Mottes, Monks & Merchants – Prof Richard Oram

Motte of Urr
Motte of Urr

The first meeting of the 2014/2015 winter programme of Kirkcudbright History Society got off to an excellent start when Professor Richard Oram spoke about “Mottes, Monks and Merchants: domination, conquest and colonisation in 12th and 13th century Galloway.”

Richard Oram, is Professor of Medieval and Environmental History at the University of Stirling. He is an expert on Scottish medieval history and has published a number of books. These include a book on “The Lordship of Galloway”, a biography of “King David I of Scotland” and “Domination and Lordship. Scotland 1070-1230”. He has a range of research interests including a long standing and continuing interest in the medieval history of our region of Galloway on which he did his doctoral research.

This meeting therefore was a wonderful opportunity to hear an established scholar and respected authority, talk on one of his specialist subjects.

In a masterful presentation to an engrossed audience Richard Oram’s argument was that the integration of 12th and 13th century medieval Galloway was more a process of subtle integration than of domination, conquest and colonisation by military force.

Dundrennan Abbey
Dundrennan Abbey

Military force and military domination were important factors. For example in the later 12th century a large number of Mottes (castles) were built all over Galloway. These large earthworks with wooden palisades and towers were an important feature of the Galloway landscape. Kirkcudbrightshire alone has over 30 such sites from Anwoth to the grandest site of all at Motte of Urr. Certainly they were symbols of power and domination.

Mottes however could be occupied by family or by relatives. Arranged marriages were a way of extending power and control and trusted colleagues and kinsmen could be rewarded and brought in to exercise power.

But power and domination were exercised in other ways. The church too provided a mechanism for control. Western Latin Christianity was a relatively uniform force for change. Religious foundations like monasteries (monks) were encouraged. Fergus , Lord of Galloway, for example, founded Dundrennan Abbey. Roland founded Glenluce in Wigtownshire.

Also Bishops of Galloway were usually external appointees brought in to the region and therefore enmeshed in the power system.

The church brought salvation in the afterlife but also a literate clergy. A literate clergy could read, could write, could be used to keep records and administer taxes and tax systems. Literacy was an instrument of control and domination.

In addition new more productive agricultural techniques were introduced by monks; better land management systems and methods were established; alternative trade links were set up for example with continental Europe.

Re-enactment at Kirkcudbright Tolbooth
Re-enactment at Kirkcudbright Tolbooth

Alternative animal husbandry innovations included adding beef farming to an established pig farming region. Pigs had originally been used in Galloway to clear woodland. Expanding the use of sheep farming helped develop the wool industry.

Trade too provided a subtle way of commercially driven conquest and influence. By the end of the 12th century there were two burgh markets in Galloway at Kirkcudbright and at Wigtown. Burghs were important as centres of power.

Markets too were important as places where new goods and foods could be traded and influence local tastes and preferences. Markets also have laws and regulations to control activity like weights and measurements. Fines and taxes can be imposed.

Overall Professor Richard Oram provided a fascinating, wide ranging, stimulating and thoughtful explanation of the many and varied ways through which the integration of 12th and 13th century medieval Galloway took place to an appreciative audience.