Peasants to Puddles
My Family History - By Nicky Rowberry

Four Scottish Cousins: Four Exmoor Shepherds

How did four Scottish cousins all end up as shepherds on a remote part of Exmoor in the late 19th century? Three of them at the isolated Hoar Oak Cottage and one at the even more inaccessible Badgworthy Cottage. A recent Countryfile programme showed just how remote the Badgworthy Valley still is today and yet William Johnstone chose to uproot his family to shepherd there in 1872. His cousin William Davidson had already settled in Hoar Oak and perhaps he wrote home telling of the work to be had. Did he gloss over the hardships of life on Exmoor to tempt his cousin down? Or did William Johnstone arrive knowing full well what to expect but prepared to do what he had to, to support his young family?

Either way although William Davidson remained for several years at Hoar Oak Cottage as the shepherd for the Hoar Oak herding, his cousin soon headed back north preferring, it seems, the Lanarkshire moors. But he can’t have painted too bleak a picture of Exmoor to the family as by 1879 another cousin, John Renwick had arrived at Hoar Oak with his wife Helen. John Renwick was William Johnstone’s sister-in-law’s cousin - a bit of a convoluted relationship but a family link nonetheless. John was shepherd at Hoar Oak until 1886 when he seems to have had some kind of breakdown and was admitted to Exeter Asylum. He never returned to Exmoor and without her husband to be the shepherd, Helen was forced to return to Scotland. Within months of John’s sudden departure another cousin, James Maxwell Johnstone, had taken over at Hoar Oak Cottage and remained there raising a large family until his death in 1904.

The route between each cottage shows that in fact they were quite close as the crow flies (for Exmoor!) and although the walk or pony ride would be across rough and boggy moorland the Hoar Oak and Badgeworthy families would probably have been in regular touch - the men working together as shepherds and the women for day to day help and support or when someone was ill or a baby due to be born. Four Scottish cousins that we know of all making a 400 mile trip to take their shepherding skills to Exmoor…did other family members join them too? Did John Renwick’s tenure at Hoar Oak follow on directly from William Davidson, or was there perhaps another shepherd in between - another cousin? Perhaps we’ve not yet found them as they came and went between censuses? How did they hear about the work in the first place?

For more information on life at Hoar Oak Cottage please click on the following link:

The family tree below shows the connection between the 4 shepherds. Please click on one of the red names to move to a different page.

Four Scottish cousins who all ended up on Exmoor Renwicks Johnstone Page 1 Johnstone Page 4 Johnstone Page 3

If any of the above is of further interest, please feel free to contact me at:

© Nicky Rowberry 2012

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Peasants to Puddles - My Family History. By Nicky Rowberry