Livestock farming in 18th century

With a short growing season and a high risk of crop failure, stock keeping overshadowed the sedentary cultivation activities of the Gaelic speaking peoples.

Livestock was of great value to the late medieval farmer in Highland Perthshire. They provided;

The traditional peasant diet until the arrival of the potato relied heavily upon milk and dairy products. Although they cultivated a small amounts of oats and beer it was insufficient to satisfy their needs throughout the year. By the summer months the meal supplies were exhausted and during these months particularly 'they eat and live upon the milk'. Unfortunately the inferior cattle of the central highlands could give as little as 2 pints of milk daily.

From the 16th to the middle of the 17th century Breadalbane operated the steelbow system whereby the livestock, grain and implements were supplied by the landlord. At the expiration of the tenancy the landlord was compensated or the goods returned.

Dodgshon has reviewed the available records and estimated the mean stocking levels of townships in Breadalbane before the clearances:

  1727 1780 –1 (Excluding south Loch Tayside) 1780 –1 (South Loch Tayside)
Cattle 46 21 24
Sheep Nil (except in Strathfillan) 130 95


The definition of a 'soum' is rather obscure but at its most basic level it was a unit of pasture required to supply grass for one cow for one year. A horse required two soums and one soum could pasture around 5 sheep. For more information see Alasdair Ross Scottish environmental history and the (mis)use of Soums.


The milch cattle provide dairy produce from consumption and rental payments in kind to the landlord as well as the breeding stock for maintaining the farms stocking quota. The young immature or barren beasts comprising the yeld cattle provided directly or indirectly the farm rent. Landlords accepted young stock in lieu of money and even where cash rents were collected the money was proceeds of cattle sales by the tenants. Little is known about the breeds in this part prior to the beginning of the 19th century.


As can be seen from the chart above very few sheep were kept in the early 18th century but,by the 1780s, cattle were beginning to be replaced by sheep. Souming allowed five sheep to replace one cow. Dodgshon commented 'townships were, in effect, market testing a system of farming that was to prove their undoing'.

Sheep were often milked, supplied wool and to a lesser extent meat. Sheep urine and perls were one of the richest manures available to the Highland farmer.


Goats supplied meat, milk and skins particularly for the lower orders of society. In Perthshire they were kept by the wealthier members of community, their prime function being to provide goat whey, a then acknowledge cure and safeguard against illness. Distinguished people from Edinburgh's professional circles and lowland lairds paid seasonal visits to settlements famous for their goat whey particularly in the vicinity of Dunkeld. By 1800 this had largely gone out of fashion and, with the menace of goats peeling bark of trees and inflicting heavy damage to the young trees in particular, the keeping of goats declined. Isabel McDougall kept goats


The old wooden plough used in the Highlands was pulled by horses four abreast. They were also used to transport people and goods.

On 14 November, 1826 Breadalbane wrote (NRS: GD112//12/1/3/10) to 'Mr McGillavrie on his report of improvements in Acharn and Ardtalnaig' giving very firm instructions that the number of horses in the district needed to be halved. The fuel referred to would have included coal and peat. Pennant wrote that the tenants were required to transport coal from Crieff to Taymouth Castle but they also, for their own and the Earl's needs, had to transport peat which they did by horse and cart

Pigs and poultry

Pigs were kept in the Highlands but they were not popular and probably few in number. Poultry was undoubtedly kept but there is little documented information.

The petition from Janet Fisher (NRS: GD112/11/8/8/8), late poultry woman at Taymouth, gives an interesting image of her lowly status. In response the petitioner was paid one pound sterling.

Page last updated - 28/11/16