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Mediaeval Scotland
Chapter II. Agriculture


We are now in a position to get some idea of the prices of the various agricultural products. In 1259 Fordun relates that there was a great famine in Scotland, so that the boll of meal sold for 48 sterlings or silver pennies, evidently a very extreme price. In 1296 the army of Edward of England wasted and destroyed certain crops, the property of the Priory of Coldstream. The damage was estimated by the monks at 48 quarters of wheat, each quarter priced at 60 silver pennies; 40 quarters of rye, at 48 silver pennies ; 56 quarters of barley, at 60 silver pennies; 80 quarters of oats, at 24 silver pennies. Sheep were estimated at 8 sterlings ; oxen and cows, at 36 each; pigs, at 10; work horses, at 60 each. To make up the loss certain amounts of wheat, beans, and malt were sent by the English King, and the monks valued his wheat at 120 sterlings the quarter, the beans at 92 sterlings, and the malt at 84 sterlings. In a tack by the Abbot of Aberbrothock in 1314 a cow is valued at 60 silver pennies, and an ox, in 1317, at 80 silver pennies.

A very important change in the relationship between owners and occupiers of land also begins now to make its appearance. Leases or written agreements, giving to the cultivators a legal security for a defined period on certain conditions, are much earlier than is commonly supposed. They occur in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, were well known in the fourteenth, and the common custom, in civilized Scotland, in the fifteenth and sixteenth. In 1190, Alan, son of Walter the Stewart, approved a lease by the monks of Kelso to his men of Inner-wich of certain lands for thirty-three years. Many others are mentioned in the chartularies. One occurs in 1312, entered into between the Abbot of Scone and Hay of Leys. The abbot sets the lands of Balgarvie for thirty years, the rent at first being 160 silver pennies, rising 80 sterlings per annum for six years ; 480 sterlings from the seventh to the twelfth year ; 640 from the twelfth to the twentieth ; and 800 sterlings from the twentieth to the thirtieth. The tenant was to erect his buildings, and to have power to sublet. In all these cases the money rent was in addition to the usual and customary suits and services. Somewhat later we find the Crown lands managed by commissioners, whose reports are preserved in the Register House from 1480. Leases were granted for three, five, seven, thirteen, and nineteen years. The new lease was generally given two years before the expiry of the old one. A "grassum" of one year’s rent was paid for the lease, and in some cases another year’s rent as entry money.

Some very curious and interesting early leases are preserved in a rental book of the Abbey of Cupar, extending from 1443 to 1538. The leases usually last from five to seven years, though some are for longer periods, as nineteen years, and some are for life. The rents were payable in money, service, and kind. The tenants could sub-let small portions to labourers. The cottars were bound to have enclosures for kail, apparently for sanitary reasons. Strict rules were laid down for cutting peats, irrigating pastures, reclaiming marsh land, and the rotation of crops. Every tenant was to “win the land fra guld.” In 1462 manure seems to have been regularly employed on the barley fields. In a lease of 1558 Robert Alexander was promised all the dung from the stables, with the ashes and dust from the convent workshops and courts, for manuring his land. After 1468 the leases contain provisions for planting trees, such as ash, sauchs, and osiers.

Broom plantations were made for the “conies,” and were under the charge of a special officer of the abbey. The woods also were protected, and placed under a forester. In 1475 the leases contain clauses that the tenants were to be respectable in their clothing—a provision made by Act of Parliament in 1429, which prohibited farmers from wearing ragged garments.

The proprietor then made and repaired the houses, but the tenant seems to have kept them up during his lease. A house and three acres of land were let in 1453 at a yearly rent of 120 sterlings. Another, with four acres, at 192 sterlings and the services of two reapers. Security was in some cases taken for the rent, and also for the just fulfilment of the conditions. Tenants were fined by the abbot for destroying the wood, and had also to keep up and restore fences. From one of the extracts it would appear that husbandmen and cottars were regulated by different customs. In the lease of the Grange of Balbrogy, in 1468, it is stipulated that those holding the middle ploughgate4 should answer to the monastery in the law of husbandmen, but regarding fuel they shall stand as cottars. Another lease, in 1466, has the curious provision that the tenant, John Barbur, who was evidently suffering from some disease, probably leprosy, should, after the first year’s sowing, depart from his wife and family to a place suitable for his infirmity, and not thereafter return to any suspected communication with the place. In 1468 another lease contains provisions for draining the moss of Syoks, by a sufficient aqueduct. This same tenant of Syoks, one Die Scot, had a lease for five years, with this curious provision “ that if he shall not be sober and temperate, preserving more strictly a kindly intercourse with his neighbours and relatives,” his lease was to be of no avail. Another tenant, John Crochat, in 1470, is obliged to promise on oath to preserve a kindly and lawful neighbourhood. After an Act of Parliament in 1472, regulating the rotation of crops, we find John Spark, tenant of little Perth, is taken bound to adhere to the state resfula-tions in sowing wheat, pease, rye, and beans, failing which he is to forfeit his lease.

The “cuningar,” or rabbit warren was under the charge of a special officer, who in 1475 was one Gilbert Ray. A lease of two acres of ground, with pasturage, free of rent, was given to him for looking after the vermin. A curious provision is inserted in some of the leases about 1478. Walter Dog gets a lease of Kyncrech in that year, and one of the conditions is, “he shall never murmur abbot nor convent about his lease,” or else freely “gie it our.” Probably the fathers had been having complaints. In 1541 a fowler appears, who was allowed to kill all sorts of wild fowl on condition that he delivered them to the abbey, receiving certain payments for each.

Ordinary disputes were settled by oversmen, or “birley men,” in each district. The monastery had a ground officer on each estate, to see that the conditions of the tacks were punctually and faithfully carried out.

The moorland tenants were bound to keep dogs to hunt the wolves, which seem to have committed great ravages on the flocks.

The land was divided into “in field ” land, that is, arable, and “out field” or unreclaimed. “Shepherd-land” seems to have been generally hill pasturage, to which the sheep were sent at suitable seasons.

Leases were forfeited by conviction for theft, adultery, reset of stolen goods, by encouraging too many cottars, by unneighbourly or intemperate conduct, by failure of proper rotation of crops, by allowing weeds, and by non-payment of rent or services.

Various Acts of Parliament were introduced for the purpose of encouraging agriculture during this period. In 1366 we find a statute forbidding the horses of followers of the king’s officers doing damage to the crops or growing hay under severe penalties, and in 1481 the same statute was re-enacted and confirmed. Great damage being done to the crops by rooks, Parliament in 1424 ordered the young crows to be destroyed ; and if any nests were found undestroyed at Beltane,5 the trees on which they were were to be cut down, and a fine of 60 pence imposed on the owner of the trees. This Act was extended in 1457 to all kinds of destructive birds. Another Act of 1424 provided that every labourer was either to be the joint owner of an ox fit to go in the plough, or, if not, he was to dig seven square feet of ground every day, or to pay a fine equal to the full value of an ox. Two years later another Act was passed requiring every tenant who was the owner of a plough team of oxen to sow yearly at least a firlot® of wheat, half a firlot of pease, and forty beans ; or failing, to forfeit 120 pence. Similarly, owners of land, in their own occupation, were to sow in proportion, or be fined 480 pence in default, and a similar sum for each of their tenants who neglected to sow his proportion.

A very important Act was passed in 1449. In order to encourage agricultural tenants, it was then enacted that whoever had a written lease could not be interfered with or put out of his holding if he fulfilled the conditions of his agreement, even though the land was sold. A special clause was inserted providing that tenants on Church lands falling to the Crown should not thereby be disturbed. By another Act of the same date every farmer was prohibited from having stacks of corn in his yard after 25th December of each year; and a further provision in 1452 ordered all grain to be threshed before the end of May.

We get some insight into the state of agriculture during the later feudal period from a rental of the Bishopric of Aberdeen in 1511.

From this it appears that the average rent of a ploughgate of land in that district was £1 7s- 9d off silver maill or money rent; one year’s rent as “grassum ” ; 2od. for commuted services, 1 firlot of oats, 1 firlot of malt, 1 firlot of meal, ¼of a mart, 1 sheep, ¼ of a kid, 5 capons, 5 fowls, 4 moor-fowl, and 1 pig from the mill, with 2 stones of cheese from each pastoral holding. The crofters were bound to build one rood of the fold for every cow possessed. Each paid 9s. 9d. of silver maill, 1 firlot of barley, and 10 fowls. Tenants were bound to build, but in some cases were allowed the cost.

Similar provisions are found on a barony in the same district in 1532. The ploughgate of land was usually let to four tenants, each sending two oxen to help to drag the common plough. Each plough paid on the average 32 bolls of victual, or a money rent of from £2 to £3 Scots besides services and customs, use and wont.

It is difficult to give an accurate idea of the value of agricultural produce during this period, owing to the unsettled state of the country, the not infrequent occurrence of years of exceptional scarcity, and the constant changes in the value of money. From the Act. Dom. Auditorum (1466 to 1494) we get a wide range of prices. Meal varies from 10s. to 20s. the boll;8 oats, from 2s. to 11s. the boll; pease, about 13s. 4d. the boll; sheep range from 3s. to 6s. 8d. each ; cows and oxen, from 20s. to 40s. each ; and horses, from £2 to £10 each. The will of Giles Blair, Lady Row, executed in 1530, gives some idea of Ayrshire prices at that time. Her 61 cows are valued over head at 2 merks each ; oxen, at 30s. each ; sheep, at 5s. each ; bere and meal, 12s. the boll; and oats, 6s. the boll.

At a later date the judicial records of Renfrewshire show the prices of agricultural produce to be as follow :—

Bere, the boll, 1687 ..................... £7 12 6 Scots.
Oats, the boll, 1687.......                 9  12 0
Oatmeal the boll 1687.......              7 16 2
Butter, the cwt., 1687 ..................21 4 0
Cheese, the stone, 1696 ............... 4 13 0
Wool, the stone, 1698 .................  4 0 0
Cows, each, 1687 .......................17 19 0
Sheep each 1687...............           3   0 0

The Parliamentary enactments relating to agricultural holdings from the reign of James II. to the close of the national independence of Scotland are both numerous and important.

In 1457 tenants were required to plant trees near their steadings; hedges round their fields; and broom, for what purpose is not stated. A series of Acts commencing in 1503 prohibited oxen, horses, or other gear pertaining to the plough from being pounded or distrained for debt, if the debtor had any other goods or lands. It was made illegal in 1535 to assess any part of the payment of special grants made by Parliament to the Crown on tenants or labourers of the ground. Owing to the injury done to the corn, hay, and enclosures of poor tenants by riders coming to do their military service, it was enacted in 1540 that no one except the great barons should come on horseback to the trysting place of the king’s army. A great dearth of victual took place in the year 1562, and in 1563 Parliament ordered all persons of whatever degree to thresh their corn and sell it at once ; and any stacks found standing on the 10th of July were to be confiscated.' This Act was to last for the crops of 1563, 1564, and 1565. The maiming of cattle and the cutting or injuring of ploughs or ploughing gear, and the destruction of growing corn or wood were punished with death by an Act of 1587.

The duties of farm servants were laid down by an Act of 1621. After reciting the evils which had arisen from agricultural labourers either refusing to be hired at all without “great and extraordinary” wages, or engaging only from Martinmas to Whitsunday, and then “casting themselves loose” from their engagements at a time when much farm-work, such as cutting peats, etc., had to be done, it was provided that no farm servant should leave his employment at Whitsunday unless he could prove he was fee'd to some other situation; and if not he was to be compelled to return to the farm and serve' for such wages as had formerly been agreed on. In 1645 a Frenchman applied to Parliament for leave to introduce the cultivation of Indian corn into this country, but the result of his experiment is not recorded. Grain and cattle were permitted to be exported by an Act of 1662. And between 1685 and 1703 various enactments occur encouraging the cultivation of pease and beans, regulating winter herding, prohibiting butchers from having more than one acre as grazing, under penalty of a fine of £100 and forfeiture of the cattle grazed, and for improving crops by applying lime to the fields.

In the beginning of the seventeenth century we get a good idea of the rural economy of the time from a rental of the Gordon estates, taken in 1600, and printed by the Spalding Club.

The agricultural holdings are generally about two ploughgates each and set to eight tenants. A small silver maill was paid ; but the bulk of the rent (called ferme) was rendered in kind—viz., certain bolls of oatmeal and bear, besides “customs,” such as the “reek-hen,” a mart, poultry, etc. Professor Innes, in his “Legal Antiquities,” has summed up and averaged die rent for every ploughgate in the parish of Bellie as £2 8s. for silver maill, 20 bolls of ferme victual, 11 bolls of multure, bear, etc., besides customs and carriages.

The leases were usually from five to six years, though it is highly probable these varied according to the class of tenants. At a somewhat later period we find several distinct classes of rural occupiers. These were the “Tacksmen,” or tenants with leases; next in importance were the “Bowers,” who farmed milk “kye” and their grass, and the “Steel Bowers,” who received stock and cattle along with their farms. After these come the “Pendiclers,” who had a small quantity of land, generally held from the chief tenant or tacksman; and “Cottars,” who had a house and portion of land, and who worked with the farmer, but had no cattle, and got their tillage work done by the tenant. The “Crofters” differed from cottars in that their arable land was not subject to the tenant’s pleasure, and they had their cattle herded and pastured with the tacksman. Lastly, we find the “Dryhouse Cottars,” who had nothing but a hut and a kailyard.

We get a still later glimpse of agricultural life in the seventeenth century, and in a different part of the country, from the Corshill Baron court book, recently printed by the Ayr and Galloway Archaeological Association. This record began prior to 1590, and continues down to 1719, but the earlier portion has been lost, and the existing roll begins in 1666. The court was constituted by the Laird of the Barony of Corshill, in Stewarton parish, Ayrshire, the whole tenants and feuars lawfully summoned, the “Bailie” appointed by the Baron (who presided as judge), the “Baron Officer” and the “Dempster,” who pronounced the “doom” of the court. The Officer was appointed by the Baron, “with consent of the tennentis of the ground.” The Laird and the Bailie, “with consent of the ground,” appointed also certain persons as “birleymen,” whose duty was to keep good neighbourhood and solve disputes referred to them. The court in certain cases also fixed on two “ honest men,” to whose judgment disputants agreed to defer. Tenants who were absent were fined for their contumacy, in one case as high as £4 Scots.

The greater portion of the cases dealt with belonged to the every-day life of an agricultural community. The miller complained about those who abstracted the corn from the mill to which they were “thirled,” and the offenders had to pay the “multures,” with 6s. 8d. Scots in addition as expenses. Sub-tenants who had taken pasturage from the tenants sometimes refused to pay the “grass maill,” and were brought up and ordained to pay. The “merchant at the Kirk” (of Stewarton) continually complained that he was not paid his just debts, and got decrees in his favour. Janet Harper pursued Margate Stirling in that she took away peats out of the moss which belonged to the said Janet. Disputes about bargains, about the quality of stock or crop sold, about fences, about the damage done by cattle breaking into crop land, and such like matters seem to have chiefly occupied the attention of the court. From time to time Acts were made and promulgated by the Bailie with consent of the tenants, such as against any one breaking fences or trees, or stealing fruit or cutting broom, or steeping lint in running water, or killing “reid” fish, or shooting hares, or wild fowl, or burning moss out of season. The court also regulated weights and measures, and, from time to time, imposed as a school rate 22s. out of every ^100 Scots of valuation. In one case they compelled the payment of arrears of school fees. “Flyting” women who annoyed their neighbours were brought up and smartly dealt with. Occasionally more serious crimes occur. Margaret Bryson in Beith stole James Wylie’s bonnet, and was fined 50 pennies Scots. George Harbiesone “aggressed" and fell upon Hugh Bicket in Hareshaw, and “for blood and battery and breaking of his leg” had to pay £50 Scots, of which the aforesaid Hugh got £45 “for the cureing of his leg.” For “molesting the clerk ” of the court, John Picken was fined summarily £5. The shoemaker got into trouble for abusing Sir David Cunningham, yr. of Corshill, “at ane very heigh rate,” and calling him names, “with many grievous oaths and sic like,” for which he had to pay £20 Scots.

Throughout the whole of this period agriculture was in a very bad state. The crops were poor, the cultivation miserable, and prices very bad. The improvements which were soon to take place lie outside the period we are dealing with. The origin and progress of these improvements are extremely interesting, and we may return to them on some future occasion.

In conclusion, and reviewing the whole history of agriculture from the dawn of authentic record to the Union, the most prosperous times were undoubtedly the reigns of Alexander II. and III. The wars of independence and the unhappy intestine feuds which disturbed and convulsed the whole country retarded the growth of every sort of progress, and agricultural interests were among the first to suffer.


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