Once in a while a document comes to light which really opens a window on life in rural Fife long ago. One such can be found in the Commissariot of St Andrews records held in Edinburgh and availble for purchase at ScotlandsPeople (Wills and Testaments, CC20/6/40, James Fermer or Farmer 1763).
James Fermer (James Farmer) died, without leaving a will, in early July 1763. His complete testament does not survive; we only have the warrant containing the inventory which lists and values his moveable possessions at the time of his death. Genealogically speaking, the document tells us very little: we have name, address and occupation – James Farmer, vintner at St Davids; and we know that his wife, Agnes Reid, survived him; but we don’t even have an exact date of death, we only know that an edict was issued by the Commissary Court on 13 July 1763.
However, the list of his possession runs to three pages and provides an absolutely fascinating record of the contents of his house at the time of his death. The full transcript is here.
James was described as a vintner at St Davids but perhaps innkeeper is a better description since, as well as the bottles, jugs & drainer used by the vintner, there is also all the other equipment needed in the running of an inn – 7 tables, 39 chairs, 12 beds, blankets, plates (wooden, stone & china), delft ware, crystal glass ware, cups, saucers & glasses. But there is evidence of him wearing even more hats: various parts of the mill – so he was the miller too; farm equipment (carts, hand tools, harrow, plough) & crops (oats, barley, wheat, grass & the contents of the kale yard) – so he was a small farmer; there was equipment for cheese making and three spinning wheels – 2 for wool, 1 for flax; the numerous harnesses, bridles, saddles, etc show how large a part the horses played in his business; and he owned a one-eighth share of the St David boat.
The inn was a large building – at least 7 rooms and possibly 8 over 2 storeys as well as cellar, coal house & kale yard. There must have been stabling for the horses & cattle although this isn’t specifically mentioned.
The livestock were important to the family. Agnes, his widow, took the valuer round the property and began with what may well have been their favourite possession: “first – a cow called Pretty Foot”, then two heifers, Nancy & Janet, then four horses – more valuable than the cattle but not named.
The inventory raises as many questions as it gives insights.
- Why go to the expense of drawing up the inventory? James’ possessions were worth £79-6-2 (£79.31) but the legal fees were £30-15-4 (£30.77). The answer may have something to do with the eighth share of the boat.
- The St David boat – small ferry or something larger? Its total value was £32. Who were the other shareholders?
- Of all the legal documents created, only the inventory survives – there is no list of debts owed or debts due.
- There are 78 birch cabers – poles, beams or parts of a kiln? They may even be part of a cargo.
- James left no will. Who will benefit from all of this?
‘But what has all this got to do with Newport?’ I hear you ask. Well, in the inventory St Davids is described as being at ‘Dundee Water Side within the parish of Forgan alias St Phillans’. In fact, St David’s was at that time the name of the inn which was the predecessor of the Newport Hotel and it was situated in present-day terms on the site of Trinity Church at the foot of the High Street. And if proof is needed, at the Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, plan RHP30440 shows the building on the site described as ‘the old public house of St Davids’.
Very little is written about Newport before the new ferry pier was built in 1822. This one document shows that there was quite a lot going on.