top of page


Some Lairds discovering that their could be more to life than rain, muck and inter-Clan warfare, moved their families to live in the Lowlands or even in England and became absentee landlords. This however meant them moving to a cash economy not the traditional barter and payment in kind. These Lairds were quick to discover that agents and Tacksmen could squeeze much more rent out of the population so swelling their cash reserves. During the Napoleonic wars vast fortunes were made by supply of meat and men to the English Army & Navy. The system of land held for the common good morphed into land OWNED by the laird in order to give him an income and the tenants could like it, or leave.

This transition happened in Lowland Scotland 2-300 years before it much affected the Highlands, so by the 18th Century their were virtually two countries with two very different ways of doing things. The fertile farming area East of Inverness and extending south towards Aberdeen and including Speyside was atypical for the Highlands, having made this change by the time we are concerned with.

Back on the land the traditional barter economy was breaking down and even the poorest needed some cash to buy what could not be locally produced, so in addition to working their strips, most had to do some work for payment. Many would work other's land for money, near the coast there was fishing and the new Kelp industry. Inevitably those who could gather a little cash, found it much easier to gather more and so a new class emerged between the Lairds and the tenants. Many of these people would slowly buy or acquire leases to more land. This land was taken out of Runrig and merged into larger more economically viable farms, employing their landless neighbours. In the 18th and 19th Centuries this proceeded much faster under enclosure acts.

Prior to the 1707 Act Of Union, Scottish Clan Chiefs and Lairds had pretty much been lords of their own domains. Even whilst they still had their own King and Government in Edinburgh, the Highlands were a long way away, over-land transport was slow and very difficult, the sea passage around the North Coast and islands was perilous. The Scottish Kings were happy to let the Clans largely govern themselves under their Lairds, with just a vague nod in the direction of loyalty to the King. The Highlands were so impoverished that there was little point in attempting to get much in the way of taxation, there was little to be had, or so they thought at the time.

Following the  Act of Union the two nations of Scotland and England had one monarch and in effect one Government. Whilst in theory it was a union of equals, one was very much more equal than the other and, as became almost immediately apparent, England was the bigger partner, very much the richer partner and the Government in Westminster held the whip-hand and the clout.

​This was around the same time that the more cash based economy was starting to penetrate into the Highlands, this  increase in business on the part of the Lairds did have a downside, in that they came much more to the notice of the English Crown and Parliament. Scottish Lairds wishing to do business in England were welcome, up to a point, so long as they satisfied Westminster's  requirements for taxation. Taxation that needed to be paid in English currency, not in sheep, cattle and oats which was how the Lairds had traditionally received their income.


So what is a TACKSMAN ?

A Laird's estate would include a large number of small farms held by individual tenants, usually each one being held by a single family.  In some estates the tenants rented their farms directly from the Laird, however this involved the Laird having the hassle and bureaucracy of managing this themselves or paying more agents and stewards to do it for them. Also it meant that complaints, pleas for help etc came directly to the laird making it appear to be his problem.

Most Lairds preferred to have Tacksmen. These were better off farmers, who held the lease of a number of farms and sub-let them to the individual tenants. The Tacksman would get a considerable discount on the rents in exchange  for his taking over the burden of administering the tenancies. The Tacksman could make a substantial profit as he certainly did not pass on any rent discount , in fact most would add on a substantial "Administration" charge to boost their profit.

The Tacksman was in a position of great power over the tenants. They had no security of tenure and could be turfed off their farms at a whim and with no notice. So if the Tacksman was short of cash and doubled the rent, the tenant had to pay up or leave, simple as that. An appeal over the Tacksman's head to the Laird was highly unlikely to be even heard.

Many Tacksmen were, or were descended from, minor branches of the Laird's family or their bastard offspring, so their word would always get believed over that of some feckless whingeing peasant.

Anchor 1
bottom of page