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The History of Fettercairn
Chapter XXXVI.—Agriculture and Old Customs


A FEW cursory remarks on the state of agriculture, chiefly in the eighteenth century, will not be out of place in these pages. If the state of matters in former times and the improvements which have been effected be duly considered, the people of the present day have reason to be thankful for the change.

The closing years of the seventeenth century were years of dearth and famine, owing to a succession of deficient crops, and at the time of the Union the condition of the country was very low; and during the years that followed wars and troubles retarded agriculture. Much of the land lay in a state of marsh and waste; and where we now find fertile and well-tilled fields, there were either barren wastes or bogs and pools in which the cattle stuck when turned out lean and weak at the end of winter. For want of trees and hedgerows to enclose the fields, the general appearance of the country, especially in winter, was wild and dreary. The use of carts and wheeled vehicles was rare in the first half of the century; and the roads being mere bridle paths, creels and panniers on horseback were the only means of conveyance. Farm implements, rude and clumsy, were all made of wood; and instead of the ropes and chains now used, twisted withs and willows did duty. [The back chain of a cart is still called the rigwoody. The tenant of Inch, whose surname was Pressock, was bound in his lease to render a quantity of ropes made from the roots of trees dug from the north moss of Arnhall.]

The wooden plough, a clumsy instrument, with its long beam and short stilts, was dragged by oxen driven by the gaudsman, who poked them with his goad and whistled a certain tune to cheer them up. If horses were yoked, they were led by a man walking backwards. Sometimes the oxen took a stubborn turn, and would neither be driven by the gaud nor led by the charms of the whistling, and hence the old proverb, "There 's muckle whistlin' for little red Ian'"; and from the gaudsman's occasional "sweerness" or inactivity arose the saying, "They 're sweer to ca' that let the gaud fa'." If the oxen became unmanageable it was not unusual to blame the witches. One plough served for each "farm toon" or crofter hamlet. The work was badly done, as time did not permit to give the soil more than one turn over. The riggs were gathered to the crown, so that the fields became a series of long, narrow mounds off which the water ran, and this was the only system of drainage in use. Dung was carried out in currachs or wicker creels hung across a crook saddle, one on each side of the horse; and " coupin' the creels " became a byword, when the man on one side filled faster than his neighbour on the other and destroyed the balance. Before the introduction of potatoes, turnips and green crops in the end of the century, the heaviest work of spring was the dunging and seeding of the "bear land"; and for it, during a week or two, even the clergyman's daily ministrations were suspended. Grain was carried in sacks across the horses' backs to the mill or the market; the animals on the narrow pathway following each other in single file with the halter tow of the second horse tied to the tail of the first, and so on to the last, however many in number. The cutting of the crop with the toothed hook was a work that required many hands. When the hooks required sharpening, they were taken to the smithy to be re-punched.

The work of threshing was done on the larger farms by the barn man and his flail; but on the smaller holdings by the men, with candle light in the winter mornings, to provide a daily supply of straw for the cattle. A breezy day was chosen for winnowing the grain, with wecht or hand fan between the opposite doors of the barn, which generally stood crosswise to the direction of the prevailing winds. Towards the end of the century fanners were introduced, and the raising of wind by them was regarded as "awfu' uncanny." Every mill had its hillock, upon which in favourable weather the shelled grain was winnowed. Before the invention of sifting apparatus, people, generally women, had also to attend and sift at the grinding of their " melder," or the quantity sent to be ground.

In former times people depended mostly for food on the produce of their own fields; and when bad seasons came round they endured all the miseries of hunger and starvation. In 1681 the crops failed. In the end of June a fast was held in Fettercairn and other parishes "for the scorching drought that threatened the fruits of the ground." Dearth and famine followed so much in some northern parishes, that it is said half the people perished, and the other half were too weak to bury the dead. The winters of 1715 and 1740 were long and severe. The frost of 1740 continued for five weeks; a cold summer followed and made the crops a failure. The worst year of the century was 1782. The summer was so wet and cold that the corn began to shoot only in the end of August. With a severe frost on the 5th of October, and a heavy snowstorm in the end of that month, the crops—even such as had got beyond the green stage—were entirely ruined. Very little of the grain was fit for next year's seed. That "snawy hairst" was long remembered. To relieve the distress, meetings of the county gentlemen were held, and money was collected to bring supplies from England. With aid from Government shiploads of meal and pease were imported, to be sent in quantities and sold or otherwise distributed. For the sake of economy, all idle dogs and other useless animals were destroyed; horses were fed on straw and bruised whins; bear was not malted ; and other means were used for the saving of provisions. In the Highlands and Islands, shell-fish, salted snails, nettle-broth, and blood drawn daily from the cattle, eked out the food supply during the summer months.

The Kirk Session of Fettercairn kept a "girnal" to supply doles of meal to the poor, that were more than doubled in number by the prevailing distress. The large number reduced to poverty continued for years to depend upon charity; and for 1800 to 1801, when the crops failed from drought, meal and provisions rose to famine prices, and the list of poor people was more and more increased.

In the early part of last century the farmhouses were wretched hovels, low, damp, and dirty ; the people and the cattle were very much alike for accommodation. Where stones were scarce the walls were composed, at least in the upper part, of "feal" (turf), or mud and straw. Along narrow building covered with divots and thatch formed, in the better end, the "ben" (be in) and the "but" (be out) of the family dwelling; and a continuation of the " but" or kitchen, beyond a rough wooden partition, held the cattle; so that even the croonin' or snoring of the beasts could be heard at the fireside, or by "the gudeman in bed ayont the hallan." In front of the house, and only a step or two from the door, stood the dung hole—a deep area— filled with solids in winter and stagnant water in summer, where pigs and poultry held riot, and into which, after nightfall, people frequently stumbled. When a house, byre or barn required repair or renewal, the neighbours gathered and gave a "love darg" (friendly turn) to complete the work, which, with the help of many hands, was often done in a single day.

Towards the end of the century a new and improved style of houses and farm buildings was introduced. The two-story dwelling-houses, now rather old-fashioned, but substantially built of stone and lime, slated at first with Turin slabs, are still to be seen on several farms of Fasque and Balmain estates, and were mostly erected by Sir Alexander Ramsay Irvine. Even these better houses of a hundred years ago lacked the comfortable furnishings now in use. The first fifteen years of this century passed before any house in the parish, except the proprietors' mansions and the manse, could boast of a carpet.

In the olden times the people lived very much upon oat cakes, barley bannocks, and pease bread. Wheaten bread was used only on very special occasions, such as marriages and funerals. A hundred years ago it was customary with the Fettercairn farmers to attend the Montrose Friday market, and bring home each to his good wife a small loaf to keep the "aumri" (press), and serve for the week's drams and special treats. Kail-brose, or greens boiled and oatmeal stirred together, formed the supper dish during winter in the farmer's kitchen, and part of the boiled kail was left to be heated for breakfast. And who of the older members of the Fettercairn Farmers' Club can forget "The Kail-brose of Auld Scotland," so gleefully sung at the Club dinners by the late Mr Vallentine of Bogmuir.

A common article of food, hardly ever seen now, was sowens or flummery, made from the husks or siftings of the oatmeal at the mill. These were steeped in a vessel among water till the mixture became sour. The thick pulpy part, separated through a strainer and boiled, made with a supply of milk a very nutritious and wholesome dish.

It may be roughly stated that the rates of farm servants' wages about the middle of last century were only one-sixth of what they are now; at the end of it, only one-fourth -r and fifty years ago, about one-half of the present amount. To a great extent wages were paid in kind; sometimes wholly, as in the case of shepherds who received the produce of so many sheep grazed with those of their masters. Married servants were allowed a piece of ground to cultivate in their spare hours. Women servants were paid in part with flax or wool to be spun by them in the winter evenings.

A glimpse of ancient rent items and farming customs-may be obtained from the following notes of a new lease,. for nineteen years of the farm of Balnakettle, granted in 1768 by Sir Alexander Kamsay Irvine to Kobert Falconer the tenant. The money rent was 20 stg. Of the produce, thirty bolls of oatmeal and ten bolls of bear were to be delivered at Montrose; four dozen hens, but "their value to be deducted from the above money rent, at the rate of five shillings stg. per dozen." The grain of the farm, except bear and seed, must be ground at the mill of Balmainr paying yi9 of the same as mill dues. The minister's and schoolmaster's dues had to be paid ; also those of the ground officer, which were two pecks for each chalder's farming.'r The services required were : To plough, dung and harrow yearly two acres " possest by Arthur Forbes, without fee,. except victuals to the servants"; to cast, win and lead from the hill "a proportion of peat and turf to Fasque, or pay for the same"; to give one day's work of all hia shearers in harvest; to carry to Fasque 7 bolls of shell lime from Mathers, 100 slates from Turin, 5 firlots of coal from Montrose. Also, 7 carriage horses to Montrose; and lastly, to give one day's labour "of all his horses, carts and servants for dunging the land at Fasque." And, at the expiry of the lease, twenty acres of infield had to be left in sown grass of one, two, or three years old. All the above items put together might probably amount to one-third of the present rent. The rental of the whole parish was only about 3500, or a similar proportion. In those days the braes of Balnakettle, like portions of other farms, were partly occupied by sub-tenants or crofters. The foundations of three or four of their homesteads are still traceable along the golf course on the hill slope. One of them was Skairhews. Its occupant flitted down the country, and depreciated the old place in the following plain terms:—

"It was as bad as ever man sat upon, but it had some good things about it. There was aye plenty of meat for man and beast all the days of the year, water in summer and fire in winter, with shelter all the airts the wind blew. Fire was not ill to get, plenty of sods and peats and nothing to pay for them as for coals here."

Markets. Mention has been made in a previous chapter that the right to hold a weekly market in Fettercairn was granted by James IV., in 1504, and that Earl Middleton obtained a renewal of the grant. These markets were originally held on the ground now occupied by the Public School and its playground, which in former days was known as the Market Park, where cattle, sheep, &c, were sold. But coming down to a more recent date, hiring markets were held regularly in the village at the terms of Whitsunday and Martinmas. The main object of course was servant-feeing, but these days were observed as general holidays in the parish. Less than forty years ago the village street and square used to be lined with stalls containing sweets and all sorts of wares, all the way from the bridge up to the cross. Each "Jock" was expected to treat his own special "Jean," and many others besides, on market-day. It was -an event to which school children looked forward with great delight, especially to the Whitsunday market, which was the more important; and on the day preceding that great event, one could hear the village bairns singing:—

"The cocks are a' crawin', and the hens are a' lay in',
For the morn's the merry, merry market day."

A few cattle used to appear for sale, huddled together in small groups to the east of the cross; and near the cross itself were exposed for sale a few tubs, butter-kits and milk-cogues, made by David Hughes, the worthy and well-skilled carpenter, who every year at Yule generously provided a supply of teetotums for the youth of the village. In the throng of the market cheap Johns jabbered about their wares, and usually drove a roaring trade; and occasionally could be seen some of the light-fingered fraternity, who affected to drop half-crowns into a purse and induce unwary young ploughmen, rendered somewhat sportive by a dram or two at the Forbes Arms or the Eagle Inn, to make bold bids, to their ultimate loss. But these scenes are now no more. The Fettercairn markets are dead and gone for more than thirty years, and soon will be altogether forgotten. An anecdote, supplied to Dean Ramsay by the Rev. Mr M'Clure, illustrating the cleverness of a boy waiting to be hired at one of the last Fettercairn markets, may fittingly close this chapter:—

The boy was asked by a spruce farmer if he wished to be engaged. "Ou ay," said the youth. "Wha was your last maister?" was the next question. "Oh, yonder him," said the boy; and he agreed to wait where he stood with some other youths till the enquirer should return from examination of his late employer. The former returned and accosted the boy. " Weel, lathie, I've been speerin' about ye, an' I'm to tak' ye." "Ou ay," was the prompt reply, "an' I've been speerin' about you tae, an' I 'm nae gaen!"


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