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An Economical History of the Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland
By John Walker D.D., in two volumes (1808)


The following Work was the result of six journeys made into the Highlands and Hebrides, from the year 1760, to the year 1786, during which, a greater extent of these distant parts of the kingdom was surveyed, than what had probably ever been traversed by any former traveler. Two of these journeys were particularly extensive; each of them having been continued from the month of May till late in December. In the year 1764, the Author received a commission, from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to enquire into the state of religion in the Highland countries; into the distribution of his Majesty’s bounty, granted for the religious instruction of the inhabitants; and to point out the districts where the erection of new parishes might be judged most necessary and expedient. He at the same time received a commission from his Majesty’s Commissioners on the Annexed Estates, to examine the natural history of these countries, their population, and the state of their agriculture, manufactures, and fisheries. In the year 1771 he received a similar commission from those two respectable bodies, in order to extend his survey over those parts of the country which he had not formerly visited. One report on the business Of the General Assembly was Communicated in the year 1765, and another in the year 1772; when both were inserted in the Records of the Assembly. His report to the Annexed Board formed a large folio volume, which remained for some time in possession of the Board, but was afterwards sent to London, and of which no exact copy was retained. This volume has since disappeared, and, even after much enquiry to recover if; has been given up as lost.

The present performance contains all that was observed on the above journies, and whatever has since occurred concerning the agricultural and economical history of the Hebrides and Highlands. This part of the national territory, considerable as it is, has been in all times past, comparatively, but of small advantage to the public. And when we reflect that it affords many hundreds of miles of sea coast, the most spacious and secure harbours, extensive fisheries, much land capable of cultivation, and is inhabited by a virtuous and hardy race of people, it must be admitted to be a source of national prosperity that has hitherto been inexcusably neglected.

The agriculture of these countries appears to have undergone but little improvement since the era that domestic cattle and the cultivation of grain were first introduced; which happened probably in the third or fourth century. Any alterations for the better have taken place only within the last fifty years; and among these, the introduction of potatoes and of white oats seems to be the most valuable. The inhabitants, by their remote and insular situation, remained long almost a separate people from the rest of their countrymen. Their difficult access to the more cultivated parts of Scotland, rendered communication infrequent, and has kept them strangers to the improvements that have been made in the southern parts of the kingdom. They have, from this cause, been left far behind the rest of their fellow-subjects with respect to the arts, and especially in the art of agriculture.

Any account to be delivered of the agriculture and agrestic economy of the Highlands and Islands, must, in one respect, be widely different from such a history of any other district or county in Britain. It was natural to suppose, what now appears by the agricultural surveys, that there are few counties in the kingdom from which others may not learn something useful in husbandry. Beneficial practices in agriculture were formerly more confined than at present; but they are still slow in their progress. They are often limited, and for a long time, to a spot, or a particular district, by want of communication. To render them universally known, is a happy consequence of these surveys. Each county in Britain has now access to know the practice of all the others. Every individual farmer may have the opportunity of reaping benefit from the experience and prudent management of his brethren through the whole kingdom. But while he and his county thus receive instruction, they are likewise capable of making a return in kind to others.

The case, however, is quite different with the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands. They stand much in need of instruction in the cultivation of their country, and have little to communicate, that can be useful to the more cultivated parts of the kingdom. The practice of farmers in England or Scotland, three or four hundred years ago, would but little edify their successors in the present times. The skillful cultivators in Scotland and England, have therefore nothing to expect from this quarter. On the contrary, it is to them that the inhabitants of these remote countries must be indebted for their skill and proficiency in agriculture.

It is not, therefore, to be expected, that the practice in these unimproved countries can afford much that is useful, or that requires to be adopted in places where cultivation has made considerable progress. Yet the improvements suggested in this treatise for the melioration of the Highlands and Islands, may deserve attention in all places where there is a similarity of soil and of climate. Some of these improvements may deserve notice in almost every part of the three kingdoms. But most of them are peculiarly applicable to the north of Ireland, and to all the districts in Scotland and England that are elevated more than 500 or 600 feet above the level of the sea.

The subject proposed in this treatise is indeed extensive, and consists of many different branches. But before entering on a particular consideration of the state of agriculture in the Highland countries, it may be proper to take a general view of their soil, their climate, and the nature of their inhabitants; as on these the operations and success of husbandry must everywhere entirely depend.

Volume 1   |   Volume 2


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