Subsistence in Lowland Scotland (To 1700)
Some Regional and Contextual
The Fermtoun Cooperative Economy
For several centuries, "cooperative" agriculture on "Fermtouns" or "farm settlements" had been a typical localized socio-economic arrangement in the rural Lowlands of Scotland. Generally, the entire fermtoun socio-economic unit worked the land cooperatively in "runrig", without fences to distinguish one land holding from another. Indeed, a tenant could have his various plots of ground intermingled with those of many others over a wide area. This fragmented arrangement of plots of land was intended to ensure fairness: "to divide the good and bad soil equally among the husbandmen". However, production was inefficient and individual effort and initiative could not flourish. In some areas, fines were to be imposed on those "who sheareth his neighbour's corn, the same being rin-rig" and when "any in the neighbourhood where the land is rin-rig tilleth any of his neighbour's (land) unto his own"(1). Shortages of food were frequent and outright famine probably occurred about once a generation before the mid seventeenth century.
Various rural craft and tradesmen important to agriculture and survival such as shoemakers, masons, wrights and weavers were also often represented in fermtouns. Thus, the fermtoun was largely self-sufficient: most other fermtoun needs would be sourced elsewhere on the estate or locally within the parish, often through barter.
The subsistence level of economic activity in the fermtoun meant that social conditions were wretched. The typical Lowland farm house of the early-mid eighteenth century was described by William Aiton in 1811...
(1) Ian Whyte, Agriculture and Society, p. 150-1, referring to the "Boorlaw Book of Auchencraw" in A. Thomson, Coldingham.