Scots Roots


If your Scottish ancestor was a farm servant or an agricultural labourer, then he or she is likely to have been employed on one or more of Scotland’s fermtouns (farm towns).

Most people researching their Scottish ancestry are likely to come eventually upon a relative who was a farm servant or an agricultural labourer. Before the industrial revolution and the availability of work in towns, a substantial percentage of the population lived and worked in the countryside.

Fermtoun 1During the industrial revolution, the population increased rapidly so it was necessary to increase the amount of food grown. The subsequent agricultural revolution wasn’t so much a revolution as a gradual change that took place over the years between 1750 and 1900.

Before the 18th century, the open field system was used with people living in small settlements or fermtouns of up to 20 households growing their food on surrounding strips of common land. The fields closest to the settlement (the infields) would be the most fertile and used for growing crops. The fields further away (the outfields) were less fertile and provided rough grazing for the animals and, wherever viable, some patches of oats.

Changes in Scotland started to accelerate from the 1760s. The old infields and outfields were gradually removed and replaced by fields enclosed by hedges and walls. The developments in agricultural mechanization during the 18th century needed large, enclosed fields in order to be workable. More of the land was able to be used for cultivation but the dynamic of the fermtouns changed as the smaller tenant farmers lost their tenancies and they and the cottars who lived on their land had now to resort to selling their labour to make a living.

Crop rotation with land left fallow or used for grass produced more fodder to feed livestock and reduced the need for permanent pasture. Drainage was improved. Turnips were grown to provide feed for sheep and cattle in the winter.

Fermtoun 3As farms grew in size, more people were needed to work them. Farm steadings began to be built around a courtyard design – the farmhouse and the barn would be at opposite sides with accommodation for animals, workers and machinery forming the other two sides and, usually, a dung heap in the middle. Later, mainly because of the dung heap, the farm house would be built apart from the other outbuildings.

Farm workers usually stayed together in a communal bothy forming part of the outbuildings although some farms built separate accommodation for their married workers near to the farm steading.

Some of the larger fermtouns might have up to 20 pairs of horses and needed the men to work them and look after them.

Other workers living on a fermtoun might include the grieve (foreman), a bailie (often several) to look after the cattle, ploughmen, the dairy maid, house maid, kitchen maid, oot-woman (who did the outdoor work), labourers, the orra man (handyman), the soutar (shoemaker), although he probably worked for a local shop and visited the fermtoun in the evening to repair shoes. There would also be visiting masons.

At harvest times, hundreds more were employed on a temporary basis as they took to the fields in the summer for the berry picking and in the autumn for the ‘tattie howking’ (lifting potatoes).

Larger fermtouns might have a dedicated smiddy or the blacksmith might have his own premises suitably placed to serve a number of farms.

The blacksmith not only shod the horses but made, repaired and sharpened the ploughs, harness and other implements and rimmed cartwheels. The hand plough, drawn by a pair of Clydesdale horses, continued to be used until around the 1950s.Fermtoun 2

Farm workers were rarely employed on a permanent basis and often lived quite a nomadic life. They were usually hired on a temporary basis at a feeing market, usually held every 6 months in May and November. On accepting the fee, the farm servant would be bound to the farmer for the next six months or a year. He probably wouldn’t see much of his fee in hard cash but would be provided with a roof over his head and some basic food and fuel. If he was a married man, he might be lucky enough to be taken on by one of the larger farms that provided accommodation for his family. Otherwise he would have to stay in the bothy with the single men while his family stayed elsewhere, perhaps with the wife’s parents. You often come across cases of the family of a farm worker living apart from him in abject poverty and relying on the parish for sustenance.

Most parishes had fair days, a brief holiday usually lasting a few days, where labourers and farmers came together before harvest time. Farmers came to buy and deal. Pedlars sold their wares. The recruiting sergeant would be there trying to tempt the labourers away from their lives of drudgery. Drink was taken. Men and women did what men and women do, often with predictable embarrassing results nine months later.

The time of the fermtouns passed with increasing mechanisation as implements were devised that could sow and pick far quicker than squads of labourers and, in time, even horses were replaced by tractors. People also began to be attracted to jobs in the cities which were better paid and usually more permanent with less of the drudgery of working in the fields in all weathers.

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2012


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