Lordship of the Isles
Gaelic Law
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Gaelic Law

Gaelic law is undoubtedly one of the most alien features of the Lordship of the Isles, in comparison with a feudal state. It can be traced back to ancient Ireland (pre-Roman times) but most of the modern influences which now form all the legislation required in a modern state are less than three hundred years old, and can be traced back to the Kingdom of Alba.

The key thing to remember is that there are no criminal courts in the Lordship of the Isles, with the possible exception of the Council of the Isles at Eilean na Comhairle which may often judge when a local ruler has been unable to, or in political cases. Instead, any crime committed against a person or property is civil, and the victim and their family have great influence over how the case is handled. If found guilty, the criminal is always required to give some of their property to the victim and their family.

Usually, the local tacksman will be able to make a decision on minor crimes, and if he cannot, or if the victim, criminal, and their families want to have the decision reviewed, the judge for the island or administrative district will do so, and he has it in his power to seek the judgement of the Council of the Isles if there is still a lot of controversy without asking the permission of the local thane or armin (it depends on where you were in the Lordship - sometimes the judges were thanes and armins, and at other times they were more or less the stewards of the thanes and armins, and at other times they did as described above) who will then make the final decision, with the wisdom of the Lord of the Isles to guide them.

Another thing that should be noted is that knowledge of either Highland Gaelic, Norwegian, or Latin is required on the part of the judge to begin legal proceedings, and interpreters may then be found for either the victim, criminal, or both depending on the crime and the location.

Anyone, in theory, may submit their case to the Council of the Isles, but should be aware that the Lord of the Isles may dismiss any case and give the judge the power to make the final decision if he thinks there is not enough of a cause for the case to be submitted to the Council of the Isles, and that even if he does not he may not be present when the Council makes a decision, either at his own request or by necessity. Whilst the Lord of the Isles tries to be present when someone requires his judgement, other things are more important than this, and often when he has other things he must pay attention to he will give the power to make the final decision to the Council.

Key Differences to Feudal Law

There are many important differences in Gaelic law in comparison with the feudal laws of Scotland and England that must be noted. The first has already been mentioned, that there are no criminal courts. The second is that the magnitude of the crime will affect the punishment, as will the criminal's intent. The third is that there is little distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children as far as rights to inherit property is concerned.

This curious difference has little to do with religion. In fact, where tanistry is often used to decide an heir, it is a convenience. It also applies to fostered sons, even if they are of no relation whatsoever. You need to refer to the appropriate page in this guidebook to read more about tanistry.

Daughters do not usually receive land or the buildings on it, but are expected to be left gifts and other objects. It has may be that her brothers would often gift her, but this is not a part of the law. It instead is a part of Gaelic custom, which, although it had the strength of law, is reinforced by official punishment if not followed

Speaking of women, they in fact have equal status in legal matters, and also things such as divorce. Instead of marriage, women may ask for handfasting to see whether or not they and their partner would be compatible (influential women didn't actually need to ask...) which is accepted as marriage if a child is expected a year after the handfasting is declared.


An offender always has to pay a fine to their victim, especially in cases of rape and assault. The fine is decided by the victim and a judge, and sometimes the family of the victim. The offender has no say in this, and the role of the judge is only to decide how much the offender should pay, and not to decide whether they are innocent or guilty, but the criminal can appeal to the Lord of the Isles after they have paid the fine if they believed they had not done anything wrong or that the fine was too harsh, through the judge.

The fine has to be repaid if the Lord of the Isles decides in the offender's favour.

Also, the victim does not receive all of the fine. The judge also takes some of it, and often gives some of this to the Lord of the Isles if the victim or offender appealed.

Fines are not payments in currency, as the Lordship of the Isles had none, but are in goods like food, cattle, swords, and galleys.

There are other punishments that the victims can appeal for, that only the Lord of the Isles can order. These are reserved for crimes such as murder, heresy, and rape that results in pregnancy.

Exile, after a fine had been paid, is the most. It is often to another island, but could also be to Ireland or Scotland.

Chiefs could also reserve punishments such as burning (look up how the Brahan Seer was killed for an idea of what this meant - it's not your typical burning) for crimes of great magnitude, although these rarely seem to have been used, except for a few notable cases.

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