In early medieval Scotland, a mormaer was the Gaelic name for a regional or provincial ruler, theoretically second only to the King of Scots, and the senior of a toisech (chieftain). Mormaers were equivalent to English earls or Continental counts, and the term is often translated into English as 'earl'.
The etymology is variously debated as "Great Steward" (incorporating Gaelic and Picto-Latin), or "Sea Lord" (perhaps defenders against Vikings). Historians do not know whether the institution was Gaelic or Pictish. However, since mormaer occurs only in the post-Pictish period, it is difficult to argue for Pictish origins. There is also debate whether mormaer was simply the east-coast equivalent of kinglet (Gaelic: ruirí or rí). For the earliest periods, there is uncertainty about the difference between a mormaer and a toisech (Modern Scottish Gaelic tòiseach 'chief'). The earliest Scottish Latin sources use thanus (thane) for toisech; this word was adopted from the Anglo-Saxon lands to the south. It is possible that thanus, comes, mormaer and toisech all originally meant similar things, or at least were not elements of a stratified hierarchy.
The office of mormaer is first mentioned in the context of the Battle of Corbridge (918), in the Annals of Ulster. The first individual named mormaer was Dubacan of Angus, one of the companions of Amlaib, the son of King Causantín II (Constantine II). His death at the Battle of Brunanburh (937) is recorded in the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba. He is mentioned as Mormaer of Angus (Gaelic:"Mormair Oengusa', or 'Mormaer Óengus).
Another three mormaers are named, though without provinces, in the Annals of Tigernach, s.a. 976. However, the earliest mormaers of each province are generally only hazily, if at all, known until the 12th century, by which time mormaer is being referred to in Latin documents as comes. From the 12th century, eight 'old' mormaer dynasties are known to be hereditary, continuous and no longer fragmentary, and also additionally the dynasties of Charraig. Dunbarra, Cataidh, and Moireabh had yet older dynasties.
Pre-12th century dynasties:
- Mormaer of Mearns (Extinct before the 12th century)
- mormaers of Cataibh
- mormaers of Moireabh
- 'mormaers' of Lodainn/Dunbarra
'Traditional' mormaerdoms (established dynasty in the 12th century, but not proven earlier):
- mormaers of Marr
- mormaers of Buchan
- mormaers of Athal
- mormaers of Aonghais
- mormaers of Fiobh
- mormaers of Sratheireann
- mormaers of Moneteadhaich
- mormaers of Leamhnachd
much later, creation in the 13th century:
Mormaer, comes and "earl"
There is an erroneous impression that "Mormaerdoms" were scrapped and replaced by "Earldoms." In fact, Comes (literally Companion, in the feudal age Count, which word derives from it) is just a Franco-Latin word used on the British Isles to render either Mormaer or Earl into Latin (with French). For instance, several Irish sources call King Robert Bruce Mormaer (of Carrick) in the 14th century. As this is not an Irish word, it is clear that the word is being used by the Scots for the office. Moreover, the term is still recorded as being used for the "Earl" of Lennox a century later. On the other hand, the West Germanic word Earl is not recorded as being in use in Scotland until the mid-14th century, and then only in an English literary text.
Mormaers and other lordships
A mormaerdom was not simply a regional lordship, it was a regional lordship with official comital rank. This is why other lordships, many of them more powerful, such as those of lords of Galloway, Argyll and Innse Gall, are not, and were not, called mormaerdoms or earldoms.
List of mormaers
This list does not include Orkney, which was a Norwegian Earldom, and became ruled by Scotland in the 15th century. Sutherland might be included, but it was created only late, and for a possibly foreign family (see Earl of Sutherland)
- Mormaerdom/Kingdom of Moray
- Mormaerdom of Fife
- Mormaerdom of Strathearn
- Mormaerdom of Angus
- Mormaerdom of Atholl
- Mormaerdom of Buchan
- Mormaerdom of Caithness, See Earl of Orkney
- For Mormaerdom of Carrick, See Earl of Carrick
- For the Anglo-Scottish Mormaerdom of Lothian/Dunbar, See Earl of Dunbar
- Mormaerdom of Lennox
- Mormaerdom of Mar
- ? Mormaerdom of Mearns
- Mormaerdom of Menteith
- Mormaerdom of Ross
- Anderson, Alan Orr, Early Sources of Scottish History: AD 500–1286, 2 Vols, (Edinburgh, 1922)
- Barrow, G.W.S., The Kingdom of the Scots, (Edinburgh, 2003)
- Broun, Dauvit, "Mormaer," in J. Cannon (ed.) The Oxford Companion to British History, (Oxford, 1997)
- Lynch, Michael, Scotland: A New History, (Edinburgh, 1991)
- Roberts, John L., Lost Kingdoms: Celtic Scotland in the Middle Ages, (Edinburgh, 1997)