Feu, Feud, Feus and Feuing?

If you’re not familiar with obsolete Scottish land tenure law, then the words Feu and Feuing may mean nothing to you. But the terms cannot be avoided when looking at Scottish local history, so a quick explainer is helpful – from the point of view of someone with no legal background!

George Joseph Bell by James Tannock.
George Joseph Bell by James Tannock.

At one time, feus were the most common form of land tenure in Scotland. Under this system, when the feudal superior (who held the land for the Crown) wished to portion off some of their land off to another (a vassal), a new tenure called a feu was created; this legal process is called feuing, and in the past tense we would say “it was feud“. The feuar (vassal) landholder paid an annual feu duty (monetary or equivalnt, in lieu of the traditional military service obligation of the vassal) to their feudal superior (or laird).

There could be multiple layers of sub-feuing, making the whole system very messy and complicated. The Superior could impose conditions in perpetuity such as the annual feu duty, but also what could be done with the land. Where it was feud for building, they could use their privilege to determine what could be built and to control details such as the heigh, architectural style, materials to be used etc. This was used to control how the New Town(s) of Edinburgh and the Victorian tenement and villa suburbs would look. Where feuar builders constructed a tenement, for example, and sold them on, the proceeds of that sale belonged to them but the Superior retained their rights too and the buyers remained bound by them, including paying that feu duty.

In Scottish property law, feudal tenure – and the payment of those potentially ancient duties – was not finally abolished until 2000, in the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000. The official definition of this system was:

The property of land in Scotland is held either directly and immediately under the Crown as paramount superior of all feudal subjects; or indirectly, either as vassal to some one who holds his land immediately from the Crown, or as sub-Vassal in a still more subordinate degree.

Principles of the Law of Scotland, George Joseph Bell

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