Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

The Gateway of Scotland
Chapter X. Farms and Farmers in East Lothian


THE alternative designations of the county, which in this season of harvest now spreads before us its undulating carpet of radiant patchwork between the broad, blue waters of the Firth and the Iong swell of the Lammermoors, is a trifle bewildering to the outsider. It makes for further haziness in regard to such of Scotland as is neither within the orbit of the tourist nor the grouse moor market, and I have, of course, only the benighted Southerner in mind. It is from no lack of respect for his Northern neighbours that the average Englishman cultivates this ingenuous innocence, geographical and etymological, for of that I will venture to say the most prickly Scot could never complain. He is quite catholic in these matters, and is almost as foggy, and quite as content to remain so, regarding such parts of his own country as lie outside his orbit. There is no reason to suppose that the well-to-do men and women of Scotland are qualified to fling stones across the Border on this account. "I am afraid very few of us know much of our own country" is a platitude of which the present writer, for reasons not inscrutable, is the humble and constant recipient, and there is nothing for it but an unreserved acceptance of the obvious. There is a familiar, but happily now rare type of politician, only known in Britain, whose motto is "every country but my own." In the more venial sense of the phrase now under discussion, irreproachably patriotic -persons by the thousand might. as justly be branded with it.

The convertible terms of Haddingtonshire and East Lothian are undeniably confusing to aliens in view of this general fogginess. If the burning of a country house or an election meeting from this quarter are reported in the London dailies, they will have occurred in "Haddingtonshire." In the agricultural column on the next page the root crops of "East Lothian" will be described as in a flourishing condition. The writer of agricultural knowledge, that is to say, has an unconscious respect for tradition. East Lothian will have a certain classic ring in his ear, and if he has a sense of style as well, the cadence of the term, as opposed to the preposterous ill-accentuated mouthful of the alternative, would settle the question. The writer concerned with reporting politics or thunderstorms or motor trials very wisely uses the hideous official designation of Haddingtonshire, just as if it were any ordinary county. I never heard a farmer in or out of it use any term but East Lothian, and I fancy the folk of Linlithgow follow the same time-honoured and admirable practice. Midlothian has no alternative, though on official documents, I believe, the -County of Edinburgh" is the correct form. Even a Saxon tongue, with its awkward and tiresome predilection for the first syllable at the expense of the rest, would boggle at "Edinburghshire." Many score southern golfers, of course, visit the classic links upon the East Lothian coast; but very few of them, I imagine, know what county they are in, and care less, which is characteristic. "Where am I?" said a gorgeous but polite motorist to me one day upon the road just east of Cockburnspath. He was entrenched within the body of a great and powerful car by stacks of golf clubs, fishing rods, and gun cases. He had come from the far north and was on his return south. In reply to my query he said he had a road map; but it was nothing more. "Am I still in Scotland?" I told him he was still in Scotland, and in East Lothian —a gratuitous crumb of information which did not seem to convey anything definite—and furthermore, that he had the whole county of Berwick yet to traverse.

"I thought Berwick was a town; I had a half mind to try the Iinks there."

"That is North Berwick," I replied, "and it lies over yonder behind you. But there's a town of Berwick, and county too, which you will be in immediately."

He was very grateful for this elementary piece of information, and asked me the best route to York, concerning which I laid him under further obligations for half the distance.

"Now," he said, "I wish you would let me tow you there." For I should have said that a bicycle was Ieaning up against the wall, and I had been sitting on a gate looking at some men beginning to lead a magnificent crop of barley, and wondering how many quarters an acre it would run to.

I thanked him cordially, and said I did not want to go to York, as I was, in fact, going out to lunch a mile or two down the road.

He was very pressing, however, that I should change my plans, and attach myself to the rear of his forty horse-power car. He had carried a young man thus-wise, he said, at thirty miles an hour the day before, for some prodigious distance, to his infinite satisfaction, without a catastrophe. I retorted as nicely as I could—for I have never met so grateful or so philanthropic a motorist in the guise of a stranger on any highway—that I wasn't a young roan, and did not in the least want to go to York or even Newcastle, and most certainly not at thirty miles an hour—above all, on a bicycle of nameless brand that I had hired for the day in Dunbar. This last pretext seemed to have some sense in it, and we parted friends. I took the opportunity of advising him, however, to refrain from attaching even the young and the reckless to his car over the North road beyond the Tweed. For every hundred yards or so, upon the Northumbrian section of that famous highway there is, without fail, a large fragment of loose whinstone, more or less in the middle. What would happen to the man in tow when he blindly struck the first of these may be left to the imagination.

About a couple of miles from Cockburnspath, a sequestered village, lying amid the bare cultivated foothills of the Lammermoors and just in East Lothian, is occasionally visited by antiquarian societies. This is Oldhamstocks, a typically Saxon name in this very Saxon country, Auld-ham being obvious, and Stoc, I believe, also indicating a place or home. The point of interest is a little thirteenth-century chancel, long disused but structurally intact, and in strange conjunction with an uncompromising type of the eighteenth-century Scotch kirk. The scarcity of pre-Reformation survivals gives local interest to fragments that in the happier hunting-grounds of the south would attract slight notice. But the mere fact of such rarity, and the mere distinction of having survived the far more relentless forces of destruction, English and Scottish, that operated here, lends a certain pathetic interest to a monkish ivy-covered chancel, leaning up against a friendly, tolerant, but frankly hideous design of the bald days of Presbyterianism. As a matter of fact, the little chancel, with its decorated window tracery still complete, had some further interest in not being monkish in so far that the church and advowson never was the property of a monastery, but appertained for all traceable times to the Lord of the Manor or Barony. Oldham- stocks, too, infringes the usual Saxon custom just alluded to, in that the accent is here thrown on the penultimate.

I journeyed out one day to this village, which is a marked exception to the usual East Lothian type. For it lies aloof from the world, and between high hills which tillage has furrowed nearly to their summits, leaving green rounded crests of sheep pasture. The village itself stands picturesquely along a green, with the church and manse at one end of it in southern fashion, and looks like a place that has nourished hardy hinds and stout prejudices. I wasn't thinking of that, however, when I left the churchyard to retrace my steps and fell into company on the highway with a man who was certainly the former and deeply imbued with the latter. He was advanced in years and rather low in stature, but bore upon one shoulder with apparent indifference a log of portentous dimensions. On my remark that it looked like a wet night, with some further commonplace regarding the old part of the church, the following dialogue ensued

"Aye, it's a thousan' year auld they say; just yin o' that auld monkish buildings."

"It is between six and seven hundred years old," I replied.

"Deed, then, an' how do ye ken that?"

"I can tell it for a certainty by the window for one by thing."

"Ye can ken how mony hun'erd year old it is by looking at the windy? Mon, that's wonderfu'. I've heard tell there's the marks of anither auld buildin' on the top o' yon brae."

"What sort of building was it?"

"Oh, jist some o' thae auld papish nonsense; and as to that, I'm thinkin' we'll a' be Romans agin sune."

For the moment it only crossed my mind that some vague echoes of advancing ritualistic practices across the Border might have reached Oldhamstocks through the weekly paper.

"Well, you're safe enough in old Scotland at any rate."

"Safe in auld Scotland!" the little man shouted with a voice quivering either with excitement or the weight of the weaver's beam, to use a metaphor appropriate to the occasion, under which he was labouring. "Safe in auld Scotland! Auld Scotland's ganging to Rome jist as fast as any of 'em."

"At least," I said, "there's nothing of that up here in Oldhamstocks."

"Naethin' o' that up here! Lord save us, we're jes fu' o't every Sabbath."

This was getting a little uncanny, for there was no stained glass window in Oldhamstocks kirk, nor, I think, had it been reseated in the Anglican fashion, and the pulpit shifted, as has been done in some country churches; while the edifice itself was absolutely above reproach from this staunch Covenanter's point of view.

"What is the name of the minister?" I asked.

'He's a mon they ca-----'

Now, in the south this would merely indicate that the parson was a stranger recently inducted, and that the spokesman took his name on hearsay, as having somewhat less than no interest in the newcomer. But this frequent idiom of the common folk in Scotland, "they ea' him," in answer to such a query as the above one of mine, and in reference to a man they have perhaps known all their lives, has surely an element of humour in it. It would be straining a point perhaps to say that it was the proverbial reluctance of the Scot to commit himself definitely, and that without the knowledge of a man's genealogy there could be no positive certainty there had not been some remote hanky-panky with his patronymic. The respected, and, I believe, entirely orthodox divine in question had, it transpired, been thirty or forty years in charge. To cut our discussion short—which is more than my log-bearing friend did, for he kept it up all through the village, and for some distance beyond, as our respective ways coincided—it seems that he scented some taint of "justification by works" in the parish pulpit—an appalling doctrine to his thinking. how this amiable tolerance savoured of the scarlet woman, I cannot imagine. But then I am not equipped to fathom the controversial depths of the old-fashioned Scottish theologian. One may appreciate the piquancy he has (riven to Scottish history, and feel that he has, at any rate, made nearly two centuries of what otherwise a Scotsman will admit with certain notable exceptions to be a rather wearisomely turbulent chronicle, a very interesting one. All this may be gratefully realised without being competent to enter the lists with a village Cameronian, even though weighted down by half a tree. however, my Covenanter was not so dour as might be gathered from this brief narration. For he laughed quite immoderately at some trifling passage we had, as our ways diverged, and we parted friends, though I suspect he took me for a "Roman."

The rolling plain of East Lothian begins at Pease Pass and Cockburnspath in a narrow strip between the sea and the hills, and gradually expands in fanlike shape as you travel westward in the direction of Edinburgh. This is a country with a character entirely of its own. It is unlike any other in Scotland, and still more unlike, it would be superfluous to add, any region of England. It might be likened to a vast garden lying between a rocky, broken coastline and a wild waste of moor. Not a garden country in the sense of Kent or the Isle of Wight, to quote familiar illustrations of a hackneyed term; nothing in atmosphere, traditions, or surface, could be more utterly different. 'There are no lush hedgerows, no flowery lanes, no

picturesque, unkempt orchards, no crooked lines. It is a garden of twenty- or thirty=acre fields geometrically laid out and divided by well-built stone walls or low clipped thorn fences, upon either side of which no foot of space is given to the unprofitable or the picturesque in nature. Turnips, barley, seeds, oats, potatoes, wheat, as the old rhythmical mernoria technica of the East Lothian six-course shift had it, may be roughly taken as indicating the composition of the rich-coloured patchwork that lays along the levels and climbs the low hills.

At intervals stand the great farm steadings, bearing to one another a certain family likeness not common in the south, and giving an appearance of formality which is strengthened by the tall unlovely chimneys of the stationary engines, though somewhat ameliorated on the other hand by the warm red sandstone walls and red-tiled roofs of the out-buildings and cottages. Here and there—and this bird's-eye view of the country comes natural, for the sufficient reason that you can see nearly all over it from almost any slight elevation—are the great country seats, which are on a scale proportionate to the high-rented, scientifically-cultivated farms belonging to them, entrenched within luxuriant woodlands and green parks that are virtually the only permanent grass in the country. The Merse is a fat and opulent region; but this is a step higher, and cast, moreover, in a different setting. What sort of appeal it would make to a stranger turned suddenly loose into it, and conducted at a leisurely pace from Cockburnspath to Dunbar, and on to Haddington or North Berwick, it would be difficult to say. He would be a cockney indeed, however, who did not recognise the fact that he was looking over a type of rural landscape, the like of which he had assuredly never seen before. A farmer from Norfolk, Lincolnshire, or the best of Yorkshire, would become conscious at once that his standards of excellence were shattered and required readjustment.

The shock of surprise, for the term is no whit too strong, would be modified something, to be sure, by an approach through the Merse, but there is no reason to consider unlikely suppositions. It has been my occasional lot to be in the company of visitors of this type, undergoing this altogether new experience, and still oftener to hear it recalled by such in distant counties as the experience of their lives. The farmer of Norfolk or Lincolnshire, who, speaking broadly, represented the most enlightened type of English agriculturist when skill and capital worked in fearless and secure combination, occasionally visited this country. But the Norfolk or Lincolnshire farmer threw up the sponge at once at the very first glance at East Lothian, and frankly recognised that a gap divided it from the best that he could show or had ever seen. The simple fact that men of skill, substance, and capital were paying four and five pounds an acre rent, while he was paying two and three for the best land, with about the same profits in either case, would alone have given the crack farmer from the south something to think about. Yet in the eighteenth century the Lothian lairds were importing English bailiffs, under no little opposition, to show their reluctant and comparatively backward tenantry how to farm! As already remarked, a professional equipment is quite unnecessary for a general appreciation of these conditions. A layman with eyes in his head and an ordinary acquaintance with country life would recognise at once an unwonted spectacle, and would surely be compelled to some measure of admiration. For if the breed who made the country have mostly left the soil, and their places know them no more, their successors nobly cherish their great traditions. The economic world has been turned upside down since their day. The financial readjustment which enables the man of the present to withstand the altered conditions does not for the moment concern us. It is enough that East Lothian displays the same wonderful face as of old. The superficial changes are insignificant. Even the drop in these high rents is as nothing to the slump that has overtaken the far lower ones in some of the crack counties of England.

The normal reader will have probably made up his mind by this time that East Lothian, for the normal visitor, must be an intolerably dull county; and in a nation such as we are now, it would be futile to expect many people to find compensation in the highest triumphs of agriculture, or to appreciate the unique exhibition of them that are here displayed. But as a matter of fact, this perfection of neatness and abundance doesn't altogether make for the monotony which would he inevitable in many countries. The layman, oblivious to all these things, could not forbear, if he had a soul within him, from recognising a country that in other ways, too, was of an uncommon quality. Stand almost where you will, the eye ranges far away over the rich clean patchwork of the plains, with their intervals of stately woodland, to blue stretches of sea, bounded by long billowy coastlines, rising at times almost to the height of mountains. And again, if the formal opulence of the foregrounds offend an aesthetic sense not capable —speaking without offence—of feeling their significance, the continuous presence of the unbroken wall of lonely moorland, that for the entire length of the county upon the inland side waves along the near skyline, from its very contrast must make a further appeal.

Once over the deep woody deans of Cockburnspath, everything that is wild, bosky, or rugged in nature forges away with the Lammermoors, and you are at once into the narrow eastern wedge of East Lothian, which widens gradually as you approach Dunbar. This is the cream of the country—probably the cream of the earth. For some fifteen miles approximately, extending lengthwise to the course of the Tyne, and in width from the edge of the red cliffs or sandy dunes which succeed them, to the foothills of the Lammermoors, lie the famous "Dunbar red lands." Brilliant to the eye in hue, and brilliant in the rich colouring of the crops they carry, these red barns are supposed to combine a maximum of fertility with friable, easy-working qualities in greater perfection than any other soil in Great Britain. Upon the top of this, they have been subjected to the lavish and liberal treatment of the Lothian tradition, which was not due to natural advantages, but has handled this whole country, whatever its varying soil qualities, which are many, with the same skill. But the red land country of Dunbar, associated for obvious geographical reasons with that ancient town, is from an agricultural point of view the most interesting portion of the county. I think it is otherwise the most picturesque. For the colouring of itself is so rich, the woodlands of country seats so abundant, the sea so near upon the one hand, the rising ridges of the Lammermoors foothills so reasonably close upon the other.

In matters material the potato is here king. That invaluable but prosaic root suggests to most of us a host of little market gardeners covering the countryside with mean dwellings and makeshift out-buildings. The potato of the Dunbar country is a magnificent creature of quite aristocratic associations, and is something of a gamble to big farmers, just as hops are to the farmers of Kent. It doesn't condescend to the two- or three-acre strips or patches with which it is hopelessly associated in the popular eye. It follows oats (generally) in the ordinary farming shift, and, stimulated by powerful doses of fertiliser, barn-yard and artificial, spreads a level sea of lusty shaws and flowery tops in summer-time from fence to fence, to make way in autumn for a crop of wheat that I have known myself go to eight quarters an acre. And a crop like that was worth something in Haddington when the price was from fifty to sixty shillings a quarter! Even at the present miserable prices, the normal expectation of six quarters which East Lothian looks for in a fair year must leave a margin.

Just after the beautifully clean stubbles had been cleared of their crop in this particular year, I took the trouble to count the freshly-erected grain stacks in three consecutive homesteads, all within easy sight, near the road between Dunbar and Cockburnspath. In one there were just a hundred, and in the two others between sixty and seventy apiece. The swedes and turnips, which as of old, in the six-course system, generally follow wheat, are a goodly sight, clean as a garden, and the roots, when matured, seeming at times almost to jostle one another out of the drills. This is a dry climate, in spite of the hills and mountains that are visible near and far from these Lothian fields. To an eye accustomed to noting the crops in many counties year after year, it seemed strange to find in mid-July the farmers of the Merse and Lothian crying for rain after weeks of drought, yet their swedes and earlier-sown turnips flickering strong and lusty in the wind over the large fields, and much fitter, indeed, to hold birds than many a southern root field in early September. No waste ground is here—neither open ditches, nor rambling fences, nor tousely corners, nor ragged headlands, and, generally speaking, no hedgerow timber to draw the land and obstruct the sunshine. The crop pushes stiff and level up to the stone wall or trim thorn fence, which in the growing and maturing season subside into thin faint lines hardly discernible amid the lush abundance. But potatoes throughout East Lothian, and above all in these Dunbar red lands, as already related, were and are the most attractive crop to the farmer. Other products have their limitation in market price, being forced to compete with the cheaply grown stuff from the virgin soils of three other continents. It may be worth reminding some readers, too, that the good average and profitable yield of a Manitoba farm would be accounted a dead failure in East Lothian, and scarcely profitable in Wiltshire or Suffolk, while the average yield per acre in Australia or the United States would be ploughed under ruthlessly either in England or Scotland.

But potatoes cannot he carried about the world so readily, nor grown wholesale with a trifling expenditure of labour. For they need a great deal, and it might be set down as against the Lothian and Berwickshire farmer that the price of labour has gone up enormously since the last generation tilled these generous fields—that of men about 40 per cent., and of women twice as much. Forty years ago, too, the "Dunbar regent," the favourite of that day, held the London eating-houses and supper-rooms in the hollow of its hand, and fetched double, or nearly double, the price of any other late potatoes grown in Great Britain. There are still none in the market comparable to the delicate mealy product of this red loam belt of East Lothian. But the old exclusive prices and the particular demand which created them have passed away, and it only tops the market by some 10 or 15 per cent. But the average under potatoes is fully as large as ever, while wheat has given way greatly to oats and barley. The profits in a good year, unlike grain, still mean money in the cornmercial, not the agricultural sense of the word. Potatoes are, of course, something of a gamble, for potential disease always hovers over the crop like a destroying angel. When dreary wet days follow one another in August, the ominous, pungent odour as surely begins to scent the air, telling of mischief that will spread apace if the elements remain perverse, and of thousands of pounds sinking surely into the soil, which has been manured and fertilised with a lavishness that would make a Devonshire farmer gape with amazement. I mention the Devonshire farmer, not because he also ploughs the red sandstone, on the little fields wedged in between his portentous bank fences, but because—what no one would be altogether surprised at who knew the county—he foots the list of English shires in the official returns of grain per acre.

The old farming families have for the most part left East Lothian. They have not, dear readers, gone to Canada, though I have no doubt the labourers have done their share in swelling the prodigious army of fit and unfit that have crowded the Atlantic steamers for the last dozen years. The East Lothian farmer years was not the type of person who would look upon a half-section in the north-west, and a "shack" or even a four-roomed frame house, combined with twelve or fourteen hours a day manual labour, as a fine opening. He was a gentleman who dealt, as his successors doubtless do, in thousands—to his profit in former days, if to his loss in the 'eighties and early 'nineties. He frequently paid a rent of 2000 a year. He did not, as his successors doubtless do not, enter upon a farm, and would not have been accepted in the competition of those days, without a capital of many thousand pounds. He often put two or three sons into farms requiring five or six thousand pounds (12 an acre was about the minimum estimate) for the stocking thereof. There was a great debacle amongst this admirable race of men in the 'eighties and earlier 'nineties, the stock whose forbears had made this country a world's spectacle—the agricultural world, that is—and who in their own persons were farming nobly., The long leases at high rents hitherto equitable, caught many in the great slump. Nobody foresaw it, though they ought to have. Neither landlords, lawyers, agents, nor farmers in Scotland or in England could see the writing on the wall that was plain almost to a schoolboy who knew North America—the first and most powerful source of attack in the 'seventies. That British land would be worth so much an acre till kingdom come, was almost a religion among the shrewdest men in both kingdoms. The present generation, whom a bitter experience has utterly divorced from the creed of their fathers, cannot imagine the pride and confidence in British real estate that was ingrained in the very blood. The shrewdest lawyers bought land, or invested their clients' money in it, with infinitely more confidence than they would buy Consols to-day, which is not, perhaps, saying very much. Here is a trifling but pertinent incident: its unavoidable egotism I may be forgiven. I was paying a flying visit towards the end of the 'seventies to an old friend, son of a famous farming family, then sitting himself on a superb farm of Dunbar red land at five pounds an acre. I was then farming myself in one of the old states of America, where the spectre of the rapidly-opening West, and its virgin grainfields, was already beginning to flap its wings, and to depreciate land, and to depress the rural communities with the certain promise of worse things to come. The agricultural situation of the two countries, the old long-established regions of the United States, and of Canada too for that matter, on one side of the ocean, and Great Britain on the other, was practically identical. Their farmers, too, had had their day, and being always owners, their pride of land, so far as the sense of its security, is implied. But the first whiff of the impending storm, from which they have never to this day recovered, had already begun to ruffle the calm of the yeomen landowners from Maine to Maryland, and to depress the incipient, but sanguine efforts to restore the fertility of the worn-out plantations of the slave states. It was only a question of more railroads and more steamers, which were both making ready response to the awakening of the Virgin West. Any one nearer to the quarter whence the storm was coming could see it—man, woman, or child. Indeed they were feeling it. The agriculturist sowing grain on his well-equipped farm in New York or Pennsylvania worth 30 an acre, as sound value hitherto as a staple investment, and as profitable to work as a farm in Essex, had already cause to be anxious. But Great Britain, despite the warnings of occasional newspaper correspondents, seemed absolutely unconscious of any impending calamity. People were bewailing one or two ruinously inclement seasons, as if that were all! On the occasion the memory of which has provoked the parenthesis, I ventured prophetic utterance merely to what was obvious to any one then living within the mutterings of the brewing storm. My friend is now kind enough to say that it stuck in his mind, and was recalled when the crash came. At the time, I think, he relit his pipe and smiled grimly across the hearth. Seven or eight years later, farms known to me in Essex and Lincolnshire with a former rental of 30s. to 2 an acre, were selling or being vainly offered at 10 to 15 an acre in fee simple, and hundreds throughout England were derelict.

It is needless to recall that in spite of slow and partial recovery, and in places through changed conditions, complete recuperation, the blow was final. For better or for worse, that is to say, rural England and Scotland have never been what they were before. That chapter, with its pride, its security, its traditions, one might almost say its arrogance, was definitely closed. This is, of course, a mere truism. But it is pleasant to remember those old days all the same. There was a something not easy to describe in country life that has never returned. It crumbled away in the 'eighties; and what must have struck, and did strike many at the time, was the difficulty with which a kind of superstition that land must represent so much an acre died even in the face of facts. This was obviously due to the long divorcement of landlords, in Great Britain more than in almost any other country, from a sensitive partnership in the soil, and a practical knowledge of and interest in agriculture. Large estates and a capitalist tenantry had everywhere relieved them from such practical intimacy with their own acres. After all, a love of country life as represented largely by sport, has little really to do with practical agriculture, though it is often conventionally associated with it. To landlords, agents, and solicitors, land had been so long merely represented by a money rent, and the fee simple value at so many years' purchase of the same, that the original partnership idea had been lost sight of. The revolution was too sudden for breaking an ingrained attitude. It was not only that they did not foresee it, which they ought to have done : but after it had come they were even still inclined to discuss rental figures as based on old practice, instead of facing the fact of the world's movements and markets. It is perhaps not surprising that a decade was hardly sufficient to break an immemorial belief that the soil of Great Britain was almost sacred, and that a temporary 10 per cent, reduction was sufficient to stem a cataclysm.

The splendid condition of Lothian agriculture, its long leases and high rents, cut both ways. Whatever befell the sitting tenants, the old farming families, the capitalists of those days, there were sanguine people ready to take their places at rents not seriously reduced, on farms so well equipped and in such beautiful condition. No derelict farms ever marred the landscape of East Lothian. On the contrary, whatever hearts or pockets were breaking, the country kept a smiling face. It is no place here, even were I competent to do so, to touch upon the tale of loss and trouble that must for years have depressed the farmhouses of East Lothian. That most of these old families vanished in the process need not of necessity indicate financial ruin. Their sons were well-educated, practical men. Farming had been a pleasant and reasonably profitable business at 8 or 10 per cent. The big farmer was a man widely envied in those days. There was even something of a social glamour about it. But it became a very different matter when the woes of the farmer and the landowner became a chronic national refrain, and the position dropped from one of profitable and otherwise enviable ease to an anxious struggle to make both ends meet. It would have been strange indeed if the young men who saw this struggle at close quarters elected, with the world before them, to continue in so unpromising a career, and it is not surprising that commerce and the professions drew away from East Lothian and its neighbours—but I think particularly from East Lothian—most of the names with which its rise to fame is associated.

These are days of totally different standards, days of readjustment, and incidentally, too, of faddists innumerable—days too, let us hope, of more cheering prospects, though the proud old times of agriculture and of landowning too, as such, have utterly vanished. East Lothian, save for this departed glamour, goes on almost precisely as of yore. The rents are now only down about 15 per cent. The rents of some arable counties are down from 50 to 200 per cent.

Away from the hills East Lothian had, in my youth, not a single field but the laird's parks in permanent pasture. At least so it was said, and I certainly never saw one. It has even now so little meadow as to be unworthy of notice. It is still, as I have said, beautifully farmed, and presents a perfect picture. Though showing considerable variety of soil, nature has intended it for an arable country, just as she has intended others to be mainly grazing countries, not because they are poor, but because they are richer in the value of their beef and mutton than they ever could be in grain. In former days there was tremendous competition for East Lothian farms. Speaking generally, there was no sentiment attaching to the particular homesteads as in most parts of England then. The farming families took a commercial view of the situation, and put their capital, when a lease was up, wherever the best opportunity offered, and not infrequently into more than one farm. The mutual attitude of landlord and tenant, again, struck a southerner in those days as almost wholly lacking in what might be called the quasi-feudal flavour, traditional in England, and, no doubt, in some other parts of Scotland. The tie was of a merely commercial nature—a nineteen-year hard-and-fast lease, and there was an end of it. The Lothian landlords may well have been proud of their tenantry. But the mutual feeling, though generally friendly, was not in the least feudal, to use a convenient term, and in no sense intimate. I don't think home farms had any appreciable existence. At any rate, one never heard of them as counting for anything. It would have needed an exceptional indifference to income to play with three hundred acres, which would otherwise represent a clear thousand and odd pounds; while the notion of setting a good example, admirable perhaps in more backward countries, would have been, of course, ridiculous in East Lothian.

I remember very well, and for excellent reasons, an incident which made a great stir at the time throughout Great Britain: but I find it quite forgotten, even in the locality, or rather that there is scarcely any one left to remember it. Long protracted tenure and its consequent local attachments were not entirely wanting, though, as I have ventured to indicate, they were not characteristic of the county in the 'seventies. But a distinguished farmer in a case where these conditions did happen to exist in a very marked degree was given notice to quit at the end of his lease for political reasons. There was a tremendous row, not in any way promoted by the party most concerned, who was of a proud and quiet disposition. But the press of the United Kingdom, not then prone to sensationalism, took it up, and even that of the Continent, whose agriculturists in those days, regarding Great Britain as their model, and East Lothian as its apotheosis, echoed the controversy.

The offending landlord was a Tory with stout convictions of a kind not uncommon then, but which would make the hair of the staunchest Conservative of to-day stand on end. The tenant was a Liberal of the mild kind which then answered to the term, but who, if he were alive to-day, would almost certainly be of the other faith. His particular offence lay in having contested, though unsuccessfully, a Scottish constituency. Even foreigners wrote indignant letters to the British Press to the effect that Mr. A., the aggrieved party, and his farm had a European reputation, whereas they had never even so much as heard of Mr. B., his landlord. This was natural enough, though not quite to the point, nor precisely in perspective, as the gentleman in question, an otherwise just and upright man, had actually held office in a former Government. However, it was a nine days' wonder, and stirred political passions no little for the moment. Agricultural politics in those days hinged mainly upon the law of hypothee and the extreme preservation of hares. The former, abrogated in due course, gave the landlord certain preferential rights over all other creditors, which were considered harsh and otherwise disadvantageous to the tenant. The latter was really a great scandal. The fields in some parts were literally covered with half-tame hares. To say that on a fine autumn day

you could count thirty and forty squatting about a clean stubble field of less than that number of acres is the mere literal truth. The damage such a number did to the noble fields of turnips by nibbling at the tubers and setting up decay, seemed in common sense out of all proportion to the sorry sport afforded by a multiplicity of ground game. East Lothian, like much of Scotland, was and is a fine partridge country, but nothing can make a hare in a serious and wholesale sense an exhilarating mark for the gun; while of all a gun's victims poor puss suffers most from the tinker and the tailor, the long-range blazer and the schoolboy.

A keeper in Shropshire I was constantly out with many years ago, an admirable type of his class, served his early terms on a famous shooting estate in Norfolk. He has often told me that if the list of hares slain on a big day did not reach four figures, there was a rating in store for the keepers. The modern shooting man, if he does not live laborious days, is critical as to the class of shot offered him, and may well wonder what his predecessors could have seen in this sort of fun—at the cost, too, of so much justifiable ill-feeling. But it brought on the Hares and Rabbits Bill, which has so thinned the former, save on the Wiltshire Downs and a few other spots, that there are not much more than enough of them for coursing and hunting, the proper metier, perhaps, of this graceful, fleet, and timorous beast. But mingling in rather odd contrast with the confiding game, both fur and feather, that swarmed on these fat Lothian fields in autumn and winter, came the constant rush of the wilder denizens of the air—the freer spirits from the moorland and the sea. Great flocks of wild geese spent, and I believe still spend, every day for months upon the young wheat or seeds, particularly appreciating the leavings of the lifting ploughs on the cleared or re-sown potato-fields. Honking inland in the morning and back again to the seashore at sunset, a big flock of wild geese would be almost as continuously in evidence as the partridges or hares, or the clouds of pigeons which, pouring out of the various "doo'cots" in the neighbourhood, were another characteristic feature of the East Lothian landscape. There, however, the similarity ended. For the genius with which a hundred or so wild geese mingled daily in the bustling life of a great farm, and yet kept themselves practically unapproachable by the most crafty sportsman, was amazing. Golden plovers, too, seemed always on the wing at dusk in these darker months with their plaintive whistle, while there were more wood-pigeons in East Lothian in those days than in any country I have ever seen, which is saying a good deal.


Return to Book Index Page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast