Case Study: Earl’s Allan: a medieval centre for the Earls of Ross

Richard Oram

The Earls of Ross were key in extending Scottish political and legal authority in the Easter Ross area, representing a culturally Gaelic lineage from Ross who embraced the elite Norman-French culture of the royal court. Their key sites appear to be first Tain, Delny and Earl’s Allan, and later Dingwall.

The exact site of Earl’s Allan is not certain, but it lay in the western district of the Tarbatness peninsula, centred on NH 81 77 near Fearn, where the earls had a concentration of properties that remained core estates of the earldom into the last quarter of the 15th century and in which the Rosses of Balnagown had a share from the early 1400s. The earliest notice of it as a property is in respect of the death there of William, 2nd earl of Ross, in 1273/4, with the implication that it was his main residence. The naming of this place as ‘Earl’s’ Allan suggests that by the time the chronicle was being written in the early 17th century, part of the original property was in other hands – possibly the Rosses of Balnagown – and had been separated long enough for the designation to have become commonly recognised as a way of distinguishing between the parts.

Old map showing place names in the area from the late 16th century.
Figure 1: Pont map c. 1583–1601. NLS ADVMS.70.2.10

From the references to a cluster of ‘Allan’ properties in 15th and early 16th century charters, Earl’s Allan is probably to be equated with the chief settlement of an estate centred on the lands of Meikle and Little Allan, which were swept away in the 18th century ‘Improvement’ of what became the estate policies centred on the house of Allan – itself rebuilt in the 19th century – immediately west of Fearn (Ordnance Survey Name Books, Ross and Cromarty OS Name Books, 1848-1852, Ross and Cromarty Mainland, volume 11 (OS1/28/11/29). This might further add to the arguments for why the earls sought to move the Premonstratensians from Mid Fearn to the site of the surviving abbey remains and why there was also the attempt to relocate the bishopric from Rosemarkie to Fearn, bringing it close to the nearby centre of the earls’ power. ‘Easter Allan’ was named as a property held by the Rosses of Balnagown, who were the senior cadet of the Earls of Ross, from the early 15th century and was confirmed in their possession by Alexander MacDonald, earl of Ross, in January 1440 (Munro and Munro (eds), Acts of the Lords of the Isles, no.31). Importantly, Meikle and Little Allan were part of the properties settled for life in February 1476 on Elizabeth Livingstone, Countess of Ross, by King James III, following the forfeiture of her husband, John II MacDonald, Earl of Ross, confirming that they were a significant component part of the demesne estate of the earls (Munro and Munro (eds), Acts of the Lords of the Isles, Appendix A, no.A 19).

Despite being such an important site in its time, the medieval castle cannot at present be located precisely, although we can assume that it lay somewhere in the vicinity of the abbey. It presents an important site for investigation, needing further mapwork and fieldwork, deserving to be placed in its local context.

Further information

Oram, R D, Martin, P F, McKean, C A, Neighbour, T and Cathcart, A 2009 Historic Tain. Archaeology and development, Historic Scotland: Edinburgh.

Oram, Richard 2020b ‘Eilean Donan Castle: The Earls of Ross, Clann Choinnich and Clann Mhic Rath from the 13th century to 1719’, commissioned report for FAS.

Grant, Alexander 2000 ‘The province of Ross and the kingdom of Alba’, in Cowan and McDonald 2000, Alba. Celtic Scotland in the Medieval Era, Tuckwell Press: East Linton. 88–126.

(Ane Breve Cronicle of the Earlis of Ross (Edinburgh, 1850), 4, 23; W MacGill, ‘The Breve Cronicle of the Erllis of Ross’, Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, new series 7, no.23 (1924), 313–329).