The title of Mormaer designates a regional or provincial ruler in the medieval Kingdom of the Scots. In theory, although not always in practice, a Mormaer was second only to the King of Scots, and the senior of a toisech.


The etymology is variously debated as "Great Steward" (incorporating Gaelic and Picto-Latin), or "Sea Lord" (perhaps defenders against the attacks of Vikings). Historians do not know if the institution was Gaelic or Pictish. It is notable that the word Mormaer occurs only in the post-Pictish period, and so it is difficult to sustain any argument for Pictish origins. There is also debate whether the term mormaer was simply the east-coast equivalent of Kinglet (Gaelic: ruirí or ). For the earliest periods, we are unsure about the exact difference between a Mormaer and a Toisech. The earliest Scottish Latin sources use the word thanus (Thane) for the word Toisech. This word was adopted from the Anglo-Saxon lands to the south. It is possible that both Thanus and Comes, and Mormaer and Toisech, all originally meant similar things, or at least were not part of a stratified hierarchy as we have come to think.

Earliest Mormaers

The office of Mormaer is first mentioned in the context of the Battle of Corbridge (918), in the Annals of Ulster. The first individual Mormaer to be named was Dubacan mac Indrechtaich, one of the companions of Amlaib, the son of King Causantín II (Constantine II). His death at the Battle of Brunanburh (937) is recorded in the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba. He is mentioned as Mormair Oengusa (Mormaer of Angus).

Another three Mormaers are named, though without provinces, in the Annals of Tigernach, s.a. 976. However, the earliest Mormaers of each province are generally unknown until the 12th century, by which time the Mormaer is being referred to in Latin documents as Comes.

Mormaer, Comes and "Earl"

This has led to the erroneous impression that "Mormaerdoms" were scrapped and replaced by "Earldoms." In fact, Comes (literally Companion, in the feudal age Count, which word derives from it) is just a Franco-Latin word used on the British Isles to render either Mormaer or Earl into Latin (with French). For instance, several Irish sources call King Robert Bruce Mormaer (of Carrick) in the 14th century. As this is not an Irish word, it is clear that the word is being used by the Scots for the office. Moreover, the term is still recorded as being used for the "Earl" of Lennox a century later. On the other hand, the West Germanic word Earl is not recorded as being in use in Scotland until the mid-14th century, and then only in an English literary text.

As a result, scholars now recognize that Mormaer was the vernacular word used by the Gaels. Earl on the other hand is an English or Scots translation, alien to the Gaelic tradition.

There might be nothing wrong with this. However, many authors use the term Jarl to describe contemporary Scandinavian lords of the same rank, and the term Count for French and German ones. In this context, using the term Earl for Mormaer is simplistic and inappropriate, and might be compared with calling a Roman Emperor Shah. Some of this objection is removed as the Scottish comital lordships become increasingly acquired by families of French or Anglo-French origin, and as English becomes the dominant language of Lowland Scotland in the later Middle Ages. Of course, Count would still be safer, but almost no Scottish historian employs this word. In fact, one might even use Duke, especially in the case of Moray, since Mormaer was the highest noble rank under the King.

Mormaers and other Lordships

A Mormaerdom was not simply a regional lordship, it was a regional lordship with official comital rank. This is why other lordships, many of them more powerful, such as those of Lords of Galloway, Argyll and Innse Gall, are not and were not called Mormaerdoms or Earldoms.

List of Mormaers

This list does not include Orkney, which was a Norwegian Earldom, and became ruled by Scotland in the 15th century. Sutherland might be included, but it was created only late, and for a foreign family (see Earl of Sutherland)


  • Anderson, Alan Orr, Early Sources of Scottish History: AD 500-1286, 2 Vols, (Edinburgh, 1922)
  • Barrow, G.W.S., The Kingdom of the Scots, (Edinburgh, 2003)
  • Broun, Dauvit, "Mormaer," in J. Cannon (ed.) The Oxford Companion to British History, (Oxford, 1997)
  • Lynch, Michael, Scotland: A New History, (Edinburgh, 1991)
  • Roberts, John L., Lost Kingdoms: Celtic Scotland in the Middle Ages, (Edinburgh, 1997)

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