Thane (Scotland)

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Thane was the title given to a local royal official in medieval eastern Scotland, equivalent in rank to the son of an earl,[1] who was at the head of an administrative and socio-economic unit known as a thanedom.[citation needed]


... the "thane", though he later developed into a laird, was at first an officer, half royal servant and half landowner, who looked after a portion of the king's land.--J. D. Mackie, A History of Scotland; 2nd ed., rev. by Bruce Lenman & Geoffrey Parker. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978; p. 46

The thane was introduced in the reign of David I (reigned 1124–1153), an Anglophile, to replace the Gaelic tòiseach (meaning leader, and with which the term Taoiseach shares an origin). In Scotland at that time toshach designated a deputy to a mormaer, controlling a particular portion of a mormaerdom on the mormaer's behalf. The English thegn was a more general term, simply referring to a powerful nobleman below the rank of Ealdorman (a term which had now evolved into earl); having introduced earl to describe mormaers, David used thane to describe toshachs.[citation needed]

Functionally, the thane was a territorial administrator, acting under a territorial earl (the latter resembling a Saxon ealdorman rather than the more superficial Norman earl), or royal steward. Though thanes often held land within the region they administered, this was coincidental; providing land tenure was simply the way of paying for their services, the location of their lands not being intrinsically linked to the authority they wielded in any particular region.[citation needed]

However, after the death of Alexander III in 1286, thanes differed from their tosach forebears by holding their position as a feudal grant from the crown, rather than the almost independent status held by a tosach. Thanes consequently resembled English barons, but with greater judicial and administrative authority which extended beyond the lands they directly held. In later centuries, the term thanes dropped out of use in favour of baron, but described as having regality, a term used to describe both the thanes' powers, and the greater powers of the territorial earl.[citation needed]

Cultural associations[edit]

In William Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606), the character Macbeth holds the title "Thane of Glamis", and later, "Thane of Cawdor".[2] The historical King Macbeth fought a Thane of Cawdor who died in battle, but he did not thereby acquire the title himself.

The 2nd Earl of Cawdor wrote a history of the Thanes of Cawdor, in 1742, published in 1859.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "thane - definition of thane in English from the Oxford dictionary".
  2. ^ William Shakespeare (1911). The Tragedy of Macbeth. Scribner's Sons. pp. 10–11. Retrieved 2018-04-26.
  3. ^ John Frederick Vaughan Campbell Cawdor (1742). Innes, Cosmo (ed.). The Book of the Thanes of Cawdor: a series of papers selected from the charter room at Cawdor. 1236-1742, Volume 1236, Issue 1742. Edinburgh: Spalding Club. p. xiii. Retrieved 2013-06-23. As we cannot name the first Celtic chieftain who consented to change his style of Toshach and his patriarchal sway for the title and stability of King's Thane of Cawdor, so it is impossible to fix the precise time when their ancient property and offices were acquired.


  • Grant, Alexander (1993). "Thanes and Thanages, from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Centuries". In Alexander Grant and Keith J. Stringer (ed.). Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community. Essays Presented to G. W. S. Barrow. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 39–81.