The cottiers had to pay their rent by working for other farmers. Along with agricultural workers who had no land at all, they formed a pool of cheap labour. Often they did not get money for their work. They were paid instead with seed potatoes, manure and perhaps a piglet. The fact that the bigger farmers could rely on the cottiers to dig potatoes, weed turnip patches, as well as plough, sow, reap and thresh for a pittance encouraged the big farmers to grow as much grain as they could.
One of the main ways to get a little money was to rear pigs. Pigs were described as a “walking larder”, as they grew fat on the same potatoes that the family ate, and lived with them in their cabin. The pigs were taken to market and sold when times were hard. The money could be used to pay the rent, or get an important tool, such as a scythe or a spade.
Often the cottiers had no legal right to the land. They were considered to be squatters and they lived in constant fear of eviction. The cottiers and labourers travelled far and wide to gain work in season. Some went to North Wales or Scotland every year. They might offer their services for sowing or harvesting grain, sheep shearing, or herding beef cattle to market. They even joined fishing fleets.