The ‘Improving Lairds’ and the Learmonths of Housebay: Robert, followed by his son Donald Horne Learmonth.Part 2

From Records of a bygone age by Ian Cooper

Republished here with kind permission from The Stronsay Limpet

In 1869, the lease of Housebay was due for renewal and, at that time, Robert Learmonth intimated that he wasn’t going to offer on the lease (although this may possibly have been part of a bargaining ploy). Sometime later, he did successfully offer on the lease again for a further 19 years, although this time it was at an increased annual rent of £800.

A few years later, in 1874, Robert wrote in a letter to a friend intimating that he was now very infirm and, as his son John had left the island, he didn’t know how he could carry on the farm. In October the following year, Robert died and was laid to rest in the Bay Kirkyard in Stronsay. It appears that the terms of his will, written in 1861 and consisting of 7 pages, must have been strongly influenced by his second wife Catherine, as his first family received £100 each and nothing else while Catherine fell heir to all his personal items, heirlooms, silver plate etc and an annuity of £50 for as long as she lived or until she should remarry. The rest of his estate was left equally between the six children of his second marriage and this was to have repercussions in years to come!

With William, the eldest son of Robert’s second marriage, married and pursuing his career as an engineer in Glasgow it fell to the second son, nineteen year old Donald Horne Learmonth, to consider taking over the lease and this he did, going into partnership with his mother Catherine. With limited capital of their own, they had to rely on some of Donald’s siblings’ willingness to leave some of their inheritance still invested in the farm before this could be a viable option.

Although still a young man, Donald seems to have continued the good work of his father, both on the farm and in the wider community, and was one of the instigators of setting up an Agricultural Society in Stronsay in 1877, one of their first activities being to hold a ploughing match at Cleat, still then part of the Housebay estate. By 1888, the Society had moved on to holding an Agricultural Show and again Donald was one of the instigators of this, helping to organise and run the show and having success in the cattle, sheep and horses sections as well as achieving 1st prize for his salt butter and his duck eggs!

Horses seemed to be his passion at that time though, and he went on to win the championship in the horse section with ‘a fine Clydesdale mare’. This success showing locally was continued on a wider scale where, at the Orkney Agricultural Society’s Fat Stock Show in 1890, his two year old steer was 1st in its class, while Donald also carried off the medal for the ‘best animal in the yard’ for a ‘massive three year old roan ox, measuring 7 ft. 9 in. in girth’. This was the third year in succession that this prize had gone to Donald Learmonth.

Again, like his father before him, his personal (although this time also financial) affairs were to cause him problems; on this occasion when one of his siblings took him to court for outstanding debts. As mentioned earlier, Donald and his mother had only been able to take on the lease of Housebay after his father’s death because some of his siblings had agreed to leave their inheritance invested in Housebay. Donald had apparently been unable to keep up with the repayment of this money so, with the assistance of her older brother William, Catherine, who was now married to Donald Hume and living in Kansas, USA, applied to the Court of Session in Aberdeen, under the judgment of Lord Wellwood, for repayment of this money.

(It is an interesting note of the times that she could only bring this action forward with the consent of her husband!)

The sums requested were: 1 – £700; 2 – £174 9s 9d; 3 – £47 16s 8d, these being the amounts with interest that sister Catherine claimed were now due to her after loaning Donald and their mother money to assist them in keeping Housebay stocked after the death of Donald’s father. Donald’s defence was that, in the agreement, interest was only repayable out of profits and, as there had been no profits under the lease, no interest was due!

He also stated that £250 had been paid to her and the remainder didn’t fall due for repayment until the termination of the lease in 1896. In a judgment some time later, his Lordship decreed that payment of £902 6s 5½d should be made to Catherine. Although there is no evidence of this, it is possible that this may have been a ‘test case’ and similar sums may have been due to other siblings but, regardless, this was to prove to be too much for Donald and his mother. The writing was on the wall and led to Donald’s admission that, despite having a large and well run farm producing excellent stock and crops, the estate had been unable to show a profit over the 14 years he had been in charge. This led to the sad but inevitable conclusion that his partnership with his mother should be wound up and all the stock, implements and machinery sold off.

This sale was soon arranged and advertised, to be held on 15th November 1892 ‘and following days’ and was probably one of the biggest farm sales ever to be held in Orkney. The date of the sale had some significance too, as most agricultural tenancies in Scotland began and ended at Martinmas on 11th November, commonly known as ‘Term Day’. This would have signified the termination of the Learmonth’s lease of Housebay and the commencement of leases for farms all over Orkney, so a sale around this time would have generated much interest from new farm tenants as well as the longer established farmers.

The local steamer ‘Orcadia’ was billed to leave Kirkwall at 7 a.m. each day as long as the sale lasted, sailing directly to Housebay and returning to Kirkwall each night for a return fare of 3/-, while the ‘Fawn’ was scheduled to leave Westray, also bound for Housebay via Eday and Sanday, and returning at night for a return fare of 2/6d.

Included in the sale were 60 cows and heifers in milk or in calf, 57 cattle rising 2 or 3 years old, 46 young calves and 2 bulls. Of special note were 14 pedigree shorthorn cows, along with 3 shorthorn bull calves and 3 black poll bull calves all being kept for breeding, There were 29 working horses, 5 foals and 2 stallions, all described as superior and quiet stock and ‘one of the finest lots of horses ever exposed for sale in Orkney’.

Some pages copied from the Housebay sale catalogue of 1892

Also advertised were 5 Shetland ponies, 400 ewes and lambs, 9 tups, 6 breeding sows, 15 young pigs, 100 hens, 100 ducks and a few geese. Then, in a few short lines, was advertised a vast array of farm implements, along with a multitude of smaller articles as would be found on any farm:

Splendid Three-horse thrashing mill (almost new) with Boiler and Engine complete, Corn Bruiser, Self-Binder by R Hornsby & Son, 3 Reapers by Wallace & Son, and 1 by Brigham, 20 Carts, Hay Frames, 18 Ploughs, 4 Grubbers, 4 Scufflers, 9 Sets of Har-rows, 4 Metal Rollers, 2 Stone Rollers, Horse Take, Broad-cast Sowing Machine, Scarifier, Scarifier and Turnip Sower, Turnip Topper and Tailer, 3 Turnip Slicers, Chaff Cutter, Hand Fanners, Plough Trees, Barrows, Forks, Spades, Shovels, Scrapers, Hoes, also a Dog Cart and Phaeton and a large variety of other articles, &c., &c., &c. Also 12 full sets of superior Cart and Plough Harness, Gig Harness and a quantity of Miscellaneous Harness. Also a large quantity of Household Furniture and other effects.

The sale did indeed generate much attention, with a great number of folk taking advantage of the special trips by the local steamers and it being noted with interest that, on the first day of the sale, three steamers were tied up at the Stronsay pier at the same time. As expected, the horses all sold well, with prices ranging from £22 up to a top of £58 and averaging almost £40 but other than that it appeared to be very much a ‘buyer’s market’ with milk cows fetching from £7 to £9, two year old cattle from £8 to £11 (compare this with the batch of thirty-one 2 year-old Housebay cattle making £20 a head back in 1867!) and year olds making £6 to £8. Sheep prices were also low, many only making 7/- each, to a top of 18/-, young pigs topped at 11/- and growing pigs went to 75/-. The implements and smaller goods too seemed to mostly go at what was thought to be cheap rates and there was general agreement that the bargain of the sale had to be the Hornsby self-binder, only 2 years old and in first class order, which was sold for £5.

As the hammer fell on the last item that day, so ended the Learmonth involvement with Housebay after nigh on 40 years, a time that had seen the farm brought up from a run-down unit in the throes of bankruptcy to become one of the best farms in Orkney but then to end in insolvency once more.

From Term Day 1892, the lease of Housebay was taken up by William Stevenson of Holland, to add to his farms of Hatston, Holland and Huip, but that is a story for another day!

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

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  1. i found this with great interest as this was my ancestors land on my mothers side, william Learmonth was Donald’s brother, William had a son called Donald Horne Learmonth , this was my grandmothers father who also became an engineer but died in 1942-1943, so hence it was my great , great , great great grandfathers land. I have never been to the Orkneys and would one day love to go and see for myself what Horsebay is like today and see if there are any distant cousins still alive in stronsey . I was born in Edinburgh so do have a connection with scotland .

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