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The gradation of ranks considered in reference to the clan or tribe may be briefly described. The highest dignitary was the righ or king, who in point of birth and station was originally on a footing of equality with the other chiefs, and only derived some additional dignity during his life from a sort of regal preeminence. "Among the ancient Celts the prince or king had nothing actually his own, but everything belonging to his followers was freely at his service ;" of their own accord they gave their prince so many cattle, or a certain portion of grain. It seems probable that the Celtic chief held the public lands in trust for his people, and was on his succession invested with those possessions which he afterwards apportioned among his retainers. Those only, we are told by Caesar, had lands, "magistrates and princes, and they give to their followers as they think proper, removing them at the year’s end." The Celtic nations, according to Dr Macpherson, limited the regal authority to very narrow bounds. The old monarchs of North Britain and Ireland were too weak either to control the pride and insolence of the great, or to restrain the licentiousness of the populace. Many of those princes, if we credit history, were dethroned, and some of them even put to death by their subjects, which is a demonstration that their power was not unlimited.

Next to the king was the Mormaor, who seems to have been identical with the Tigliern and the later Thiane. As we have already indicated, the persons invested with this distinction were the patriarchal chiefs or heads of the great tribes into which the Highlanders were formerly divided. But when the line of the ancient mormaors gradually sank under the ascendant influence of the feudal system, the clans forming the great tribes became independent, and their leaders or chiefs were held to represent each the common ancestor or founder of his clan, and derived all their dignity and power from the belief in such representation. The chief possessed his office by right of blood alone, as that right was understood in the Highlands; neither election nor marriage could constitute any title to this distinction; it was, as we have already stated, purely hereditary, nor could it descend to any person except him who, according to the Highland rule of succession, was the nearest male heir to the dignity.

Next to the chief stood the tanist or person who, by the laws of tanistry, was entitled to succeed to the chiefship; he possessed this title during the lifetime of the chief, and, in virtue of his apparent honours, was considered as a man of mark and consequence. "In the settlement of succession, the law of tanistry prevailed in Ireland from the earliest accounts of time. According to that law," says Sir James Ware, "the hereditary right of succession was not maintained among the princes or the rulers of countries; but the strongest, or he who had the most followers, very often the eldest and most worthy of the deceased king’s blood and name, succeeded him. This person, by the common suffrage of the people, and in the lifetime of his predecessor, was appointed to succeed, and was called Tanist, that is to say, the second in dignity.