Fosterage, the practice of a family bringing up a child not their own, differs from adoption in that the child's parents, not the foster-parents, remain the acknowledged parents. In many modern western societies foster care can be organised by the state to care for children with troubled family backgrounds, usually on a temporary basis. In many pre-modern societies fosterage was a form of patronage, whereby influential families cemented political relationships by bringing up each other's children, similar to arranged marriages, also based on dynastic or alliance calculations.

This practice was once common in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.[1]

Fosterage in ScotlandEdit

In medieval Highland society there was a system of fosterage among clan leaders, where boys and girls would leave their parent's house to be brought up in that of other chiefs, creating a fictive bond of kinship that helped cement alliances and mutual bonds of obligation.[2]

In his A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775), writer Samuel Johnson described the fosterage custom as he saw it practised.[3]

There still remains in the Islands, though it is passing fast away, the custom of fosterage. 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. The terms of fosterage seem to vary in different islands. In Mull, the father sends with his child a certain number of cows, to which the same number is added by the fosterer. The father appropriates a proportionable extent of ground, without rent, for their pasturage. If every cow brings a calf, half belongs to the fosterer, and half to the child; but if there be only one calf between two cows, it is the child's, and when the child returns to the parent, it is accompanied by all the cows given, both by the father and by the fosterer, with half of the increase of the stock by propagation. These beasts are considered as a portion, and called Macalive cattle, of which the father has the produce, but is supposed not to have the full property, but to owe the same number to the child, as a portion to the daughter, or a stock for the son.

Children continue with the fosterer perhaps six years, and cannot, where this is the practice, be considered as burdensome. The fosterer, if he gives four cows, receives likewise four, and has, while the child continues with him, grass for eight without rent, with half the calves, and all the milk, for which he pays only four cows when he dismisses his Dalt, for that is the name for a foster child.

Fosterage is, I believe, sometimes performed upon more liberal terms. Our friend, the young Laird of Col, was fostered by Macsweyn of Grissipol. Macsweyn then lived a tenant to Sir James Macdonald in the Isle of Sky; and therefore Col, whether he sent him cattle or not, could grant him no land. The Dalt, however, at his return, brought back a considerable number of Macalive cattle, and of the friendship so formed there have been good effects. When Macdonald raised his rents, Macsweyn was, like other tenants, discontented, and, resigning his farm, removed from Sky to Col, and was established at Grissipol.

1775 was long past the medieval period, of course. One might also question how much an Englishman with a widely expressed low opinion of Scots who was only in Scotland briefly actually knew about the practice.

Fosterage in Medieval IcelandEdit

Fosterage or "fostering" is frequently referred to in the medieval Sagas of Icelanders. Original family ties and rights of inheritance were not affected, nor was it required for the fostered child to be an orphan or for the biological father to be deceased. Moreover, the fostering of another man's child was regarded as a source of honor to the birth father; and conventionally the fostering party was of inferior social status to the biological father. An exception to this convention is found in Njáls saga, where Njál Thorgeirsson, a very prominent man, fosters Hoskuld, the son of Thrain Sigfusson, after the death of Thrain in battle.

Portions of Ireland, Scotland and the Hebrides were ruled for long periods of time by Norse invaders during the Middle Ages; but it is unknown which culture was the original source of the custom of fosterage.

Literary fosterageEdit

In Ancient Ireland, ollams taught children either for payment or for no compensation. Children were taught a particular trade and treated like family; their original family ties were often severed.[4]

Fosterage in other culturesEdit

There was similar custom in the Caucasus, called Atalik - ru:Аталычество.


  1. ^ "Fosterage". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  2. ^ A. Cathcart, Kinship and Clientage: Highland Clanship, 1451–1609 (Brill, 2006), ISBN 9004150455, pp. 81–2.
  3. ^ A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland by Samuel Johnson. 1775 edition. Gutenberg text accessed May 23, 2008
  4. ^ "Fosterage in Ancient Ireland". Library Ireland. Retrieved 2012-06-16.

Further readingEdit

Medieval Ireland and WalesEdit

  • Anderson, Katharine. "Urth Noe e Tat. The Question of Fosterage in High Medieval Wales." North American Journal of Welsh Studies 4:1 (2004): 1-11.
  • Charles-Edwards, Thomas. Early Irish and Welsh Kinship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
  • Davies, Sir Robert Rees. "Buchedd a moes y Cymry. The manners and morals of the Welsh." Welsh History Review 12 (1984): 155–79.
  • Fitzsimons, Fiona. "Fosterage and Gossiprid in late medieval Ireland. Some new evidence." In Gaelic Ireland, c.1250-c.1650. Land, lordship and settlement, ed. by Patrick J. Duffy, David Edwards and Elizabeth FitzPatrick. Dublin: Four Courts, 2001. 138–49.
  • Jaski, Bart. "Cú Chulainn, gormac and dalta of the Ulstermen." Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 37 (1999): 1-31.
  • McAll, C. "The normal paradigms of a woman's life in the Irish and Welsh texts." In The Welsh law of women, ed. by Dafydd Jenkins and Morfydd E. Owen. Cardiff, 1980. 7-22.
  • Ní Chonaill, Bronagh. "Fosterage. Child-rearing in medieval Ireland." History Ireland 5:1 (1997): 28–31.
  • Parkes, Peter. "Celtic Fosterage: Adoptive Kinship and Clientage in Northwest Europe." Society for Comparative Study of Society and History 48.2 (2006): 359–95. PDF available online.
  • Smith, Llinos Beverley. "Fosterage, adoption and God-parenthood. Ritual and fictive kinship in medieval Wales." Welsh History Review 16:1 (1992): 1-35.


  • Parkes, Peter. "Alternative Social Structures and Foster Relations in the Hindu Kush. Milk Kinship Allegiance in Former Mountain Kingdoms of Northern Pakistan." Comparative Studies in Society and History 43:4 (2001): 36.
  • Parkes, Peter. "Fostering Fealty. A Comparative Analysis of Tributary Allegiances of Adoptive Kinship." Comparative Studies in Society and History 45 (2003): 741–82.
  • Parkes, Peter. "Fosterage, Kinship, and Legend: When Milk was Thicker than Blood?" Comparative Studies in Society and History 46 (2004): 587–615.
  • Parkes, Peter. "Milk Kinship in Southeast Europe. Alternative Social Structures and Foster Relations in the Caucasus and the Balkans." Social Anthropology 12 (2004): 341–58.
  • McCutcheon, James, 2010. "Historical Analysis and Contemporary Assessment of Foster Care in Texas: Perceptions of Social Workers in a Private, Non-Profit Foster Care Agency". Applied Research Projects. Texas State University Paper 332.

Anglo-Saxon EnglandEdit

  • Crawford, Sally. Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1999. Especially pp. 122–38.