Farm life in Victorian Scotland

01 July 2022
imports_CESC_0-8wpr4suh-100000_09693.jpg Farm life in Victorian Scotland
Archie Darroch describes what life was like for nineteenth-century farmers, when fuel and water were precious commodities and farming families pooled their resources and expertise in order to survive. ...

Pendicles, or smallholdings, were small parcels of marginal land occupied by sub-tenants who scraped a living from the soil to support their families. It was subsistence farming combined with other part-time employment, which was usually also farming.


A few miles outside Dundee is Crombie Country Park. One of the attractions in the park is a small house that has been preserved as an example of a Biggin. This But ‘n’ Ben, with its small windows of four panes, and a fireplace at a gable end typifies the uniform appearance of a nineteenth-century rural cottage.


Outside on the grass are a number of farm implements that would have been used on local farms. The site is now an open-air museum, but was originally known as Guildymuire Pendicle. As the name suggests, the land would have been rough moorland with a thin layer of poor soil, and it would have been one of a number in the area, each pendicle housing a separate family.

In the early 1800s a family called Nicoll lived in the cottage. They worked with simple tools to reclaim patches of the rough moorland that could be used to grow sufficient food to support themselves. Local records show that by 1858, Hairy Nicoll, a son, was the tenant, and was also partly employed at two local farms, where from October of one year to March of the next he cultivated the sour stony terrain using a two-horse swing plough. A swing plough is one that has no wheel under the beam at the front.


Horses in Victorian farming


Ploughmen were held in great esteem and every farmhand was expected to know the basics of horse grooming. The importance of understanding horses was also vital because a man’s livelihood depended on them. Tricks such as blowing into a horse’s nostril to clam it were secrets that were passed on from father to son.


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A man might have one horse and two cows on his pendicle, but it was more usual to share a horse among several pendiclers. So a tradition of mutual help and support developed as families supplied essential casual labour and skills to each other as well as the local farmers.


Along with the cows and the horse a family would have a few hens, perhaps a goat and a pig. Fuel, a precious commodity used mainly for cooking, had to be collected from near and far. Stocks of dried heather, whin and broom kindled a fire of peat that would have been cut from local areas. Later, after the peat had been allowed to dry, all the neighbours would help to cart home each family’s supply to be stacked for winter fires.

Domestic life 

Life was hard for everyone. When the man was away working, a lot of the labour fell to the women in the house. As well as home-making skills the women and children would also help to harvest the hay, grain and root crops. The families worked long, hard days in extremes of weather.


The growing population and industrialisation of Dundee during the early nineteenth century produced a demand for more water and in 1866, work was begun on the development and construction of a reservoir at Crombie.


By the time it was completed in 1868 the reservoir incorporated Hairy Nicoll’s pendicle and he spent the rest of his life working as a roadman. Crombie was last used to supply water in 1981. The pendicles belonging to Hairy Nicoll’s neighbours would have been absorbed into larger farms or lost when roads and railways were built and developed.


Originally published July 2013. Reviewed July 2022.