A Community of Feuars

Probably one of the earliest photographs of Cumbrae waterfront.

Probably one of the earliest photographs of the Cumbrae waterfront showing the tenements built under the Feu Plan.

Being a feuar meant that one, a male, held hereditory title to land.  Apart from the privileged land holding gentry, feuars were unique to Scotland, in contrast to the population who had to pay rent and had no security regarding their dwellings.  Feuars had some security over the property in which they lived. 

However, in the annuals of Scottish archives, there are reports that indicate that feuars bore an increasing responsibility for the governance and financial burden of society.  To gain a better appreciation of the implications associated with being a feuar I draw from the Statistical Accounts of Scotland beginning with the Reverend William Donald’s report in the Parish of Peterhead. 

The parish church is situated at the entrance of the town; it was built, in 1803, and is calculated to contain upwards of 1800 sitters. It also has the spire built of granite, 118 feet in height.

The building of this church gave rise to an important question, viz. whether the feuars in the town were obliged to bear a share of the expense along with the landward inheritors, which was litigated in the Court of Session and House of Peers. It was finally decided that the building of the church was a parochial burden, and that the heritors and feuars were liable in this burden according to their real rents.  [Corrected for grammar and spelling].

Another reference by the same author concerning the ‘community of feuars’,

Certain properties and privileges of commonties and common pasturage, fuel, feal, and divot were granted to the original feuars of Peterhead, by Earl Marischall in the charter of erection. In 1774, these properties and privileges were confirmed by the Governors of the Merchant Maiden Hospital, who agreed to divide the commonties, and they accordingly conveyed those parts of them which fell to their feuars, to certain of the feuars, for themselves, as feuars of the town of Peterhead, and as trustees for and in name of the haill other (then) feuars thereof, and of all such persons as should at any time thereafter become feuars of the said town or lands, and the heirs and successors of all (the then) present and future feuars, to be improved and applied as a majority of the said feuars, at the time, and from time to time, should think fit, for the public good and utility of the said town.

 In the charters subsequently granted a share of these properties and privileges is conveyed to the individual feuars. The rental of the feuars’ properties now amounts to about £260 per annum. These properties are claimed by the magistrates, in virtue of the Burgh Reform Act; and this claim has been resisted on the part of the hospital and their feuars, on the ground that the same are private property, arising out of legal deeds between superior and vassal. In order to have this point decided, mutual actions of declarator have been raised, and are now depending in the Supreme Court.

These actions, it is probable, would not have been necessary if proper inquiries had been made before the act was passed.  [Corrections made for grammar and spelling]

It appears from the above account that there is some dispute over the ‘ownership’ of the sum of £260 collected from the feuars within the local Burgh.  The dispute appears to centre on the argument that the sum of £260 should go to the local community rather than the select feuars under the charter of the Merchant Maiden Hospital.  

Here is a further reference, this time from the Reverend Patrick Mifarlan in Greenock:

The passing of the act now mentioned, and the great increase of the trade and town, appear to have suggested to Sir John Shaw the idea of giving still greater powers to the feuars than had been conceded to them by the charter of 1741. Accordingly, on the 2d day of September 1751, he was pleased, as baron of the barony of Greenock, and burgh of barony thereof, to grant a new charter, in which the feuars and sub-feuars, and burgesses to be afterwards admitted, are authorized to meet yearly, to elect nine persons to be magistrates and councillors of the burgh, whereof two to be bailies, one to be treasurer, and the other six to be councillors, with power to the said bailies and their successors in office, to administer justice to the inhabitants; and to the bailies, treasurer, and councillors, to manage the funds and common good of the town and barony; to make laws for the better government of the same; to admit burgesses on payment of not more than thirty merks Scots, on the admission of each burgess; and generally to use and exercise all privileges and jurisdictions as freely as the magistrates and council of any other burgh of barony in Scotland do, or may do, the baron bailie for the time being having a cumulative juris-diction with the bailies to be chosen by the inhabitants. [Corrections made for grammar and spelling].

Some old Scottish legal terms used in these references need explaining. ‘Commonty’ is essentially another word for community and is here used to denote the usage of fields and pasture open to use by those who are feuars.  ‘Fuel, feal and divot’ are terms denoting the gathering and use of turf as building material and for the roofing of dwellings.  ‘Merks’ is another old Scots term associated with the assessment of yearly rent.

The above reports confirm that the ‘community of feuars’ enjoyed privileges not otherwise extended to the rest of the population.  It is also apparent that feuars were granted the power, at least in some parishes, to ‘elect’ magistrates and councillors in order to ‘administer justice’ and ‘manage funds’ for the ‘common good’. These are significant concessions in the early 1800s and implied something of change in social status. But underlying these ‘privileges’ enjoyed by feuars is a wider community concern. It is apparent, despite the paucity of information, that there is a real concern that the ‘community of feuars’ should contribute towards the ‘common good’.  It is this growing expectation imposed by the wider community that may better explain Samuel Ford’s claim as a feuar.       

The island of Cumbrae was effectively owned by the Earl of Glasgow, in the east, and the Marquis of Bute in the west.  In the 1845 Statistical Accounts report does mention ‘a number of Lord Glasgow’s feuars rent a small piece of land’ for the purposes of growing crops and keeping cows while ‘the feuars on Lord Bute’s property,’ seemed to have formed something of a communal farm.139  Given these references to the existences of feuars it would seem that both the island’s lairds granted feu status to any number of the residents in the interim period following the adoption of the Feu Plan of 1779.  Again we are not afforded any explanations as to the process involved but one might suspect that those granted ‘feuar’ status might have been in a better financial position to contribute to the wider community.  And we know from previous data quarriers, apart from the mariners on board the revenue cutter, were paid at better rate that others in the community.

The ‘feuars’ in Scotland may have been given prestige and status but these were the relatively few in number.  The lower class, the labourers and field workers, had no say in the governance of their lives. In the following decades all that was to change.

The first of that predicted change was the passing of the Scottish Reform Act 1832 which saw the Scottish electorate go from less than 5,000 to 65,000.  The franchise was limited and there were any number of ‘irregularities’ within the system but it was a start.  The passing of the Reform Act should have allowed Samuel Ford an opportunity to have a say in the affairs of State.  However, because the franchise was limited to how much men paid in rent, £50 annually, the process was open to manipulation, negotiation and chicanery which were often used to influence state officials.  The result generally meant that even if men could meet the stipulated rules, few would be included on the electoral roll. In 1830s there were but nineteen registered electors for the County of Buteshire.144  Samuel Ford was not one of them.   

The social conditions under which the vast majority of the population lived towards the end of the eighteen century was a desperate struggle simply to stay alive. Social security was essentially non-existent except for a select few. Yet the existence of a ‘community of feuars’ suggests something of a social revolution given the times.  We know, from the details of the Statistical Accounts, that it was the prerogative of those who held responsibility towards the Monarch, the lairds as vassals of the Crown, could, and did seise property to ordinary workers. We also have evidence that at times the ‘community of feuars’ were approached to fund a new school or repair an old church, or in the case of the Parish of Greenwich, elect magistrates to the Burgh.  These records indicate that feuars were more than property holders, that they held positions of responsibility and could be called for financial support.  Towards the end of the eighteen century these ‘feuars’, along with ‘lairds’ numbered some 10,000 and subsequently bore more of the financial burden of government.