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Welsh History Review


Vol. 13, nos. 1-4 1986-87

Bloodfeud in Scotland, 1573-1625. Book review.

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by these essays and the conclusions advanced by their authors have a significance for
the understanding of king-centred and aristocratic-dominated societies everywhere,
medieval England and Wales included.
BLOODFEUD IN SCOTLAND, 1573-1625. By Keith M. Brown. John Donald,
Edinburgh, 1986. Pp. 299. £ 25.00.
This is an important book on two counts. First, it belongs and relates to a corpus
of recent work transforming our understanding of Jacobean Scotland and associated
especially with Gordon Donaldson and Jenny Wormald. Second, it is part of a rather
different tradition, heralded by Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, of applying the
techniques and thought-processes of anthropology and sociology to early-modem
British societies. Dr. Brown's erudition is remarkable, and his reader constantly finds
cross-comparisons not only with research into sixteenth-century continental states but
into Sudanese, Amazonian and Philippine tribes, the ancient Roman republic, the
Mafia, the Ottoman aristocracy and New York City street gangs. In keeping with its
two foci, the book appears to fall implicitly into two very different sections. The first
is an analysis of the early-modem Scottish bloodfeud itself, the second a study of the
changing problem of law and order in the reign of James VI.
Broadly, the 'feuding society' of sixteenth-century Scotland was a decentralised
state with strong family bonds and powerful lordship. Young men had a high profile,
the carrying of arms was both a duty and a sign of rank, and neither the law nor the
judges which enforced it were ever thought of as objective. The power of a lord to
protect and advance the interests of kin and tenants was best displayed by his prowess
in conducting a quarrel: one who avoided clashes and ignored slights was regarded
as a liability by his dependents, for his presumed weakness attracted predators. The
occasions for feuds were almost all local, such as disputes over inheritances,
boundaries and revenues, and religious and national political factions could cut across
them. Nevertheless, such quarrels regularly invaded the royal court, and once
established they could last for generations. They were generally ended by pressure
from kin and allies of the combatants who wished to reunite the local community.
Even at the height of a feud, care was usually exercised by both sides to limit the
damage done to a region. Raiding was selective and episodic and never degenerated
into anarchy, and while Scottish nobles murdered each other with some regularity,
they were reluctant to employ judicial violence in political changes. The long list of
political executions which marks Tudor history had no parallel over the Border. Dr.
Brown goes on to show that there was an epidemic of feuding in late-sixteenth-century
Scotland. Rising prices and population, the Reformation and (above all) the collapse
of the monarchy all acted to increase tensions within a society already imbued with
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