Vale of Leven History
Apologies for not posting for a while, I have been rehearsing for a DPT production and it takes up most of my time, but in the course of doing so, a conversation amongst us recently prompted me to think about the historic ‘difference’ between the Vale and Dumbarton; we agreed it is almost as if Dumbarton really is a completely different place from the Vale of Leven.
We see it as a close town, but rarely as part of ‘us’…and there might be a good historical reason for this that has filtered down through the centuries, for at one time it was indeed the case that Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven were like two separate states.
It goes back to our feudal past, a system that prevailed when King David I of Scotland introduced this European system of landholding and administration under the crown. It is a simple system when looked at broadly.
The King is the ‘superior’ of all lands. He wields total ultimate control of how land and the systems of governance in them are dispensed. Without his ratification, no-one can hold lands in his kingdom. At the start of the system preferred men (it was nearly always men) were allocated their own feudal properties, large tracts of land called Earldoms. Each Earl was then given associated ‘regalities’, that is to say they had powers over life and limb over all who lived in their fiefdoms. Each Earl could then sub-feu parcels of land, as per a king, to anyone THEY chose, whilst retaining the Earldom’s ‘superiority’, and in turn, each sub-feu’d holder could parcel THEIR land to another, again retaining what superiority they held, if the terms of their feu so permitted.
So the system allowed the king complete control, over the Earl, and Earl complete control over their preferred persons under them, and so on. In this manner all were subject to each man’s superior, all the way back up the system to the king. Charter’s contained the rights of each one, and limitations were placed to ensure control never went awry and upset the order of things.
Governing all of this were set laws, which determined how inheritance worked for example, and often the king would place strict limitations, as would the Earl, to minimise disputes. Disputes were common where the terms might not have been made implicit and the vacuum of order therein clashed with the over-arching laws usually governing land transfer and associated rights, or indeed the presumption in such cases was that the superior laws above the terms prevailed.
Nearly all Charters were written in Latin, and for a very good reason. Latin was widespread, it could be understood clearly, and rarely suffered from ambiguity, and in lands such as Scotland, where many languages and regional variations applied, you needed a universal language to ensure no-one could claim they did not understand someone else’s vernacular. Remember, in those days there was no such thing as Standard English. Gaelic and other Celtic languages were not official tongues and in any case, most landholders spoke Germanic tongues or French ones which melded much later into recognisable modern English.
In our region things were in fact even more complex. When King David I came to the throne three distinct languages were spoken here: The Germanic (Anglo Saxon tongues), Brythonic (Welsh) and Gaelic. Our first ruling Earls under the Crown were of Saxon origin, the Church held vast territories from Loch Lomond down to Glasgow which were Gaelic in tongue largely, and the Burgh of Dumbarton was populated by wealthy merchants from Flanders (Flemish) as well as Germanic speakers. (The earliest recorded owners of Strathleven estate of old were the Flemings. It is part of the Burgh and their name comes from their ancestral roots)
To make all their transactions standard, Latin was used exclusively in early charters, and the first Lennox vernacular charter (spoken in what we now call Scots but then was referred to as the Germanic tongue or Inglis (English)) did not appear until 1392, but even thereafter, it was an exceedingly rare thing for a very long time indeed.
This was the general order of things then when our former Lennox emerged, but the Burgh of Dumbarton worked very differently from its inception under Alexander II in 1222. It’s inhabitants were much more likely to have spoken “the Inglis” as a common tongue, having displaced the old Britons who departed as rulers around 1000s. Gaelic was spoken outside the Burgh with more prevalence, although that would not last very long, and even by the time of the earls in the 1100s, place names in Gaelic were becoming tortured to death in charters so that many of them became almost unintelligible to Gaelic speakers themselves. Although the Earls doubtless could speak some Gaelic, it would not have been particularly good Gaelic, and the surge of the Inglis was streaking through all of Lowland Scotland, forming itself into a distinct language as its sister became more French in nature following the takeover of that larger nation by the French-speaking Normans.
So culturally, the Burgh was a foreign place in many ways already, but it also had a totally different governing structure.
Unlike in the wider Earldom, of which it was part of, the Burgh only had one superior: The King. The Royal Burgh was his alone, and within it lies the roots of modern democracy, which sounds rather perverse but it is a fact that the people of the Royal Burgh had WAY more say in their affairs than those who were under the Earl in the wider Earldom.
The King granted to the freemen of the Burgh (largely the wealthier merchants, traders and artizans), the right and duty to choose and elect from their own number representatives to send to the Scottish Parliament wherever it sat, (in those days it was not a fixed building but a movable unit of governing people), as well as officers, balies and other leaders, as well as court clerks and officers, in effect a local council of the great and good to run the affairs of the Burgh in the name of the King.
Nothing like this existed in the earldom outside the Royal Boundary, for there the Earl was immediate superior (and representative in Parliament) and all offices, lands, rights and obligations were his to command, usually passing onto family or others who pleased him. There were no elections to office by anyone but him.
The Royal Burgh was also not as rural in nature as the Earldom. There were no towns other than the Burgh itself, indeed, without the Burgh towns would not have existed at all. Even villages did not exist as we understand them, instead clusters grew around the Earl’s own administrative centres, where he and he alone held court, or where rural activities brought associated services together. Many of the Earl’s feudal beneficiaries of lands similarly styled their own fiefdoms so that the centre was their chief manse, with scattered fermtouns serving their needs and power. In short, the Earls had friends and peasants, the Burgh had traders, industry and commerce, ran by the Burgh itself.
The country around the Burgh provided the hard labour, rural industry and of course men of arms, but the Burgh concentrated on making profits. The increasing value of goods traded via the Burghs (largely overseas) provided the Royal coffers with duties that could never be matched by peasants scratching a living from their tiny little fields and indeed very often the Earls were not particularly wealthy, especially the Lennox earls who ran their affairs quietly, slowly and with an eye to peaceable ends as much as possible, rather than the grim pursuit of exacting as much as possible out of as many as possible. Meanwhile the Burgh’s sole pursuit really was trade and profits, and those profits were mainly in the form of duties to the Crown.
But as the years went on, the Burgh became even more ‘democratic’ in nature, and the profits more about making the merchants wealthier, for wealth largely passed generation to generation amongst the burgesses of Dumbarton, meanwhile as the centuries wore on, the old families of the Vale of Leven, long distinguished, but their generations becoming poorer, and finally extinguished as their profitless estates became prey to a disintegrating order of things.
The Merchants of the Town became the modern landowners; for example the Smolletts of Dumbarton bought out the Lindsays of Bonhill and the ancient system of two worlds, one Burgh the other Earldom, became outdated, and overcome by money’s rank over mere titles and wider representation from the People in due course. Indeed nothing illustrates this more poetically than the supposition long held two centuries ago that an ancient forester who planted the oaks that so covered Bonhill House, who lived simply and without any degree of luxury, happily ended his days in a mere tiny hovel by the House, and was said to be of the line of the old Lennox Heritable Foresters, no less, the last Lindsay!
But the lesson is clear, yes for a very long time, the Valley and the Burgh were distinct in nature, goals and governance, and perhaps this explains this Common feeling still of two very distant cousins within a hair’s breadth of the other. Indeed, so close, as you see below, the Boundary meets down at Red Burn, above Strathleven, crosses the river and includes Cordale Point! We are near yet so far apart still.