[Editor’s Note: the following is a guest post from David McNicoll of Highland Experience Scotland which specializes in heritage travel in Scotland.]
On the 29th of April and with the world watching, Prince William, second in line to the British throne was married at Westminster Abbey amid all the usual royal pomp and ceremony. As is customary on such occasions the Queen gifted a set of titles to the newly married prince – the Duke of Cambridge and the Earl of Strathearn. The Earldom of Strathearn in central Scotland is one of the oldest in the gift of the crown, dating back almost 1200 years; and this entitlement reconnects the modern royal family with their ancient Scottish roots.
The valley of the River Earn, a tributary of the mighty River Tay has since time immemorial been a key part of the kingdom of Scotland, and a fundamental piece in the jigsaw that came together to form the country in the 9th century. When King Kenneth I forged the realm of Alba, the forerunner of Scotland in 843 by unifying the Picts and the Gaels, he set up his own base in the heart of this fertile and rich part of the county building a grand palace at Forteviot. The area already had a strong royal connection: around 800 the Dupplin Cross, an impressive carved stone cross (now in St Serf’s church Dunning) was erected and dedicated to King Causantin, one of the last Pictish rulers.
As Scotland developed it was divided into several provinces, each ruled over by a Mormaer – with almost sub-regal powers to administer justice, exact taxes and raise armed forces in their own fiefdom. We don’t know who the earliest mormaers were, how the land was divided and whether whole new dynasties were erected or simply continued from a more ancient regime prior to the rule of Kenneth I; but, around the 12th century they start to appear in the historical documents often witnessing documents or fighting alongside the king. Strathearn was one such province – stretching from the religious centre at Abernethy in the east to the high peaks around Loch Earn in the west; a land straddling both Highland and Lowland and key to the prosperity of the medieval nation.
The earliest known (but not the first) Mormaer of Strathearn was Maol Íosa I who was certainly alive in 1115, when he witnessed a charter being signed. The name is Gaelic which suggests that his family was elevated to the position a little over a hundred years earlier when many Gaelic warlords and opportunists from the west and Ireland were given high ranked position in what was traditionally Pictish territory. This was part of the process of Gaelic-isation which transformed Scotland in the middle ages. These mormaers were more obedient to the king as they owed their position to the crown, and thus easier to manage and more likely to stay ‘on message’.
Not that they always stayed ‘on message’ or made the right call when it came to the crunch. The last of the Strathearn dynasty was Maol Íosa V, who chose the wrong side in a royal dispute over the throne in 1334 following the death of Robert the Bruce. The new king David II stripped Maol of his title and gave it to Maurice de Moravia. By this time, the Scottish mormaers were using the English title Earl (the British equivalent of the Continental ‘Count’). Maurice de Moravia was killed at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 and had no legitimate children. The earldom therefore returned to the Crown, and into the possession of Robert Stewart (later King Robert II).
The title remained in Stewart hands until marriage saw it fall briefly into the procession of the Graham family. However, the Crown took advantage of the young earl’s minority and deprived him of his rights (although he would later become Earl of Mentieth). Since 1437 the title has been in the gift of the reigning monarch, and retained as a title for princes of the blood royal only. When James VI of Scotland became the king of England the Scottish titles were joined with the English ones available for the now ‘British’ royal family (Irish titles were part of the English schedule).
Prince William is the first member of the Royal House of Windsor to hold the title, and when in Scotland he will be officially His Royal Highness the Earl of Strathearn (in the same way his father is The Duke of Rothesay and not Prince of Wales). It is an important function of the monarchy to connect the people to their past and their heritage, and the confirmation of one of Scotland’s most antique positions upon the man who will one day be king plays a huge part in that continuity.
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Photo: Strathearn from Cairnie, Scotland via Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons License 3.0.
©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee