Scottish Farm Tenancies-The Case of Elizabeth Armstrong of Sorbietrees

Urgent action is needed at present to help the crisis facing tenant farmers It seems publicity of the case is only taken as the very last resort- many cases make harrowing reading, and highlight the pivotal role land reform must play in any movement towards a healthy Scotland

One case in particular I cannot allow to be forgotten

From a young age I invariably was taken to the family grave on visits to my aunts in Liddesdale, and without fail that also involved my aunt making a detour down through the cemetery to the monumental gravestone that towered high over all others in the cemetery. I was told locals who were struggling to survive themselves, put all they could together to buy a monument to mark a great injustice towards a very highly respected and well loved local farmer and his wife, William and Elizabeth Armstrong. Decades late, by absolute chance I recently found myself in the Special Collection Room of the National Library of Scotland reading a booklet on the very same Elizabeth Armstrong’s tenancy issues, which she wanted publicised for very good reason. What else can I do but retell her story.I draw heavily from her own words,other work in the National, and recollections told to me by my family from the same village.

Elizabeth Armstrong was married to the last of a very long line of Armstrong farmers in Liddesdale, the land which had formerly been Armstrong and Elliot stronghold for centuries.Her husband farmed at Sorbietrees, 2 miles from Newcastleton, which his family had been tenants of for generations. In 1851 this very highly regarded and well loved man was tragically killed, shot dead by ‘a madman’ , an English vicar, when he was on a mission of kindness.The very young widow was overnight left alone to cope with 4 infant children and a tenanted farm of 1500 acres.

At the time of William Armstrong’s death the rent of Sorbietrees was £358, which it is reported by others was already one of the dearest rents in the parish- and this was a hill farm.At the end of this 9 year lease however the widow was informed rent for the consequent 9 year lease would be £460. It is important to be aware that in his lifetime William Armstrong had spent a considerable amount of his own money in reclaiming many acres of rough hill land, improving, fencing, without receiving any help whatsoever from the landlord. He had also built a new farmhouse and farm buildings. Remarkably it is widely reported it was common practice for improvements entirely made by the tenants at their own expense,hard toil and endeavour to lead to punishing increase in rents by the landowner because of those very improvements.

The next lease in 1868 was to be for 15 years, but now the increased rent was mistakenly calculated by the factor acting for the landlord, and Mrs Armstrong was informed she must pay £580 a year.A horrified Mrs Armstrong saw that the factor had wrongly calculated the sums and had charged a third part of the rent twice over.In close detail, in documents she and others clearly show how the mistake was made and the magnitude of the miscalculation. Naturally she refused to sign the lease for as long as she could whilst asking for a recalculation, but no re evaluation was made and eventually she was forced to sign under protest.
This rent was seen by others in farming to be totally exorbitant and unjust, described as ‘monstrously high’ , and Mrs Armstrong desperately and repeatedly requested her landlord the Duke of Buccleuch, and when he died his heir the next Duke, to review the matter, but no steps were ever taken by them to review the issue.

When this 15 year lease expired, Mrs Armstrong presumed she would get some recognition that a doubling of rent had been paid and her immense overpayment would be rectified, but instead she was given notice she had to leave the farm.She surmised this was because the factor had once made a complaint about the poor state of some fences,as she had forgotten to reply in writing, but she had at the time immediately acted to plant hundreds of beeches and thorns as hedging plus putting in wire fencing(this a woman by now in her late 60’s).She wrote to the Duke explaining what she had done and was then allowed to stay on as a yearly tenant, but no dispensation was ever made to amend the rent fixed at such an unfair rate. Her son even went to London to plead his mother’s case with the Duke of Buccleuch, and was promised the case would be looked into, but nothing was ever done that they were aware of and she had to continue paying the highly inflated rent

Legal action was considered but she was extremely attached to her family home and very frightened of eviction.Only by enormous sacrifices could she afford to pay the rent, using up other sources of income, but they eventually were completely gone.

In absolute desperation this elderly woman was advised by friends to hold back from her annual rent the one third extra overpayment she was being made to pay, had paid for 2 decades, and she did this for 3 years, until 1888. The factor then declared that the rent would be reduced to £463 if she immediately paid up the sum of money she had kept back for 3 years. She asked for a revaluation of the farm which she offered to pay for herself, but this was refused. She was told she had the choice to leave the farm immediately, or pay the 3 year sum held back immediately.
This woman had by now lived on the farm for over 50 years and was in her 70’s- she very dearly loved the farm and distant memories and so she paid up the unjust overcharge once again.
When there was a downturn in prices for farmers in 1892 Mrs Armstrong was in dire straits and asked the Duke of Buccleuch for some equality of rent with her neighbours, but this was ignored.Therefore on rent day in February of 1893 she refused to pay unless she got some compensation for the overpayment over such a long period. She wrote to the Duke of Buccleuch in late March ‘It would seem incredible that such a long-continued act of injustice should have been allowed to be done to a widow— Over the years I have protested against this wrong and have offered previously to abide by any valuation that might be made’. As a result, the factor (a different man due to the passage of decades) was sent by the Duke to say that if she left the farm by Whitsunday 1894 one year’s rent would be cancelled, but if she refused to move means would be taken to recover the unpaid rent.Again she refused to pay- she did not have the means to pay such a high rent any more. A Warrant from the Court of Session was served on her and she was effectively evicted- having been on the farm for 54 years.

The farm was let to a stranger to the area for a rent more than £200 less than Mrs Armstrong had paid for 20 year, so the tenant paid an annual rent more than a third less than she had been forced to pay, yet benefitted from all the improvements her family had made entirely at their own expense Her son in law, who owned the adjoining property,tried to rent the farm first to allow her to stay, but his offer was not accepted even though it was as good as the stranger’s.

Details of this case were only made public by Elizabeth Armstrong after she felt she tried every means possible to resolve her situation fairly.
Her account of the affair can be read in The National Library of Scotland, in the booklet
‘The Duke of Buccleuch and his Tenants’ 1896

At her packed funeral in the village, the local minister could not have praised Elizabeth Armstrong more highly for her generosity of spirit, her hard work, sense of fairness,intelligence and kindness.

On her side of the high publicly funded obelisk memorial to her husband in the graveyard, under her details, is a verse from Proverbs:

‘Better a little with righteousness, than much gain with injustice’

Carol Charters