Farm servant life in north-east Aberdeenshire

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.

Feeing markets

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.

Unmarried servants:

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.

Female servants:

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

48 responses to “Farm servant life in north-east Aberdeenshire

  1. Lovely article, Judy. I knew nothing about the crofters and Scottish farm servants life. Ever thought of writing a historical novel set in Scotland around this time?

    • Not sure about a historical novel – you have to get the detail and dialogue just right, which is not at all easy. As you know. But a novel about someone exploring their family tree? Now there’s an idea.

      But I must admit that now I’ve retired the urge to be “properly” productive has rather disappeared!

  2. Andrew BryanLindsay

    Like you I have found one of the best parts of genealogy to be trying to place ancestors in a context, and this has driven much reading of the history of Scotland. You have opened up some new links in that regard. I have a Charles Lindsay born May 26, 1741 in Strathend, Cruden. He married Margaret Wallace born August 23, 1741,in Aquharnie, Cruden. On the OPR, their entries were adjacent! .Their son Andrew was born Jan 7, 1786 at Bogbrae, Cruden. These places all look like the small rural aggregations you describe so well. Your description of the way of life of the people of this area is very instructive. That this was a time of great change in Scotland is reflected in the fact that within a couple of generations, they were in Australia running an iron foundry with skills acquired in the Stirling area.
    Thanks again for your work.

    • Hello Andrew and welcome to the blog. Lovely to hear from someone who knows about that part of Aberdeenshire, and how neat to have two people who married each other having adjacent baptism entries. My great grandfather William Fraser was born at Oldtown of Aquaharney as his father was working there in 1865, and in 1881 my gg aunt Mary Ann Fraser was working at Bogbrae as a domestic servant. I have an Isabella Fraser who was the second wife of George Wallace of South Hay Farm, Cruden (he was born about 1805), and a half gg aunt Christian Fraser who married James Reid in 1890: his mother was Sarah Wallace. Could well be part of the same Wallace family.

    • Jacqueline M Chessor

      Hello Andrew,
      I have just found this blog after typing in Strathend.
      I live at Strathend. I was born at Stonehousehill (maiden name Murray), and lived there until I married. My hubby came from Easter Auquharney and we stayed in one of the cottar houses there for 18 years then moved to Strathend. I believe my gg uncle built the farmhouse in which we live. My mum was a Jamieson and near relatives of mums lived at Mosstown, Mossfarm, which comes under Slains and Mains of Leask, also Slains. One of my brother’s lives at Bogbrae Smithy. My son lives in NSW, Australia.

  3. Santiago D'Angelis Murdoch

    Excelent article, Judy. I am from Argentina and I thank you for clarifying these matters and for sharing them to us. I have a William Murdoch (4th great-grandfather), who married Helen McDonald on 8 December 1855 in Stonehaven. William and Helen were living at Redcloak at the time of their marriage, William as a farm servant, and Helen as a domestic servant. Redcloak was a farm standing on the estate of Ury near Stonehaven.
    Nine months later of the marriage, their son James Murdoch was born on 27 September 1856 at Milldens, which was a farm standing on the estate of Ury too. William appears on James’s birth record as a labourer now (not as a farm servant).
    I suppose is quite plausible that Milldens had been given to William as a part of his fee for having married his wife.
    Helen McDonald died on 14 August 1857 at Milldens when James was just ten months old, and it is very interesting that by the time of the 1861 Census (a few year after Helen’s death) William Murdoch was living and working as an overseer at Cheyne, a farm to the west of Stonehaven.
    Do you think that the death of Helen may have been decisive to pushing William into the labour and feeing market again and forcing him to leave Milldens? Do you think that the status of ‘married’ was a conditio sine qua non to ensure the farm servants the tied cottage as part of their fee and that the status of ‘widower’ could have been decisive to make them leave the house?
    Thanks again for your work!

    • From Argentina – those Scots got everywhere! Your Murdoch ancestors sound as if they lead typical farm servant lives, with both William and Helen working as farm and domestic servants, meaning they would live on the farm where they worked. The fee markets took place twice a year, usually, and so servants could change jobs every six months is they wanted to. When they married, they usually either took a farm servant job that came with a cottage, or took a lease on a small croft, and combined working their own land with working as a day labourer for the farmer they rented their croft from. It sounds as if Milldens was a croft leased to William by whoever was the tenant of the farm that was owned by the Ury Estate. Then after his wife’s death, William returned to being a farm servant – but as an overseer he was a senior member of the farm’s workforce and is likely to have stayed there some time, and would have been provided with his own cottage as part of his fee. His return to being a farm servant could have been prompted by the loss of his wife, but it’s unlikely he’d have been forced out because of it. More likely is he just wanted a change.

      Cottages came with the more senior roles and yes, they would go to married farm servants: farm servant’s wives and children often worked on the farm too, the women most frequently doing dairy work (hence their propensity to getting tuberculosis). If a wife died, a family member usually stepped in as resident housekeeper and child minder, and it was usual for a widower with small children to marry again fairly quickly.

      Glad my blog is proving interesting to you.

      By the way, do you know that the Murdoch family from the Cruden area are the ancestors of Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate? Rupert Murdoch’s parents home in Australia was called Cruden Farm.

  4. Santiago D'Angelis Murdoch

    Dear Judy,
    Thank you very much for your reply. Very few people know about that there are an estimated 100,000 Argentines of Scottish ancestry or so, the most of any country outside the English-speaking world!
    I agree with you that it sounds as if Milldens was a croft leased to William Murdoch by the Barclay family, owners of the estate of Ury. I found in an article published in The Aberdeen Journal in 1831 (more than twenty years before William was living at Milldens) the following publication which, I think, will verify that Milldens was a croft:
    To be Let, for Nineteen Years.
    To be Let, for the space of Nineteen Years,
    That beautiful little croft of Milldens of Cowie, presently occupied chiefly as Garden grounds, by Alex. Davidson. The Garden is extensive, and is well stocked with Fruit Trees and Berry Bushes; and is well worth the attention of any person wishing a Market Garden, or ground for a Nursery, for which the local situation of Milldens is excellently adapted, being within ten minutes walk of Stonehaven, and in the neighborhood of several Gentlemen’s scats.
    For particulars, apply to the Propietor, Robert Barclay Allardice, Esq.; or to Burness and Kinnear, Writers, Stonehaven.
    Ury, July 27, 1831.”
    On the other hand, it is very interesting what you said about propensity to getting tuberculosis on women doing dairy work. Helen died of phthisis (tuberculosis)! By the time of the 1861 Census that William was living and working as an overseer at Cheyne, his son James (age four) was living with his grandparents at Roadside, and William, interestingly, married not until 1868 when James was twelve! (William appears as farm servant again but now at Denside of Durris). It must surely have been very dificult to him to raise his son alone.
    Regards from Argentina!
    PS: Didn’t know the Murdoch family from Cruden were the ancestors of Rupert Murdoch. Interestingly, James Murdoch (William’s son) after graduated an MA from Aberdeen University, went to Australia too as Head Master of a school; and in 1917 was appointed Professor of Oriental Studies at the University of Sydney, being one the first decisions of its kind reached by a Western country.

    • Hi Santiago. Milldens sounds lovely. Have you ever been to Scotland and been able to visit it? And the Murdochs clearly had brains in their genes! Your comment about so many Scots migrating to Argentina made me think beef cattle. Aberdeenshire was, of course, home to the famous Aberdeen Angus cattle breed, and many farms in that area were primarily used for raising beef cattle. My great-grandfather was a head cattleman before he took over the family croft.

  5. Santiago D'Angelis Murdoch

    Dear Judy. I had the opportunity of visiting Scotland this March. I stayed in Aberdeen a few days, and I also had the chance to visit Stonehaven, a lovely place! I visited MacDuff too, and also stayed in the Isle of Skye! Because I didn’t have enough time, I didn’t visit Clova and Kildrummy area, where the Murdochs are supposed to be originally came. I loved Scotland very very much and I had a seeming flash of similarity with several landscapes of Argentina.
    Regarding the Argentine-Scots and beef cattle, you have hit the mark! Most of them were farmers, landowners and owners of a large number of cattle.
    My Murdochs in particular, were in close association to the Argentine Estates of Bovril Ltd. My 2nd great-grandfather was a manager of many ‘estancias’ (large farms) owned by Bovril. His son (my great-grandfather) was the chief of staff in the factory of Santa Elena, where the beef extract, beef stock and powdered beef were prepared for Bovril. And my great-uncle, second son of the last mentioned, was the latest general manager at Santa Elena before the company was sold to Argentine capitals.
    As you can well see, the Murdoch family has produced several individuals (three generations in Argentina), eminent in different departments at this meat company.
    My best wishes from Argentina,

  6. Hello Judy

    I have my husband’s Gt. Grandmother, Jane Parley also at South Hay, Winneyfold aged 1 year in the 1861 Census. Her parents were Alexander Parley and Elspet Sangster.

    Another separate connection!!


    • Then in 1861 Jane Parley was a neighbour of my ggg aunt Isabella Wallace nee Fraser: her husband George Wallace was a farmer of 18 acres at South Hay Farm in 1861 and 1871, but by 1881 was a grocer at Whinneyfold.

      My gggg grandmother was a Sangster, from Cruden, and after she married she lived in Longside parish close to where it borders Cruden parish. I’ve done a fair bit of research into the Sangsters: she was the daughter of John Sangster of Cruden and Elizabeth Matthew. I’ve not researched all their children yet, and not come across an Elspet, but there may well be a connection. I’ll be on the lookout for one.


  7. My 5th great grandparents were William alexander and Anne Strachan. It’s interesting to read about their lifestyle and understand why there seemed to be so many illegitimate children.


    • Hi Shirley, and welcome to the blog. We’re related, although distantly, and I think we’re 6th cousins. I’m related to William Alexander and Anne Strachan through:
      Their son James Alexander who married Helen Burgess
      Helen Alexander who married Peter Watt
      James Watt who married Margaret Symon
      Helen Watt who had an illegitimate daughter with George Hay
      Helen Hay who married my great grandfather William Fraser

      If you enjoyed reading about farm servant life you might like this book And this one discusses the high level of illegitimacy among farm servants and crofters.


  8. hi,
    my branch are descended from William’s son William who married Isobel Galloway,James Alexander – Anne Wilson, George Alexander -Mary Mcbain, James Alexander and Jessie yule, Thomas Alexander – Margaret Telford then my parents. I will have a look at those books Judy thankyou. are your side of the family still in the UK?

    Best wishes

    • Hi again. Thanks for the details. I’ve got William Alexander married to Isobel Galloway as a blacksmith who died 1806 at Chapel of Garioch. I then have James Alexander who married Anne Wilson as a blacksmith and farmer, but that’s as far as I’ve got. I now have an incentive to look them up and get more detail!

      I’m in the UK, in Yorkshire. My grandfather James Fraser, son of the Helen Hay who married William Fraser, was wounded in WW1 and ended up in a military hospital in Leeds. He then met my grandmother so never went back to Aberdeenshire to live. He had two daughters and all his grandchildren are in Leeds.

      Of my grandfather’s siblings, one went to Canada, two to New Zealand, and one stayed put and has descendants in Aberdeen.

      Are you in Scotland?


  9. hi judy,

    we went to Aberdeen this year to do some research and found lots of interesting things. James and Anne’s son William becomes editor of the Aberdeen free press and an author, their other son Henry also becomes editor of the free press, his son Henry becomes Lord Provost and a Sir to boot. unfortunately my lot were railway people and ended up in the borders at Hawick, where I was born. I now live near Cambridge, my parents and brother are still in the borders.



  10. hi judy,

    have you been in touch with Ian Macdonald if not go to and order up a copy of:
    AA516 “Alexanders of Bourtie, 1696-1886: a family history journey. Amazing information on our Alexanders.


  11. I have been researching my wife’s ancestry in Aberdeenshire, and many of her ancestors in the period I can find them (1690-1900) were poor farmers, some in or near the area you describe here. I found this information very useful thanks.

  12. Judy, I found your article so interesting on Farm Servant life in Scotland. I have been trying to trace an ancestor who fathered a child in 1818 in the Rothiemurchus Duthil area and he is listed as “Reputed ” father, Farm Grieve, on the parish record. I have no other information but reading about how the system worked it seems very possible that he moved on and the child grew up with his grandparents. The child was born in May and the mother was married to a local man by December , I have no idea if he was accepted into that household but I hope so. I have noted the books you referenced, but as a matter of interest have you any other tips which may progress my research?
    I have tried all the usual sites, now I think I need to work “ouside the box”

    • Hi Marjory

      Glad the article helped. Trying to link to the father of an illegitimate child is not easy. I managed to do it with my Fraser great great great grandfather, but it was only after doing lots of research into the wider family and putting lots of two and twos together!

      If the reputed father of your ancestor was a farm grieve, then he most probably did move from farm to farm, though possibly not as often as farm servants lower down the hierarchy. If I was you I’d do as much research as possible into the half siblings of your ancestor, on both his mother’s and father’s side, to see if their lives intersect with your ancestors. This can indicate who your ancestor was in touch with throughout his/her life and indicates which side he knew and was close to. See where they were and who they lived with in each census, and who they married.

      Most likely scenario is he/she lived either with maternal grandparents, or with the mother and stepfather. Men seemed to be quite happy to take on stepchildren: no doubt every extra pair of hands helped!

      Good luck,

  13. Thanks Judy so much for your prompt response. A very useful tip which I will follow up.
    I think I may need to get my head around the whole Parish area with a map, and by pinpointing where all my ancestors lived and worked I may see a pattern. They didn’t move far away generally. Forest workers and gamekeepers mostly.
    Isn’t it an absorbing/intriguing hobby this Genealogy lark?

  14. Hi Judy, I just wanted to let you know how much I’m enjoying your blog. I’m an Ayrshire ‘mining’ Strachan born and bred – I grew up in Cumnock although my Strachan side is from Auchinleck – but for the last 15 years or so I’ve lived in Italy. I’ve only recently become curious about my ancestry, and any tips on where to begin my research (bearing in mind that I’m seldom in the UK) would be much appreciated! With thanks, and warm wishes from Florence.

    • Hi Juliet and welcome to the blog. Lovely to hear from another Strachan. If yours are from mining families in Ayrshire then there’s a good chance we’re related somewhere along both our family trees. Fortunately, researching Scottish ancestors online is relatively easy, thanks to the ScotlandsPeople site, but be prepared to spend money on buying credits. Where to begin – best with what the family knows and work backwards. This usually means tracking down grandparents’ marriage and then birth, and getting back to the 1911 census. Then backwards through death certs, marriage certs, birth certs and census records. In Scotland official certificates began in 1855 so before then you’re dependent on the Old Parish Records (OPRs) and the first census in 1841. If you want to let me know who your Strachan ancestors are the furthest back you’re aware of, I’ll see if I know who they are as they may already connect to my tree. Oh, and Florence is such a beautiful place!


  15. Thanks for your reply Judy, it’s interesting to hear that we may be related at some point along our family trees! I wasn’t aware of the ScotlandsPeople site so I’ll take your advice and begin there. When I get as far as I can I’ll certainly be back in touch. With all best,


  16. I’ve just skimmed this post about farm servant life, and will go back and read it carefully. However, I was anxious to thank you for the hard work of researching this topic and writing it up, as well as recommending further reading on the topic. I live in Canada and am a descendant of Herons from Aberdeenshire (Ellon, Aquharnie, Slains, Cruden). I’ve discovered an Elizabeth Sangster married to Will Heron in 1727 – if I’ve done my research correctly, Elizabeth Sangster is my 5x great grandmother.

  17. Hi Judy, thanks for sharing your terrific research online-I am loving reading what you have found out. I have been looking at farm servant relatives from Banffshire, and wondering exactly what they would have eaten in 1700 and in 1800. Do you know about any foods other than oats, bere, much later potatoes and neeps, and kail? I suspect they grew more than just kail in their kailyards, but have not found any specific references yet. Surely they would have foraged, maybe for nettles and berries, wild thyme [I found some near Inverness] and grown maybe carrots or onions? Thanks for any tips you can share! Elaine

  18. sharon steinberg

    I thoroughly enjoyed the social history of aberdeenshire….I do hope it applies to the area around Kincardine O’Neil where my ag. labourers come from. We are have 175 year reunion this October in Yass NSW. I think I shall use some of your research to give people an idea of the conditions in which they lived. sharon

  19. Hi Judy;
    This is a really interesting site. Stumbled across it as I started to wonder about my grandmother’s mother and her heritage. Their family was Reid, and originated from a croft (Thatchill) in the Cruden area. My gg grandfather was William Gilzean Reid (brother to Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid). He came to Canada (Hamilton, Ontario). If I ever wondered why he emigrated, I just have to read your research! (Am still looking for more info about that family.) His daughter, my g grandmother, Harriet, married a Fraser, though that lineage comes from Nairnshire, so would not likely be related to you! An early Ontario census lists about 52,000 Frasers, so there were lots! As an aside, my father’s cousin, who never married, Betty Nicks, was once headmistress of Bishop Strachan, a girl’s private school in Toronto. Thnaks again for your interesting research.

    • Sarah Wilson (nee Oliver)

      I am new to these sort of websites. However I would like to get in touch with Meg Nicks who must be a distant cousin. I am a great-granddaughter of Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid and trying to draw a family tree of his descendants and wider family. Could she contact me? (

  20. Hello Judy

    I see Meg Nicks’ gg Grandfather and his brother were born at Thatchhill, Whinneyfold, Cruden, Ellon, Aberdeenshire. My husband’s gg Grandmother, Jane Parley was born there in 1859 and most of her siblings too. The first child, George, was born in 1846. A number of the brothers also emigrated to Canada and did well.


  21. Prodessor Matthew Lynas

    Hopefully Judy this will reach you. I found your overview of farm life interesting. What I would be most interested in would be to have a discussion with you [if possible] on what I believe could be regarded as a distinctiveness in culture between parishes. I am researching the agrarian [mainly] nineteenth history of the Parish of Meldrum and while I believe it was distinctly different culturally to other parishes in the Northeast, obviously it would be helpful to have more concrete evidence on its distinctiveness.

  22. Thank you for posting all this fantastic information. I am currently researching my family tree – all my ancestors lived in Aberdeenshire – and so far I have gone back to 1546! All this information has given me a great insight into the kind of life my ancestors led.

  23. Thank you for posting this fantastic article. I am currently researching my family tree – all my ancestors lived in Aberdeenshire – and so far I have gone back to 1546! All this information has given me a great insight into the kind of life my ancestors led.

  24. Hi bristolmum, I am another who has found this page very interesting and helpful. I have been researching my wife’s family tree, also from Aberdeenshire, though I haven’t been able to get quite as far back as you have – 1690 is about the earliest. I have written up the basic family tree and some of the details at McNaughton Family History if you want to check if we have anything in common (unlikely I guess, but possible).

  25. Darlene Yampolsky

    Judy – thank you so much for all the research that you have done and then to post it for all of us to enjoy. It gives a fantastic insight into what our ancestors went thru in the ‘olden’ days. I too am tracing my family history and have been for many years. My Murison family sure were a hardy bunch.

  26. Hi Judy- I found you research so interesting. I have found my 7 great grand father, John Beaton married Christian Shepheard who was from Cruden. Their son James born 1737, married Isobel Mitchel and lived in Cruden.
    Their son, Lewis married Susan Simpson. She died shortly after childbirth and Lewis remarried Jean Gerrard. They owned the farm called Darnabo. My husband and I traveled to Scotland and went to the farm. The enitials JB and the year 1860 where engraved over the door of the horse stable. I was quite excited when I saw this because it confirmed that my family had lived here. Lewis and Jean’s son, Lewis, born 1831 was a servant on Thomas Marshall’s farm at Arnybogs. He emigrated to Canada and married a Margaret Hunter. Have you found anything interesting about this family line in your research?
    Jacqueline Beaton

    • Madison Beaton

      HI Jacqueline,

      Fellow Beaton here! I’m currently trying to research my family history prior to a trip over to Scotland in a few weeks. I was wondering if you had any info you might be able to provide?

      My GG Grandfather was Alexander Beaton b. 1859 to James Beaton (1818) and Elizabeth Wilson (1830) in New Deer. That is the only thing I have 100% confirmation of- but I’ve done some searching and it looks like it could possibly link up with Lewis and Susan Beaton.

      Any help/guidance would be SO appreciated!

      Madison Beaton

  27. Teddy Barclay Pope, Houston area, TX I found your article when I was searching Stonehaven for a possible website. I have only recently found all the videos on Youtube.

    I have renewed interest since I happened to stubble upon the information about the goings on in regard to Ury Estate, house, etc. I am from the line of the Ury Barclays. That was their home about 200 yrs. From around 1666, Col David Barclay.

    I have spent the better part of the 4 days and much of the night watching videos of Ury, the area, Stonehaven and Aberdeen. It is such a lovely place and so meaningful to me. In case anyone sees this that lives in or close to Stonehaven now or recently, who is knowledgeable,who would correspond with me about the Barclay family.Are there any Barclays living in Aberdeenshire area now. I sure would like to hear from them.

    I have a ton of information on papers and essays that I have compiled on the Barclays of Ury on my computer. I thought I had exhausted the topic and then Leah Parker daughter of a Barclay mother, her mother and her brother came there last summer for a trip. She had posted some pictures on a website that I saw. She told me about not being able to see Ury because the road was blocked off because there was some construction going on or something.

    Well, that is how it got started. She sent me a lot of information that went along with my major study in yr 2000. Also Barclay Bastion and Clan Barclay and Barclay Broad site, American websites are very good. Better source than me.
    Look there first. Barclay Bastion has some of my writings on it I posted years ago. Many of the people who originated these have died off and their children are not real interested in adding things. I believe interest in geneology does not start until age 55 and it skips a generation.

    Your article is just wonderful.. Thank you for it.

  28. Melanie cooper

    I don’t know if u are still active with this site judy but I’m hoping so
    I am trying to trace my gx5 grandfather one Charles Fraser born 1768 father William Fraser in Daviot chapel of
    Garioch have found his birth and the birth of his children John,Charles . Isobel,Christian ,William,Patrick and Andrew (he is my ggg grandfather ) he came out to Australia on his own at around age 28 we think and married Sarah kibble in Tasmania around 1837
    Have found Charles in the 1841 census living in a place called Resthivet (thinking must be a farm ) with his wife Helen jamieson and son Patrick and his wife Margaret smith and their children plus a John joss age 20 ag lab and Isobel smith age 9
    He lists himself as aged 70 head of house and farmer of 44 acres
    I cannot find anything on the internet about this place nor any ref to Charles in land ownership or wills or paying taxes ?? I see with interest that you have Frasers with the same names could they be connected
    Also on another blog there was someone talking about William Alexander blacksmith
    I have him as a witness to the birth of my Andrew in 1804 in Rescivet along with William Fraser (the grandfather I’m guessing) I can find nothing on their deaths nor marriages of Charles or William but it would seem William was still alive at least in 1804 and have Charles and Helen still alive in 1851 census but not 1861
    We are just trying to decipher which branch of the Frasers we are descended from cos my mum came across a picture of the lord of Lovat and he is almost identical to a picture of my mums brother who died when he was in his 20s
    U can only do so much over the Internet and we are now struggling to go any further back than William with no dates or mother of Charles to help
    Would be so awesome if u knew anything about this branch of Fraser of ours and would love to hear from you if you had even the smallest hint
    I am addicted to my Scottish ancestry now and find every little bit of info fascinating so reading your bit about how they lived etc was like being allowed into their lives
    Thank you for that
    Melanie cooper
    Tasmania australia

  29. Pingback: Life in 17th & 18th Century Banffshire | 360 Squared

  30. Hi Judy:

    Wonderful article. My ancestors on my father’s side were also farm servants in northeast Aberdeenshire. I have records showing them at Old Deer, Longside, Strichen, and Peterhead, and I thought it curious that they moved around so much, and that the relationship between marriage and pregnancy seemed so tenuous in their histories.

    I found your blog when I googled “farm servant”. It has answered a lot of those questions, and is also a very entertaining read. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    My ancestors in the region were Ogilvie Will, baptized Match 25, 1817, in Peterhead, the son of Charles Will and Anne Grant. I believe that Charles was born in Strichen on March 4, 1783, the son of yet another Charles Will (1746) and Margaret Jaffray (1753). As far as I can tell, all were farm servants other than Ogilvie who went to sea at age 13, and was living in Sunderland England by 1841.

    Anyway, great stuff! Keep up the good work.

    Rob Will
    Vancouver, Canada

  31. This is wonderful. It was a pleasure to read it. I have many ancestors who were “agricultural labourers.” My 2nd great grandfather was a farm grieve in Inverness where he married in 1859 at the age of 39. However, he seemed to have missed the 1841 and 1851 census. His parents were deceased by then and also seemed to have missed those two census years (or died very young). I do know that before that he was from Aberdeen and several times he reports being born in Chapel of Garioch. One of the ways to break through a brickwall is by expanding your knowledge on the lives of the ancestors. So that was one reason I was looking for what my 2nd great grandfather’s earlier life in Aberdeen may have been like as he worked to being able to take a farm grieve position in Inverness. The other reason was that I like to make all my ancestors more that just a name and a date on the tree. Your writing is filled with interesting historical information, but written in a way that brings the setting alive like a story. I found potential answers to many questions about several ancestors such as why some farm workers married later than average. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  32. Santiago D’Angelis Murdoch

    Hello again Judy. We exchanged some lines a few years ago about my Murdoch ancestors. I found some new information and due its some related with your articule, I would like to ask some things to you.
    Not long ago, I found an advertisement of 1801, in which an Alexander Murdoch is mentioned as “ground-officer” on the Estate of Kildrummy (Aberdeenshire). Between my ancestors, I find an Alexander Murdoch who married Elizabeth Callum at Alford in 1771. An Alexander Murdoch is also recorded in the parish of Kildrummy as father of seven children (four sons and three daughters), and at those baptismal records, Alexander is recorded as living in “Moors of Wester Clova”, “Moors of Clova”, “Muirs” or “Moors”. The allusions to “Moors of Clova”, “Muirs” or “Moors” probably refer to the same farm or croft: “Muirs of Clova”, which is a different farm or croft to that one named “Wester Clova” (both on the Estate of Kildrummy).
    Interestingly, I found another advertisement of 1782 with a “John Callum in Muirs of Clova”. It does sounds as if he may be Elizabeth Callum’s father (Alexander Murdoch’s father-in-law), since I found a baptism records [29/10/1751] of an Elizabeth Callum, daughter of John Callum in Bridgend: Alex. and John Hays as witnesses. I also found a marriage record for a John Callum in the parish of Towie with Elspet Hay. Posibly the same family.
    The advertisement of 1782 that mentioned a “John Callum in Muirs of Clova” points the following: “FARMS to lett. That there are to be let, and entered to at Whitsunday next, for such a term of years as can be agreed upon, the undermentioned farms, belonging to Charles Gordon, Esq of Wardhouse, viz. (…) John Callum in Muir of Clova will shew the farms in Kildrummy, and James Strachan in Laighmuir those in Wardhouse. Offers for the above tacks will be received by the proprietor at Aberdeen, or by John Callun, or William Wood, overseer at Gordouhall”.
    Although John Callum is not mentioned as a “ground-officer”, I think it is possible that he was (or possibly a Factor). I come to this conclusion because of the functions that were granted to him.
    Do you agree with my conclusion? Or do you think it is just a coincidence? Is it possible that John Callum in Muir of Clova had been a ground-officer (or factor) on the Estate of Kildrummy and that this position/occupation and tenancy over Muirs of Clova passed on to his son-in-law Alexander Murdoch in Muris of Clova? Or probable Muirs of Clova was particular croft to be allocated to the ground officer of the Estate of Kildrummy. Thanks and regards!

  33. I just wanted to say thanks for the research Judy. I found it interesting for a number of reasons. Both my parents are from Aberdeenshire and are both from agricultural backgrounds and range from my grandfather John Thomson who farmed East Cockmuir, Strichen for many years that had been handed down through the family, At the other end of my ancestry are many agricultural labourers and domestic servants who were involved in the farming life. My grandmothers Mackie, Cowie, Dunbar, Cheyne, Youle Skinner, Trail were all from the area north of the area you write of in Kininmonth, Crimond and Lonmay. I am getting on in years now, however I can remember the bothy life (just south of Forfar) and have spent many a good nights in the company of farm labours, remember the kist and the big fire roaring. I also remember the farmhouse kitchen and the big table when I went to visit a childhood friend whose grandfather owned a farm.
    Thanks for the memories.
    Colin D Campbell

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