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Scotland - Earl of Ross

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Earldom of Ross

c. 600 AD to 1020

The lands of what became the Earldom of Ross were once part of the lands of Moray and first appear on record as being under control of, if not under the immediate government of, the Norwegian Earls (Jarls), from Jarl Sigurd Eysteinson, who died in 874, down to Jarl Thorfinn, who died in or after 1057.[1] As such they were held to the Norwegian Crown and part of the Peerage of that country although certainly disputed lands. Prior to this date (c. 600) they were held to a variety of Pictish tribes but no record has prevailed. There was never any, at least recorded, Kingdom of Ross.

During the period of Norwegian rule there is mention of various members of what was likely an indigenous ruling class. There is evidence of:[2]

A Finlay or Findlaec, or Finleik, named as "Earl of the Scots", who is noticed when he challenged the Norwegian Earl Sigurd the Stout (Hlodverson) to a battle which resulted in the battle of Skida mire at Skitten in Caithness. This likely c. 985 as Sigurd was Earl between 980 to 1014 and this fought shortly after he came to power. Sigurd was Jarl of Orkney and his victory over this "Earl of the Scots" secured him as ruler over Ross, Moray, Sutherland, and part of Caithness, adding these to the other part of Caithness and Orkney. Finlay, in the Annals of Tighernac, is noticed as "Findlaec MacRuaidhri, Mormaer Moreb". He may also have been Ri (king) Alba. Finlay is known to have submitted to Sigurd and may have done homage to him for Moray, thus giving rise to the notice in the Irish Chronicles. Sigurd was killed at the battle of Clontarf in 1014. Finlay was killed by his nephews, the sons of his brother Maelbrighde, in 1020. Finlay is also known as the father to Macbeth. It is thought that Finlay's wife was Donada, second daughter of Malcolm II., King of Scots.
Maelbrighde, also known as "MacRuaidhri" may have been joint ruler of Moray with his brother, and, according to Sir James Balfour Paul,[3] probably the elder of the two (as he fought the Norwegians first), although very little is recorded of him. In the local clans, inheritance was not by primogeniture but likely agnatic or tanistic (if Pict, which is likely, then agnatic, if Irish, then tanistic). He is noticed, as Earl Magbiod or Magbiadr,[4] when contending with Jarl Liot of Caithness at Skidamyre, likely c. 975, and being defeated, but Liot, though victorious, died of his wounds.

As a result of these victories against the Kingdom of Alba (later Scotland), Norway held title to all lands north of the Spey (inverness) and "Dali" thought to be Dalriada (Kingdom of Dál Riata on the west coast). Dalriada was also held by a Norwegian Jarl and the kings of Norway appear to have claimed tribute from the islands, having defeated the Irish clans that had been based there. This the time of the unification of Norway and Denmark, under Cnut and these parts were held as part of his North Sea Empire (although incorrectly not noted on wikipedia). The map on the right shows the Kingdom of Alba in c. 1000 AD with Alba in the blue. All the lands south of the kingdom of Northumbria, which extended into England, were held to Cnut. Alba was ruled, by election, by Mormaers with the strongest being those of Moray.

The division and continual fighting between Norway and Denmark led to the two houses that disputed the Isles for the next 200 odd years; Norwegians holding the northern Isles and Danes holding the southern and their cities in Ireland. It is at this time, c. 1000, that there appears a Norwegian, King of the Isles (and later of Mann).

In about 900 two Scottish "Earls", stated as Hundi and Melsnati, entered the Norwegian territory of "Ross" and killed a Havard of Threswick, believed to have been Sigurd's brother-in-law and likely its Norwegian governor.[5] The "Earls" were defeated by Sigurd at a battle at Duncansness but another Scot, named "Earl Melkolf" advanced from a place called Duncansby (which was presumably close by) and forced Sigurd from the field. It is clear from the narrative that local "Mormaers" hold power in Ross although it is not clear to whom they owed allegiance (if anyone). Most historians believe that while Kenneth mac Alpin contested the lands of Ross and those of Sutherland and Caithness, they were not yet in his power although neither were they firmly in the grip of Norway.

The Origin of the Earldom of Ross

The power of the Vikings Earls was destroyed at the Battle of Cluantarbh, near Dublin, on Good Friday, 1014. The Vikings were defeated by the combined forces of Ireland, Alba and Cumbria (Wales). The forces of Alba, now called Scots, were led by a Domnall, the Mormaer of Mar, who was killed at the battle. However the Vikings forces were near destroyed and Sigurd killed; with his death the Norwegian hold over Ross disintegrated. Sigurd had married, as his second wife, a daughter to Malcolm, King of Scots and the result was a son Thorfinn, who is know to have been five at the time of the battle. Malcolm granted Caithness and Sutherland on Thorfinn. Skene provides that the province of Moray and Ross, was provided to the same Finleikr who ruled prior, and who appears in Tighernac as Findlaec mac Ruaidhri, Mormaer Moreb, and in the Ulster Annals as "Ri Alban", suggesting there was a distinction at this point between the King of Scotland and the King of Alba.[6] In 1031, when Cnut went to Rome the actual kingdom of Alban, now called Scotia, was described as extending only from the Firth of Forth to the river Spey, and the provinces beyond them, though viewed by the kings of the Scots as dependencies upon their kingdom, was actually regarded as Norse, all "Albania, which is now called Scotia, and Moravia". Moravia, had been extended and was now the province of, what we would recognise today as, Moray and Ross. The year c. 1030. Roughly depicted on the map at right. Skene then provides[7] that in the Scottish and Vikings wars of 1040, Earl Thorfinn, son to Sigurd, and now Earl of Orkney, Caithness and Sutherland combined forces with Macbeth to defeat the Scottish force under Duncan. Duncan killed, Scotland was again divided with Thorfinn reclaiming all the north, including Buchan and the east coast to the Tay, and Macbeth claiming southern Scotland, Cumbria and Lothians remaining faithful to the children of Duncan.

There is some conjecture surrounding the first appearance of an Earl of Ross. Sir James Balfour Paul[8] suggests there is good reason to believe that the first to hold the title was Malcolm MacEth, who also appears before 1160 as a witness to one of King Malcolm's charters. He had, for former insurrection against David I., been imprisoned in Roxburgh Castle, but in 1154 Somerled, Lord of Argyll, with his nephews, Malcolm's sons, invaded Scotland, and caused a civil war, which lasted until the King released Malcolm in 1157 and, according to an English chronicler (William of Newburgh), 'gave him a certain province.' Skene, in his Celtic Scotland, suggests this "province" was Ross, then part of the territory of Moray. Wyntoun records him as "Gillandres" and this and "Ghilleanris" was the patronymic used in Wyntoun's time. He, Malcolm, married a sister of Somerled, Lord of Argyll, and had children. He died 23 Oct 1168.

However in 1161, Floris III., Count of Holland, was created Earl of Ross on his marriage to Ada, William I. (the Lion) sister. From this marriage the county of Holland adopted the rampant lion in the coat of arms and the name of William. It is doubtful if he ever possessed more than the title, as his descendant complained in 1291 that the earldom was detained from him without reason, and he had never been forfeited. After this the earldom remained in the hands of the Crown until Alexander II. bestowed it upon Ferquhard Macintagart, son of the lay parson of the territory of the monastery of Saint Máelrubai at Applecross, Ross.

1st Earl of Ross - Ferquhard Macintagart

The hereditary interest as lay abbot of the territory of the monastery of Saint Máelrubai at Applecross had passed into the hands of a family of lay priests called Sagarts or Priests of Applecross. The holdings of the monastery were significant and the lay abbot thus one of the most powerful of the Highland chiefs. When Alexander II. was forced, in 1215, to suppress an insurrection in Moray and Ross, Ferquhard, siding with him, seized the insurgent leaders, beheaded them, and presented their heads to the King, 15 June 1215, and was knighted by him. He was, at a later date, created Earl of Ross, appearing as such in a writ dated probably after June 1226. He founded the Abbey of Ferne from which the Ferne Calendar is found.

From him are derived the House of Ross and his descendent will control the Earldom until it passes to the Leslie family in the Charter of 1370.

Earls of Ross, Creation of 1481

  • James Stewart, Earl of Ross (1476–1504)

Earls of Ross, Creation of 1565

  • Henry Stuart, Earl of Ross (1545–1567) (later Duke of Albany and King-consort of Scotland)
  • James Stuart, Earl of Ross (1566–1625) (became King in 1567)

Earls of Ross, Creation of 1600

  • Charles Stuart, Earl of Ross (1600–1649) (became King in 1625)

Earls of Ross, Irish Creation of 1772

  • See Gore Baronets of Magherabegg

  1. In the Orkneyinga Saga, ed. 1873, Jarl Thorfinn is said to have died in 1064, but Skene (Celtic Scotland, volume 1, pg 413) suggests 1057 and is regarded as more likely.
  2. Celtic Scotland : a history of ancient Alban; William Forbes Skene, Volume 1, page 375
  3. The Scots Peerage; Sir James Balfour Paul, Volume 6, page 281
  4. Celtic Scotland : a history of ancient Alban; William Forbes Skene, Volume 1, page 374
  5. Celtic Scotland : a history of ancient Alban; William Forbes Skene, Volume 1, page 378
  6. Celtic Scotland : a history of ancient Alban; William Forbes Skene, Volume 1, page 389
  7. Celtic Scotland : a history of ancient Alban; William Forbes Skene, Volume 1, page 404
  8. The Scots Peerage; Sir James Balfour Paul, Volume 7, page 230


  • Source S-1 Bain; Robert. History of the ancient province of Ross (The County Palatine of Scotland) from the earliest times to the present time. Dingwall: Pefferside Press, 1899. archive.org
  • Source S-2 Balfour Paul. The Scots peerage : founded on Wood's ed. of Sir Robert Douglas's Peerage of Scotland; containing an historical and genealogical account of the nobility of that kingdom. Edinburgh: Douglas, 1904. archive.org
  • Source S-3 Baillie; W. R.. Ane Breve Cronicle of the Earlis of Ross. Including notices of the Abbots of Fearn, and of the family of Ross of Balnagown. Edinburgh: unknown, 1850. archive.org

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