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Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
Cottage Premiums


Report of the Committee on Cottages for 1847; read before the General Meeting of the Society on the 11th of January 1848, by Mr Baillie of Coulterallers, the convener; the Chair being occupied by the Right Hon. the Earl of Rosebery, one of the Vice-Presidents of the Society.

As the object and design of the different premiums offered by the Highland and Agricultural Society for the improvement of cottages, and for the promotion of cleanliness and comfort among the peasantry, do not seem of late years to be generally known even to the members of the Society, and have not attracted the attention which they deserve, the committee consider it their duty to give a short account of the different forms in which this class of premiums has been offered to the public.

Many years ago, the Society, with a view of improving the condition of the poorer classes, and of removing the reproach which our Southern neighbours had long cast on the peasantry of Scotland, of being deficient in habits of order and cleanliness, proposed to give premiums under certain regulations, to a limited number of parishes, for the best kept cottages and gardens. As it was assumed that landed proprietors would gladly avail themselves of the Society's premiums, it was resolved, that they should be offered in turn to every county in Scotland; certain counties being selected from the north, and an equal number from the south. This plan was pursued for several years, but was ultimately changed, as some districts seemed indifferent about the premiums, and others frankly avowed that the cottagers were not in a condition to derive benefit from them—their houses being so bad, as to preclude them from joining the competition with any hope of success. It was therefore considered advisable to discontinue the premiums to the counties, and to allow any parish, wherever situated, to compete, provided a guarantee was given by the parties applying for the premiums, to contribute one half of the amount offered. This, it was hoped, would have had the effect of interesting proprietors and other influential persons in the different parishes, and of leading them personally to superintend and stimulate the competitions. The change seemed at first to promise well; for, on looking back to reports made some years ago, not only was the number of competing parishes allowed by the rules complete, but many more applications were made than could be complied with in any one year. This zeal, however, on the part of proprietors, was more apparent than real; for in many instances, parishes applied for and obtained the right to premiums, but never held a competition nor sent in a report. The committee regret to say that for several years there has been a falling off in the number of applications ; and it has been suggested, notwithstanding the pains which the directors have always taken to publish the premiums, and to invite competition, that this may be owing to landed proprietors not being in the habit of reading the lists, and to their being consequently unaware of the benefit offered-—the committee are of opinion, that it may be attended with some advantage, to lay before the General Meeting a short statement of the different premiums connected with cottages, and of the manner in which they may be applied for.

Hitherto, premiums have been offered for the best and second best kept cottages, and the committee now propose that a third prize should be added. If a third prize be given, the first premium may be reduced to one pound five shillings and a medal, as at present, where there are five competitors; the second will be one pound; and the third, fifteen shillings. This alteration has been suggested by several gentlemen who take an interest in cottage competitions, and who have observed that the merits of the several competitors are frequently so nicely balanced, as to make it difficult to decide who should have the preference, and that, in such cases, the difference between the first and second premium is, under the present arrangement, too great. As it is desirable that a cottager who has won the first premium, and who is therefore precluded from again competing for it, should not afterwards retrograde, and that the habits which he may have acquired should be confirmed, it is proposed that, in future competitions, he shall be allowed to enter the lists; and if it is found that his cottage is kept equally well with that which shall be declared to be the best for the current year, he shall receive an additional medal, but no money premium.

It is proposed that the garden premium still should be one pound; but as this prize has hitherto failed to excite the interest among the peasantry which it so highly deserves, the committee suggest that a medal shall be also presented to the winner. The cost of a silver medal is inconsiderable, and there is no doubt that the honour of acquiring a prize, which can be exhibited to his neighbours, and transmitted to his children, is generally more valued by a competitor than double its intrinsic value in money. The conditions and regulations applicable to the cottage and garden competitions, are too numerous to be mentioned here; but they may be consulted at length in the general premium list, which is appended to the present number of the Transactions.

The efforts of the Society with regard to cottages were for some time exclusively directed to improve the mode in which the dwellings of the poor were kept by their inmates; but it soon became apparent, from the various reports received from year to year, that almost every where cottages were deficient both in accommodation and repair; and attention was at length turned to the improvement of the buildings themselves, which indeed should have been the first step in the process.

With the view of encouraging the erection of a better description of dwellings than those generally found in Scotland, premiums were offered to proprietors who should build on their estates the most approved specimens of cottages; and though not many claimants have appeared for those premiums, the committee are happy to say that the directors have received, and published in the Transactions, the reports and plans of some very superior cottages that had been erected on various estates, more especially on those of the Marquis of Breadalbane, the Earl of Rosebery, and Mr Butter of Fascally.

On the suggestion of a nobleman who takes a great interest in this branch of rural economy, premiums were also offered for the improvement of existing cottages. The committee regret, that as yet only one candidate has claimed this prize. Lord Blantyre last year received the Society's gold medal for the improvement and enlargement of several cottages, on his estate in East Lothian. Plans of these cottages, and a statement of the cost of the alteration and improvement effected on them, were published in the last number of the Society's Transactions. No report has been received this year of the improvement of existing cottages during the last three years, including 1847; but as landed proprietors in many parts of the country are known to have turned their attention to the subject, the omission may perhaps be accounted for by the time being too limited for lodging reports. The conditions required that reports should be sent to the secretary by the 1st of October, and as many buildings are not finished by that time, intending competitors may have been prevented from giving in their claims. The committee recommend that the same premium, viz., the gold medal, shall be continued and given to the proprietor in Scotland who shall have improved and enlarged, in the most satisfactory manner, during the years 1845, 1846, and 1847, five or more cottages; and still further to encourage the improvement of existing cottages, the committee suggest that the medium gold medal and the silver medal be given to the proprietors who shall be considered to stand second and third in merit in this competition. It is hoped, that by thus inducing as many proprietors as possible to enlarge their cottages, a great improvement will soon be exhibited in all parts of the country in the dwellings of the poorer classes. The committee attach much importance to such a mode of effecting that improvement, and they would earnestly call to it the attention of proprietors. Many who would shrink from the outlay involved in the erection of new cottages may improve and enlarge the dwellings of their dependents at an expenditure less than is supposed, and in a manner equally conducive to the comforts and more agreeable to the tastes and habits of the occupiers, than by building new and ornamental cottages. The Society's gold medal is still offered to the proprietor who shall have, during the four years ending with 1848, erected on his estate the greatest number of approved cottages.

The Society having heard many complaints of the accommodation provided for unmarried farm-servants, and the bothy system being generally condemned, as tending to demoralise those subjected to its influence, offered, for the first time, in the premium-list of 1847, its gold medal "to the proprietor in Scotland who shall have erected on his estate, in 1847, 1848, and 1849, the most approved farm-steading, having reference to the accommodation of farm-servants." The committee consider this a most important premium, and shall be much disappointed should it not meet the attention it deserves. In all parts of Scotland, farm-steadings are found with ample and complete accommodation of every kind, except that in aid of which this premium has been offered; and it is conceived, that a greater degree of consideration for the comforts and wants of farm-servants would be followed by a corresponding improvement in the habits of that useful and deserving class.

The only remaining kind of competition under the charge of the Cottage committee, is for dexterity in the use of the spade. Some years ago it occurred to some members that in over-populous districts, where there was a scarcity of work, and the farms and crofts were small, it might be of advantage to introduce the spade as an agricultural instrument in the cultivation of such small farms; and, in consequence, premiums were offered to parishes willing to compete for them. It has not been a very popular premium from the commencement, and for the last two or three years has been confined almost to a single parish. As yet no practical benefit seems to have been derived from it, and the use of the spade appears to be confined to gardens, and is but little resorted to even in the cultivation of the smallest farm. Still, as there are so few premiums offered to agricultural labourers, and as there is every reason to fear that there will soon be less demand for labour than for many years past, the committee would be sorry to recommend the discontinuance of the premium.

In respect to the cottage competitions of the present year, the committee have much satisfaction in stating, that more reports have been received than for the two preceding years. Fifteen reports have been lodged this year, whereas there were only seven last year. The local committees seem to have shown great care and discrimination in making their awards. In Berwickshire there have been competitions in seven parishes; and applications have already been made by seven additional parishes for premiums in 1848. Among the parishes that now drop out of the list, having had the benefit of competitions for four years, the committee cannot refrain from taking notice of Togo and Kells. The convener of the committee in the former has always shown great zeal in encouraging the competition both in that parish and in Libberton, where the premiums were some years ago in operation, and has every year generously doubled the sums given by the Society.

The parish of Kells is one of the four parishes which, under the name of the Glenken's Society, formerly competed for the Society's premiums; and the convener of its local committee, for many years one of the directors, has, from the commencement of these premiums, taken a great interest in every thing tending to the comfort and happiness of the peasantry. At his suggestion, while in the direction, many improvements were introduced into the mode of carrying on these competitions, and several new premiums were given by the Society. The Glenken's Society has always, in offering its premiums to the people of the district, aimed at a higher sphere of usefulness than has been contemplated by the Society in its cottage premiums, in as much as it combined the encouragement of education with the promotion of cleanliness and good order. Several reports of its proceedings have been published in the Journal of Agriculture, the perusal of which might be useful to those societies who wish to carry on competitions, not only in respect to the habits and comforts of cottagers, but also in reference to the improvement of their education, and an increased dexterity in their respective trades.

Several other parishes in Kirkcudbright, and that of Polwarth in Berwickshire, have also sent satisfactory reports; and the committee trust that such of them as now go out of rotation, will not consider their labours at an end, but will endeavour to keep up that spirit of emulation, in respect to cleanliness and comfort, which they have excited in the minds of the peasantry. As there are now no less than twelve cottage medals, at the disposal of the directors, to be given to cottagers who do not reside in the districts competing for the Society's regular premiums, it is hoped that the various local associations, which have hithorto taken so much interest in increasing the comfort of the peasantry, will, in addition to the prizes given by themselves, apply for medals to be awarded to the deserving. These honorary rewards have not been sought for so generally as the Society expected; at the same time, the committee would record their sense of the exertions which have been made by the Bute Farmers' Society, and the district of Fettercairn.

Several parishes in Mid-Lothian and elsewhere which had applied for premiums have had no competition, or at least have not sent any report of their proceedings, which perhaps may be accounted for by the absence of the conveners in some cases, and inadvertence in others. The committee recommend that in any case where the convener shall apply for a renewal of the premiums, they shall be granted on the usual terms.

In conclusion, your committee beg to observe that, in considering the design of cottage competition, there can be no doubt that it is not a contest to gratify the vanity of a few cottagers or their landlords that is contemplated by the Society, but that much higher objects are aimed at. The committee need not take up time to show the advantages of encouraging habits of cleanliness and good order among the peasantry—these are self-evident,—but they may observe, that the premiums are intended to improve the health and comfort of the rural population, by giving them larger and warmer houses, and affording them a better system of ventilation and drainage. In the various reports that have been received from year to year, it has been exceedingly gratifying to observe how much good has been effected, and how marked the improvement has been in every respect. Wherever competition has been successfully carried on, its beneficial effects have not been confined to those who contended for premiums, but have extended to many cottagers in the parish who did not enter the lists—and even to those in neighbouring parishes who have endeavoured to make their dwellings as conspicuous for cleanliness as the houses of those who have obtained prizes. To those who have not turned their attention to the subject, the description of houses in which the poor in many districts of Scotland have been compelled to dwell is almost inconceivable. The committee might quote striking extracts from many of the reports lodged with the Society ; but they restrict themselves to the following, received some years ago from the convener of the committee in the parish of Thurso. He says, "Much more attention has been paid of late years to the general cleanliness and comfort of cottagers in this district than formerly. In my early days, a poor cottager seldom or never had the luxury of a window in the wall or gable of his house. Light was only admitted by small openings in the roof, only occasionally filled with a single pane of glass, and then called a sky-light, or by a hole in the top of the roof, called a lum, at which the smoke escaped." The committee fear that though this kind of building is represented as belonging to the olden time, it may still be found in many parts of the country, and cannot be too soon displaced by a better description of cottage. The committee cannot conclude this report without expressing an opinion, that if the system of cottage competitions is to produce good results, it must receive not only the countenance but the active co-operation of resident proprietors. In all cases where they have neglected to show a personal interest in its success, and where they have merely offered to cottagers its benefits, without aiding and stimulating them to work them out, their apathy has been followed by the failure of the attempt. On the other hand, where a little trouble has been taken to induce competitors to come forward, where their efforts have been encouraged, and an interest has been exhibited in their success, the competitions have been popular and satisfactory, and of great benefit. Reference has already been made to the exertions of the gentlemen in charge of different parishes, and the committee cannot but advert in terms of praise to those of the convener for the parish of Polwarth.

In reference to the above report, the following observations were made to the meeting by the Earl of Rosebery:—

His Lordship said that the Society might be aware of the great interest taken in that subject by himself for some time past. He had taken the liberty of bringing it before the Society upon more than one occasion ; and he still thought that it was one of the most important subjects to which their attention could be directed, because it affected the whole country, and was therefore a national object, and because it was one which could not be taken up by the parties who were really most interested in it, namely, the cottagers themselves. They occupied a condition of life which rendered them incapable, by their influence, of forcing upon those who owned the property, to provide better and more comfortable accommodation for them; and it was upon that account that he had always pressed upon those who had the influence, or possessed the power of improving the condition of the labouring classes of Scotland, the infinite importance of aiding that excellent work. But he was very anxious, particularly after having heard the report which had been read, to urge upon the directors and the committee of the Society, the duty which devolved upon them to examine the question comprehensively, and the importance rather of turning their attention to the improvement of existing cottages than of encouraging the expenditure of large sums in the erection of new ones. He knew that the greatest prejudice existed against building new cottages—for the best of all reasons, that it was a very expensive employment; while the improvement of old cottages might be equally beneficial to the occupants, and could be effected at a very inconsiderable relative expense. He would therefore urge upon Mr Baillie and the committee, and the directors generally, to turn their attention, rather to induce those who are the proprietors of cottages, to improve them over the whole country, at a comparatively small expense, by adding more room to the existing cottages, by giving them more light, and furnishing them with better accommodation in the way of what might be necessary for cleanliness and comfort —than to try to induce people to do what he believed upon a large scale never would be done, namely, to pull down cottages in order to erect others upon a new and better plan. He did not mean to discourage the erection of new cottages—quite the reverse ; but being desirous of improving the cottages of the lower classes of Scotland—holding it to be a national reproach to permit them to exist in the state in which they were, and being desirous that a general reformation should take place, not in particular localities or estates only, but that a general reformation in the national taste, and in the usages and feelings of those classes, should take place— he thought that it would be a great object if they could induce persons to effect this upon a great scale at a small expense, which he was quite certain could only be done by inviting them to repair and improve existing cottages, with some comparatively small addition, rather than by urging them to take down what might be so repaired and renewed. It was for that practical purpose that he had ventured to rise upon this occasion and urge the Society to direct its attention to the subject. The Society was one of those institutions which some political economists did not see the utility of. He never doubted its utility ; and he believed that no practical or reasonable man who knew how the affairs of life went on, would have any doubt of the immense advantages which it is capable of conferring upon the country. It was of great use, in the first place, in suggesting and promoting what would not strike individuals as being a very profitable adventure. But with regard to the subject before them, its task was to encourage people to lay out money without any profit at all, because he thought it would be as well to state openly and at once that no profit would arise from the improvement of the habitations of the poor. It involved, on the contrary, a positive outlay, from which, however, no one should shrink if the necessities of the occupant required it. It was, therefore, by the inducements and recommendations which a Society like this could hold out, that persons were encouraged to lay out money on what would never be a profitable investment; and this, he held, was one of the most important duties to which a public society could direct its attention. He hoped that the observations which he had made would be taken in good part, since they had only been thrown out with the hope that the committee would turn their attention to what would most conduce to the improvement of the habitations of the working-classes throughout the rural districts of the country, rather than to invite those, who might be rich, to engage in the erection of new cottages, unsuitable to the wants, and opposed to the tastes of the occupiers.


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