A Bond of Fosterage

On this day in 1674, Coll McAlester, brother of Godfrey (Goraidh) laird of Loup, signed a contract with John and Mary McPhale, and their son Neill, for the fostering of his second son, James. The bond is witnessed by Gorry McAlester of Loup and John McAlester, who might have been their brother.

This Macalister example of a bond of fosterage shows the continued importance, at a relatively late date, of an ancient institution. Fosterage, “the bringing up of the chief’s children by favoured members of the leading clan gentry and in turn, their children by other favoured members of the clan”,[1] existed in most of the societies that made up the world our tribal ancestors knew. The custom was legally formalised and regulated in Ireland, referred to repeatedly in Norse sagas, mentioned in Welsh law, and said to exist among the Anglo-Saxons as well. Like other aspects of tribal society, however, the practice seems to have lasted longer in Gaelic Scotland than elsewhere.

In all of these societies, fosterage appears to have worked in a similar manner: “A Laird, a man of wealth and eminence, sends his child, either male or female, to a tacksman, or tenant, to be fostered. It is not always his own tenant, but some distant friend that obtains this honour; for an honour such a trust is very reasonably thought.”[2] The foster parents were always of lower rank than the child’s own parents. In most cases the child went to live with his or her foster parents at the age of 7 or 8 and lived with them for a set period — usually (as in the Macalister bond) about seven years. Provision was made by the foster parents for the child upon his or her reaching adulthood, or in the case of the foster parents’ death; this generally took the form of an agreed upon number of livestock. In return for caring for the child, the foster parents obtained the protection of the child’s father — an important assurance in a society where such protection might mean the difference between survival and destruction. 

Fosterage appears to have died out in Ireland in the early 17th century. Although it continued for almost another century in Scotland, the contracts that survive reflect a changing society. By the time Coll McAlester was arranging his son’s fosterage, bonds include a stipulation — not mentioned in earlier contracts — that an annual payment be made for the child’s board. About the same time, the obligation of the child’s father to protect the foster parents disappears. It’s possible that this payment replaced the earlier obligation, perhaps because life and property were a bit more secure.[3]

Even with such changes, the institution of fosterage was one of the “most important forms of social bonding in the clans”, and in the Highlands and Isles it survived well into the modern era.[4] The bonds established between the foster family and the child were so intense that both legend and actual history contain examples of foster brothers giving up their lives for one another. When he signed a bond of fosterage on this day in 1674, Coll McAlester was therefore following a custom that, by tying the lower orders to the clan gentry (in this case the chief’s family), help to hold the clan together.[5]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1] Way & Squire, p. 13
[2] Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (London: 1791), pp. 313-4
[3]A. O. Curle, “Notice of Four Contracts or Bonds of Fosterage: with Notes on the Former Prevalence of the Custom of Fosterage in the Scottish Highlands”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 30 (Dec. 9, 1895): 15.
[4] Way & Squire, ibid. Johnson wrote in 1773 that the custom “still remains in the Islands, though it is passing fast away” (p. 313).
[5] Way & Squire, ibid.


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