Udal law and Orkney clapshot

Lifechanges…Delayed… recently had an entry about udal law (Orkneyjar, January 15th).

Digging around, I was surprised to learn that, because of its history and how Orkney and Shetland came to be part of Scotland, Orkney has a claim to be governed under udal law instead of common law. The Shetland & Orkney Udal Law Group (SOUL) has a lot of information about the old Norse law system and the history of law in Shetland and Orkney (in the context of restoring udal law).

I guess its a sign of one danger of devolution: just as Scotland is gaining more power from London, but now Orkney and Shetland are seeking a greater degree of separation from Edinburgh. The case SOUL outlines looks convincing, but how it would work practically and what it would mean (particularly in regards to fishing and mineral rights) is far from clear.

I’ve read about Norse udal law on the Orkneys before now, and the reason I haven’t blogged this yet is that I know so little. SOUL wants to restore udal law, but what the benefits of this are requires some understanding of Scottish land law, which is different from English law (I remember a rant by a Scottish lawyer saying equity is unnecessary). I don’t know what would actually be gained by doing away with the feudal system, since holding land under the vestiges of a feudal system in England and Wales seems scarcely different in practice from owning it in Germany.

Anyway, I quote David Walker’s Oxford Companion to Law (1980 – Walker is a Scottish lawyer):

Udal (or odal) law. The system of law which came to Orkney and Shetland with the Norsemen in the ninth century, and now co-exists there with feudalism of later Scottish origin. The odal is the hereditary estate held in absolute property and not of any superior, nor for any homage or service, but for a payment called skat, and a personal obligation to appear at the host or Thing. It comprises the homestead, the common lands, and land let to a stranger. Since the fifteenth century, Scottish ideas and feudal tenure have crept in and much land has been feudalized by charter from the Crown or through the Earl or Bishop of Orkney.

It appears you can study Allodial or odal law in English at Bergen University.

Meanwhile, in a comment to my last post on Burns Night, Ann informs of Orkney clapshot, a version of tatties and neeps toasted with cheese on top.

4 thoughts on “Udal law and Orkney clapshot

  1. From Transblawg I learn of the word udal; in the OED’s words, udal land or lands are “land(s) in Orkney or Shetland held by the old native form of freehold tenure.” The word is the “Orkney and Shetland form of…

  2. Thanks for raising one of my hobby-horses.

    The skat in the David Walker quote means tax in all the Nordic langs. Butterworth Scots law glossary: ‘In 1974 future imposition of skat was prohibited’.

    Also the Thing referred to is a gathering of chieftains. The Ting on Iceland is supposed to be the oldest Parliament, predating the Eng. version and throwing new light on the claim that Westminster is the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

    Odal (orig. Norwegian) is translated in my Norwegian dictionary as ‘property owned under an alodial system (freehold, udal – usual Scottish spelling); the right to hold such property.’

    For the benefit of people like your ranting anti-equity Scots lawyer, I’ve even used equitable land law terms like ‘strict settlement’ v. ‘trust for sale’ as a translation of the Norwegian to make it partly understable to Eng. lawyers. I was expecting protests from Norway, but they never came…

  3. Well, one thing’s for sure. The ‘Mother of Parliaments’ epithet for Westminster should not go unchallenged by students of Viking/Norse history on the Isle of Man, the Orkneys or ‘Zetland’, as one Aberdonian translator describes her visit there last summer.

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