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The Old Scottish Ploughman
A story of the old Scottish Ploughman and his working and living conditions.


“To plough and sow, to reap and mow,
My father bred me early, O ;
For one, he said, to labour bred,
Was a match for Fortune fairly, O.”
—Burns.

OF all industries those of the field are the oldest, the most widespread, and the most largely followed. Yet in respect of the condition of the workers and the methods they employ, rural toil until within recent years has undergone comparatively little change. Even in Scotland, which is generally regarded as the home of scientific farming, the primitive spade is still an implement of husbandry in the cultivation of the croft; and in remote farms in the far north the wooden plough drawn by oxen may yet be seen breaking the soil. The sickle is not yet quite superseded, the sound of the flail still echoes in upland barns, and even the hand-mill is in occasional use in huts of the Hebrides. piers Ploughman — gaunt, rude, ignorant, coarsely fed, roughly clad, wretchedly housed—is still a figure in the farm landscape. The condition of our tillers of the ground and their industrial methods have, however, undergone great changes for the better during the last fifty years; and the nation has profited by the improvements. The soil has been made greatly more productive; the use of machinery has economised both labour and produce; the peasantry are more intelligent, have a larger share of material comfort, and are in a condition for the development of freer enterprise or the exercise of a manlier contentment.

The methods of husbandry and the condition of the Scottish rustic as depicted in “The Gentle Shepherd” were the tradition of centuries ; they continued almost without alteration to the time of Burns, who was reared under their influence ; and they survived him for about half a-century, to a period quite within the memory of living men. Ilaif-a-century ago ;>t was unnecessary to annotate the poems of Burns for country folks : it is necessary to do so now for the present generation of rustics. It is less that his language is growing obsolete, than that the customs more or less closely connected with husbandry and rural life to which he makes such frequent reference are dead or fast decaying.

The condition of the rustic fifty years ago may be partly inferred from the income of an ordinary able-bodied ploughman. His year’s fee in money came to ten or eleven pounds; and there was the provision of milk and meal, and the shelter of a roof found for him in addition. He received from his master two pecks (old measure) of oatmeal per week, and one pint (Scots) of new milk per day. The home of the unmarried ploughman was the bothy or the stable-loft. A house, or rather a hovel, in the neighbourhood was found for the married ploughman. Its annual value, overestimated at 2, was subtracted from his fee, which accordingly amounted to the miserable pittance of eight or nine pounds. The hut consisted of two small apartments a but or common room, and a closet without a fireplace, known as the ben. In the common room or kitchen were two fixed, or box bed-cases, the backs of which formed the partition wall between but and ben. Attached to the hut was a small kailyard, in a corner of which stood a wooden cruive, roofed with sod, for the accommodation of a pig. There was, further, the allowance of some land for potatoes, and it was understood that some field-work would be found for the ploughman’s wife in the course of the year. Twenty-six was the age at which a ploughman usually married, and he found his wife on the farm. Trained to indoor work before marriage, she took her place after marriage among the field workers, hoeing turnips, etc., at eightpence a day. It would have taken it all to keep her in food, and meanwhile the care of her own house was neglected. There was often, almost necessarily, little tidiness in or around the house of a married ploughman. Of course milk and meal came to the house just as when the ploughman had been a bachelor living in a bothy. These were ail the sources of income of the household. Himself and wife were “thus sustained,” along with, in the great majority of cases, “a smytrie o’ wee duddy weans.” But the “weans” were early put to work to relieve the pressure of indigence.

The unmarried ploughman had fewer cares than his married brother; but he found the bothy system of life at times sufficiently cheerless too. Bothies were chiefly on the larger farms, but they were occasionally to be found on farms small enough to be worked by two pairs of horses. Both man and master (or, at least, mistress) preferred the bothy to the farm kitchen, on account of the greater freedom it permitted to all parties. Its discomforts, however, were great, even when warmed and lit up of a winter night by a roaring fire, and enlivened by the hilarity of hardy young peasants. They sat on forms before the fire, or on their own chests against the wall. There was in most cases neither chair nor table. The only other furniture was the beds, which they “made” for themselves—or left unmade, and for which they had the luxury of clean sheets once a month. You passed at one step from the interior into the weather outside; there was no hallan-wall to protect the doorway. It should be added that the bothy was usually infested with rats.

The ploughman of to-day is much better off than was his predecessor in the first half of the century. He has double money, with the same allowance of milk and meal, and his coals are cc?d or driven for him free from the nearest railway station. Many ploughmen are now paid a weekly wage, on Saturday nights, of about seventeen shillings; but this money includes everything except house rent ir. the way of income. The farmer still provides the shelter of four walls and a roof. A soldier’s lot is often compared with that of a ploughman. It must be confessed that in ordinary times the advantage is with the soldier. He is better housed, clad, and fed; he has the pretty sure prospect of a pension; and even his mental condition is cared for. From the moment the ignorant recruit joins the regiment he is put to school. The ploughman, it may be said, has greater freedom of individual action; but the value of freedom lies in its use.

The compulsory clause in the Education Act provides the young rustic of to-day with at least the elements of education; but fifty years ago there was no such provision, and the smallness of the ploughman’s fee scarcely permitted an elementary education for his children. As a matter of fact the ploughman of those days could read and write with difficulty, if at all. He belonged to a class that may fairly be described as very ignorant. They were ignorant even of farming, though their life was spent in doing farm-work. Their accomplishments were confined to holding the plough, oding the harrows, and filling dung. In too many instances they were, in the language of an old farmer who had much experience of them, “as ignorant as the beas’ they draw afore them.” Ploughmen were a well-defined caste of the community, the direct descendants of the ancient serfs of the soil. How could ploughmen’s sons be other than ploughmen? At the tender age of nine or ten the little rustic was put to such field service as he could perform, beginning life as a herd. He had scarcely any—certainly no regular—education after that age. There may have been now and then, for the next three or four years, a quarter’s schooling in winter; but what was learned then was soon forgotten. At sixteen or seventeen the growing lad, now a halflin, would be promoted to the charge of managing a pair of horses. At eighteen and twenty he was a young giant, possessed of almost incredible strength, tearing and sweating at his toil, and drawing upon his energy with wasteful recklessness. He took no care of himself. It was a mark of effeminacy sure to be ridiculed if he took any precaution against bad weather for the sake of his health or comfort. Wet with rain, and warm with perspiration, the fatigued rustic flung himself down to rest anywhere, and just as he was: like Cowper’s hardy chief, “fearless of wrong.” The inevitable result was permanent stiffness of the limbs at twenty-eight or thirty. At that age he could not run ; he only hobbled when he tried. He was an old man in appearance and physical feeling at forty—often at that age abandoning the plough for the spade and pick-axe, the furrow for the drain. He complained of being “ill with the pains,” i.e., rheumatism and kindred ailments. His old age, prematurely attained, was “filled wi’ grips an’ granes.’ At forty-five, on the testimony and in the words of Burns, life's day to the battered ploughman was ‘‘drawing near the gloaming” :

“For, ance that five-and-forty’s speel'd,
See, crazy, weary, joyless Eild,
Wi’ wrinkled face,
Comes hostin’, hirplin’, owre the field,
Wi’ creepin’ pace.”

It was an age to which the ploughman poet was not himself to attain, but he had only to open his eyes to witness the melancholy truth in the experience of his rustic neighbours. And even in his twenty-eighth year he had a personal feeling of the premonitions of age, which he expressed in a peculiar pathos, for it is both tender and despairing:

“Ye tiny elves that guiltless sport,
Like linnets in the bush,
Ye little know the ills ye court,
When manhood is your wish!
The losses, the crosses,
That active men engage!
The fears all, the tears all,
Of dim declining age!”

The “tiny elves” of this affecting address are of course the young rustics, the “toddlin’ wee things” of the cottars of his own neighbourhood. The language is certainly remarkable in the mouth of a young man, but it must not be forgotten that at twenty-eight he had already performed the work of mature manhood for fully fourteen years. His case was not an exceptional one.

One of the advantages of field-work to the necessitous poor—an advantage which secured for it, though the coarsest and humblest of occupations, a plentiful supply of service—lay in the fact that it constantly offered employment to very young children. The pay might be very small; but the penny-fee even of the herd, or the still more diminutive urchin who could only “run a canny errand to a neibour toun ” (i.e., farmstead), was an addition to the slender gains of the poor household which the mother—the manager in such cases—knew how to put to economical use. The pay, of course, increased duly with the growing strength of the young peasant; but even at its best it must be acknowledged to have been an inadequate remuneration when the hardships of a ploughman’s lot are considered. Often, in the winter season, the ploughman’s work was simply terrible.1 He had to be out and about even when his horses could not go without serious injury. His horses were really better cared for than himself. When through severity of weather they were resting in the stable, work was found for him out of doors: there w as manure to be spread, there were sheep-flakes to be shifted, there were turnips to be pulled. He was fortunate if in these circumstances he was put to such indoor labour as wrent on in the barn. Dichting or winnowing the corn was not such pleasant work as an onlooker might imagine. It was often the last resort of toil in a thoroughly wet day. With his clothes well soaked by the forenoon showers, and badly dried on him at the fire, the ploughman found riddling among bam stoor (dust) a by no means comfortable afternoon occupation. But it was something to have escaped the black rains that were lashing field and roadwray.

He was called at five in the morning. The foreman was the first person stirring on the farm. His first duty was to waken the both}’. Thereafter he took his orders for the day at the farmer’s bedside, if he had not already received them overnight. The master communicated with the men through him. If anything went wrong on the farm, it was he that bore the dirdum—as it was culled. His first task was to “meat the horses”; each was given a measured allowance of corn or hay. While his cattle munched and digested their meal he mucked (cleansed) the stable, and used the curry-comb. It was six o’clock when this was done. For the next three-quarters of an hour he was employed at some outdoor job or other, according to the season of the year, such as delving “the yard,” taking a stack into the barn, or cutting (and carting home) a couple of loads of grass. There was always work to his hand. Then, at 6.45, he made and ate his breakfast of brose. He got the hot water at the farm-kitchen, mixed it with the salted oatmeal, upon which it was poured in the thick wooden caup, or bowl, by simply describing the figure eight with the end of his horn-spoon, and not seldom ate the unsavoury mess on his way to the bothy. The brose-caup was never washed ; Jock believed that to wash it made the brose wersh (i.e., insipid). It may be added that the expression brose-caup was sometimes jocularly applied to the ploughman himself: at the feeing market the question was a rather coarse but common one, *How are the brose-caups selling the day?” which being interpreted meant, “How are ploughmen feeing? what wages are they asking?” The ploughman carried his hot caup from the kitchen on his open palm. It was allowed to strike with a spoon the thumb that came over the caup rim. He was no ploughman that could not carry his hot brose-caup in his loof. A handful of oatmeal—Jock insisted on being supplied with the very best, and he was a connoisseur—was sufficient to make a diet. He washed it down with a jug of “sweet” milk. The ploughman was so liberally provided with milk and meal that he could afford to save and sell a good deal of the allow ance. Brose was his food at the three diets of breakfast, dinner, and supper. The effect of the heating oatmeal diet from day to day was to send out an eruption of boils in the spring.

Without sweet milk to temper the fiery grain, brose could never have been the established and favourite food it Is among Scottish peasants. The horses were yoked at seven, and field-work on the farm began. At ten, as the name indicates, their ten-hours’ bite was “dealt through among the naigs.”

Field-work was dropt at noon for a two-hours’ rest. The time taken up in coming from work, even at an out-lying field, was included in the two hours; but the hind and his horses did not leave the stable-door to resume their toil till two. The horses were commonly watered on their way home ; but some farmers would permit their horses to be watered only on the way to their work, and after they had had their corn and hay (or grass). If very much heated, the horses would show their enjoyment of the cooling clement by thrusting their heads into the water-trough up to the eyes. Old steadily trained horses knew when twelve o’clock came as well as the men themselves ; they would indicate their disinclination to exceed the allotted spell of work by turning their heads significantly at the end of the furrow, and whinnying interrogatively. The men slept after dinner for an hour (till two); it was near one when they took their brose. They boiled their own water then. Occasionally in summer their midday meal was milk and part of a wheaten loaf. Their oatmeal went in exchange for the loaf. The afternoon “yoke” was from two till seven. If engaged all day in the laborious toil of cutting with the scythe, the ploughman was allowed half-an-hour’s respite in mid-afternoon (and mid-forenoon as well), with the refreshment of scones and cheese, and a drink of small ale sent to him as an extra from the farmhouse. If he was plough >ng, the peasant was not allowed this indulgence. It was necessary in that case to keep the horses going. Jockie was therefore obliged to console himself in the furrow with a snuff or a song. Few ploughmen smoked fifty years ago. Farmers did not care to engage smokers; their carelessness might set fire to the “town.” The snuff-box, carried in the breeches pocket, was of the tankard kind— to keep the contents from the wind. The pinch was conveyed to the nose by means of a bone snuff-spoon or pen, as it was called. All ploughmen snuffed. Burns speaks as if the ploughman’s day in his time was eight hours long—measured doubtless from eight to twelve, and again from two till six. The area of ground broken by a capable ploughman and his pair in the eight hours was certainly good at an acre and a half. But the amount of work done would be greatly determined by the nature of the soil. Stiff clay soil, such as Ayrshire scarcely knows, would hinder the plough. “Aft thee an’ I,” says the Auld Farmer in the famous and delightful Salutation—

“Aft thee an’ I, in aucht hoors’ gaun,
On guid March weather,
Hae turned sax rood beside oor han’
For days thegither.”

An acre of carse-land, such as lies in Strathearn or the Lothians, would have been as great a task to turn over as the “sax roods” here spoken of. Whatever may have been the length of the ploughman’s working day in the time of Burns, fifty years ago it was ten hours. Even on holidays and market days, when Jock had been treating himself to a “spree” in the “burgh’s town,” he was almost invariably home in time to be ready and fit for work next morning at five. A “late” ploughman was hardly known: he would have been set down as weirdless, something worse than worthless. He knew the benefit and the necessity of a due amount of regular sleep. Ill-health was very rare with him. thanks to a regular way of life, plain fare, and plenty of exercise and fresh air. If he fell ill in service he stayed in the bothy at his master’s charge till he was better, but not for a longer period than six weeks. The washing and mending of the bothy ploughman, it may be noticed here, were at his own expense. A cottar wife in the neighbourhood would keep him In whole stockings and a clean shirt a week for 1 a year.

The ploughman had few holidays. There was no difference to him between Saturday and Monday. But on Sunday (which he very properly called “the Sabbath”) he was free from toil—unless, indeed, it was his turn to wait on the horses. He went to church, or visited his friends or his “folk” (his relatives) ; very seldom did he stay at his bothy home. All ploughmen, after attaining manhood, were members of some church or other. When the minister paid his pastoral visit to the farmer’s family (which he usually arranged to do at mid-day) the ploughmen were called in, and for about half-an-hour were catechised on the principles of their faith as these are set forth in the Shorter Catechism. The ploughmen did not greatly like being examined : they did not relish the exposure of their ignorance. The great secular holiday in the ploughman’s year was Hansel Monday, held on the first Monday of the New Year (old style). The summer holiday was the feeing market day. Foremen were engaged at midsummer. The ordinary ploughmen were fee’d for the year in October at the principal market town in the district. There was a market of cattle and horses at the same time, and the day was often enlivened by athletic games or horse-racing. Of course feeing-day was a red-letter day in the ploughman’s calendar. It made a great stir in the country side. Jock was elate at the prospect of receiving his money, and was hopeful of an increase for next year, or of a more comfortable or convenient place, or of kinder or more desirable neighbours. A rather cynical old farmer—poor fellow! he never possessed the means to be generous—used to say of his men: “Meal-day an’ Martimas, it’s a’ they ken or care!” A young ploughman sometimes did not know when he was well off—as ploughmen went. He would change his service from mere restlessness, and not seldom to his own disadvantage. He would stay because a crony was staying ; he would leave because his sweetheart was leaving. At the feeing market the foreman helped the farmer to pick out the new men. “Are ye gaun to fee?” was the question with which a man in the market might be accosted. He would probably be taken into a public-house near by, if he seemed a likely fellow, and treated to part of “a gill,” or a bottle of ale. “Where was he now?” and “How long had he been there?” would be among the next questions. He was never asked why he was leaving. If a bargain was struck, a white shilling of earnest money was put into his hand. Jock called this his arles. There was no written agreement, and never (or so seldom as to excite the interest of every farm in the county) any dispute about the fee. The day before the feeing market, or at latest on the market morning, the farmer would ask his men, if he was pleased with their record of service, whether they were “gaun to bide again?” Those who were content to stop had their holiday about a fortnight after the feeing market. It happened that a ploughman giving up his place failed sometimes to find another at the feeing market; or a master discharging his men was unable to get substitutes. Provision was made for these cases on the Friday succeeding the Martinmas term. Occasionally that was a great feeing-day, especially if the men were hanging out for an advance. If at last Jock was so unfortunate as to fail to get the fee he wanted, and to refuse less, he would take to knapping stones at the roadside, or to draining, or dyking, or quarrying, or he would become a mason’s labourer, or engage to do orra work—i.e., odd jobs about a farm, or in short take a hand in any work that was “going about.” Some ploughmen, falling accidentally into this way of earning a livelihood, came to prefer it to serving for a year’s fee.

A ploughman’s highest accomplishments were sowing and stack-building. To sow well he required to keep two objects steadily in view— economy of the precious seed and utilisation of every square inch of the soil. The prime object of stack-building was to guard the harvested sheaves under “thack and rape” from the damaging assaults of wind and weather. The young ploughman, ambitious to learn the highest mysteries of his craft, practised the art of sowing by scattering handfuls of chaff (or grass seed) in the barn under the eye of an experienced brother. In building sheaves in the yard into a stack, he was taught to slope the straw just a little from the heads, or cars. A ploughman who was bad at this work might soon rain his master, by laying the sheaves so that rain got into the stack and rotted the grain. A ploughman’s talk at the kirk door of a Sunday, where he met his brethren of the district, was seldom about the sermon, or politics either; he talked about the progress of work on the different farms around him, scarcely ever about the crops. The condition of the crops was his master’s care, not his. It was enough for him to “plant” and “water;” the “increase” gave him no anxiety. His work done, he recked not of the crops. His questions would run: “Got a’ your ley turned owre yet?” “Muckle o’t the ’ear?” “Are ye lattin’ yon chield forrat to the seed-fur this ’ear?” “He’ll be haddin’ a gude seed-fur by noo?” etc. Jock knew nothing about the price of cattle; he was no market man. Even of farm work he knew nothing, as a rule, beyond what lay certainly to his own hand. He had great pride in his horses, and liked to boast about having charge of “ a pair o’ greys ahint the door that could rend rocks.” Their strength he regarded as almost a personal attribute. He took pleasure in decorating them on special occasions, such as ploughing matches, with bits of gaudy ribbon--red and yellow. He was kind to them, unless he lost conceit of them. He would steal corn for them; so well was this known that the foreman kept strict guard of the corn-chest, which was carefully locked except when the “feeds” were being served out—an operation which the foreman superintended.

The ploughman’s general talk in the bothy with his associates on the same farm was sufficiently trifling. A good deal of it was about love adventures, intrigues with the vestals of the kitchen, misunderstandings with the foreman, quarrels with his rivals, and his cattle. Here and there, there was a reader among the ploughmen, who would burn a candle at his own charge far into the night, fascinated with the exploits of wight Wallace or the wanderings of Prince Charlie. He would read the bothy asleep, and would whisper just one, and sometimes just one other, chapter to himself. But Jockie’s commonest conversational diversion was his sweetheart or his cattle. We have Miltons warrant for supposing that the peasants of ancient Bethlehem whiled away the waiting hours in a manner exactly similar; they

“sat simply chatting in a rustic row:
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.”

The ploughman had his grievances, both general and particular. A general grievance was the “suppering” of the horses every night at eight o’clock. Jock objected that it “broke his forenicht,” and tied him to the farm. Bad meal or milk was a grievance sharply resented. If both were bad on any farm there was insurrection, followed by anarchy, till pardon was asked and amendment promised by the farmer's wife. If there was no redress a rustic bard set the grievance in a ballad, and it flew along the braes like wildfire. Those grievances that were metrically expressed had free vent in ale-houses and whisky-booths at fairs. A specimen or two, frail and fragmentary with long handling, but genuine so far as they go, may prove interesting to some of my readers. Take first the grievance of sowens for sap. It should be premised that Jockie preferred milk for sap to his brose or porridge, and justly felt aggrieved to be put off with the sour steepings of corn husks. The introductory lines are clearly wanting:

“We have here a halflin, he says he comes fra Perth,
An’ he’s as queer a shaver as ever trampit earth,
For ilka day wi’ Sandy he has a Waterloo;
But sowens for sap on this new taft, my boys, will never do.
“The fourth pair on this new taft, there’s one they call ‘the bay’;
The little horse that goes with him, he’s true an* trusty ay;
Ye’ll ken the lad that drives them, he holds the iron ploo—
But sowens for sap in this new taft, my boys, it winna doI
“We have here a maid for the feedin’ of oor nowte,
And ye may search the coonty ere her marrow ye find out;
She is both strong and healthy, an’ takes her brose, I troo;
But sowens for sap in this new taft, she swears it winna do!”

Imagine Jockie at the fair, “planted unco richt beside reaming swats that drank divinely,” leading in full enjoyment of his grievance the chorus of a sympathetic band of “brawny, bainy” brethren, their sunburnt cheeks lit up with the sparkle of black eyes and the flash of teeth whiter than the milk for the restoration of which on that now notorious “new taft” they were making such vigorously vociferous stand. It was the apotheosis of grief-stricken Jockie. Ilis triumph atoned for the past insult of insufferable sowens. True he would go back that very evening to sowens, and a sleeved waistcoat, the uniform of his toil. To him for the meanwhile, however momentary, the glory of pearls and plush, sympathetic surroundings, and a choral song. But let us look more in detail at Jockie’s holiday rig-out. His blue jacket, laden with mother-of-pearl buttons, large, white, and round as infant moons, cost him—if he was honest with his tailor—some fifty or sixty shillings. His vest of red, or yellow plush, cost him close on a pound, and was also resplendent with useless buttons—like Keats’s Lamia, “full of silver moons.” His trousers of corduroy, skin-tight at the knee, fell in loose fetlocks around his ankles. His bonnet was blue, and broad, and kept in aboriginal shape and size by a cane hoop concealed in the lining. A bunch of ribbons, black, but sometimes of mingled blue and scarlet, “streamed like a meteor’’ at his bonnet lug. Altogether he was “a phantom of delight ” unknown to the rising generation.

Among the “grievance” songs may be included those long strings of stanzas descriptive of the hardships of a ploughman’s life which used to be chanted at markets and fairs. One of these had for refrain :

“Sad times for us boys amon’ the frost and snaw.”

Another bewailed the slavish drudgery of the ploughman’s lot on some particular farm, belonging, let us say, to Nabal:

“Nabal’s wark is ill to work,
Nabal’s wages are but sma’,
Nabal’s ’oors are double strict,
An’ that does grieve me warst of a’.

“Every mornin’ up at five,
To kaim wir horse an’ keep them clean ;
But by-an’-by I came to know
It was hard wark to serve the freem’d.”

It occasionally happened that Jockie got rid of his grievances at the fair by taking counsel with the recruiting sergeant. This myrmidon of Mars knew that the most likely time to entice Jockie into the ranks was when he was fu\ and full of grievance. Jockie’s wail of regret, on his recovery of sense and soberness at the barracks, might come wafted back to the green braes he had abandoned in some such strain as the following:

“O yesterday was Mononday,
That I went to the Fair;
I had no mind o’ ’listing
Till ance that I cam’ there.

"But my heart was full of liquor,
And I had no mind of you,
Or I never wad hae ’listed
To the orange and the blue.”


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