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Pre Improvements Agriculture

D. Omand

Brubster, whose name may mean the broad dwelling place or bridge dwelling place is a largely deserted area which well into the 19th century sustained a considerable population that derived its sustenance from small crofts established on a grudging acidic soil over which, all too often, hung clouds that blotted out the life-giving sun.

Clearly people had established themselves in the area from prehistoric times leaving testimony to their existence on the north bank of the lower reaches of the Allt Forsiescye, a tributary of the Forss river.  The land adjacent to the river, particularly along its eastern banks, is poorly drained so that, not surprisingly the great majority of old croft houses are aligned along the rising ground to the west where a veneer of glacial debris masks the underlying sedimentary rocks of Old Red Sandstone age.

For generations the land worked by the tenants had been divided into an "infield" and an "outfield".  The traditional form of agricultural practice was the runrig system whereby each tenant was allocated strips of the infield interspersed with those of the remaining tenants.  The infield, which received all the available manure, was constantly tilled whereas the outfield, which provided grazing for sheep and cattle was cropped on a system of shifting- cultivation. All the rigs were reallocated annually, which inhibited any improvements in agricultural practice.

Up until the latter part of the 18th century the thrapple plough, of light wooden construction, with an iron coulter and share, was in general use in Caithness.  It was drawn by up to six garrons (small horses) or oxen and needed three people to operate it: one maintaining it on a straight course, a second using his weight to keep the share in the soil and a third who walked backwards between the two leading beasts.

Black oats and bere (a form of barley) were the principal crops, being sown in late April or May and harvested In September. Prior to the use of the scythe the crop would have been cut with a heuk (sickle).  The reaper and horse drown binder did not appear until the second half of the 19th century.  Grain was separated from the straw by the use of a flail, a stick hinged by leather to a wooden handle.  The oats or bere were winnowed in hand riddles or in barns so constructed that the prevailing wind provided a strong through draught.  The first recorded threshing machine in the county was that erected by Sheriff Traill of Castlehill estate in Olrig parish in 1790.  The traveller Pennant observed that following threshing oats were kept in chaff bykes (stacks in the shape of a beehive) which, when completely thatched with straw would keep the crop in good condition for two years.

References to small Highland threshing mills ore made in the Old Statistical Accounts but, oddly, traces of them seem to have disappeared throughout Caithness. Vestiges still remain, however, in the Brubster area, and elsewhere in the county, of small circular grain-drying kilns located at the steading extremity of the croft longhouse.

Prior to the agricultural improvements of the 19th century In Caithness and the Rapid rise in sheep numbers, the kyloe or native black cattle provided the transportable wealth of the tenant crofters. Great numbers of beasts were taken along the drove roads (caas) to small local trysts such as Georgemas and Dunbeath before the long trek to Muir of Ord, Crieff, Falkirk or even Carlisle. A drover might average up to 12miles per day, taking some 28 days to reach Carlisle. Some of them then worked their way home engaging as day labour in the harvest which was progressively later as they travelled north. In the "Proof In the Division of the Common In the Parish. of Reay, 1840" a witness mentions the Caa at Clash Hallum which was generally used for driving peats from the yellow moss to the lower end of Skaill, Forss and Brims.

Although black cattle were, the mainstay of the Highland economy small numbers of native sheep were kept until they were dramatically ousted by the North Country 'Cheviot introduced into Caithness by Sir John Sinclair towards the close of the 18th century.

The system of land tenure in Brubster was similar to that throughout northern Scotland. A laird owned substantial areas of land and leased parts of it to an intermediary known as a tacksman who in turn rented it to tenants whose holdings could be as small as five acres.  In addition to his arable land a tenant had the right to pasture his quota of animals on common grazings and shielings. Some of the more prosperous tenants could rent out small parcels of land to sub tenants. At the foot of the social scale were the cottars who provided a cheap and abundant supply of labour.

Male farm servants were engaged on 28 November and 20 June. In the year 1800 a good man could be hired for 6-7 a year. Female labour could be engaged for as little as 2-3 per annum and day labour obtained for some 5p-7.5p each day. There are references in the "Division of the Common" to the mobility of labour and it is difficult to be precise about population densities in the pre-improvement days. Macfarlane's Geographical Collections (p. 84) states that Brubster held 21 families in June 1726.

For most of the people of Caithness oatmeal was the basis of the traditional diet; oatmeal was the stuff of life. It was made into bannocks, (oatcakes), brose, (oatmeal mixed with water and milk added), gruel ( a thin porridge) and sowans (soured oatmeal which was boiled). Often it was eaten with kail, a kind of cabbage. The oatmeal was stored in a large girnel (chest). Fish, especially herring and sellags (young coalfish) as well as shellfish, mostly the humble wilk (periwinkle), provided an important protein supplement for those who lived near the coast. Moreover, the crofter-fisherman's small income from the sea supplied him with a valuable source of ready money.  By the early 19th century herring were augmenting and varying the dreary diet of many inland crofters and barrels of herring became commonplace in the cottages. As part of the winter feed fish were dried.  The coming of potatoes in 1754 added further variety although initially potatoes were grown only in the gardens of the gentry and it was not until the 1780s that tenants were producing them in small hand dug plots of land called lazy beds. By introducing swedes into the county in the late 18th century Sir John Sinclair indirectly added another dish, clapshot (mashed neaps and tatties), to the crofters' menu.

Beef was extremely scarce and generally not available fresh to the crofter tenants who might, however, salt some for the winter. Some mutton was eaten by the tacksmen and better-off crofters.  Inflation of food prices seems to have affected previous generations too. In 1787 beef cost 1/2p-1p per pound; in under 20 years it had risen to 2.5p! Perhaps some consolation might be had from the fact that fowls were a mere 5p each.

The older types of Caithness croft building derived from a type of longhouse that had been a common feature of the Scottish rural landscape. These old dwellings were generally narrow single storey structures in which the living quarters and at least part of the steading were in line under one roof. In the earlier arrangement the people and their livestock entered by the same door, the cattle being separated from the inhabitants by a flagstone partition. A straw mat known as a fascal or flate served as a kind of door. Poultry and sometimes pigs shared part of the same accommodation as the people, hens perching in the rafters amid the strands of soot.

These early single storey crofts were hovels of mean construction with dark interiors. The majority of them consisted of two rooms called a firehouse and a cellar (a but and ben). Some of the better-off houses had another room (the chaumer) beyond the cellar, which was reserved for important occasions. By 1800 a typical croft of rooms some 9 ft x 12 ft was built of stone for the first two feet, the remainder of the walling consisted of turf and highland couples, usually made of birch. They in turn supported a thatch of divots sometimes overlaid with straw or rushes, held down by simmons (ropes of twisted straw). Such a croft could be constructed in 1800 for 3.27. A more sophisticated dwelling of rooms c. 15ftx 12ft was also available at this time, consisting of stone walls plastered with clay and whitewashed. It cost 8.55 (Henderson 1812).

The croft houses of later 18th century had no window, or at best a small skylight permitting light through the unceilinged rafters (ceilings were not in common use until the 19th century). A weak light could be provided from the pith of rushes, knots of pine trees or fir roots, impregnated with resin, dug out of peat bogs were sometimes used. They were placed on small stands or in iron clips that were then set into a wall. In crusie lamps fish oil or mutton fat was used as fuel. At a later date tallow candles derived from animal fat came into common use.

About the middle of the clay or flagstone floor, or against an end wall of the firehouse was constructed an open hearth usually associated with a brace (hearth back) and lazy hole (ash pit). Smoke from the peat fire escaped through a hole in the roof, the lum, which was placed eccentrically so that rain would not extinguish the fire. During inclement weather the lum would he plugged with bracken or heather. Inside the house the atmosphere was dim with a continuous pall of peat reek which hardened the skin and gave it a tanned leathery appearance. From the rantle-tree (a pivoting iron bar with suspended hooks or chains) above the peat fire hung the cooking utensils e.g. the three-toed pot and the iron girdle (griddle) an earlier form being a circular piece of local flagstone.

Furnishings of the early crofts were primitive: stone cupboards (aumries) were set into the wall and most of the sideboards (dressers) were made of flagstone. The tableware consisted of flagstone plates. Spoons were made of wood or horn. No crockery existed until the 1800s. By the latter half of the 19th century, however, the living area had become a homely and comfortable room with wooden cupboards and chairs including a 'rocker', a kist (chest) and spinning wheel as standard items. Mats of plaited straw or rags might be found on the floor, which was cleaned with a besom (brush). Although chairs were available for adults, children usually sat on small wooden stools called creepies, which were carried each to the Kirk for seating during the service. Some cottages could boast a sofa. Standard items were the milk cog and kirn (churn). Initially the crofters' beds probably resembled those of the Stone Age village of Skara Brae in 0rkney i.e . stone boxes lined with heather or straw. These simple units when covered with a canopy may have been ancestors to the box bed, which had a caff-seck (ticking filled with chaff) serving as a mattress.


DONALD, J "Agriculture" in The Caithness Book (ed. D. Omand) Highland Printers 1972
DONALDSON, J Caithness in the 18th Century Moray Press 1938
HENDERSON, J General View of the Agriculture of the County of Caithness London 1812
MITCHELL, Sir A, (Ed) Macfarlane's Geographical Collection Edinburgh 1906
PENNANT A Tour in Scotland London 1771
  Proof in the Division of Common in the Parish of Reay    
The Caithness Croft Laidhay Trust 1976
This article was originally published in Caithness field Club Bulletin  - April 1986

Donald Omand has published many books.  A recent publication was -
Caithness Historic Tales Published by North of Scotland Newspapers published 2001

His range of County Books include the fife Book published in 2001 and due to be published are books on Argyll and Orkney.