9.5 Administration

While Innes (1851) and Cowan (1961, 1967, 1978) pulled together evidence for most medieval Argyll parishes, their date of foundation remains vague (although see MacDonald 2013). The relationship of parishes to early administrative districts and the establishment of control and taxation by centralising powers, possibly linked to the creation of kingdoms and the development of proto-states, renders understanding the date and process of their creation and mapping parish boundaries a crucial issue. It would also assist in providing a picture of the structures that underpinned society. There is also a relationship with fortifications and churches that remains obscure (see Raven 2005). In the Isles, and particularly Islay, there appear to a number of additional land units that may have predated and probably underpinned the parish unit. These include pennylands, ouncelands and other units that may represent some form of proto-parish structure (MacKerral 1944, Bannerman 1974, Lamont 1981, Easson 1987, Macniven 2015), but these configurations are different from where similar units appear throughout the Kingdom of Man and the Isles. Placename and documentary evidence suggests these units may be most densely concentrated on the Isles, Lorn and Kintyre, those areas most under the MacSorley influence, but there are occurrences elsewhere in Argyll and only in-depth study reveal any patterns and what this might indicate.

The clifftop setting of Dun Athad, Islay © HES

A small number of individual examples of assembly sites in Argyll are known but they have not been studied in detail as sites, nor have how they fit into wider structures of governance. This is all the more curious as the documentary evidence surviving for Finlaggan (CANMORE ID 37708) means that it has been particularly well looked at (eg Caldwell 2003) which means that this should serve as an exemplar for many others. Archaeological evidence for medieval feasting supports documentary records indicating the continuity of assembly at Dunadd (CANMORE ID 38564) (Lane and Campbell 2000). Other sites, usually mounds or stones, have been identified through placename evidence, linked to names for assembly, such as Eireachd or Mód (of which there is a small concentration in Cowal and a recently discovered group in Mull – Whyte 2014), or to Gaelic titles for lawyers, judges or courts (O’Grady 2008, James 2009). The subject would benefit from closer study.

It is also possible that some of the Argyll coastline was subject to a rudimentary system of coastal monitoring. Similar systems were well established in Man from the twelfth century, the traces of which are cliff-top promontory forts, with earthworks containing houses and stands for bonfires or beacons (Johnson 2002). A number of placenames containing aingeal, faire or freachadain, amongst others, suggest the potential for something similar in Argyll. By the sixteenth century there are records of MacDonalds using bonfires to send signals across the seas between Ulster and Islay. Dun Athad (CANMORE ID 37290), in Islay, has often been interpreted as belonging to this period, but the cliff top peninsula setting, with a large rectangular structure sitting behind a large earthwork is strikingly similar to some of the earlier Manx examples noted above.