indicating an enclosed or palisaded area.
Military engineers chose a castle site with care. Thus the motte of Fintry, west of Stirling, enjoys strategic views from a site on sloping ground some 150 feet above Endrick Water. Typically, the Norman builders ignored the airy natural stronghold some 700 feet above, where previous tenants - Celtic chieftains - had established a citadel still known as Dunmore ("the great fortress").
The Norman lord erected a temporary palisaded fortification while work on his motte-and-bailey progressed. Local peasants were pressed into service for the heavy spadework of making banks and ditches to enclose an area of several acres. This earthwork, topped with a palisade, was the castle bailey. As the main living area of the stronghold, the bailey was filled with halls for the lord, his family and retainers, kitchens, stables, stockyards, barns, dungheaps and perhaps a private chapel.
At one side of the bailey the motte was raised with earth and stone dug from an encircling ditch and with material excavated from nearby quarries. The motte, a pudding-basinshaped mound, is the feature we see most clearly today on Norman castle sites. Originally the motte was crowned with a palisade and a timber hall or watchtower. This was a place of last refuge in an emergency and, more particularly, an unmistakable symbol of Norman power in the countryside.
Norman military engineers made use of existing landscape features, perhaps sculpting a natural hillock into a motte. At Sandhead in the Rhinns of Galloway a motte was heaped for maximum visual impact on top of a prominent ridge. Fichlie motte in Aberdeenshire was formed by cutting off a portion of river terrace at a point where a deep natural gully provided additional protection to one flank.
Hunt-the-motte is a stimulating outdoor pursuit for professional historian and country rambler alike. Find your local motte and you win come face-to-face with the Norman "conqueror' of your locality. A little further research in the public library may even reveal his name and place of origin.
Finding the motte is not difficult. The shape is always striking, perhaps as a gorse or grass-covered mound islanded among cornfields. Moffe of Urr in Kirkcudbrightshire is easily recognisable and marvelously well preserved. Even the bailey is still clearly defined by substantial earthworks. A small market town flourished under its protection; the feudal protection racket here being run by Walter of Berkeley, chamberlain to King William, The Lion.
Conspicuous stands of trees may betray the presence of a motte. Despite its tuft of woodland, Balfron motte is well worth a visit. The primary function of the motte was, of course, to protect the estate and house its Norman lord in style and security. Two natural gullies and a deep-dug ditch skirt the motte which, despite its modest height of 10 feet, was a respectable fortress.
Balfron motte served a secondary function in the strategic defence of the Forth valley and the royal centres of Stirling and even Edinburgh. Balfron was one link in a chain of mottes including those at Drymen, Fintry and Sir John de Graham's square-ditched stronghold at the head of the Carron Valley. This concentration of Norman armed camps controlled an important corridor linking Normanised central Scotland with the barbarian Gaelic West, and closed one of the traditional raiding routes of the Men of Argyll.
A classic motte, shrouded by trees, is one of the larger hazards on Carnwath golf course. This was the focus of the lordship of Libberton, an estate granted to William de Somerville who came from Yorkshire to Normanise this area of Clydesdale on behalf of David I.
Is there a medieval castle in your parish? Perhaps the walls you see trace the outline of an original motteand-bailey. The later lords of Duffus replaced the timber hall which Freskin built atop his motte with a sturdy masonry keep. The timber palisade of Freskin's bailey was replaced with a high stone wall to improve one of Moray's proudest castles.
The Normans reorganised the medieval church. Parish boundaries coincided with Norman estates, so that each parish was protected by its own motte and bailey. In Upper Clydesdale, where Flemish followers of David I settled to run sheep in the wild Lanark hills, the mottes were established some distance from the parish church for convenient estate administration. Elsewhere a motte stood close to the medieval parish church.
At Struan in Perthshire and at Auchendoir in Upper Donside, Aberdeenshire, we see feudal lord and Catholic priest - castle-motte and parish church - standing shoulder to shoulder to govern a perhaps sullen populace of peasant natives. At Midmar in the rolling hills of west Aberdeenshire the motte of Coningar and the ancient (pre-Norman) church are connected in local legend with the patriot warlord William Wallace, whose surname, of course, indicates his Norman-Welsh family background.
On these motte-and-church sites we have to imagine the third element of feudal society - the peasants. These ordinary folk lived in a village of turf and timber houses, planned and regulated by their Norman master. These medieval villages flourished until the 18th century when they were cleared in a new flurry of social and agrarian reform.
You can play hunt-the-motte in the parkland and farmland surrounding a stately home or towerhouse. This adds a new dimension of discovery to the usual tourist trail. Innes House in Moray is a stately five-storey tower embraced by comfortable later additions. Just five minutes' walk from the present laird's front door is the Innes motte, stronghold of Berowald the Fleming who held the estate for services rendered to Malcolm IV.
Ardwell House in Galloway is a modest laird's house of the 18th century - a comfortable gentleman's home to replace the craggily inconvenient Killaser Castle - a towerhouse of the kind seen all over the country. But the story goes back a good deal further - to the Norman Conquest. On a slope above the laird's millponds on the Killaser Burn is the unmistakable profile of a Norman motte, presumably the Ardwell family's first home.
Estate dovecotes and windmills on low mounds may provide clues to motte sites, particularly if examined in the local landscape. At Culloden the dovecote is sited on an eminence close to the estate rent-barn and stables. The estate's principal water supply washes the foot of the mound. This is a most likely site for the motte and bailey of the Norman laird, especially when old maps show that the now-destroyed Culloden village and castle were here, too.
Local legend may indicate a motte. At Ballindalloch Castle, a much embellished 16th-century towerhouse on Speyside, visitors are told a story. While the castle was under construction on a different site, various accidents hampered the work. At last a supernatural voice told the laird to "go and build on the coo haugh". This was done, and the castle stands on the cow.pasture to this day. The tale gives us a hint that there might be another earlier castle nearby. And sure enough, half a mile away, we find the base of an early medieval tower. This castle, protected on one side by water, stands on a rounded knoll which is certainly the remains of the motte built for the Norman laird of Ballindalloch.
A place-name may also indicate the site of a motte. Many a "Castlehfll' turns out to be a Norman motte. Torcastle in Dallas, Moray, includes the Gaelic word tor meaning "hillock". The hillock is indeed a castlehill. The motte which stands out among the fields was built by William of Ripley who was granted this pastoral Pictish estate by King William. Once established here the family took the surname de Dallas or simply Dallas. One of William Ripley's descendants - or more probably a descendant of one of his peasant tenants - was George M. Dallas, U.S. vice-president in 1844. The city of Dallas, Texas, was named in his honour.
The king, too, built motte-and-bailey castles. Here the royal family and the whole court would lodge during peregrinations through the kingdom. A sheriff managed the king's affairs in the provinces during his absence.
A notable chain of royal mottes is to be seen in the North-East. Moray was a troublesome province, the patrimony of the murdered King Macbeth, requiring particularly firm royal control. There is a splendid royal motte just beyond the medieval boundary of each of the royal burghs of Cullen, Elgin, Forres, Auldearn and Inverness. At Banff it is the bailey earthworks, rather than the motte, which survives. At Naim the motte is no longer visible though its site is clearly indicated by modern property boundaries in the vicinity of the Constabulary Gardens.
As the Norman "Conquest' progressed, adventurous Normans penetrated beyond the pale of lands controlled by the King of Scots. Thus we can see motte-like strongholds in the southern districts (Sutherland) of the Viking earldom of Caithness. A notable northern motte stands beside the Dunbeath river a stone's throw from Dun Beath itself - an Iron-Age broch which housed the pagan Celtic lord of the place.
The motte is defended at the base by a curiously substantial drystane dyke of significant antiquity. Extending from the foot of the motte is a raised platform identified as the bailey. Doubtless, visitors and residents will identify throughout Sutherland and Caithness (and perhaps in the Orkneys, too) other hitherto unrecognised motte-and- bailey earthworks - strongholds of the most daring, or foolhardy, of our Norman "conquerors".