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 What is a tennant farmer?

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T O P I C    R E V I E W
mgscott Posted - 06 September 2010 : 20:33:55
Sorry for such a simple question but here's my dilemma. My gr gr grandfather was a Thatcher according to the documents I've found. His sons became shepherds, joiners and thatchers. What confuses me is that the family stayed in a small farming village but every few years they moved to a nearby cottage. Over time they seemed to have lived in most cottages in the community. Why would they keep moving about? I would guess they never owned of the cottages so perhaps were allowed to stay in each cottage if they fixed the roof or some such barter? Why my forum title you ask? I was also wondering if my ancestor likely had any tennant rights. Not likely I'd guess. Thanks for any explanation as to why they kept on the move or whether they had any tennant rights?
3   L A T E S T    R E P L I E S    (Newest First)
Malcolm Horsburgh Posted - 26 January 2012 : 05:15:11

The time period is crucial to answering this question. This was not stated in the question but a time period of c1820-c1860 has to be assumed due to the statement that the person concerned was a great great grandfather.

In using the word “cottage”, the terminology in the question suggests that the buildings in the village possessed either slated or thatched (or even shingled) rooves, which is certainly more substantial than the turved erections of the fermtoun era. Were the buildings really “cottages” as we think of them today or were they actually described differently in the documentation? The usual term was “houses”, irrespective of the standard or style of building. For example, the buildings that huddled together in cottouns and fermtouns of the multiple tenancy era were described in the same manner, that is as “houses”.

The name of the village is also crucial because it cannot be known from the information provided whether the question does in fact relate to a village or hamlet in the countryside, that happened to be attached to a farm, or whether it was a village or hamlet in the countryside that was not attached to a farm, or whether the group of houses were a planned village or a burgh of barony or indeed an old royal burgh.

If the village was owned by a local landholder, a laird, then the landholder either leased the houses out directly or, more likely, for the period in question, the tofts had already been feued out to a multiplicity of feuars. In either case, the movement of the thatcher from house to house simply meant that he had found better deals, either a better house on moderately dearer terms or ones that were more affordable (and therefore of a poorer standard) given the stagnation and then decline in the use of thatch that must have occurred during the period concerned.

While most people understand that a thatcher is someone who thatched rooves, it also needs to be understood that a thatcher was someone who ran their own business and who was not tied to providing any farm work once agricultural improvement began (said to be c1750). The same applies to a joiner. These people therefore rented houses from the owners and would have enjoyed tenant rights. Just because the village or hamlet is in the countryside does not change this perspective.

It is possible that the thatcher had been hired to repair the rooves of the buildings of a particular farm, but that would have been under a contract and it is possible that a “cottage” could have been provided in the village attached to the farm as part of the contract. However, the thatcher’s moving around the village suggests that any such contract could not have been for any more than a single term and that the term was tied to the time needed to perform the work rather than anything in the farm calendar.

There are various resources available to assist in illuminating the situation of the thatcher, from the register of sasines in NAS (for the name of the feudal landholder, if attached to a farm, otherwise for the names of the feuars), registers of sasines in the muniments of the landholding family or the burgh (for the names of the burgage holders if the houses were within a royal burgh or a burgh of barony), the various registers of deeds (general, particular, burgh, landholding, etc. for a tenancy agreement or contract) that are either held by NAS or a local repository, electoral rolls (which can be used to determine the names of the landholders in the village, as the 40s landholding holding qualification changed in 1832 to include smaller properties and also tenants), etc. A local history society might be of benefit but they seem to mainly confine themselves to the local towns (at least in the areas in which l am interested).

My paper “Landlords and Tenants”, which is comprehended in the “Conference Notes: Second Australasian Scottish Genealogy Conference” held in 2006 and available through the Genealogical Society of Victoria (, might also prove useful to understanding the situation of the thatcher.


Malcolm G. Horsburgh
Malcolm Robb Posted - 04 January 2012 : 12:28:59
I think to clarify the main question I might add..."Tenant" implied renter of a farm area for a limited period, not ownership, though the right to continue renting was often passed from generation to generation. The words "Feuar" "Freeholder" and "Tenant" are legal terms and hae different rights and meanings.

I recommend the book "Scottish Rural Life in the Sixteenth Century" by Margaret Sanderson. Now out of print but available on Amazon

terianne Posted - 07 September 2010 : 14:25:09
probably due to the hiring

twice(sometimes thrise) a year the hiring fairs would take place offering work on farms and estates

it also worked the otherway by farms and estates getting rid of worker as work was only guaranteed between hirings - if the boss liked you, you stayed if not you were out.

Usually came with accommodation.

Worker also use it to move on to better work and no guarantees.

Anne Turnbull

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