Wick Text Summary



Principal Sources


OSA Vol 10 No 1 1794

NSA Vol XV 1845 (written in 1841)


RMS 1 App 2 Index A No 378 (Robert I)

RMS II (1404) 1478 on original of 1455

RMS III (475) 1527, (1798) 1538, (2047) 1539, (3164-5) 1545

RMS IV (210) 1548, (1669) 1565 on original of 1564, (2315) 1574, (2782) 1578 on original of 1575

RMS V (277) 1581 on original of 1580, (1341) 1587, (1977) 1591, (2127) 1592

RMS VI (2) 1593, (803) 1598, (1467) 1603

RMS VII (1440) 1616 on original of 1615

RMS VIII (481) 1623 on original of 1622

RMS IX (1098) 1642

RMS XI (53) 1661, (551) 1664


Robertson’s Index p 137 No 2 c.1390-1406


RSS III (2046) 1546

RSS VI (2765) 1574

RSS VIII (1551) 1583


GD96/1 1457, GD96/2&3 1469, GD96/4 1472, GD96/5A 1476, GD96/6 c.1478, GD96/18 1520, GD96/21 1529, GD96/24 1538, GD96/36 1546, GD96/42, 44 1548, GD96/45, 46, 48 & 52 1549, GD96/53, 54, 56 & 57 1550, GD 96/59 1553, GD96/60 1554, GD96/63 c. 1554, GD96/70 1558, GD96/83 1561, GD96/106 & 107 1565, GD96/108 1565 (on original of 1548), GD96/113 1566, GD96/125, 128, 130, 131 & 135 1573, GD96/153 1575, GD96/189 1580, GD96/196 1582, GD96/223A 1586, GD96/270 1598, GD96/405 1616, GD96/441 1619, GD96/508 1629, GD96/529 1634

GD112/58/1/3 1527

GD112/58/8/27 1637

GD112/58/14/6 1660

GD280/7/4/21 Lands in parish of Wick 1752


RH1/2/266 1469/70


RS36/2/346r 1608

RS37/5/80r 1633

RS20/1/p 165 1662

RS20/1/p 174 1663

RS20/1/p 175 1663

RS20/1/p 194 1664

RS20/1/p 198 1665

RS20/1/p 200 1665

RS21/1/335r 1702


RHP 3349 1884 Stirkoke estate

RHP 4050 1831 Hill of Wick

RHP 4051 1827 Hempriggs estate

RHP 83455 1827 Plan of Hempriggs


Laing Charters (160) 1469, (235) 1498, (275) 1510, (538) 1548

Sutherland Book III No 97 1557, No’s 119-120 1591

Retours (Caithness) (6) 1605, (8) 1614, (20) 1640, (22) 1644


NLS Dep.313/2983/15 1582/1588

Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections Vol. I, SHS, Edinburgh, 1906 pp 156-158: Description Parish of Wick in Caithness: Hempriggs 1724

Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections Vol. I, SHS, Edinburgh, 1906 pp 158-162: Geographical Description of the Parish of Week in Caithness 1726. by Mr Oliphant present Min(iste)r.

Acts of the Lords of Council, Volume III, 1501-3, ed. A.B. Calderwood, Edinburgh, 1993 p 73

Henderson, J., General View of the Agriculture of the County of Caithness, London, 1815 (hereafter, ‘Henderson, Agriculture’)



There is a useful summary in the New Statistical Account, written in 1841. The author, Rev. Charles Thomson, was new to the parish but he had done his homework and consulted local authorities (see p 177). On pp 145-8 he writes of the changes in agriculture. I have quoted him at length because much of what he wrote is also applicable elsewhere:


The state of agriculture in the parish of Wick, previously to 1790, was extremely curious, and its arrangements as hostile as they possibly could be to all improvement. Each property was divided into townlands. In every townland there were what was called “the mains,” which consisted of a farm, on which were a barn and a stack-yard. The proprietor retained the mains in his own hand. The remainder of the townland was divided into what were called penny-lands, halfpenny-lands, farthing-lands, and octos. These were measured out by shrewd countrymen, called land-riders, or more properly land-redders, for they did not ride. In accomplishing their work, they spaced six spaces as the breadth of a rig of cornland, and 240 as the length. This they denominated a firlot-sowing of oats. This multiplied by four, the number of firlots in a boll, gave 5760 square spaces, being precisely the number of Scotch ells in a statute Scotch acre. The land-redders knew nothing about surveying, nor had ever heard of a chain, or of an acre; yet it must be plain, that, long before the memory of man, their measurement must have been founded on actual mensuration by the chain.


The grass-land, outfield, or in arable, was assigned in fixed proportions to these different divisions; and a certain rent, varying in different townlands, was laid on the grass-land, and a certain quantity of grain to be paid for the corn-land of these various penny, halfpenny, farthing, and octo lands. The townland of Papigoe, for instance, in the neighbourhood of the town of Wick, was divided into fifteen penny-lands, one halfpenny-land, and half an octo. Every penny-land paid eleven bolls of corn, or farm as it was called, and no money. The townland of Kilminister was red into thirty-six penny-lands, each one of which paid four bolls of farm, and L.[£] 5, 6s. 8d. Scots as rent of the grass-land. To render the state of matters still more opposed to all improvement, the custom of run-rig was common. This most barbarous custom was said to have originated in times of universal and incessant feuds, as a preservative against one neighbour’s setting fire to the field of another, and to make the whole townland equally anxious to resist an enemy in case of invasion.


These penny-lands, etc., were let to small tenants, who, besides the rent already specified, yielded an infinite variety of minute services to the landlord.


Rev. Thomson then goes on to describe these services in great length. (See OSA for Bower for a similar discussion). He, and many another minister of the time, thought poorly of the ancient practices and favoured improvement. He quotes, approvingly, what had been done in Wick parish by Sir Benjamin Dunbar (Lord Duffus) who had succeeded to his estate in 1782 and who also happened to be one of Rev Thomson’s local informants!


Sir Benjamin, aware of what was passing in other countries, determined to put an end to this wretched system, which had immemorially prevailed. Having ascertained on what principles the land-redders divided and apportioned the land, he had the whole of his numerous townlands measured with the chain, abolished the middlemen, converted all the services of the tenants into money, and granted them leases at a fixed rent. The result of this enlightened procedure was most advantageous. Tillage was extended, better modes of cultivation were introduced, land was improved, the rental of the proprietor increased, while the tenantry were delivered from their former degrading vassalage, and their comfort and respectability greatly promoted.


Of course, in some ways this account reads like a parable of the eighteenth-century agricultural revolution. But, leaving aside the undoubted ‘spin’ for modernity there is much to extract from the synopsis.


The land was divided as he says – but we can doubt that land-redders were as old as pennylands. Perhaps there was measurement at the inception of the ounceland-pennyland system – many centuries earlier. We can date this system to some time after 995 AD on the West Coast and in the Hebrides. It may have been slightly later in the far north. But it is doubtful if the Norse conquistadors measured their new assets out in octos. What is much more likely is they they established ouncelands, (which came – perhaps at a later date – to contain 18 pennylands) and that the process of gradual subdivision took place over many centuries. It was probably at least partly in response to an increasing population. Fairness was always important so it is entirely credible that there was a formal process of measurement. Whether or not the units were as described, and whether or not they approximated to measures such as the chain, will be difficult to establish.


Another insight is the comments about runrig. In the much less fertile areas of the west coast perhaps some units were simply a pennyland, half-pennyland or farthing-land – and worked by one family. In the more fertile ground of Caithness it appears that runrig spread to most lands held by tenants. Perhaps it was only in the ‘mains farm’ that there was no internal subdivision. See Canisbay text file for Donaldson’s argument.


The description of ‘firlot-sowing’ also chimes with what we know from elsewhere. Alasdair Ross has drawn attention to a bolls per davach ratio in Moray. We come across something similar in Ross although we should distinguish between ‘bolls sowing’ and ‘bolls pay’. The former reflected how much land was sown by a boll; the latter how many bolls of grain the harvested crop amounted to.


Another useful conclusion is how rent varied across townlands. I am inclined to believe that, at the moment of first establishment, a land-assessment system assumed the same level of rent from units of equal value. Almost from day one, circumstance would alter this. But the notion of equality, fairness, and a standard rental, was always a powerful determinant and we find it reflected throughout rural history and in a thousand rentals.


There are large gaps in the land-assessment record for Wick. The table shows at least 139d which would come to more than 23 davachs. The true total may have been substantially more.


Wick supplies further circumstantial evidence for the importance of ouncelands as a unit of distribution and reinforces the contention that 3 davachs of 6d made 1 ounceland. Ackergill, Noss and Reiss were probably all ouncelands; Wick & Papigo were 1½ while Killimster was 2.


It also provides a rare mainland example of a ‘skatland’ – at Reiss.


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