Backcountry Age Ways:The Border Idea of the Elder-Thane

Not many elderly emigrants moved to the back settlements during the first few years. This was a country for young people. In the eighteenth century, less than 1 percent of the population were over sixty-five a very small minority. But a few older folk were to be found in even the newest settlements. The manner of their treatment tells us many things about this regional culture. Even more than in most societies, the status of elders in the backcountry tended to vary from one older person to the next. Some received deference and deep respect. A case in point was Patrick Calhoun, "Squire Calhoun" as he was called, the founder and family patriarch of the Calhouns of Long Cane, and also his wife Catherine Calhoun. This aged couple sat in the seats of honor on public occasions. Their wisdom was routinely consulted on domestic questions, and their word was law in the community....86

In North Britain, from time immemorial, the rule of tanistry (or thanistry, as in thane) had long determined the descent of authority within a clan, It held that "succession to an estate or dignity was conferred by election upon the 'eldest and worthiest' among the surviving kinsmen."87 Candidates for this honor were males within the circle of kin called the derbfine all the relatives within the span of four generations. By the rule of tanistry, one man among that group was chosen to head the family: he who was strongest, toughest and most cunning. This principle became an invitation to violent conflict, and the question was often settled by a trial of strength and cunning. The winner became the elder of his family or clan, and was honored with deference and deep respect. The losers were degraded and despised if they were lucky. In ancient days they were sometimes murdered, blinded or maimed.

This rule of tanistry had long existed throughout parts of Ireland and Scotland. For many centuries, it had been formally invoked to decide the descent of the Scottish crown.88 Tanistry caused much violence in the history of North Britain. It was also a product of that violence, for it was a way of promoting elders who had the strength and cunning to defend their families, and command respect. But those elders who were unable to do so became a danger to their people. They were degraded and even destroyed. Here was yet another custom by which the culture of North Britain adapted itself to conditions of chronic disorder. By the rule of tanistry, families, clans and even kingdoms gained strong leaders who were able to protect them....


Death Customs
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