The ‘Improving Lairds’ and the Learmonths of Housebay: Robert Followed by His Son Donald Horne Learmonth

By Ian Cooper

From his series Records of a By Gone Age – republished here with kind permission of The Stronsay Limpet

Part 1

Orkney’s agricultural sector has a well justified reputation for having outstanding, well-run and highly productive farms producing excellent crops of grass and grain, and for rearing cattle and sheep second to none.

This wasn’t always the case however, and an article in the ‘Quaterly Journal of Agriculture’of September 1839 reports on the inferior standard of agriculture, and in particular of ploughing, in Stronsay at that time:

‘Although there is no such implement now to be seen as the old Orkney side-plough, yet, with the exception of the best farmers and proprietors, the implements are still very deficient, and the lands very ill ploughed. Some of the soils are coming into better management, and after being deeper ploughed, which turned up the fresh soil, produce good crops.”

The local Lairds, most of whom for centuries past had taken what they could from land and shore with little thought to the future of the land or those who eked a living from it, were slowly coming to realise that better farming practices and better farms would give their tenants a better standard of living,and, ultimately of course, increase their own profits! These ‘Improving Lairds’, as they came to be called, encouraged their tenants to take on long -term leases and to make lasting improvements to the lands and buildings of the farms they leased.

As part of this process, many of the Lairds began to look to the Lowlands of Scotland, particularly the Lothians, as an example of best practice, employing advisors and managers from that area and importing and utilising the latest farming practices from there. One of these forward-thinking Lairds was George Traill of Hobbister, who owned several farms in the North Isles, including the estate of Housebay, which at that time consisted of much of the southern end of Stronsay as well as the islands of Auskerry – well over 1200 acres in total.

In the early 1840s the tenant in Housebay, due in some part to age and infirmity, had let the farm become quite neglected and run down, with the result that he struggled to pay his rent and was eventually declared bankrupt. With an eye to the future, Mr Traill decided to look for a more ambitious tenant to take on the farm and to put some of the new farming ideas and practices in place there.

The John O’ Groats Jounral of Friday 10th February 1843 carried an advert for the let of the estate, consisting of the farms of Housebay, Cleat, Scarpaquoy and Arifea, along with the islands of Auskerry, and highlights the desire of the owner to encourage his tenant to make improvements to the farm in the following terms:

“To a tenant of capital these Farms afford an opening seldom to be met with, possessing the advantage of an excellent soil and an inexhaustible supply of sea weed and shell sand for manure, of easy access along the shores for the distance of one mile, being the southern boundary of the lands. The shore also affords an abundant supply of small stones for drainage. If let in one farm, the extent will be about 600 acres arable and 620 acres of pasture, reserving the remainder for the Cottagers. The Proprietor, whether these lands are let together or separately, will give every necessary encouragement to the Tenant for bringing the Lands into a proper state of cultivation, as well as for their comfortable occupation, in making allowances for Ditching, Draining, Fencing and for Offices.”

The previous rent for Housebay had been £200 but, with the offer of support for making improvements to the farm, the Laird was now asking an annual rent of £350.Some time later,with no suitable applicant to be found as tenant, Mr Traill’s attention was drawn to Robert Learmonth, who had been born and raised on a farm near Haddington in East Lothian and had gone on to study agriculture at college near there. Robert, along with his wife Janet had moved to work on the estate of Lynegar at Watten in Caithness, where Janet had given birth to three sons and a daughter but sadly Janet had died at the birth of their third son in 1835. Subsequently, it appears that the Board of Agriculture offered Robert a post as the first Agricultural Adviser in Orkney, and with several recommendations as to his suitability, this led to his being approached to take on the management of Housebay. Although Robert had little funds to buy any stock or equipment at the time, an arrangement was to be reached whereby, if he was successful in the management of the farm, he would be given the opportunity to gradually take over the tenancy. As far as I can gather, in 1845 a partnership consisting of Donald Horne (an Edinburgh based lawyer who was a mutual friend of Robert Learmonth and George Traill), Miss Horne Macleay and Alexander MacLeay, the latter two being relatives of Donald Horne, took on the lease at the originally requested annual rent of £350. Robert along with his four children, moved to Housebay soon after to take up the post of manager on their behalf.

It seems Robert really hit the ground running ! One of the first acts was to replace all the old and now obsolete ploughs with the modern Scots swing ploughs which, with their deeper and more consistent ploughing action, immediately helped boost yields of cereal and root crops. That, coupled with making good use of farmyard manure by spreading it liberally on the fields for cultivation, applying large amounts of the locally available ‘ware’ (seaweed) washed up in abundance on the shore and spreading shell sand, with its high lime content, on the fields was soon to show its effect on the fertility of the land. Robert also had no qualms about importing manures such as superphosphates and bird guano to boost fertility and yields.

In addition to imrpoving the land, Robert also rapdily moved away from the smaller native breeds of cattle and sheep, importing good quality Shorthorn cattle and Halfbred sheep from the Lowlands as the basis of his livestock enterprise.

Just ten years after the derogatory comments about the state of farming in Stronsay contained in the ‘Quarterly Journal of Agriculture’ an article in the ‘Scottish Farmer’ paints a very different picture. We are now told that, in Stronsay, much is well farmed and Housebay and Holland in particular are singled out to be

“uniformly of the finest quality of deep land, a good clay loam, and they are farmed in a style that cannot be surpassed anywhere in the kingdom.”

As time passed Robert continued with the full backing of the owner, to plough out more of the rough pasture. Fields were squared off and enclosed by wire fences, drystone dykes or, in some cases, by flag fences (large ,flat stone slabs set into the ground on their edge to from a continuous boundary);ditches were dug, fields drained and new purpose-built ‘offices’ (the term at the time for the farm steading and farmhouse) constructed to replace the obsolete buildings and make for more efficient working.

With the land now being well fed and better cultivated, the benefits were soon evident, with crops of turnips in particular noted as being second to none – and Housebay was now regularly growing 150 acres of them each year! Cereal crops too were profiting from these improvements, with better quality and higher yields of both straw and grain soon apparent in the bere and oat crops being grown. All the turnips and straw, along with some of the grain, was utilised for the livestock over the winter, while some of the bere and oats were dried and ground into meal for human consumption, an allocation of this meal being an essential part of farm worker’spay at the time. Although self-sufficiency was the first priority, surplus grain was exported and proved to be a valuable source of additional income from the farm.

In 1851, when the quality of oats was measure by their bushel weight and a usual weight would be in the region of 35 to 38 lbs a bushel, a part of the oat crop from Housebay was sold at Leith with a bushel weight of 42 to 43 lbs per bushel, a good indicator of the quality of the grain crops now being grown. The following year this success was being shown in other ways too, with two Housebay bred steers carrying off 1st prize at a fatstock show in Linlithgow.

Robert was soon to achieve his ambition of becoming a partner in the tenancy and, very soon after, he was in a position to take on the full tenancy; a remarkable achievement for someone starting off with little or no capital. This wasn’t without cost however! As well as purchasing all the stock and implements needed for running the estate, by the time Robert had taken over the full tenancy the rent was no small consideration each year. Robert was in a way a victim of his own success, as more investment was made into improving the farm and profits increased, so the rent gradually increased.

In 1865, there were 3,668 individual farm or croft tenancies recorded in Orkney, with rents varying from five shillings for the smallest croft to several hundred pounds for the larger farms and estates. Of these 3,668 holdings, only 49 of them had a rent in excess of £100 and of these Housebay, at 1240 acres and with a rent of £600 a year, had the dubious distinction of being the highest rental farm in Orkney.

His success on the farm continued, with the 1861 census recording Robert as an employer of 31 labourers and 4 boys.It was noteworthy in the local press of April 1866 that Robert shipped off by steamer a consignment of

‘130 cattle, chiefly fat, with some milk cows, upwards of 30 fat pigs (alive), and 44 very superior sheep’

a huge amount of stock for one farm at that time. He continued to achieve top prices for his cattle, sheep and grain and in 1867, it is recorded that he sold a batch of 19 2-year-old cattle at £21 a head, with a lot of 31 the same age making £20 a head the following year.

Not only was Robert Learmonth good for Houebay, he was also good for Stronsay as neighbours looking over the dyke soon see what is happening, good or bad, on the other side and were quick to pick up these new ideas and practices. Robert was a very approachable man who was always willing to pass on his knowledge of farming and give advice freely when it was sought. This was recognised by the whole farming community on the island when a celebratory dinner was held in his honour in 1857

‘in testimony of their respect for him as a skilful and exemplary agriculturalist, and of their gratitude for the example and incitement to improvement which his skill and enterprise has afforded.’

Quite an event by all reports, but more about that in a future article!

Although enjoying the support and acclaim of his fellow farmers, his family life was, it appears, less harmonious at times.To help look after him and his young family when he arrived at Housebay, Robert employed the services of one of the farm servants, a young Irish milkmaid named Catherine Angus, as his housekeeper. This must have been quite a successful appointment as the following year, in August 1846, they were to get married! Robert was 44 at the time of their marriage while his new bride was only 22 and that, as one of his descendants remarked, was to put the fat in the fire! Robert and Catherine went on to have six children of their own and it seems Catherine was quite possessive, apparently now having little time for any of Robert’s first family.

Of the three sons by his first marriage Robert, the oldest son emigrated to Ohio, USA and never had contact with his father again while the youngest son, Alexander, left and took on the tenancy of Millfield in Stronsay. Middle son John also went to the USA for a time but later returned to Housebay, marrying a Stronsay lass and raising a family there.With Robert having no contact with his father, John should probably now have been seen as ‘heir apparent’ but it seems he was seldom regarded as anything more than one of the farm servants. Sometime around 1873, with John’s father Robert’s health failing, John had what was termed ‘a severe dispute’ with his stepmother and left Housebay that same day,never to return. He and his family moved to the cottage of Hunday for a short time but soon after he was appointed manager of New Holland in Holm, then moving to Holland in Papa Westray as farm manager for the Traills there. He later became a farmer in his own right on Mainland Orkney. Robert’s 4th child, his daughter Margaret, married a son of the Manse and they also emigrated, heading off to Ontario , Canada.

Part 2 next month.

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