A number of historians have argued that the agrarian settlement structure in medieval Orkney, with settlements organised into townships surrounded by common hill dykes made of turf or stone, inside which the inhabitants practised open field farming, is particular to these islands and profoundly different from the Norwegian settlement structure in the same period (Clouston 1932). Yet, the Norwegian presence in Viking age and medieval Orkney is an undisputed fact (Sandnes 1996:49). I believe that there are more similarities between the Orkney townships and the village-like, pre-improvement settlements in SW Norway, than there are differences. The present article seeks to substantiate this claim through some examples, and argues that the two systems are in fact slightly different versions of a system once widely distributed across medieval Northern Europe.
No one, I think, has described the traditional farming landscape of Orkney better than the historian Hugh Marwick:
‘If a 17th century farmer, returning from the shades, could view again his Orkney farm today, the first thing probably to strike his attention would be the difference in the fields. He would find these, no doubt, reduced in number, but of larger average size, more systematically squared off, and (strangest of all) mostly enclosed by fences or stone dykes. For at the time of which we speak, individually enclosed fields were very rare, the only enclosure, practically speaking, being the turf hill-dyke which ran round the outskirts of the arable land of the farm, or, more usually, of the several farms of a tunship, and which was repaired each summer to exclude the farm animals from straying over the arable lands inside, so long as the crops were on the ground. As soon as the crops were ’inned’, (…) the ‘grinds’ or ‘slaps’ in the hill-dyke were thrown open, and the animals flocked in to graze on the arable lands, over which they were permitted to roam indiscriminately until sowing time once more came round. Not all the ground, however, within the dyke was arable. In most cases, perhaps in all, there were patches of ‘meadow’; and there were of course the ‘balks’ or irregular patches of ground between the arable rigs – all combining to form a patchwork design the component parts of which, (…) were common to practically every farm in the county (…)’ (Marwick 1939:2f.).
Most of Orkney’s households were to be found in such multiple-occupancy townships. However, there were a large number of single farms, the biggest of which were of township-size (Thomson 2001:315ff). Property relations could vary considerably within a township. William Thomson cites an example from Herston, South Ronaldsay, where ‘there were people who were udallers, others held their land by a feu, and some owned land by more than one kind of tenure; some farmers were owner-occupiers, others were tenants of lairds whose residence was elsewhere, and in addition there were two or more households of cottar subtenants’ (ibid.).
The settlement structure within one such township could be very complex. Berit Sandnes writes about one township (Grimeston, Harray, Mainland) that it consisted of ’several smaller towns or districts, such as Isbister, Horraquoy, Beneath the Dyke etc’ (Sandnes 1996:66). This last ’district’ was actually surrounded by a separate dyke. The farms Vola, Nistaben, Behind the Town, and Windywa’s belonged to Beneath the Dyke (ibid.).
According to J. Storer Clouston, the majority of Orkney townships seem either to have been collections of farms from the landnam period, or to have become divided up very early (Clouston 1932:349, cf. 1919). A typical township consisted of a nucleus of old farming land close to the ‘toft, where the farm buildings stood. This old farming land was known as the toonmal. The toonmal was permanently attached to the house and not subject to reallocation. Most of the available manure was spent on the toonmal (Marwick 1939:3). Outside the toonmal lay an ever increasing number of small fields of varying quality, intermixed with strips of rough grass, ‘balks’ or ‘backs’, and with greater grass areas. Closer to the hill dyke was a belt of uncultivated land.
The hill dyke divided the township from the common moors (Clouston 1932:350). But two or three townships could also be surrounded by a common dyke. There are a number of examples for this; the dyke encircling the townships of Netherbrough and Russland in Harray, Mainland, being one (Sandnes 1996:83).
In contrast to the toonmals, the outer fields were shared rig about, the ‘head’ house having the ‘uppa’ or first rig on the east or the north side of each field, according to the run of the rigs, although the distribution of rigs in strict rotation was not the only known method. The rigs varied widely in length and width, and a large vocabulary existed to describe rigs according to shape and size. Run-rig is the Orkney version of strip farming, which was a central aspect of the open field agriculture practised by farming communities in many places in Medieval Northern Europe. Run-rig has been described as ‘not so much a single system as a set of principles and practices which (…) produced field-systems of quite different degrees of complexity’ (Thomson 1998:107; cf. Clouston 1925, 1927).
The different townships were separated by stretches of common grazing areas. Each township was characterised by a high degree of communality, as property was defined in terms of a proportionate share of community resources, rather than by fixed boundaries. The farmers utilised the hill pastures in common, as did they the right to fowling, the gathering of eggs and seaweed, and the right to cut peats (Fenton 1978). Furthermore, a degree of co-operation was imposed on all Orkney townships by the Bailie Court, which controlled agriculture at parish level, for example by setting dates to repair hill-dykes.
Even when the farms got partitioned or were inherited, the unity of the township was not disputed. What one inherited, was a proportional share of the township.
The essential features of this settlement pattern may date back to Viking times. It has even been suggested that ‘the basic pattern was already established when the Vikings arrived’ (Thomson 2001:317).
Pre-improvement multi-tenanted farms in SW Norway
A typical SW Norwegian farming settlement consisted of a ‘tun’ made up of one or several farms. At least in the one hundred years or so immediately preceding the 19th century improvements, the bigger farms in the lowlands could have 20 farmers or more. One particularly large farm in Lista, Vest-Agder is said to have had 150 farm buildings clustered in the ‘tun’. Next to the ‘tun’ was the best farming land, variously called the ‘Storåker’, the ‘Gamleåger’ or ‘Fløda’. On these fields, cereals were grown on an annual basis. This annual cropping demanded heavy manuring (cow dung, turf, seaweed, midden deposits etc.), and most of the manuring was done on the ‘Storåker’. All the farmers had their separate strips of this old core of arable land.
Outside the arable land lay meadow lands and additional fields, called ‘voll’ or ‘tjukkeng’. These were divided into strips or ‘teigar’ belonging to each farm. The strips of one farm lay in between strips belonging to other farmers, rather similar to the runrig system. A certain number of strips were called a ‘teiglag’ (shead), and the different farmers all had one or several strips in each ‘teiglag’. The ‘Storåker’ was a separate ‘teiglag’. The size of a farm or a ‘tun" in a fiscal sense was, as a rule, dependent of the size of the ‘Storåker’ alone (Rønneseth 2001). The ownership of the ‘teiger’ normally changed only through inheritance or through buying or selling.
Farther away lay the outer meadows, the ‘tynneng’. A fence made of stone or turf, called the ‘hage’, or simply the ‘gard’ surrounded the whole complex. Each farmer was obliged to maintain his part of the dyke. Outside this dyke were moors and common grazing lands. These grazing lands were held in common by all the farmers, but its use was also regulated. Each farmer had the right to keep a certain number of grazing animals in proportion to the extent of his holdings (‘klauvsetting’), i. e. the relative size of his share of the ‘Storåker’. The outlands were also used for peat-cutting, etc. The rights of use for most outland resources were distributed in a similar way to the pastures, i. e. proportionally, and either spatially or chronologically. The latter, where a resource was exploited year about by different farmers or groups of farmers, was often the case with fisheries.
The hill dyke or ‘gard’ was the only fence in existence, with the exception of systems of enclosures connected with husbandry (called hage, kve, etc.), that often were adjoined to the hill dyke. There were no fences inside the dyke, i. e. in the infields or ‘innmark’, thus making this into another version of the common European medieval open-field system. In the autumn, as soon as the crops were off the ground, the ‘gard’ was opened and the stock was allowed to roam free in the ‘innmark’. The same thing happened in early spring.
At the margins of the big farms lay minor satellite farms (called ‘heiegardar’) and cottages (‘husmannsplassar’). Some of these became independent farms in their own right during the 17th and 18th century. In the 17th century most farmers in SW Norway were tenants. A pattern was then emerging of land-holding farmers becoming each other’s tenants, and a substantial part of the population were on the verge of becoming freeholders, as the estates owned by church, king or aristocracy were being sold, at the beginning of the period to wealthy burghers or government officials, and then, later on, to the tenants themselves. The different farmers on one and the same multi-tenanted farm could thus enter into varying property relations; from free-holders (‘sjølveigarar’), via tenants (‘leiglendingar’) who paid an annual lease fee, to cottagers (‘husmenn’). The latter were usually granted the use-right to a small parcel in return for a small rent or services, and they did not have any share in the farm as a whole. Some farms were leased as ‘lut-bruk’; the owner of such a farm demanded one half of whatever the ‘lut-brukar’ or tenant was able to produce on the farm.
It has recently been proposed that the basic structure of the SW Norwegian farms, as it can be reconstructed from written sources and oral tradition dating to before the improvements of the 19th century, have a Medieval origin (Rønneseth 2001). The Landslov from 1274 seems, for instance, to presuppose the existence of strip farming, as opposed to older, regional laws (ibid.).
(A note on terminology: In SW Norway, the term gard (farm) had several meanings. A single farm was called a gard, and so was a multi-tenanted farm. Each of the family units on a multi-tenanted farm was called a gard. To complicate the matter further, a gard could be divided into two or more matrikkelgardar (skatt farms), with each matrikkelgard still referred to as a gard. There is no term in the Old Norwegian language corresponding to the English ‘township’).
FARMS, TOWNSHIPS AND DYKES: SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
The cultural landscape and the farming system
Some of the similarities between the traditional farming landscape in the Northern Isles and in SW Norway stem from the fact that both these areas were part of the heath landscape so characteristic of Europe’s Atlantic coasts. Over much of this region variants of the infield-outfield system were present in the medieval period. The system is for instance attested by pre-Conquest charter evidence in the Southwest of England (Hooke 1998). The infield was a relatively restricted area of arable land kept under permanent cultivation by the liberal application of manure to it each year. This system was present wherever pastoralism predominated and there was abundant land for pasture.
The farming systems in Orkney and in SW Norway were both variants of the open field system. According to one definition, the open field system consisted basically of four elements: First, arable land was divided into strips owned or tenanted by various people each of whom farmed a number of these scattered about the fields. Then, both arable and meadowland were pastured by the stock of the same farmers after the harvest and in fallow years. Thirdly, the pasture and waste were used by the farmers for grazing their stock, often with strict control on the numbers of animals allowed. Finally, all these activities had to be organised by a formal meeting of the farmers, either at a manorial court or at a village assembly (Taylor 1975:71; cf. Dodgshon 1980).
Farming in the heath landscape of Atlantic Europe required that an equilibrium was found and maintained between, one the one hand, arable land, and on the other, meadow land. It is this delicate balance of forces that makes the hill dyke ‘a line of fundamental importance’ (Thomson 2001:322). The hill dyke was ‘not a fortress wall that encapsulated the community, not a dividing line, but a link between the elements of the township’ (Fenton 1978:89).
Today, both the Orkney and the SW Norwegian farming landscape are characterised by the many stone fences. But in the pre-improvement period the hill dyke was the only fence in existence in both regions. Still, the age of this system is not all clear, and the history and development of dykes in the areas in question is a rather complex one.
As noted above, there were no fences in the ‘innmark’ on SW Norwegian farms. Smaller, raised stones in each end of the strip marked strips belonging to different farmers. In some areas (i. e. areas where the stock was moved to and from the byre each day) stone-lined cattle-roads leading from the ‘tun’ and to the hill dyke could be seen. Outside the hill dyke, enclosures for tending animals were to be found. But, as a rule, fences were not used to separate different belongings. The exception was along the boundary between different skatt farms. When the ‘innmark’ of two or more different skatt farms lay together, a fence was normally marking the farm boundaries. The same boundaries were not, however, marked by fences outside the hill dyke. The fence dividing the ‘innmark’ of two farms, must in many instances be a consequence of the ‘odalsskipte’ regulated by the Medieval Gulathing Law. This kind of fence was constructed of either stone or turf, as were the hill dykes. Farm boundaries outside the hill dykes were not fenced until the mid-18th century.
In the most densely settled regions, the hill dyke of one farm might be linked to the hill dykes of a number of other farms, thus constituting a great chain that joined several neighbouring farms. In many cases, some or all of the farms within such a system of dykes had some sort of common ownership of the different resources in the outlands – be it pasture, peat cutting, or fisheries. Interestingly, such ‘great chains’ seem to have been a feature of the Orkney landscape as well, as in many instances the hill dykes of several townships were connected, such as can be reconstructed from Mackenzie’s charts.
This whole system was predated by a similar, but much more small-scale system in the Migration period (c. 350-550 AD). At some point, after c. 550 AD and maybe as late as the Viking Age, the hill dykes were moved and the infields made much larger. In several cases, the location of the farms also changed, and the total number of farms decreased.
Rønneseth has argued that this restructuring is in fact a medieval phenomenon, that probably took place as late as by the period of the Landslov (AD 1274). He further claims that this restructuring, whereby the hill dykes were moved so as to incorporate large areas of meadow lands, also involved the appearance of farm boundaries in the form of straight lines, so that the lands of each farm would make geometrical figures. At the same time, the farms were matriculated for the first time, so that each farm became an independent tax object. From then on, the farms were divided according to the principles set down in the Landslov, which led to the steady growth in the ‘tun’s’ size and marked the birth of run-rig farming (Rønneseth 2001). This locking of the farming landscape is of course related to the fiscal valuation of all settlements units that finds its expression in the so-called ‘boltall’; the normative land rent numbers divided into ‘bol’ units of different name, that the Landslov reckons with.
The situation in Orkney in this respect is somewhat similar to the one in SW Norway. Here too there are indications that townships at some point have been expanded. As Thomson writes,
‘in a number of townships there are references to an inner dyke known as ‘the auld bow’. We find the term being used in two senses; primarily it was applied to the dyke itself, and less frequently it was used to describe the land enclosed by the dyke (the old bu, the old farm). The second usage seems to imply that there was a stage of township expansion when the hill-dyke had been ”flitted out” to take in the grassland of the backs. By the time the ”auld bow” was recorded, the dyke seems invariably to have been ruinous, and sometimes its very location was uncertain. Inner dykes of this kind are not unique to Orkney; a similar old dyke is a regular feature of Shetland townships, and indeed an inner dyke was sometimes found in Scotland. The inner dyke, as long as it remained intact, created an intermediate zone, inside the hill dyke but distinct from the arable land; it allowed the backs to be used as a series of peripheral grazing enclosures’ (Thomson 2001:328).
Here, then, the inner dykes are interpreted in functional terms, as opposed to Rønneseth’s strictly chronological interpretation that the old dykes in SW Norway represent an older system that became defunct when the ‘innmarker’ were expanded. However, Thomson’s theory might be of relevance to Norway as well. Not only because of the rendering of inner dykes in oral tradition in some areas in SW Norway, but also because some categories of field-names might be interpreted as evidence for a former intermediate zone between the old arable land and the outer meadows.
What about the dating for the ‘flitting out’ of the hill dykes and the expansion of the Orkney townships, then?
One is still, as Thomson writes, ‘on very uncertain ground’ (Thomson 2001:328). He shows that townsland and quoys were in existence at the time of the first rentals at the turn of the 16th century, and that they probably are considerably older than this, too.
The existence of a multitude of what seem to be even older dykes and systems of dykes complicates matters further. ‘In several parts of Orkney one may still come across mysterious earthen ridges or dikes or ramparts about which no one can give any information, and which go by different names in different islands,’ writes Marwick (1995c:53). He advises students of Orkney’s landscape history to carefully discriminate these ancient structures, the gairsties or gorsties, from both the comparatively recent hill dykes and another, in his opinion much older type, consisting of ‘strips of stones, now generally buried under the soil, and in some places (…) buried underneath the peat moss’ (ibid.). The latter are the so-called ‘Pickie dykes’. Marwick believed the earthen ridges or ramparts to date from an intermediate period between the ‘pickie dykes’ and the hill dykes. In his native Rousay he knew of one such rampart, running down to the shore not far from Langskaill. He also mentions a number of ramparts in Sanday (1995c:55). The purpose of these ramparts to Marwick was ‘a complete mystery’, and he states that ‘it is clear that for at least a very long time they have been equally puzzling to the inhabitants themselves’ (1995a:22; cf. Lamb 1983).
Alexander Fenton accepted Marwick’s relative chronology, with the ’pickie dykes’ being the oldest, followed by the gairsties, and then by the hill dykes as farm settlement spread (1978:91). He admits, however, that there is much overlapping. Gairstie denotes dykes with a variety of functions, and in Shetland, for example, in Papa Stour, the hill dyke itself can be called the gorstie (ibid.).
Much of the more substantial evidence for the age of the different types of dykes in the Northern Isles is from Shetland.
Papa Stour, where large-scale archaeological investigations have been carried out in recent years, can serve as a case in point. Here, it is clear from the work of Barbara Crawford and Beverly B. Smith that the present day two-fold division of the island was established by c. AD 1300 (Crawford & Smith 1999). At that time, documentary, place-name and archaeological evidence indicate that settlement was limited to the eastern half of the island. In earlier periods settlement in Papa Stour was more widespread. Remains of prehistoric house sites and burnt mounds are found both in the hills and within the hill dyke (Carter & Davidson 1998:130). While it is unclear whether the present division of the island was developed in the later prehistoric period or only when the Norsemen arrived after c. AD 800, the ‘agriculture practised by the Norse settlers, as interpreted from archaeological evidence in Papa Stour and elsewhere in the Northern Isles, was not dissimilar to that which was recorded in the earliest surviving documents, which discuss agriculture from the eighteenth century’ (ibid.).
Another Shetland site, that of the abandoned farm of Kebister in Mainland, have yielded more information relevant to our discussion. Here, several radiocarbon dates from dykes are available.
A number of dykes were found at Kebister, including some that are being interpreted as a series of subsequent hill dykes (Owen & Lowe 1999). The ‘March Dyke’ is thought to have been the final hill dyke at Kebister. No dating evidence for this dyke is available, but the absence of underlying peat growth and the good preservation of the dyke suggest a post-medieval date (Owen & Lowe 1999:25). Brian Smith believes the final hill dyke to have been constructed as late as the end of the 18th or the beginning of the 19th century (Smith 1999:20).
Another dyke, termed Dyke 2, may have served as an early hill dyke, enclosing an area of c. 12 ha (Owen & Lowe 1999:289). This dyke seems to have been built during the 12th or 13th centuries AD (Butler 1999:64). There is evidence for arable expansion at Kebister in this period, and another dyke, Dyke 3, might have been constructed in the same period to mark a subdivision of the arable land. However, there seems to have been an active farming community at the site already in the late Pictish and/or early Norse period.
The lesson regarding the age of the different kinds of dykes, summed up by Owen and Lowe, is worth quoting:
‘The assumption for too long has been that sub-peat dykes, of which many survive in Shetland, are usually prehistoric features. In the light of the evidence from Kebister, even allowing that some elements of the Kebister landscape may represent Iron Age survivals, and despite the evidence of the Shurton Hill prehistoric sub-peat dyke, this assumption now requires review’ (1999:290).
There is no reason why these results should not be relevant to Orkney, too. The date of Dyke 2 in Kebister, together with the evidence from Papa Stour, seems to suggest certain similarities between the development pattern in the Northern Isles and SW Norway. At least, the results from Kebister might mean that scholars in the Northern Isles and in Norway start to ask the same kind of questions.
Run-rig and ‘jordetal’
Above, we touched upon the rules regulating the rights of each holding in Orkney townships and SW Norwegian multi-tenanted farms. From a European perspective, there were, fundamentally speaking, only a limited number of ways of turning ideal parts into individual lots on the ground, as pointed out long ago by Paul Vinogradoff (Villainage in England).
In Medieval Norway the preferred system of allotments was expressed in the so-called boltal. The ‘bol’ (lat. mansus) is mentioned already in the oldest known Danish source, the grant by Knud the Holy to Lund minster in Scania in AD 1085. The ‘bol’ is an example of what in Sweden is known as ‘byamål’, and in Norway ‘jordetal’. The ‘byamål’ is an expression of every landowner’s part of a ‘by’ or township, not only the infields but also the commons. The Norwegian ‘boltal’ were in common use until the Black Death. The foundation for the ‘boltal’ – the number of ‘markebol’, ‘månadsmatbol’ or other kinds of ‘bol’ for a given estate – was originally an agreement between the land owner and the tenant regarding the rent. Over time, steady notions about the size of land needed to pay 1 ‘månadsmat’, 1 ‘mark’ etc. in rent, were established. In this way, the land rent became an expression of the value of the farm.
After the Black Death, this way of reckoning became defunct. The new land rent was being established by official commissions, and it was named after the goods used for paying the rent, thus giving rise to names like ‘smørskyld’ (butter rent), ‘kornskyld’ (grain rent), or ‘hudskyld’ (hide rent).
Like in Orkney, there was no regular re-allocation of arable strips in SW Norway (cf. Fenton 1978:47). But from written sources we know of several instances from the 17th and 18 centuries where the infields of farms were shifted anew. This happened if one farmed found out that he had too small strips relative to his (ideal) part of the farm as a whole. If he was supposed to have 1/6 of the farm, but his strips counted for less than this, he could call for a re-allocation of the strips. We know of one such reorganisation from the farm Ytre Arnestad in Gloppen, Western Norway, in 1601. This farm was divided between three farmers, and it had a total of 15 different fields (or ’teiglag’). Thus, 45 strips had to be reorganised. Another farm in Western Norway, Skådi in Innvik, was reorganised in 1725. The farm had two farmers and 40 fields (’teiglag), and, thus, 80 strips (Visted & Stigum 1951:145). In time, one or more of the holdings might be divided again. In that case the number of strips increased, and the strips could become different in size if one holding were divided between two inheritors, and another one between three inheritors.
These examples are all from farms with relatively few farmers each. In other cases, where a farm consisted of several holdings, the system was the same, and often one find the ’jordetal’ used for reorganising the strips, showing that the arable was allotted relatively to each household’s (ideal) part of the farm as a whole. On one farm in Vest-Agder, Nordre Klungland in Gyland, each holding had its share in the main corn field allotted according to their share of the ’tun’, i. e. the size of their respective ’toft’. Accordance between the subdivision of a farm into different holdings and the different owners’ share of the farm is usually found only on odal farms. However, there is some evidence to the contrary, i. e. some sources seem to indicate that ideal parts owned by the church or by the king in different farms were actually in many cases marked on the ground (Widgren 1997; Stylegar 2001), a system which has similarities to the Orkney inskyft, for instance as the one recorded in Sebay in 1519 (Thomson 2001:331).
The case of Nordre Klungland could imply a system more like the Swedish or Danish one. The formula ‘tompt ær teghs moÞir’ (meaning that ‘the toft is the mother of the strip’) is found in Swedish Medieval laws. At least in the late medieval period this meant that the size of the rig was a function of the size of a tenant’s toft. In Denmark the tofts were the basis for the taxes paid to the king, probably because the tofts in the Medieval village were composed of shares of the ‘bol’ as big as the farms’ shares of the arable and meadow (Hoff 1997:121). The situation on Nordre Klungland indicates that a similar system might have been applied in parts of SW Norway as well, thus indicating a substantial level of regulation. Otherwise, evidence for tofts in this sense seems to be hard to find in SW Norway. However, the term ‘huslende’ is found in a number of Medieval documents from Vest-Agder. In Medieval Germany, an identical term, ‘Hausland’ was used to denote the parts of a village that belonged to individual farms, i. e. a term similar to the Danish ‘toft’. Once again, the medieval settlement structure in SW Norway might have been rather different from what one would expect from sources dating to the 17th and 18th centuries (cf. Widgren 1997; Stylegar 2001).
Another kind of toft is found in England. There, the Viking age and Medieval toft structure is somewhat different from the Danish one; here, one find tofts mentioned alongside with crofts. These are mentioned in written sources already in the early 10th century. The word toft covers, as in the Danish language (and, in the form tuft or tupt, in Norwegian, as well), the area where the farm buildings were situated. Excavations have shown that the tofts also had enclosed areas for pasture, and that they in some instances accommodated more than one household. The word croft most often means garden, home-field or enclosed area. Crofts are still visible in the landscape in some areas in England (examples in Baker & Butlin 1973). The croft was often situated in between the individually owned toft and the village’s common arable land. The Danelaw region differs from the rest of England by not distinguishing between toft and croft, i. e. the toft was so big that the activities otherwise associated with the croft were carried out at the toft itself.
The 1298 Faroese Soid Brevet (Sheep letter) which make a distinction between ‘wild’ sheep which pastured together outside the township, and ‘tame’ sheep which were kept on individually-owned grassland adjacent to the home-fields, probably points to a similar structure.
What about Orkney, then? The old farming land known as the toonmal (Norse tun vollr) seems to have much in common with the Danish toft or the SW Norwegian huslende. As mentioned above, the toonmal along with the kailyard and the stackyard was permanently attached to the house and not subject to run rig reallocation. There is a difference between the way the term was used in Orkney and in Shetland. In Orkney it included blocks of arable land attached to the house, but in Shetland it was restricted to the house site and yards in the immediate vicinity of the house.
The complicated situation found in many townships in the Northern Isles is made clear by the example of Funzie, Fetlar in Shetland (Fenton 1978:46f, cf. Thomson 1971). In 1829, the township had 9 pieces of toonmal grass, averaging 0.77 acres. The townland was divided into 459 separate pieces, of which 439 lay run rig. 24 patches of meadow, averaging 0.76 acres, were each held by groups of 3 tenants; 2 pieces of meadow, averaging 3.09 acres, by groups of 7; 1 piece of meadow measuring 1.25 acres by 2; 2 pieces of corn averaging 0.49 acres were held in lieu of meadow shares; 92 patches of grass averaging 0.74 acres were held by individuals; 9 averaging 0.98 acres by groups of 3; 1 patch of 9.49 acres were held by individuals. There were 92 infield rigs averaging 0.28 acres, and 215 outfield rigs averaging 0.17 acres, along with an outfield unit of 0.80 acres shared by a group of 9.
Fenton writes of the rather simple reckoning used for dividing such multi-tenanted townships:
‘(W)hen the township of Inner Stromness, consisting of 36 pennylands (two urislands) was divided among the heritors in 1624, all the sheeds in the town were divided into six, in conformity with the number of tounmals and therefore with the number of occupants, or into three, for the three sixpenny lands of one of the urislands’ (1978:41).
Thus, the toonmal could have a crucial role to play in the dividing of a township. But more complex ways of reckoning were used in Orkney, as well. Here, from the 18th century onwards, planks of land were used (Thomson 2001:333ff). At Netherbrough, Harray, in 1787, most of the sheads extended to one plank of c. 40 fathoms square, although some were of two planks and others a plank and a fraction (Fenton 1978:47). As for Shetland, Brian Smith has recently given a treatise of the land units called ‘lasts of land’, which he argues came into existence in the late 13th century. According to Smith, these units were modelled on the Norwegian ‘bol’ (Smith 2000:14).
All in all, there seems to be similarities between the structure of run rig in Orkney and SW Norwegian strip farming. But it should be pointed out that, as Fenton reminds us, ‘(i)n many of the respects mentioned here, the form and joint economic working of the townships of Orkney and Shetland paralleled patterns found elsewhere in Scotland (…), and in many parts of Europe. It is in no way an isolated phenomenon, but a pattern of settlement and land-use that functioned regardless of the form of legal organisation’ (1978:48).
Township and ‘gard’
Vinogradoff, reflecting on the ’oddities’ involved in open-field strip farming, writes that ’still the open-field system, with the intermixed strips, is quite a prevalent feature of mediaeval husbandry all over Europe. It covers the whole area occupied by the village community; it is found in Russia as well as in England’ (Vinogradoff: Villainage in England). The open field system was an integral farm of traditional farming in the Northern Isles and in SW Norway, as well. But, surely, the latter areas were not ’occupied by the village community’, were they? And, even if Orkney townships might be called villages in the traditional meaning of the word, what about the SW Norwegian farms? To J. Storer Clouston, at least, the differences between the townships in Orkney and the Norwegian farms were fundamental:
‘The Orkney townships themselves (…) are not exactly comparable to any other known form of land unit; except possibly to similarly formed units in Shetland and the north and west of Scotland settled by the Norsemen (…). Their difference from the Norwegian gaard or farm (to which they have been compared) may be illustrated by one extract from O. Rygh’s introduction to his monumental Norske Gaardnavne. ‘Very often an old gaard name became lost on account of a gaard being divided into two or more portions, and the portions each taking a separate name. These names soon supplanted the old common name, which then became unnecessary.’ In Orkney such division and taking of new names occurred in a great number of townships. Again and again one has towns whose names in themselves indicate an original large farm, such as all those ending in ‘bister’ (…) and ‘ston’, and in case after case this name, as a farm name, has long disappeared; - e. g., there is no farm called Tuskerbister, or Marbister, or Germiston, in the three townships so named, nor has there ever been within recorded times. And these are only three instances out of dozens. Yet an Orkney township name never disappears for this reason. Very occasionally, it is true, an old town name does get lost when the extended fields of two or three towns have met and left no visible boundary. But even then, almost always, though the town name may disappear from the maps and common speech, old people remember it. With these few exceptions, the rule is absolute that a township may be cut into a couple of dozens farms, each with its own separate name, yet the old township name survives exactly like a parish name. Manifestly there must have been some fundamental original difference from a Norwegian gaard’ (Clouston 1932:347).
Clouston further argued that some townships, judging from their great size and the written recordings concerning them, had never been single farms at all, but always considerably greater areas. He cited Inner and Outer Stromness as an example, putting great thrust in the farm-names: Each township consisted of two eyrislands, Clouston remarked; the name Stromness is a shore name, and the earliest records show each eyrisland divided into several separate farms bearing such names as Bea and Howbister (1932:347f.).
Alexander Fenton writes that it is likely that some townships were in origin single farms that later split up, partly because of division by inheritance, partly because of population growth, and partly because the leaders gave units of their own land to their subordinates and associates (1978:23). But, he continues, ‘the fact that relatively few of the townships show this evidence of having been original units, may indicate that the majority were group-townships from an early stage of settlement’ (1978:31). Townships or multi-tenanted farms, comprising one or several toons, might, then, have been an integral part of the Norse Orkney settlement structure since the outset.
There is some evidence for the presence of such ‘considerably greater areas’ in SW Norway, too.
The hill dykes in SW Norway are in many cases very huge complexes comprising several ‘tuns’ or farms. These complexes are found in the regions best suited for agriculture, and where archaeological and written sources indicate some kind of central places. More often than not, the later parish churches are located inside these complexes. As for the place names, it seems that the majority of names indicating rather late farm divisions (i.e. names ending in bø-, -hus-, gard-, tun- etc.) are found within the complexes. In Spangereid in Vest-Agder we find relatively ‘new’ names surrounding the farm Stokka with the parish church. The names are Gahre, Presthus, Hautun and Midbø, all belonging to name-classes that are very common in Orkney townships. All these Spangereid farms are located within a common hill dyke. This is a very common pattern in this part of Norway: farm names that speak of the relatively late partitioning of an older settlement unit are normally found around parish churches and settlements where archaeological evidence indicates a central place. Elsewhere, the farm names in most cases belong to the -land- or -stadir-classes, which might mean that these more marginal areas were dominated by freeholders.
In Spangereid, the farm Midbø was royal land until 1697. In that same year there was a legal quarrel regarding the proper boundary between Midbø and Presthus on the one hand, and Gahre on the other. The boundary at that point was marked by a stone fence, and this fence was said to have been put up ’more than 100 years ago’. A similar case is known from 1549, when the boundary between Midbø, Presthus and Hautun on the one hand, and Stokka on the other, was agreed on. The initiative came from the royal bailiff. No fence is mentioned in the latter case, and it may well be that both fences were put up in the late 16th century. The farm Hautun does not exist any longer, and it is referred to as abandoned (’øde’) already in 1549. Gahre was until 1838 regarded as two skatt farms – Østre (East) and Vestre (West) Gahre.
In late medieval times, then, there were at least 6 separate ‘tun’ within the mentioned hill dyke in Spangereid. As far as can be reconstructed, it seems that the fields belonging to Midbø, Hautun and Presthus were lying run-rig, as were the fields belonging to the two Gahre farms. The similarities to multi-tenancy townships in the Northern Isles are obvious, like the Grimeston case discussed above. However, the SW Norwegian ‘townships’ seem to have been in an advanced state of disintegration already in the 15th and 16th centuries, as the Spangereid example shows. As for Clouston’s argument concerning the difference between the name-giving in Orkney and Norway, i.e. the fact that the Orkney township names seldom disappears, even if the ‘original farm’ bearing this name is long lost, while Norwegian farm names goes out of use at the moment when the original farm is divided into two parts, the case is not as clear as once believed.
Because, unless one thinks that farms in SW Norway were as a rule not divided until the late medieval period, it is a fact that several instances are known where the ‘original’ name is recorded into the 16th century. In Kristiansand in Vest-Agder, the modern farms of Mebø, Lindebø and Skålevik lie together on the Flekkerøy island. These three farms are regarded as three separate skatt farms in tax and land registers from c. 1600 and onwards. However, in a number of sources dating to the 15th century, Mebø is called ‘Medelbø i Thefften’ (Mebø in ‘Thefften’), and is said to be ‘itt marckeboell jord ij Thipte’ (one markebol of land in ‘Thipte’). The name ‘Thefften’ or ‘Thipte’, that might be a misspelling for Tofte, can not refer to a farm in the proper sense. It is more likely that ‘Thefften’ is a name for a complex encompassing the three aforementioned farms.
Another example comes from Åseral in the interior of Vest-Agder. Here, the farms Underberg, Åbø, Gard, Austrhus and Åsland surround the parish church of Åseral. A common hill dyke surrounded all these farms. Some of these names suggest a rather late farm division. But what was the name of the ‘original’ unit? In most cases, the parish names in the Southwest are also the names of the church farms. Not so in Åseral. There is no farm by this name, and, judging from sources dating to the 16th century onwards, there never was. However, in a land register dating to 1440, there is a reference to a piece of land owned by the archbishop in Trondheim ‘i Særal’, i.e. in Åseral. Here, ‘Åseral’ seems to be used as a settlement name, similar to the case of ‘Thefften’ in Flekkerøy. Thus, the parish name Åseral could very well refer to the ‘township’ in the vicinity of the church (cf. Låg 1999:102).
The oldest tax records from Vest-Agder are from the 1590s. The source situation before c. 1600 is not very good. However, judging from the few existing sources dating to the period between c. 1300 and c. 1500, it does seem that a strict, permanent partitioning into different skatt farms does not yet exist. The permanent units in the tax system might have been partly ‘manntall’ (census), and partly township-like units (‘Thipte’, ‘Åseral’). To define precisely where a belonging is located, terms like ‘gard’, ‘hus’, ‘huslende’ or ‘stue’ are used. Several examples are known from this period, including the case of Mebø (‘itt marckeboell jord ij Thipte’).
In 1344, a document was set up at the priest’s house in Søgne, Vest-Agder (‘j preststofunne j Syghnu’). The document concerns a piece of land called Midhus, 12 månadsmatbol of worth, said to be located in Søgnebø (‘tolf manadamatabool jarðar j þeiri jorð er Midhuus heitir j Sygnu bø’). Søgnebø was most probably a ‘township’ which included the vicarage, Midhus and the modern day farm of Berge. In the post-medieval period, these three skatt farms lay within a common hill dyke. Among the different terms used to define the precise location of a belonging, the term ‘hus’ (house) is by far the most common one.
Same starting point – different trajectories
These ‘hus’ are closely related to the Shetland ‘houses’. In Shetland, as Thomson has shown, pre-improvement run-rig agriculture involved three different organisational levels, namely the township, the house and the tenant holding. ‘A township,’ Thomson writes, ‘can be envisaged as a confederation of ‘houses’, bound together by an encircling hill-dyke and united by shared interests in unevenly distributed resources such as arable land, grass and meadow-hay’ (1998:107).
The house, sometimes called a ‘farm’, could be occupied by a single tenant. However, they were more often divided into several tenant holdings. In many Shetland townships in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the multi-tenanted house was a vanishing unit, a process closely related to the new emphasis on whole-township run-rig (1998:108). A similar process was in fact going on in SW Norway as well in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as several skatt farms seized to exist and merged with neighbouring farms.
The break-up of the SW Norwegian houses seems to be well under way in the late medieval period. It is, however, not until the 16th century that the ‘townships’ and their subdivisions disappear from the records. This should be interpreted as a result of the formalisation and ‘freezing’ of an older structure, and the process is probably related to the introduction of new rules regarding the terms of leasing (‘bygselrett’) and inheritance (‘åseterett’).
The settlement structure in the Northern Isles might thus have been rather similar to the one in SW Norway at the outset. But for different reasons, the later settlement development of SW Norway, Orkney and Shetland take quite different routes. While the townships in SW Norway may have been of a type not unlike the ones in the Northern Isles, they have left few traces in written recordings.
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