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Mediaeval Scotland
Chapter I. Agriculture


In treating this subject it may be convenient to divide the past into certain periods, and deal with each separately, showing as far as possible the methods of cultivation used, the various crops raised, the value received for them, the relations between owners and occupiers, and the burdens imposed in the shape of rent (or payments and services in lieu of rent) for the use of the land. The taxes raised for national and local purposes and laid on land will be dealt with hereafter.

The divisions proposed are (1) the Pre-historic period, coming down to about the close of the seventh century; (2) the Celtic period, coming down to about the close of the twelfth century; (3) the Early Feudal period, coming down to the reign of James I.; and (4), lastly, the Later Feudal period, closing with the union of the two kingdoms in 1707.

It is necessary to bear in mind concerning the two earlier periods that we are dealing then with four, at least, distinct races, of different origin, different degrees of civilization, and having in many cases different customs. Few things amongst a semicivilized people are so unchangeable as agricultural customs, and, where the soil and climate permit, they carry to the lands of their settlement the habits of the land of their origin. We may expect, for example, to find the Dalriadic Scots following the Hiberno-Scottish practices, the Norsemen the Norwegian, and so on. Consequently we cannot safely infer that the same state of progress existed all over the country. On the contrary, we find in every period that some parts of the country, peopled by energetic races, were soon far in advance of the others, and that, even among these, considerable differences in agricultural progress are found. To give a complete picture of every part of the country would involve a mass of details which would be out of place on the present occasion, and for the earlier periods indicated above would be almost impossible from lack of evidence. All that is attempted is to give some data which may show points of contrast between the days we live in and the days gone by, and may stimulate some to study for themselves the records of the past.

Commencing with the first of these periods, which extends from an unknown antiquity down to the seventh century, we are in a position to affirm that at the dawn of history, when the Roman invasion took place, agriculture was practically unknown. The earliest historical notices we have of Scotland disclose a state of society apparently without any knowledge of tillage. Caesar distinctly says that the inhabitants did not resort to the cultivation of the soil for food, but were dependent upon their cattle and the flesh of animals slain in hunting. And so late as the third century Dion Cassius, according to his abridger, Xifiline, confirmed the fact that the early Caledonians lived up to that date only by pasturage and the chase.

How long this condition of things existed we have no means of ascertaining. Our knowledge of the Romano-British period, and the three centuries immediately succeeding it, is so scanty that it is impossible to dogmatize in the absence of trustworthy evidence. Were conjecture admissible when dealing with historical matters it might be surmised that the Romans would hardly have occupied the country so long as they did without introducing cropping of some kind. But there is no direct evidence of it, so far at least as Scotland is concerned. “Querns,” the ancient stone handmills, have been found in the crannogs of Ayrshire, and charred grain (bere and oats) in the Broch of Dun-beath. But these may have been left by the last inhabitants, possibly in comparatively recent times. The famous miracle of S. Ninian about the leeks would show that garden herbs were known and cultivated in the beginning of the fifth century. But the only life we now have of the apostle of Galloway was written by Ailred in the twelfth century, though he professes to write from a very ancient original, and may have recorded a traditional fact. When we come to Adamnan’s life of S. Columba we are entitled to believe that agriculture of a certain sort was practised (at least amongst the Dalriadic Scots) in the seventh century, if not actually during the saint’s life, a hundred years earlier. It is related by his biographer that Columba, when in Iona, having taken from a cottar some bundles of twigs to wattle a house, sent him in return six measures of barley, which, though not sown till the 13th of June, were reaped in the beginning of August. Various other agricultural operations are noticed in the same work. Ploughing and sowing occur in the 45th chapter of the second book ; harvest work in the 29th chapter of the first book ; corn-grinding in the 22nd chapter of the first book; and one of the last earthly deeds of the saint was to bless the barn of the family of Iona, and two heaps of winnowed corn which were in it. According to Dr. O’Donovan, cereal crops were known in Ireland long previous to the introduction of Christianity; and the Scots of Dalriada may have brought their agricultural knowledge with them.

Joceline, in his life of S. Kentigern (or Mungo), of Glasgow, records a miracle which shows that oxen were used for ploughing ; for he relates how the holy man, not having any cattle, would have had to let his land lie fallow had not a stag and a wolf miraculously come out of a wood and ploughed nine acres for him. But again in this case Joceline wrote centuries after Mungo slept with the other 654 saints in the cemetery of “Glasghu’; and probably the correct historical inference is that oxen were used for agricultural tillage in the twelfth century, when the life was written.

We may, therefore, reasonably conclude that on the introduction of Christianity into Scotland agriculture was practised, though we cannot fix the exact period of its introduction. Neither can we say much regarding the methods practised nor the results obtained. But it is highly probable that the system which we find in operation in the immediately succeeding period existed from a much earlier time, and was the immediate development of pre-historic rural economy.

During the Celtic period our knowledge of agricultural methods is still very defective, though we learn something of the state of land tenure and cultivation from occasional notices in the earlier chronicles now made accessible, and from the close analogy which exists between the customs of the various branches of the Celtic race. We find that at this period, for example, the social unit both of the Gaelic and Cymric peoples was not the individual or the family, but the tribe. The territory of the tribe (the Irish tuath) was held partly in severalty (by the rig and flatlis in Ireland) and partly in common by the rest of the community. In Celtic Scotland a somewhat similar state of matters is found. The tribes occupied their territories in the following manner :— The arable tribe land was distributed at certain intervals among the free tribesmen. The pastoral tribe land was held in common. The inheritance land was held by the headmen as individual property by blood descent. Of these chiefs there were two sorts, one getting their position by descent, the other by accumulations of property. They cultivated their estates either by bond men or by free tenants on a tenure, of which steelbow (or stuht) is a survival. Strangers in blood to the tribe often joined a sept, and received a portion from the chief, giving in return their sword-service and customary dues. Besides the tribe land and the inheritance land, each clan gave a portion of its territory for the support of the office-bearers, the Toisech, the Tanist, the File, and the Brehon, and, after the introduction of Christianity, to the Saggart or priest. The homestead was composed of a dwelling-house, ox stall, hog sty, a sheep pen, and a calf-house, and was surrounded by an earthen rampart, and called usually a Rath. Constant reference to these is made in early Scottish charters. Thus in the Chartulary of Scone we have a grant to the Abbey of the Church of Logymahedd, with the Rath “qua est caput comitatus.” In the Chartulary of Moray we have a notice of the Rath of Kingussie. In the Chartulary of Arbroath we find the Rath of the territory of Katerlyn mentioned. This homestead or Rath was the unit of which the aggregate made up the tribe.

These tuaths or tribes are found with us both amonff the Northern Piets and the Dalriadac Scots of the Western Highlands. The notices in the ancient tract quoted by Mr. Skene, the Amra-Choluim-Chilli, show that in the time of Columba these tribal settlements existed amongst the Dalriads and the heathen Piets. For example, we find the land north of the Clyde occupied by three tribes— the Cinel Gabran, Cinel Angus, and the Cinel Lorn. The Cinel Gabran occupied Kintyre, Arran, and Bute, and had 560 homesteads, with 20 houses each; the Cinel Angus possessed Isla and Jura, and had 430 homesteads; and the Cinel Lorn peopled the district of that name, and had 420 homesteads.

We find traces of tribes also in Galloway. In the charter-room of the Marquess of Ailsa at Culzean there is a confirmation in 1276 of a charter by Neil of Carrick to Roland of Carrick, of “ Kenkenol,” or the right of being- head of the tribe or kin. The tenants of these tribes paid their rent in services or in kind, for it must be remembered there was no coined money in Scotland till the time of David I. And of these burdens in lieu of rent there were at this time four, viz.—Cain, Conveth, Feacht, and Sluaged. The first two were payments in kind, the others were personal service. We find these frequently mentioned in the chartularies and in early charters. Thus King David granted to the Church of Glasgow the tithe of his “Can” of Strathgrif, Cunningham, Kyle, and Carrick.

Can or Cain was a portion of the produce of the land, and was rendered in grain from arable farms, and in stock from pasture land. It was paid by the occupiers of the soil to the owner in every part of Scotland down to the feudal period, and long after where feudal tenure did not prevail.

Conveth was founded on the original right which the leaders of the Celtic tribe had to be supported by their followers, and it finally became a fixed contribution on each plough-gate of land. In the Chartu-lary of Scone we find a grant from Malcolm IV. to the abbey at the Feast of All Saints, for their conveth, of i cow and 2 pigs, some meal and oats, 10 hens, 200 eggs, 10 bundles of candles, 4 lb. of soap, and 20 half-meales of cheese. In the Western Highlands this rent was called the “ Cuddicke,” and is mentioned in the Western Islands late on in the fifteenth century, and is found later still in Atholl. It is sometimes also called “ Conyouunder which form it occurs in a contract between the Bishop of the Isles and Lauchlan M‘Lean of Dowart in 1580. A somewhat similar rent, called Sorrynwas of old exacted in Galloway.

The “Feacht” and “Sluaged" were obligations of personal service to follow the head of the tribe in expeditions and wars, and in Scotland were laid on the davoch of land. These ancient Celtic obligations appear in later times to be what is called in old charters “Scottish service,” or “expedition and hosting.”

Such were the obligations of the occupiers and tillers of the ground from the earliest dawn of authentic record down to the close of the Celtic period in the eleventh century.

Coming now to the earlier feudal period, we glean our chief information as to the state of rural economy mostly from the chartularies and registers of the great religious houses. From these we can gather a tolerably exact account of the state of agriculture from the eleventh to the close of the thirteenth centuries. During this period we cannot trace any legal enactments, but there is no doubt that the force of custom, in itself almost stronger in rude nations than that of law, existed, and stereotyped what men were to do with regard to the cultivation of the soil.

It is hardly necessary to say that the monks were the great promoters and encouragers of agriculture. One of the earliest sources of knowledge we have is a rental of the possessions of the Abbey of Kelso, drawn up in 1290.

From it we find that in each principal district there was a “grange,” or abbey homestead. It was usually under the charge of a lay brother of the convent, or sometimes of one of the monks, and included the store-house for the implements, the byres for cattle, the home of the “carles', and the granary of the domain, or “mains." The carles (nativi, or serfs) were really bondmen, who belonged to the land and went with it. Outside the “ grange ” dwelt the “cottarii” or cottars, occupying a hamlet, or “town,” with from one to nine acres each of land, for which they paid a money rent and certain services. Then came the “husbandi,” or “malars or farmers, renting a “ husbandlandThis husband-land was generally two oxgates of land, each 13 acres, “where plough and scythe could gang.” Four husbandmen occupied together a plough-gate, equal to 104 acres, and had a common plough to which each contributed two oxen. These were neighbours, and strict rules of good fellowship were laid down, and, when necessary, enforced by the “birley men ” chosen by themselves.

As early as 1185 there were enclosed fields for cultivation, for in that year Robert Avenel gave to the monks of Melrose certain lands in Upper Esk-dale, and the privilege of hunting and hawking without prejudice to the enclosures.

When we come to consider the return from land during this period we have to deal with the important factor of money payments as well as services and payments in kind. And we also find a very great advance in civilization and in the methods of agriculture. The monastic chartularies and rentals give some idea of the burdens then imposed on tenants. One example may serve as a sort of guide. On the barony of Bolden the monks had twenty-eight husbandlands. Each paid eighty sterlings or silver pennies annually as silver rent, and the following services besides, viz., the whole family gave four days’ reaping in harvest, one day carrying peats, a man and a horse to and from Berwick once a year, an acre and a half’s ploughing and one day’s harrowing, a man at sheep-washing and one at sheep-shearing, and one day’s work with a waggon at harvest time. Besides these, each farmer had to take the abbot’s wool to the abbey and pay a reek-hen at Christmas. In addition to the 28 principal farmers there were 36 cottars, 1 miller, and 4 brewers. Each of the cottages had half an acre of land. The cottars rendered certain services and paid in whole 668 sterlings. The mill rented for 8 merks, and the four brew-houses paid 120 sterlings yearly.

We find that they produced oats, wheat, barley, pease, and beans. There is very little mention of rye. Lint paid teind in the reign of William the Lion in Moray. Oats were the main crop, furnishing both meal and malt. Much larger quantities were grown than might be expected. In 1300 the cavalry of Edward of England, returning from Galloway, when near Dornoch, in Dumfriesshire, passed through the growing crops of a proprietor there, who claimed damages for 80 acres of oats injured. The claim was admitted, and a sum of 5,760 sterlings paid him as damages, or at the rate of 72 per acre. Barley malt is very rare, and high in price. In 1300 oats and oat malt were 42 sterlings a quarter, and barley malt 52; wheat was 84 sterlings the quarter, beans 60 sterlings, and pease 33 sterlings. The usual price for a chalder of oats was a merk (160 sterlings) though sometimes it rose as high as 240 sterlings ; while that of barley was a merk, though sometimes it fell to 120 sterlings.

Cheese was made in considerable quantities at an early period. Malcolm IV. granted to the monks of Melrose a place at Cumbesley to build a dairy for 100 cows.

We need only refer to one more authority of this sort for the same period. In the venerable Chartulary of Melrose there are many most interesting-incidental notices throwing light on rural affairs down to the death of Alexander III. We find strict rules laid down for the protection of growing corn and hay meadows. We find wheat cultivated, and wheaten bread used on holidays. Roads—in some cases at least suitable for wheel vehicles—as appears from the penalty for trespassing on private roads, being fixed at a penny for a four-wheeled and a halfpenny for a two-wheeled waggon—were frequent, and wheeled conveyances in common use. Mills driven by wind or water were used for grinding corn, though the old “quern” still held its own in some districts.

With regard to stock, it appears from a record in the same chartulary that the monks in 1247 bought from Patrick of Dunbar his stud of horses and brood mares for 8,000 silver pennies, a very large sum in those days. Of sheep the abbey had immense flocks. Three flocks of wedders, of 500 each, were pastured near Hart’s-head in Haddington. From Roland of Galloway they had pasturage for 700 ewes with their followers of two years, for 49 cows similarly attended, a bull, 40 oxen, 8 horses, and 4 swine with their followers for three years. In Wedale they grazed 7 score cattle and 500 sheep, and on Primside 400 sheep.

Minute and careful arrangements are laid down for the folds and fanks, the shepherds, separation of pastures, removal of stock at various times of the year, etc. The shepherds in some cases had movable lodges with them.

In this period we find for the first time positive laws relating to the land and agriculture. In the year 1214 bondsmen were to begin to plough and sow 15 days before the Feast of the Purification. And, to encourage agriculture, Alexander II. in the same Parliament ordered every person who possessed more than four cows to rent land and plough it with the cattle; and those who had fewer cattle were to till it by hand labour, under certain pains and penalties.

And in a fragment of uncertain date it is laid down that if a tenant puts “gule” (a noxious weed not unknown at the present day) in the land he is to be punished as if he had led an enemy into the country—that is apparently with death. Should it be owing to the carelessness of a bondager, he shall pay a sheep for every plant of it, and clean the land besides.


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