My Fraser ancestors’ stomping ground was a semi-circular area stretching from Peterhead down to Ellon, part of the Buchan region of north-east Aberdeenshire. They mostly lived and worked on farms and crofts, in farm “touns” rather than towns and villages. To understand their lives I’ve done a lot of reading about farm servant and crofting life at that time and in that place.
That part of Scotland is officially the lowlands. It’s gently undulating land east of the Highland fault (which means the people are not Highlanders), with a rich agricultural history – home to the famous Aberdeen Angus cattle as well as having a reputation for crops, especially oats and barley. In the 1800s most farms combined crop growing with the feeding up of cattle for meat markets, which meant also growing turnips to use as winter cattle fodder.
Land ownership and tenancy
The system of land ownership and tenancy was well developed. The land was owned by proprietors, some of whom were lairds and lords owning vast tracts of land but with a surprising number of land-owning “gentlemen” owning smaller estates. These proprietors leased land to large farm tenants, who in turn sublet some of their holdings to small farm sub-tenants. Both large and small farmers then leased small acreages to cottars and crofters who combined supplying labour and essential crafts to farms with subsistence production of food for themselves and their families.
Farms were often described by how many horses were needed: a two pair farm was small whereas a four pair farm was quite large. Crofters couldn’t afford to keep a pair of horses and so would often pool resources, which sometimes meant yoking a horse and an ox together to pull the plough. (It’s not known what the animals thought of this practice, but from old photos it appears they weren’t too unhappy.)
The farm servant pattern
My ancestors were of the crofting class, and for generations the lives of most of the men followed a similar pattern. From a very young age they would provide labour on the family croft, but in their early teens – and in the early 1800s as young as ten – they’d leave home to work as a farm servant on the larger, neighbouring farms. As servants they’d change farms often, sometimes every six months, getting a position or ‘fee’ at the feeing market, though they’d stay within a radius of about ten or so miles of home. Once they were experienced enough to have climbed the farm servant hierarchy and had gained a good reputation, they could marry and negotiate a fee that came with a cottage.
One son of a crofter would sometimes take over the lease of his father’s croft. This is what my Fraser ancestors did, William’s son Alexander taking over Mosside on William’s death in 1877, and then Alexander’s son William taking over Mosside in 1911. But the aim of a great many farm servants was to become the tenant of his own croft at some stage. The cycle would then start again as his sons went off to be farm servants.
Women led a similar life, going out as servants to do domestic, dairy and outdoor work on farms until they married, usually to a farm servant, and then eventually becoming a crofter’s wife. A crofter’s wife was an essential part of a croft and did a lot of the farming work as well as looking after the cottage and the children. In particular, any dairy work would be her responsibility.
This system of unmarried male and female farm servants moving from farm to farm at regular intervals throughout their teens and twenties is probably one of the reasons this part of Scotland had a high rate of illegitimate births compared to many other places. Pregnancy was frequently the precursor to marriage, but often it didn’t lead to marriage due to two factors – the father had gone off to work elsewhere or he was unable to get a fee that came with a cottage and therefore was in no position to support a family. Unmarried mothers (and there are many of them on my Fraser family tree) would usually return to their parents’ croft to have their baby, and would stay there until it was weaned, then leave their grandparents to look after the infant while they went off to be farm servants again. Hence many crofts can be found in the census accommodating three generations of parents, their younger children and their grandchildren, offspring of their older children.
Labour intensive farming
Farm work was very labour intensive. Horses were used to pull ploughs, harrows and carts but sowing, weeding, harvesting and threshing was done by hand. Cattle needed feeding up with turnips and other fodder, especially during the long winters. Horses were well cared for: their harness needed cleaning and upkeep, their stables mucking out and the horses themselves needed feeding, watering and grooming. Dykes needed to be dug and kept clear to improve drainage, and farm machinery needed cleaning and maintaining. All the farm servants, as well as the farmer’s family, needed feeding and accommodating. So a farm would be well populated and was a busy place.
There was a strict hierarchy, though. At the top was the farmer and next, on larger farms, came the grieve – the foreman in charge of the labour force, though on smaller farms the farmer himself would be his own grieve. The farm servants were then divided according to their role – horsemen (ploughmen), cattlemen (coo baillies) and orra men (who did everything else). The farmer’s wife would be in charge of the dairymaid, housemaid and kitchen maid (the latter known as a deem). The hierarchy created status, horsemen having more status than cattlemen even though they didn’t necessarily earn more.
The feeing markets were where farm servants, both male and female, got their jobs (fees). Unmarried farm servants often moved farms every six months, though married ones tended to stay in one place longer. Contracts – verbal but binding – were for six months. During the fortnight before the feeing market, known as speaking time, the farmer would approach those servants he wanted to keep and ask “Will ye bide?” The servant could answer yeah or nay, but if they weren’t asked they couldn’t bide.
At the feeing market, a farmer wanting to recruit would approach a likely looking servant and they would negotiate terms. If a deal was struck it was usually sealed with a dram and the payment of arles – a tot of whisky and a token sum paid by the farmer. Market day gave farm servants a rare holiday, and the later part of the day was given to “carousing and wenching” and was a notoriously wild affair!
Farmer’s chose servants based on reputation and appearance, to the extent of sometimes feeling their muscles. A farm servant’s reputation was therefore of vital importance, as it got him moving up the hierarchy and able to obtain fees at the best farms. Reputations – of both servants and farmers – spread rapidly, through word of mouth and the creating and singing of bothy ballads. Horsemen also took part in ploughing matches, which were popular and well attended.
Hours of work
Getting up time was around four in the morning and farm servants worked until around seven at night – a long working day. This had reduced to about ten hours a day by the 1880s.
A horseman would be in charge of a pair of horses, by the 1800s usually Clydesdales, a breed developed in the mid 1700s in Lanarkshire and which rapidly became the workhorse of choice throughout Scotland. The horseman would be up at between four and five, clean the stables, cart manure to the dung heap, and water, feed and clean his pair. He’d then have breakfast, after which he’d tack up his pair and take them out to the fields, ploughing, harrowing and carting. Late morning the horses would be rubbed down and fed, watered and given two hours rest. The horsemen would have their midday meal but didn’t get two hours off work! Then it was feed the horses again and back out into the fields. At about six o’clock it was untack, clean, water and feed the horses, prepare the stables, and get the horses bedded down for the night. In summer nearly all of this would be in daylight but in winter much of it was in darkness, though there’d be no ploughing when there was snow or the ground was frozen. In summer the horses would live out so there was less stable cleaning to do.
There is evidence that the horses were much cleaner, better fed and treated more kindly than the farm servants. A horseman’s reputation rested on how well his pair were turned out and how well they worked for him. Many an Aberdeenshire horseman could control his pair by verbal commands alone.
It was a similar schedule for cattlemen, who looked after the cattle bred and then grown on for the meat markets, but as well as cleaning both the cattle and the byres, and feeding and watering, they’d be responsible for pulling up the turnips which were a major component of winter cattle fodder. Cattle were byred in winter and then put out to pasture in summer.
Farm servants were paid via money wages plus food and board. Wages agreed for the spring to autumn term were usually higher than for the autumn to spring term due to more work being done during the lighter days and more inclement weather.
The census of 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 were taken at the end of March or very early in April (the 1841 census was taken on 7 June). The spring term feeing markets were usually held at Whitsuntide, so the census was recording the end of the autumn feeing term. It’s possible that some servants only worked the May to autumn term, returning home for winter.
The diary of Robert Walker which appeared in the Peterhead Sentinel had an entry for 7th May 1863 which says: The summer feeing market was held at Longside yesterday. Engagements were very stiff and wages had a downward tendency. Winter wages were the rule. Ploughmen (foremen) £10 10s. to £11 10s. Common Ploughmen £9 to £10 . Orra Men £6 to £7 10s. Halflins £2 10s. to £4. Boys £2 to £2 10s. Women (first class) £4 10s. to £5 . Women (second class) £3 to £4.
Eating and sleeping
Married farm servants:
A tied cottage was part of their fee, which was often owned by the landed proprietor and rented to the farmer. The fee would also comprise money and the supply of essentials such as oatmeal, peat, milk and potatoes. The cottage would come with a bit of land, a kaleyard, where the servant and his wife could grow kale and other crops and might also keep a cow or even a pig. The cottages were very basic and small – two rooms with a dirt floor of the typically Scottish “but and ben” style. By the mid 1800s such cottages were being replaced by similarly styled but better built but and bens of stone with an internal ceiling that gave the residents an attic where the children often slept.
The majority of farm servants were male, in their late teens and early twenties, and unmarried. The bothy system – where farm servants pretty much fended for themselves – is now the stuff of legend and gave rise to the term “bothy ballads” for the folk songs created and sung by farm servants. But the reality is most bothy ballads came from the area where there were hardly any bothies, the chaumer system being far more common.
Chaumer meant the farm servants were fed in the farmhouse kitchen, the farmer providing all meals as part of the fee. This usually meant the servant’s food was prepared by the kitchen maid (deem). The servants could then sit by the kitchen fire until around 9pm, which was bed time. They slept in the chaumer, usually a loft room in the steading, above the horses.
Farm servants would own a trunk (kist) to house their clothes and possessions, and the trunks would line one wall of the chaumer and act as seats. There was no heating and the only windows were sky-lights in the roof, often badly fitting or even with broken panes. Sometimes the deem would have the job of sweeping out the chaumer and making the beds. Later in the 1800s unmarried farm servants would be housed in a purpose-built chaumer next to the steading, and had a fireplace. But by then the bicycle had also made farm servants more mobile.
They lived in the farmhouse, usually in a tiny attic room, although on smaller farms the deem often slept in the kitchen. This no doubt made them them all too accessible to unmarried male farm servants!
What they ate:
A very boring diet it was by our standards, and mostly vegetarian. Oatmeal was the staple, served as brose. To make brose all you do is steep oatmeal in boiling water and let it stand for a while till the oatmeal has softened, then you eat it warm with whatever is to hand – salt, milk, butter, buttermilk or with vegetables, especially kale and neeps (turnips).
Unmarried servants usually were given brose with milk and maybe some oatcakes for breakfast, sometimes they had porridge, and occasionally herrings on Sunday. Dinner (lunch) could be broth made from barley or potatoes with more oatcakes and milk. Supper was brose again or porridge, with yet more oatcakes and milk. The milk would have been skimmed as the cream would be used by the dairymaid to make butter and cheese. There might be meat, most often beef or chicken, on Sunday.
It was the same diet for married servants (and for independent crofters) but depending on what they could provide for themselves, they might also have eggs, rabbit or bacon and ham from the annual butchering of the pig. They’d also have vegetables, mostly the famous Scottish threesome of “neeps, tatties and kale”.
Later in the 1800s bought provisions began to be used, notably tea, bread made from wheat, jam and treacle.
An excellent book about farm servant life is “Farm Life in Northeast Scotland 1840-1914: the poor man’s country” by Ian Carter.
“The Ballad and the Plough” by David Kerr Cameron is subtitled “Portrait of Life in the Old Scottish Farmtouns” and is a fascinating social history of farm life.
The North East Folklore Archive, the internet resource of Aberdeenshire Council, has lots of interesting pages and can be found at http://www.nefa.net