Wester Cardno

Part 1 of a series on land ownership

In this series, I’m going to take us from 17th century Scotland to present day Whidbey Island, Washington, to look at the past, present, and future of land ownership and its impact on farming, community, and, of course, water.

In this first part, I’m going to look at some major historical events in Scotland through the lens of my own ancestors. Like many others, I was drawn to research my ancestry during the downtime of COVID.


Our story starts in Wester Cardno, a farming township in the parish of Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire. According to the Clan Forbes Society:

In 1634, Alexander Forbes, 9th laird of Pitsligo, obtained an Act of Parliament creating a new parish of Pitsligo primarily of his own estates, which had been mainly in the parish of Aberdour. In 1634, he built the Pitsligo Kirk and a family burial vault. On June 6th, 1633, Alexander was created the first Lord Pitsligo. 

A lord could collect rent from his tenants and raise troops for an army. He governed the land, but he didn’t own it in the modern sense. Wester Cardno in those days would have been a township, in an open field system of land tenure called run rig. An area of cultivable land, called “in-bye”, would be divided into strips and assigned to tenants, sometimes by lot. Crops would have included wheat, oats, rye, barley, root vegetables and greens. The “out-bye” was shared pasture and rough grazing for sheep and cattle. The arrangement allowed for community and a degree of communal working.

A few years later, in 1650, my oldest traceable patrilineal ancestor, my namesake John Lovie, and my eighth great-grandfather, was born in Fordyce, Banff, Scotland. By 1669, he had moved to Wester Cardno as a farmer and had married Anna Gordon. They had their first child, my 7th great-grandfather John McLeod Lovie.


During the “Glorious Revolution” of 1668, King James VII was replaced by his daughter Mary II and her husband William II as joint monarchs of Scotland and England. John McLeod’s son George was born in 1715, the year of the first Jacobite rebellion, in which the James Edward Stuart attempted to reclaim the scottish throne. In 1745 Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, tried again. After some initial success, the rebellion was brutally put down with the final defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746. From the Clan Forbes Society again:

Alexander Forbes, 4th Lord Pitsligo, supported both the 1715 Jacobite rebellion led by James Edward Stuart (the “Old Pretender”) and the 1745 rebellions led by Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie.”)

After the 1746 Stuart defeat at Culloden, the crown seized the Pitsligo Estate, ransacked Pitsligo Castle, declared Forbes an outlaw, and placed a price on his head. While most Jacobite leaders fled abroad to save their lives, Forbes stayed in Scotland and relied on the loyalty of his people. They didn’t let him down. He was never betrayed to the government soldiers who sought him, and he died of old age in 1762.

The Clearances

The defeat of the uprising ushered in a new era of land ownership and social engineering known as the Highland Clearances, beginning in 1750. A surge in the price of wool and the precarious financial situation of the new landlords drove the enclosure and consolidation of the common grazing areas for sheep, for which they could extract much higher rents. The tenants’ status was reduced from farmer to crofter, with a fixed tenancy and no access to previously commonly held land. They were expected to be employed in other industries such as kelp harvesting or peat cutting. There followed a systematic effort to eradicate clan culture and the dismantling of the Gaelic language and traditions.

In 1749, Georges’ son Charles, my fifth great-grandfather, was born into this environment. Charles indeed became a crofter, and eventually moved away from Pitsligo. Charles’s son, another George, born in 1775 also moved away from Pitsligo to work in Strichen, likely in peat cutting.

That George’s son, yet another George, my third great-grandfather, was born in 1801. In the 1841 census, his occupation is given as agricultural laborer.

The Highland Potato Famine

The Highland Potato Famine started in 1846 and lasted ten years. In parallel to the better-known Irish Potato Famine, the potato blight devastated the potato crop in Scotland. Many crofters had switched to potatoes from other crops, as the higher yield was crucial in surviving on less land with an increasing population. George, for example, had nine siblings! The eviction of tenants went against dùthchas, the principle that clan members had an inalienable right to rent land in the clan territory. Although the effects of the famine were worse in the western Highlands and Islands, they were bad enough on the eastern fringes where my ancestors lived. This was the time of assisted passages, where landowners paid the fares for their tenants to emigrate to Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Although still a laborer in 1851, George later moved to Edinburgh, where he died. His wife Christian died five years after him in the Edinburgh poor house.

The effects on the next generation were worse. My great-great-grandfather, George’s son William, born in 1836, was a shore laborer in Aberdeen in 1861. In 1871, he was a railway carter. He died soon afterwards at 34.

William’s son Andrew, my great-grandfather, made his way to Leeds and then York in England, where he worked as an ironmonger’s assistant, ending the scottish connection.


I learned about “the Fifteen and the Forty-Five” in high school history class. History was the only subject I failed. It was hard to maintain an interest in a list of kings and queens, dates and battles. Looking at Scotland’s history through my family’s lens has provided a social context that brings that history to life for me.

From today’s perspective, we can see the Highland Clearances as an act of colonization. The land grabs and suppression of indigenous culture has clear parallels to what has happened in Australia, Canada, the United States.

In the next post in this series, we’ll jump 4,000 miles to pick up the thread near my home on Whidbey Island, Washington.

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8 thoughts on “Wester Cardno

  1. Thanks, yes, it’s always a bit more complicated. If we’re to learn from the past, it’s important to learn from the whole of it, including the bits that were airbrushed out because they didn’t fit the narrative, otherwise we’re destined to repeat it.

  2. The same happened in Scotland. “Agricultural efficiency” was one of the justifications for the enclosures of the commons, with the need to grow food for the cities. Meanwhile, the locals were being starved off the land. We see the same everywhere we see colonization.

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