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Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
Improvements on the Estate of Denbrae, Fifeshire


By David Watson Wemyss, Newton Bank, St Andrews.
[PremiumThe Gold Medal.]

The Highland and Agricultural Society, always ready to promote and improve the agricultural interest, having offered a premium for an approved report by the proprietor, in Scotland, who shall have executed the most judicious, successful, and extensive improvement on his estate, I take the opportunity to give a description, as accurately and distinctly as I can, of improvements which were executed and carried out under my own personal superintendence, on a property belonging to my father and myself jointly. In 1858, my father being unable, through old age, and not residing on the farm, to superintend the work himself, authorised me to make such improvements as I considered necessary and desirable. This property, I may state, is a farm extending to about 300 imperial acres, 200 of which are arable, 80 rough pasture, and 20 meadow and peat moss. The lands, which are mostly of good quality, have rather a northerly exposure, and a high elevation, about 200 or 300 feet, consequently the crops are long in coming to maturity.

The lease of the farm expired in 1858, the tenant, who was then an old man, having occupied it for nineteen years. He being a farmer of the old style, did not keep sufficient force to work the land, consequently it got completely exhausted for want of manure, and overrun with weeds; the farm roads were getting impassable, and the fences falling out of repair, and the crops so bad that they were scarcely worth reaping. Seeing that the farm was in such a bad state, my father and myself agreed that it would be in vain to endeavour to re-let it before having it thoroughly improved. This I undertook to do, and to reside on the place until the work was completed, considering it my duty, and for our mutual advantage, to put the farm and buildings in good repair. I therefore took possession, and the farm was stocked with five pairs of excellent horses, and implements of modern principle, and as many cattle as the turnips and straw then on the farm would admit of, so as to 'make as much manure for the succeeding crop as possible. I remained there for eleven years, making the improvements, which I will now describe.

As a great deal of carting would be required, such as wood, lime, tiles, &c, for carrying out the necessary improvements, I considered the first thing most necessary to be done was to repair the road to the farm, leading off the high road, and about half a mile in length, it being almost impassable with holes and wheel tracks. A large quantity of stones, gathered off the land, had been allowed to accumulate for many years previous by the sides of the road; I immediately employed men to break them into rough metal, and as soon as a quantity was ready, the largest holes were filled up by degrees, and following the same course for at least twelve months, a good road was made, without requiring to give it a covering of metal all over. The expense of this was at least £40. A good footpath was made alongside of it, with engine ashes from coal pits in the vicinity, some of which were also used to cover the road metal where most required.

The next most necessary improvement was to drain the land, which was often a very difficult and arduous process. All the fields required to be gone over, nothing having been previously done in this respect, except a few stone drains, which were of little or no avail. I resolved to have this work done in a thorough and efficient manner, and took each field as was most convenient, until all were gone over, which covered a period of four years, the extent of ground being about 200 acres. Between 20 and 30 men were employed during that period, at suitable times, to cast the drains, at a fixed rate per chain of 22 yards. Two or three men were also specially employed on weekly wages to lay the pipes, which I considered was the surest and safest way to have the work efficiently done, it being the most important part of it, and none of the drains were allowed to be filled in until I personally inspected them and gave instructions to that effect. It was first proposed that the drains be 3 feet deep and 6 yards apart, but after this was tried I found the subsoil was stiff clay, and thought that, if it could be penetrated, the drains would be of more advantage, so I resolved to cut a foot deeper; this being-done, the subsoil was more open and water was come to, so the whole of the land was drained to the depth of 4 feet, and 8 yards apart, and laid with 2 inch pipes, the main drains being a foot deeper and laid with 4 inch and sometimes 5 inch pipes, when the fields were extensive. On the higher portion of the lands large boulders of whinstone rock interrupted greatly the casting of the drains, and I found it necessary to employ a man specially to blast them and take them out, which was often a difficult process. This, of course, incurred extra trouble and expense, but, had such not been done, the work would have been imperfectly executed. The cost was about £8 per acre, and the total sum expended was £1500. This outlay, taking interest at 5 per cent., was equal to £75 a-year, which, as I will afterwards explain, amply repaid itself by increase of rent.

The steading was greatly out of repair, and required considerable alteration and extension. The total cost for doing so was £1000, and the following were the principal improvements made. Before these were commenced, a cottage on the farm was fitted up for the workmen to live in, the nearest village being from 3 to 4 miles distant, and when one class of workmen finished it was occupied by another, until the work was accomplished, which was nearly two years.

The first place demanding attention was the stable, which incurred a good deal of expense. It was previously fitted up with fourteen stalls and a hay-loft above. These were all cleared away, and it was re-fitted with twelve stalls without any loft above,—the breadth of two stalls being taken off the end for a grass and hay shed, having a large door. The trevis posts were of round larch trees, about 10 inches in diameter; and the boards of foreign wood, 2 inches thick. The stalls were fitted up with cast-iron hecks and troughs. A new tiled roof, having six ventilators, was put on, the couples being of half white-wood battens, and the tile and plaster lath of the same wood.

The cattle court was next commenced. It was a large and open court partly enclosed with a small shed. A brick pillar was placed in the centre and a wooden beam on the top to support the roof, which then covered the whole. A wooden trough and straw heck was placed all round, and a large swing gate opening to the south, and a sliding door to the north.

The cattle byres were cleared out and re-fitted with stone troughs and trevis flagstones, 5 feet square. Iron bars were fixed at each side in front to attach the cattle bands to, each stall being constructed to hold two cattle.

A turnip shed was erected alongside of these byres, 20 feet wide, with a large sliding door at each end. The roof was supported on one side by the walls of the byres, the other side by brick pillars, 6 feet apart, with a wooden beam on the top— the space between the pillars being filled up with boards 1½ inch thick, and roofed with tiles. This was erected at little expense, and suited the purpose well.

The thrashing-mill, formerly one of the old principle and driven by horse-power, was cleared out, and a new one, on the English principle, direct from the makers, to thrash, dress, and clean the grain, was put in; and the old mill-shed was converted into an engine and boiler house. Although the expense of this was considerable, I consider it was a saving in the end, because as much grain could be thrashed and dressed in one day with it as in four with the old one; besides, the corn was cleaner thrashed, better dressed, and obtained a higher price in the market.

These additions and improvements on the steading lasted over two years; but, after being completed, a better and more convenient homestead could not be desired,—almost the whole of it being roofed over, and doors made, where convenient, to the cattle courts and byres, for the transmission of straw and turnips. The making of these improvements tended greatly to the subsequent letting of the farm. Had it been re-let before they were accomplished, a great deal more extra trouble and expense would have been incurred both to the landlords and tenant, and probably without giving satisfaction to either party. The cost of driving alone, including the drain tiles, could not be estimated at less than £200; which went a great way in carrying the improvements out, and was saved by the proprietors having it in their own hands.

All fields on the farm, extending from 10 to 25 acres, were enclosed with dry stone dykes, which were very much out of repair, and falling down from neglect. The worst and most needful of these were annually repaired by the ploughmen on the farm, when the field work was completed, or in weather when the land was not in a fit state to labour. In places where stones were required, those from the drains and fields were used for the purpose, and the smaller ones for road metal. In this way all the rubbish was made use of; and had it not been required for these purposes, an acre or two of ground would have been taken up to hold it.

After all these improvements were completed, and the driving work over, a field of old rough pasture, extending to 15 acres, covered with whins and large stones, and which had never been cultivated, was reclaimed. The whins were first burnt, and the large roots taken out with mattocks; sometimes horse-power had also to be applied to extract them, and these were carted away and given to the farm labourers for firewood. The largest of the stones were blasted, and carted to the dyke-sides where they would be required. The field was first ploughed with a subsoil plough, drawn by three horses, to extract the smaller roots and stones; then it was gone over with a brake harrow, afterwards with common harrows, and rolled. At this stage it was allowed to lie until it was drained, which was done in the same way as the other fields. It was then cross-ploughed, harrowed, and rolled, then ploughed for seed, and sown with oats. The crop brairded very irregularly, and the return was small—only 4 bolls per acre; but, probably this was on account of the old turf not having sufficient time to rot, and no artificial manure having been applied. The following year it was ploughed once, and again sown with oats and 2½ cwt. of guano per acre. The return was almost double that of the previous year, or 7 bolls per acre. The year after, it was ploughed and grubbed several times, cleaned of weeds and stones, and sown with turnips, which were a very good crop; it was then limed, and cultivated in rotation along with the other fields. The expense of reclaiming this field, I consider, repaid itself in a few years,— the estimated rental of it in its rough state was about 15s. per acre, and it was subsequently let for 30s.

In almost every field on the farm large whinstone boulders, some of them partially covered with the soil, interrupted the ploughing very much, and damaged the implements as well as the horses. I therefore found it necessary to employ an extra man on the farm for several years to blast them, pick them out, and drive them away; which had often to be done by means of a harl, many of them being too heavy to cart, especially for one man. In a few years this made a great difference to the working of the land, and had a man not been specially employed for that work, it would never have been done.

All the arable land on the farm was completely overrun with weeds, and that intended for green crop in rotation had to be ploughed, grubbed, harrowed, and rolled at least three times, and the weeds gathered off, before a field could be sown; but it took a rotation of crops before it was thoroughly cleaned. The weeds, or rack as it is termed, were always carted to a heap and mixed with lime, then laid on the land previous to its being sown with barley and grass.

No wheat was grown on the farm for many years previous to my taking possession, the land being so wet that the young plants were generally thrown out in winter. After getting the fields drained I attempted it, but not to a great extent at first, and the return was so good, to the surprise of many, that more and more was sown every year; and wheat was continued as one of the regular crops on the farm. Knowing that wheat could be grown on the land to advantage, it was the means of getting a much higher rent, when subsequently re-let, than it would otherwise have brought.

Being several miles from a railway station I never planted more potatoes than were required for farm use,—the land being-kept in fallow instead, both to rest it and to clean it, which would have occupied too much time in spring to do thoroughly, so as to get them planted in time. This plan seemed to work very well; the loss of the crop was re-paid by the succeeding crop, which was always wheat, the ground being well manured, several times ploughed and cleaned, and the return was generally about 8 bolls per acre.

The permanent pasture fields, when I entered, were almost completely covered over with whins; but by degrees I got them greatly reduced by burning and digging them out. It was impossible to reclaim them, the surface being so uneven and beds of whinstone rock cropping up at intervals, with pools of water collecting in the hollows; but these were greatly relieved by casting deep drains. These fields all adjoined, but required shelter greatly; so a strip of plantation, about 10 acres in extent, was planted on the north and east sides of them, consisting of larch, spruce, and Scots fir, with a few oaks. They were planted very thick, and in a few years they formed a good shelter, and the cattle throve much better, and more valuable cattle could be grazed than formerly, which were generally Irish stirks. This plantation was enclosed with a paling where there was no wall, and open trenches cut across in the wet places, and a deep open ditch all along one side, which suited several purposes— namely, in keeping the plantation dry, a good supply of water to the pasture fields, and also an exit for some of the main drains of the other fields, without which they must have been much longer and deeper before getting an exit. In about ten years this plantation would repay itself, both in rent of land occupied and cost of planting, by the shelter it afforded, and by thinning out the firs, which were growing rapidly and which were suitable for many purposes connected with the farm.

The meadow, extending to about 7 acres, was annually cut for hay for the cattle in winter, it being too wet either to cultivate or pasture, and too level and low to drain. But I consider it was more profitable to have it as it was than any other way, as the crop was always good and made excellent fodder.

The moss land was always kept in pasture, but an open ditch, 4 feet deep and 3 feet wide, had to be made all round, and cleaned out every year to keep it dry, and to maintain an open exit for the trenches cut across the field. It was impossible to reclaim this sort of land,—at least, to be of any advantage; the subsoil being too soft to admit of tile-drainage, and too level to have sufficient tail, as the drains would soon become useless and fill up. For these reasons it was better to keep it in pasture.

Although the farm house was very much out of repair when I went to it, I resolved to put up with it until the other more necessary improvements were accomplished. These being done, the inside was completely cleared out and refitted. Two oriel windows were made, and a wooden porch erected at the front door; and a small piece of ground, surrounded with a wall, for a flower-plot. A lead pipe was brought from a deep well at the outside, and the water brought into the house by means of a force-pump, which was a great convenience.

Three new cottages for ploughmen were also erected, each having three rooms and a pantry, with coal house and pig styes at the back; the floors were laid with paving tiles, the walls lathed and plastered, and the roofs slated. The stones required for these and other building purposes were obtained from those blasted in the fields and drains, which was the best means of disposing of them, also saving a good deal of trouble and expense, which would have been incurred had these buildings been proceeded with any sooner.

Many other minor improvements were effected, but I think I have mentioned the principal works, which were all carried out under my superintendence, according to plans made out by my father and myself. The subsequent increase of rent obtained for the farm amply re-paid interest on outlay—the previous rent being £250 a-year; and after these improvements were finished, and the land drained and cleaned, it was let for £400—giving a rise of £150. The total sum expended was about £2500, so the increase of rent gave interest equal to 6 per cent., which was undoubtedly good interest for landed property.

I have often remarked that, if the previous tenant had remained two or three years longer, it would have been almost impossible to clean the land; and the cost of improvements, draining, &c, would have been much greater on account of the great rise in wages as well as materials. There was also more encouragement at that time to reclaim waste lands, the prices obtained for farm produce being much higher than they are now, and the agricultural interest being in a flourishing state —no signs of depression being then heard of, either caused by bad seasons or from foreign competition,—grain of good quality always commanding a ready market and a good price. It is to be hoped that these prosperous times will soon return, and the agricultural interest revive and prosper; should it not, ruination both to landlord and tenant will probably be the result. It is very improbable that much waste land in this country will be reclaimed, or new farm homesteads built or extended beyond what is absolutely necessary, neither party having either the means or any encouragement to do so. The agricultural interest having become so depressed, and little sign of improvement, the value of land must certainly come down in price, to the great loss of the landlord.


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