Notes & Queries 2



Scottish Notes & Queries


An occasional series of articles gleaned from research into my NE Scotland ancestors. Lots of stories and odd snippets. I hope you find them as interesting as I do...

Scottish Notes & Queries, April, 1892

Fisher Serfdom in the North - It is well known that there were slaves in the coal mines and salt works of the south of Scotland long after serfdom or neyfship as a universal institution had finally, disappeared, and that, previous act of 1775, the workmen engaged in these industries were as completely adscriptilii glebce, and under the power of their masters, as were the agricultural serfs of mediaeval times.

It is not so generally well known perhaps, that, only a century earlier, the fishermen of the Aberdeenshire and North-Eastern coasts were in a precisely similar condition, and that it was not till 1698 that the highest legal tribunal in Scotland, the Court of Session, pronounced definitely against the legality of the serfdom that inveterate custom had imposed upon them.

The information regarding this stray relic of Privy Council records for 1684. On April 22nd that year the Earl of Erroll presented a peti tion to the Council for a warrant to reclaim two of his fishermen, by name Alexander Brodie and Anchrew Buchlay, who had "fled away from him without leave to his damage and prejudice." In his petition the Earl stated that it was the universal custom of the north country for fisher men "to be tied and obliged to the same servitude and service that the coal-hewers and salters are in the south," and further, that it was "not lawful for any man whatsoever to resett, harbour, or entertein the fishers or boatmen who belong to another." Poor Brodie and Buchlay had, of course, no friends at the Council, and, equally as a matter of course, the Earl's petition was immediately granted, no question being raised as to the lawfulness of his Lordship's demands.

Some twelve years later, however, on July 31st, 1696, the question came before the Court of Session in the form of a lawsuit between two Aberdeenshire proprietors, the " Laird of Woodney" (Udny) and Forbes of Foveran. According to the report of the case in Fountainhall (Vol. I., P. 732), " Reid, Beverley, and some fishermen upon Don having entered into a tack with the Laird of Woodney, they were also claimed by Forbes of Foveran, on this ground, that they were born in his land, and so were as much glebae addicti, and astricted to live there as coaliers and salters." The judges seem to have found the case one of novelty and considerable difficulty, for, the report goes on to say, on the ground that it was "alleged that there was a general custom that had prevailed in the north astricting these men to the ground where they served, they superseded to give answer till they had inquired further thereanent."

Nowadays it is much the custom for the non-legal population to complain grievously of the law's delays, but these delays are nothing now to what they were in the seventeenth century, and it is not surprising, therefore, to find that the case fell asleep for nearly two years, the liberty of Reid and his friends hanging all the while in the balance. The result, however, was satisfactory. Lord Fountainhall himself reported the case to the Court (Vol. I., P. 825), and, after apparently a good deal of argument, "the Lords finding there was no law astricting fishers to the ground where they were born, and that the custom was not general, but only in some particular places, they condemned it as a corruptela and unlawful, and tending to introduce slavery contrary to the principles of the Christian religion and the mildness of our government: and found the fishers free to engage with whom they pleased."

In this way the serfdom of the fishers disappeared. That of the colliers and salters having received some legislative sanction previous to the decision in Woodney's case, could not be got rid of so easily, It had to be abolished by the legislature itself by the statutes already mentioned.