Tacks and Tacksmen

A tack was a piece of a land (of which the tacksman was the tenant) in the Highland clan society of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

‘In English, just then beginning to be heard more often in the Highlands, they were usually called tacksmen — a tack being one of the names given to the piece of land which a man such as Allan MacDonald generally expected to occupy in return for such services, military or otherwise, as his chief might from time to time exact.’

(James Hunter, A Dance Called America, Edinburgh, 1994, 13)

‘Frequently they were close relatives (often brothers, cousins or younger sons) of the chief, leasing a large block of land for several years or for the duration of one or two lives, and acting as viceroy over this portion of the estate, if necessary training and organising the clan peasants for war and appearing with armed followers at his bidding. The tacksmen also paid rent in money or kind to the chief and obtained a larger rent in money or kind from the peasants, living on the difference between the two. Sometimes, however, they farmed on their own account. It is not always clear how often this was the case, since in some parts of the country (such as Kintyre) the situation is confused by the fact that the expression ‘tacksman’ was also used to denote any farming tenant who had been given a lease (a ‘tack’) for a term of years, rather than to describe a viceroy or kinsman who had a purely passive role as middleman between the landlord and the man who cultivated the ground. Normally there was no justification for the middleman type of tenure except in a para-military society. It was destined to perish in the later eighteenth century when law and order finally made it archaic.’

(T.C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560–1830, London, 1969, 138)

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