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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Historical Notes 1750 - 1900
D Omand - Moravian Field Club

The Landholding And Crofting System
In the 18th and 19th centuries, as now, most of the arable land was to be found below the 300 foot contour, soil of particular merit lying in a broad belt between Wick and Thurso.

The system of land tenure in Caithness was similar to that throughout northern Scotland. The Laird (squire) owned the land and leased a large area of it to a tacksman who in turn rented it to tenants whose holdings varied in size from 5 - 20 acres. In addition to this arable land, the tenant had the right to pasture his quota of animals on common grazings and the sheilings. Some of the more prosperous tenants rented out small parcels of land to sub.-tenants. At the foot of the social scale were the cottars (farm labourers) who provided a cheap and abundant supply of labour.

Male farm servants were engaged on 28th November and 20th June. In 1800 a good man might be paid 6 - 7 a year. In addition to a small piece of land he would receive some three and a half bolls of meal and 2 bolls of potatoes. A grieve (farm overseer) received 8 with the important perk of a maintained milking cow. Female labour at this time could be engaged for as little as 2 - -3 per annum and day labour could be hired at particularly busy periods for 5p 7and a half P per day.

The land was divided into an infield and outfield (afterward) which were separated by a loaning dyke. The infield, which received all the manure was constantly tilled until crop failure compelled the land to be left fallow for a year before being sown with either of the two crops oats or bere (a kind of barley). The outfield which provided grazing for cattle and sheep was cropped on a system of shifting agriculture.

The unenclosed infield was allocated to tenants as separated strips of land, so that consolidation of holdings was impossible. Moreover, the strips of land were reallocated annually so that there was no incentive for any tenant to improve the land. One tenant's "field" was so separated from his neighbours by an uncultivated grass strip called a balk. The "fields" or strips of land measured 20 ft. to 40 ft. in width and were separated from each other by hollows filled with weeds. The origin of this system of agriculture known as Rig and Rennal or Runrig is unsure.

The croft with its dispersed elongated strips of land was designed as a subsistence unit. For those who lived near the coast it would be true to say that "every crofter was a fisherman and every fisherman a crofter". This subsistence unit this duality of occupation, has been so significant in the Caithness economy that even at the beginning of this century over one half of the holdings in the county were under 15 acres in extent.

A crofter, or tacksman, could be evicted at any time and it was not until the Crofters' Act of 1886 that security of tenure existed. In addition to insecurity the crofter often had poor quality land and rental obligations which were quite crippling. This was particularly true of the early l9th century when local tenants were all too frequently rack rented by incoming landlords. The obligations of the tenant to landlord included: tilling, dunging, sowing, harrowing, weeding and hay making. In addition he was expected to make straw sacks, straw mats, straw baskets (cassies - which had many carrying purposes e.g. oats, peat and dung), crubbans (baskets of wicker work) and clibbers (wooden saddles). Ropes had to be made from rushes, horses' hair or taw hides, and tethers made from heather. Simmons were made from heather or windlans (bundles of straw). Tenants were also obliged to give over some of their farm produce such as poultry, cheese and butter. Not content with all that, some landlords also imposed tiends (taxes). Little wonder that Pennant commented that far too much of the tenants' time had to be given to the landlords whom he regarded as "an impediment to prosperity". Yet, despite their privations and feudal-like obligations the people appear to have been cheerful and, when the occasion demanded, enjoyed themselves energetically at fairs, dances, weddings and even funerals. The popular musical accompaniment was the fiddle which with the later boxie (small button key accordian) came to be a commonplace in the Caithness cottage.

Published October 1974