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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
George Rennie of Phantassie and Andrew Meikle


IN the churchyard of Prestonkirk there stands a tombstone at the grave of a famous East Lothian agriculturist, with the following inscription on it:—“To the memory of George Rennie, Esquire of Phantassie, died 10th October 1828, aged 79. In this county, so celebrated for its fertile soil and the perfection of its cultivation, Mr Rennie was acknowledged by his contemporaries to be the most skilful and successful agriculturist. Nor was the reputation he so justly merited confined to his native land. He corresponded with, and was visited not only by the leading agriculturists of England and Ireland, but many noblemen and gentlemen from France, Russia, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and other European states, seeking information to improve their domains, were hospitably received by him, and instructed in his theories and practice. He performed zealously and impartially the duties of a magistrate, and was ever ready to advise or assist those who sought relief from difficulties or misfortune. Deeply lamented by his wife, family, friends, and dependents, his memory will long be cherished and respected.”

It is understood that this memorial was written by his old friend and intimate acquaintance, Mr Brown of Markle, and a truer one was seldom or never penned.

The Rennie family had long been established in East Lothian, and distinguished as energetic farmers. Mr Rennie’s father was tenant in part of Phantassie, and died in 1767, when George, who was his eldest son, was yet a young man. The youngest son, John, the celebrated engineer, was born in 1761. His history is well and ably written by our eminent townsman, Dr Samuel Smiles. Phantassie at that time belonged to the Countess of Aberdeen, and was divided into several farms. Mr Peter Forrest, afterwards of Northrigg, farmed Guriy Bank, on the south-east side of the post-road, with the mill, which was entirely carried away by the great flood ill the Tyne on 4th October 1775. His house, stackyard, and steading were in the middle of Linton. Upper and Under Barebones, with the Quarry Park, &c., was another farm. At that time broom, whins, and scraggy bushes grew on the sides of the post-road up Pencraig, and few of the fields were then enclosed. The Countess of Aberdeen sold the whole estate and superiorities at Linton, &c., to Mr George Rennie somewhere about 1785, and he then took the whole of it into his own hands and farmed it. It is interesting to note that Phantassie has ever since continued to be farmed by the proprietor of it, well on now for one hundred years.

Phantassie, situated in one of the finest parts of East Lothian, and possessing fertile land, soon became celebrated under Mr Rennie's judicious and energetic management as one of the crack farms of East Lothian for producing abundant crops of the finest quality of grain, which was kept up during all his lifetime, and down to the present time by his successors. Turnips, first introduced into the county by Cockburn of Ormiston, and his tenant Alexander Wight, were extensively grown by Mr Rennie’s father in 1750 and after, but it was reserved to Mr George Rennie to make turnips a special crop on his farm. Very large quantities were grown, sown in drills, and were eaten off the ground by sheep, or consumed by cattle in courts; abundance of manure was thus provided on the farm for succeeding crops. In travelling along the post-road, on the top of the mail and other coaches, strangers from England and other places were struck on seeing the immense and beautiful grain stacks in Phantassie barn-yard, symmetrically built, closely thatched with well-drawn straw; tightly “raiped” down, so as to stand the blast of all storms, and with an ornamental “peerie” on the apex, they showed that they were put up under the direction of a master-hand, and were indeed the “Glory of Phantassie.” The wheat-stacks were said to have thrashed out 40 or 50 quarters of the “finest of the wheat,” which, in those days of war, sold at prices from 80s. to 90s. per quarter and upwards, and yielded large sums of money.

Windmills for thrashing were the fashion long ago on large farms in East Lothian, as well as in other districts. At Phantassie there was, for many years, a tall, large, and powerful one, which remained in operation until steam-power superseded it. It must have been a beautiful sight to see the large mill at full work, in a rattling windy day, with its widespread and powerful arms, going at a swinging rate, guided by the “watie,” driving the strong machinery inside, which had been made by the famous Andrew Meikle (of whom more by and by), and lots of grain coming down the spouts to the delight of master and servants.

Mr Rennie’s farm-servants and stewards were always accounted the best in the country for skill and intelligence in their work. Many young men bred at Phantassie obtained excellent and trustworthy situations in England and abroad. The names of John Brock and John Monfries, long farm-stewards in Mr Rennie’s time, and after, will be long remembered as first-rate managers and worthy men.

Mr Rennie was a most successful feeder of cattle; the splendid animals he exhibited for prizes at the Highland Society and East Lothian shows, were, in his day, never excelled in size, weight, or quality, and were purchased at big prices by the leading butchers. The Linton Distillery was established by Mr Rennie and other partners, and for many years was the principal one in the county. West Bams and Haddington distilleries were offshoots from Linton. Latterly it was carried on extensively by George Dunlop & Co., but was taken down many years ago. It is perhaps interesting to note that at one time there were nine distilleries going in East Lothian. For many years past there had been none, but at present there is one going at Kinchie.

Mr Rennie, soon after getting possession of Phantassie, erected kilns, and commenced to bum limestone, which was found on the south side of the farm. The effect of heavy doses of lime soon showed themselves in producing heavy crops on the fertile soil. In 1806, Linton orchard was formed and planted. Lying on the south bank of the estate, and reaching down to the Tyne, with a fine warm aspect, it is a beautiful object to look at when the fruit-trees and strawberry beds are in full bloom. Mr Rennie's first tenant was John Gibb, an old name in Linton. Linton orchard still maintains its high character for raising fine fruits, and strawberries in particular.

Linton had always a Baron Bailie, appointed by the lord of the manor, to preserve peace in the village. Robert Ballantyne, baker at the Brigend, long held the office, having been appointed by Mr Rennie. He was known till the day of his death as the “Bailie.” His quaint, homely, agreeable manners, and curious remarks made him a favourite among a wide circle of friends. He was long known as a character in the Linton district. Linton, from its central position in the county, had, from an early date, a weekly established “Port” every Monday morning during the harvest season, for hiring shearers and fixing the wages. Very large numbers of workers, mostly Irish, assembled to be hired, and sometimes it was no easy business for farmers and these to come to terms. Frequent riots and disturbances took place; and when Linton whisky began to operate, fighting took place, farmers had their coats torn off their backs, and were knocked down. Mr Rennie’s authority as a Justice of the Peace, aided by Bailie Ballantyne, was often set at defiance. On one occasion Ralph Plain, the constable of the place, got his big red nose nearly cut off with a hook; and very often the ringleaders had to be bound hand and foot and sent up to Haddington jail in carts. For some seasons twelve dragoons were sent early every Monday morning from Piershill to keep the shearers in order. The wages fixed at Linton Port ruled the rest of the county for the week. Reaping machines have now superseded Linton Port, shearers, and hooks.

A writer in the Edinburgh Courant in 1831, thus expresses himself:—“Mr Rennie confined his attention chiefly to operative agriculture, and his fine estate bore ample marks of the skill with which his plans were laid, and the accuracy with which they were executed.” Phantassie was often visited by agriculturists of mark from home and abroad to inspect Mr Rennie’s improved mode of farming. They always went away pleased and delighted after viewing in his fields the perfection of farming, whether in the grain and turnip crop, or in the rich feeding quality of the grass land, grazed by large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. Their minds were enlarged, and deeply impressed with the fact that at Phantassie the utmost capabilities of the soil in raising crops were fully developed. Mr Rennie’s urbanity and hospitality to strangers and visitors were well known and acknowledged. He was also well known in Haddington market, and at the Justice of Peace and other county courts (which he regularly attended) he took a prominent part in the business which came before them. Tall, handsome, and of a very gentlemanly appearance, he was a fine specimen of a country gentleman. Kind and affable to all his friends and acquaintances, servants, and dependents, he was universally esteemed. A fine example of the kindness of Mr Rennie’s heart has been handed down. When the brave and gallant 42d Regiment came home from Waterloo, where its ranks had been sadly thinned, after being quartered some time in England, it was ordered to march to Edinburgh Castle in 1816. In marching past Phantassie, sadly knocked up with their former privations and long march from England, Mr Rennie got the regiment to stop, and kindly entertained the officers and men with refreshments, which generous action was much thought of at the time, and the more so as this was almost the only instance of kindness and respect the brave men had received during their long march. Mr Rennie having become widely known as one of the most celebrated agriculturists of the day, was much sought after by Agricultural Societies for advice, and was much employed in Surveys, &c.

Oh! is there not some patriot in whose power
That best, that God-like luxury is placed
Of blessing thousands—thousands yet unborn—
Through late posterity? Some large of soul
To cheer dejected industry? To give
A double harvest to the pining swain?
And teach the lab’ring hand the sweets of toil!
Yes, there are such!—Thomsons Seasons.

The above lines seem very applicable to the late Sir John Sinclair, Bart, of Ulbster, who did much in his day to advance the science of agriculture in Great Britain. In the latter end of the last century, the Government of the country, entertaining wise and correct opinions as to the necessity of improving the land of the kingdom, and thereby increasing the primary source of the nation’s wealth, instituted a Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement.

Under its auspices, surveys of different parts of the country were undertaken, with the view of communicating agricultural knowledge and of stimulating improvements. The ablest agriculturists of the day were selected to undertake such surveys, and to draw up and publish their observations for the national benefit. East Lothian may still feel proud of the fact that three of its most eminent farmers—viz., Mr George Rennie of Phantassie, Mr Robert Brown of Markle, and Mr John Shirreff of Captainhead, were selected and authorised by the Board, in 1793, to make an agricultural survey of the extensive district of the West Riding of Yorkshire, and to report their observations for the consideration of the Board. Mr Rennie, with his two associates, spent over five weeks in the West Riding, and used all the means placed in their power to gain an intimate knowledge of the different modes in which husbandry was carried on there, as well as the general and local impediments to its improvement. The result of the labours of Mr Rennie and his friends is printed in an interesting volume, compiled from their journal by Mr Brown, and published under the authority of the Board in 1799, with the title General View of the Agriculture of the West Riding of Yorkshire. The West Riding is divided into nine wapentakes, one hundred and seventy-five parishes, and 28 market towns. In 1793, as stated in a Government return, there were in it of waste land 200,000 acres capable of being converted into pasture or cultivation; 140,272 acres incapable of being improved except by planting; 6500 acres detached moors or waste—total, 405,272 acres. Mr Rennie and his two associates had therefore plenty of work on their hands in surveying the moor and waste land alone. According to a map which is attached to the volume, the route extended from Ripon and Borough Bridge on the north to Sheffield on the south, and from Settle on the west to Selby on the east. They visited thirty-nine towns, and furnished statistical agricultural information for sixty-four parishes. They were kindly received and hospitably entertained by most of the large landed proprietors, among whom were the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Thanet, Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Hawke, Duke of Leeds, Earl of Harewood, &c, to most of whom they had letters of introduction from Sir John Sinclair. They received much information from the large proprietors or their agents relative to the covenants and agreements by which their land was held, and found in almost every case that tenants had no leases, but held their tenures from year to year, and were removable on six months’ notice.

Mr Rennie and Mr Brown thus express themselves in the report about the want of leases:—“The primary error of the Yorkshire husbandry consists in not giving the tenant a security of possession for a reasonable time; and the second and no less important error arises from the restrictions imposed during the time he occupies his farm, which prevent him from changing his management or adapting his crops to the nature of the soil he possesses. Agriculture is a living science which is progressively improving, consequently what may be esteemed a good course of cropping at one time may, from experience and observation, be afterwards found defective and erroneous. To us it would seem as incongruous to tie a man’s legs together and then tell him to run, as to suppose that improvements are to be made by a farmer without the security of a lease. The great charm which sets industry everywhere in motion is the acquisition of property and the security of it when acquired. When tenants hold by a precarious tenure, and are removable at the will of the proprietor, or after a short period, then undoubtedly their labour will be spiritless and languid, as they have no inducement to enter upon improvements when they have no certainty of enjoying the immediate benefit.”

How different was Cockburn of Ormiston’s practice to the above. The different subjects treated of in the survey are too numerous to be all noticed in detail, but they include in eighteen chapters—farm offices, cottages, farm implements, stocking, sheep, cattle, and horses, enclosure of land, nature of soils, rent, reclaiming of waste lands, embankments on river sides, tithes, poor-rates, condition of farm-servants, &c., in the treatment of all of which subjects Mr Rennie and his friends display great ability. Their remarks are well worth a careful and attentive perusal. Mr Rennie took great interest, and was an enthusiast in having farm implements made in the best manner. His implements at Phantassie were all of the best construction, and made under his direction, being fully convinced that workmen of any kind can never do their work well with inefficient tools. When in the West Riding they found the Rotherham plough in general use, and drawn by four horses in a line, with two drivers. Mr Rennie and his friends were unanimous in condemning this plough, and mode of working it. They enter fully into their objections against it, and describe the use of it as truly absurd.

The following practice, as narrated in the survey, seems a very strange one, and will perhaps amuse the hinds of East Lothian and elsewhere:—“There is a practice which prevails over a considerable part of this district of giving the ploughmen drink, both forenoon and afternoon, be the work what it will, which is a ridiculous custom, and ought to be abolished without loss of time. What can be more absurd than to see a ploughman stopping his horses half an hour on a cold winter day to drink ale? We suspect the practice is so deep rooted that it will not be easily removed without a compensation. This ought to be done at once, as being an encouragement to idleness; and from wasting much time, a great obstruction to improvements.”

Mr Rennie having acquired a well-merited celebrity for his knowledge in agricultural matters, was often consulted by the officials of Government, especially on the long-vexed questions of the Corn Laws and Agricultural Distress. He was frequently called on to give evidence, with other skilful farmers from East Lothian, before Committees of the House of Commons, and it is well known that his evidence had great weight with the members, when alterations for or against the agriculturists of the country were to be determined on. In the course of the survey in the West Riding, Mr Rennie found some of the thrashing-mills which were patented by Andrew Meikle in 1788, which were wrought by two horses, and performed the light work they had to do in an efficient way. Andrew Meikle’s grand invention, which Mr Rennie warmly encouraged and patronised, will now be noticed.

It is hardly necessary at the present day to state that the primitive way of separating grain from the straw was by treading it out by oxen, who were kept in constant motion until the business was done. Machines were next invented, in different styles of planks or beams stuck over with flints or hard pegs to rub the ears between them; others to bruise out the grain by sledges or trail carts. Old authors have included the flail in this description. Dryden speaks of “The sled, the tumbrill, hurdles, and the flail.” At what time the flail took the place of the old primitive methods is not known with certainty, but until 1787 thrashing by the flail was the only method known to British agriculturists —if we except the ancient custom of “bittling” sheaves and singles on a hard floor or a door-step—a custom as old as the time of Ruth, and practised yet by industrious cottars, hinds' wives, old town's folks and their bairns, to produce from their “eident” gatherings from the stubble-fields a small “pock” of flour to help their winter provender.

The great importance of a thrashing-mill as part of the working gear of a farm can be imagined from the fact that in a large and fertile farm like Phantassie several thrashers, or taskers, were constantly employed thrashing out the crop with the flail from after harvesttime to Lammas following, and that too .in a very tedious and inefficient way. Almost no taskers are now to be found in the country. Several attempts before 1787 had been made both in England and Scotland to construct machines to perform the work of separating corn from the straw, but they all proved useless and ineffective for the purpose. One made by Sir Francis Kinloch, Bart., of Gilmerton, copied from one he had seen at Frogden in Northumberland, was so badly constructed that it broke to pieces when tried.

It was reserved to Andrew Meikle, civil engineer and mill-wright at Houston Mill, Prestonkirk, to invent and bring to perfection, in 1785, after many experiments and much thought, a machine furnished with beaters and scutchers, rakes, shakers, and fanners, all driven by the same machinery. The different processes of thrashing, shaking, and winnowing were performed at once, and the grain prepared for the market. By Mr Meikle’s grand invention a new era in agricultural management began, and a fresh stimulus was given to farming improvements in raising increased quantities of grain. Houston Mill being on the estate of Phantassie, Mr Rennie took much interest in the invention, and during the making and perfecting of it, regularly attended the workshop to watch its progress, and encouraged Mr Meikle in his oft-repeated trials and experiments. His youngest brother John—afterwards the celebrated engineer—was at that time in Mr Meikle’s employment as an apprentice.

The first thrashing machine Mr Meikle made was put up for Mr Stein, distiller and farmer at Kilbeggie, near Clackmannan. It was fitted with two solid fluted rollers, and they were the first that were ever used in Great Britain, and no alteration or improvement was ever attempted to be made on them. The mill was driven by water and was perfectly successful. The next machine erected by Mr Meikle was for Mr Rennie at Phantassie, and was worked by horses, being the first horse thrashing-mill ever erected. Mr Rennie some years after substituted a powerful windmill in place of it. In a few years Meikle’s thrashing-mills became well known and were extensively used; but although he secured a patent for the invention for ten years, with the aid of Mr Rennie and others, at considerable expense, he did not reap the benefit he ought to have done from it, considering that the public were more profited by it than by any other agricultural implement produced at the time. His modesty in not fully asserting the importance of his machine was much taken advantage of by interlopers, who challenged and infringed his patent. Mr Rennie, in an able letter published in the Farmers' Magazine in 1811, and extracted from a pamphlet entitled “Reply to an address to the public, but more particularly to the landed interest of Great Britain and Ireland, on the subject of thrashing machines, by John Shirreff,” gives a clear and minute history of Mr Meikle’s machine, and proves him to have been the sole inventor, and completely demolishes the pretensions of Sir Francis Kinloch and others. Mr Rennie says in his letter:—“Probably there is not another person in existence that had so many opportunities of knowing the several facts and circumstances connected with the invention as myself, chiefly owing to the habits of intimacy which I had long maintained with those concerned, particularly with Mr Meikle and his family. During the time I attended school at Prestonkirk, I passed through Mr Meikle’s workshop twice or thrice every day, and as his son was my school-fellow, I went often with him and viewed the machines and models of machines that were making, in which way I acquired some mechanical knowledge, or at least a disposition to inquire into and investigate such new inventions as afterwards came under my consideration.”

Mr Meikle having reached an advanced age, and not having received a recompense at all equal to the merit and importance of his invention, which he was so deservedly entitled to, a subscription of money was begun in 1810, to make the worthy old man comfortable in his latter days, under the care of Mr Rennie, Sir John Sinclair, Bart., Sir G. Stewart Mackenzie, and others. The Highland Society headed the list with a subscription of £31, 10s. Almost every proprietor and tenant-farmer in East-Lothian contributed, as well as those of other twenty Scotch counties, and several in England. £1428 was collected. Mr Meikle, however, did not long enjoy the benefit of his friends’ contributions. He died on the 27th November 1811, and the money was handed to his son and daughter. The editor of the Fanners’ Magazine paid a well-merited tribute to his memory, and bore his testimony to his great engineering skill and his moral worth. He was buried in the churchyard of Prestonkirk. His old and kind friend, Mr Rennie, placed a tombstone over his grave, with the following inscription on it:—“Beneath this stone are deposited the mortal remains of the late Andrew Meikle, civil engineer at Houston Mill, who died in the year 1811, aged 92 years. Descended from a race of ingenious mechanics, to whom the country for ages had been greatly indebted, he steadily followed the example of his ancestors, and by inventing and bringing to perfection a machine for separating corn from the straw, (constructed upon the principle of velocity, and furnished with fixed beaters or scutchers), rendered to the agriculturists of Britain and of other nations a more beneficial service than any hitherto recorded in the annals of ancient or modem science.”

It is curious to state that for a long period Meikle’s invention was looked on with a jealous eye by the old-fashioned farmers and farm-labourers of that day. Their apprehensions were that by the use of machinery a great number of men, the taskers, would be put out of employment. Experience, however, proved that they were wrong, for the working-classes were better paid and more regularly employed after thrashing-mills came into use.


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