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Da Laird’s Rules

Published: 18th November 2020

Da Laird’s Rules - A Typical Early 19th Century Tenancy Agreement

Written by Albert Abernethy, with thanks to the Tyneside Newsletter for this contribution.

The dwelling house, (fire hoos) to be 27ft long by 13ft wide, a hole in the wall and one window. Side walls are 6ft high, 9ft at the gable end.  A hearth in the middle of the floor, smoke drifted out through the roof.

A typical fire hoos.
A typical fire hoos.


No house to be erected on the side or end of a dwelling-house, without the written permission of the Laird. To reduce his loss of fishermen, da Laird scrapped this rule so that the byre extension allowed the eldest son’s family to stay.

Da Laird did specify the dimensions of the side extensions which were: 13ft by 8ft wide with no door no windows and a turf roof.

Original house with two later extensions.


No tenant shall remove from the dwelling-house any roof, window or door, even though furnished and put in by himself.

“Court Summons 1770: Daniel Theoderson hath away taken the whole timber roof, brought from Norway. He should be punished in case others commit the like in time coming.”

“Court Summons1853: Petition to prevent defender carrying off the roof from her dwelling as she removed.  Pursuer: William Hay, factor for Henry Cheyne. Defender: Mrs Abernethy, widow of John of Lunnister”. Evicted as widow with six children, eldest son not yet a wage earner.

Every tenant shall maintain sufficient hill and yard dykes, and maintain convenient grinds in his dykes at all usual places, on or before 1st.April, and keep them up until 1st November.

Corn was sown on the arable land after the sheep were put to the scattald[i] and before the men left for the fishing. The sheep could only be put to the scattald when all the dykes, enclosing the tounship[ii], had been rebuilt.

Every tenant shall cultivate his land in a proper manner, and use all straw, hay, and fodder grown thereon, nor sell any manure made during the last year of his lease.

John Morrison, Vicar of Delting wrote: “Little labour is spent draining the land, the surface drains fill up in winter allowing the land to become a mire. Were it not for new earth carried down from the hills and mixed into a compost with dung and sea-weed, no crops could be expected.   The reason is that the tenant is a tenant of a day.  If improvement were made to the ground another would reap the benefit by offering a higher rent. Forcing the tenant to leave his farm’

No tenant shall bring on his land (enclosed or scattald), any stock that does not belong to himself, or stock that belongs to other members of his own family, without the express leave of the Laird.

No tenant shall receive into his house nor harbour on his land, any disabled persons, who are not members of his own family, or any married persons (except himself), without the leave of the Laird.        

Every tenant shall maintain all members of his family, who, from infirmity or age, are not able to support themselves.  This is to prevent them becoming a burden on the Parochial Board.

The Ootsetter[iii] always had to pay the rent as money.

‘….You will be heard that I am married and staying with my father in Hollorin a very poor place.  My husband is been used to go to Greenland but is home this year for want of his health. My father is com a poor old man and cannot gain a shilling to pay the rent…’ from an old Abernethy letter to Australia.’

Every tenant shall prevent his cattle encroaching on his neighbours’ land, by keeping them tethered within the limits of his own stubble ground, from 1st.April to 1st.November.

Milking cow on stubble ground
Milking cow on stubble ground


Every tenant shall bring up and educate his children according to his means, by allowing their attendance at schools where religious knowledge may be acquired. To maintain a character and conduct becoming a Christian man, and to enforce such a line of conduct on all living in family with him. 

Court Summons 1773: Breach of contract. Pursuer: Sir John Mitchell of Westshore.

Defender: Magnus Horrie, in Silwick.

This was possibly the easiest ‘Rule’ to claim it was broken.

[i] Scattald: The common pasture ground allocated to crofters for use as grazing. It formerly applied to all land attached to a toun, including arable.

[ii] Tounship: A more modern term for toun, with the emphasis more on community than land distribution; a group of houses and associated land.

[iii] Ootsetter: A tenant who had to build a house on a scattald and bring the rough pasture to cultivation.