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A History of the Parish of Neilston
Chapter VI. - Agriculture


As we are largely an agricultural community, I propose giving a short sketch of that important branch of industry from an early period, before dealing with its special development in our parish. So universal has the knowledge of agriculture become in our day, and so important are its bearings in every relation of life, that it is difficult to think that there ever could be a period in the history of our country when agriculture was unknown. Nevertheless, such seems to have been the case, for the earliest recorded observations inform us that, at the time the Romans came to Scotland, agriculture had not begun; that tillage of the soil was unknown; that the natives, who were a fierce and rude people, lived upon roots, and the milk of their cattle, on fish, and the flesh of such animals as they killed in the chase. This was the state of the people in the first and second and third centuries, and had been so from an unknown antiquity. The Romans, no doubt, during the four hundred years they occupied this country, carried on a process of agriculture; and the early Scots, who came from Ireland in the third century to Kintyre, would also bring with them a crude knowledge of agriculture from their early home; but its development must have been slow and tedious amongst a semi-civilized people with such implements as were at their disposal.

In the fifth century, however, a second batch of Scots crossed to Kintyre, and established themselves there in the Dalriadic sub-kingdom ; and, following in their wake, and bearing with him the torch of Christian knowledge, came St. Columba, who finally founded his house in the island of Iona. By this time agriculture was evidently beginning to take shape, for we find him blessing the harvest of barley, and giving directions as to the ploughing and sowing, and grinding of corn; and it is interesting to note that at this early time the tribesmen seem to have been in possession of all the principal cereals, as corn and barley, etc. The early tribes having discovered the advantages of cultivating the soil, next began to form their several homesteads into social units or townships for protection, and began the distribution of the land. The arable land was given at first to the freemen of the tribe, whilst pasture land was held in common by bond and free. At a later period, what were designated inheritance lands were held by the headsmen of the tribes as individual property, and the tribesmen cultivated this property either by bondsmen (probably prisoners taken in war), or by free tenants, on various tenures, one of which was steelbow, a mode of tenure which has come down the ages to our own day in some parts of Scotland —an arrangement by which the tenant is supplied by the superior with the means of stocking and labouring the farm, and is bound to return produce equal in value at the expiration of the tack. The primitive farm-steading consisted of dwelling-house, ox-stall, hog-stye, sheep-den, and calf-house, and the whole was surrounded by an earthen wall or rampart. Each clan or tribe gave a portion of its territory for the support of the headsmen and officers, and, after the introduction of Christianity, a portion for the support of the priest.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, rents were paid by “kain” or kind. This was necessary where payment had to be made, as there was no money coined in Scotland until the reign of David I.; grain was given from arable lands, and stock from pasture lands, and poultry and eggs. This method of paying rent has come down to within quite recent times. In the event of disagreement occurring in any matter, it was referred to the birleyman, an umpire chosen by the people themselves, whose decision had all the force of law, as the tribes-men always supported it and saw it carried out.

In the twelfth century, the tribal system of agriculture passed away, and the feudal system was established throughout Scotland ; and now a new class of agriculturist come into prominence, viz., the monks, who were principally concerned in land operations, as they held considerable possessions. Each district had a Grange, and we learn that the Grange was the Abbey homestead. These references are interesting, because, amongst other things, they explain the original use of many farm and place-names that still remain amongst us. The homestead farm had a byre, etc., besides a house for the carles or nativi—who did the land labour— names which strongly suggest that the nativi or carles were the original natives of the land now reduced to serfs by their conquerors, as we are told they belonged to the land and went with it. There were also the Mains and the Granary—names which again throw light upon the origin of many farm names in our parish and county—and outside the grange property were the “cotters,” occupying a township with from one to nine acres of land each, for which they paid rent in service. Then came the malars, occupying a “mailen,” these were farmers renting a husband-land. The husbandland consisted generally of two “oxgates” of land, each thirteen acres, “where plough and scythe could gang,” and four husbandmen occupied together a ploughgate of land, which was equal to 104 acres, and they had a plough in common, to which each contributed two oxen; they were bound to good fellowship by rules, which, if broken, were enforced by the birleyman. By an Act of the Scottish Parliament, where any one owned more than four cows, he was forced to rent land and plough it with the cattle, under penalties; and so hurtful to the crops had the gule ”—the corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum) — become, that it was enacted he should be punished as a traitor would be who grew it, which meant that he might be executed for it. If it grew owing to the carelessness of a bondsman, the farmer was to be held responsible, and fined in a shilling for every plant, and was compelled to clean the land besides.

Leases began to be given in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to tenants, and it was a condition of lease to plant trees near the steading, and hedges round the fields, and with moorland farmers, that they were bound to keep dogs to hunt the wolves. Throughout these periods, an essential part of all tenants’ contracts, except on lands belonging to the Church, was the obligation of being ready and equipped for service in the field on military expeditions, whenever called upon by the headsmen, laird, or baron, and to give a certain number of days’ labour on the laird’s land each year.

Where rents were paid in kind, it was necessary there should be some standard of value for calculating the amounts, and, accordingly, for the neighbourhood of Paisley, the monks of the Abbey had a table drawn up for this purpose, in which “each capon is valued at 8d.; each poultry at 4d.; ilk chicken at 2d.; a laid of coals, 4d.; the day’s pleuch, 2sh.; the day’s sherin, 3d.;” and we have a glimpse of prices in the thirteenth century, in the following rhyme:—

“A bolle o’ aits, pennies foure
Of Scottis mone past nought owre,
A bolle o’ bere for aucht or ten
In common pryse sauld was then,
For sextene a bolle o’ qulietes.”

These prices are all of Scots money, which is one-twelfth of sterling money. That is, a shilling Scots is one penny sterling; a pound Scots is one shilling and eightpence sterling. And, further, that the lieges might be protected from imposition in regard to charges for the ordinary necessaries of life, Royal proclamation was made in each assize town, by authority of the Court of Justice, as to the prices of commodities. In Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, we have an example of such a proclamation :—

“All maner of victuallis, sic as flesche, fische, meitt, fowale, and uther necessaris, be brocht to the mercat and sauld for reddie money, for the prices following.

That is to say—

"The laif of guid sufficient quheit bread for sustentation of the Quenes Majesteis Houshald and remanet Nobill men, of xxii unces wecht,  4d.

The pynt of Burdeous vyne,  12d.

The pynt of fine Scherand or Amzerk vyne, 10d.

The quairt of guid Aill, to be sauld for 8d.

The best mutton bowik (carcase), for 6sh.

And uther nocht sa guid, to be sauld under that pryce as it is of availl.

The pryce of ane guiss, 18d.

The muirfoull, 4d.

The capon to be sauld for 12d.

The peiss of poultrie, 6d.

Gryt chikkinnis, 4d.

The gryse (pig), 12d.

Four eggis, for 1d.

The kid, for 2sh. 4d.

The leid of puttis, 4d.

And that thair be guid cheir throw all the toune for Gentillmen and thair servandis, for 12d. at the mel-teithe (mealtime), 12d.

The furneist bed, on the nycht and that to freithe the chalmer, 4d.

The stabill fie for ane horse, xxiiii houris, 1d.

Under the pane of confiscatioune of all the guidis of the brekeris thairof.”

In the beginning of the seventeenth century, leases were usually for five and six years, and the several distinct classes of rural occupiers were—

Tacksmen, or tenants with leases.

Bowers, who farmed milk “kye” and grass.

Steel-Bowers, who received stock and cattle along with their farm, as already explained.

Pendiclers, persons having a small quantity of land from the chief tenant or tacksman.

Cotters, who had a house and portion of land, and who worked for the farmer, but had no cattle, and got their tillage work done by the tenant.

Crofters, these differed from the cotters in as far as their arable land was not subject to the tenant’s pleasure, and they had their cattle herded and pastured with the tacksman’s.

Lastly, there was the “ Dryhouse Cotter,” who had nothing but a hut and a kailyard.

The Barony of Corshill, in the adjoining parish of Stewarton, exercised in its Court some peculiar powers in agricultural matters, and others. The tenants and feuars in the parish having been summoned, the Baron presided, the Bailie, the Baron Officer, and the Dempster— who pronounced the doom of the Court—and the Birleyman to keep good order, were appointed, and then the Court proceeded to consider complaints.

The proceedings of the Court cover a period from 1590 to 1719. Tenants not attending the summons of the Court were fined. Complaints of many kinds were considered—for example, farmers taking their grain past the mill to which they were thirled, had to pay the multures to the miller, with expenses. Sub-tenants refusing to pay the “grass maill ” were, by the Court, ordained to pay; and petty squabbles, such as stealing fruit, steeping lint in running water, shooting hares, or wild fowl, or burning moss out of season, were all amenable to this Court.

Such is a view of some of the conditions through which agricultural customs have passed in Scotland from a very early period till the eighteenth century, and although the general tendency has been towards advancement, the progress has been slow, as agricultural methods are amongst the last things to undergo change in any country.

But as civilization is not always the same quantity, even in the same country, so some districts have advanced with greater strides towards improvement than others, and our county has, through a long series of years, always occupied a forward position in agricultural matters in all its varied branches. Many things contributed towards the retardation of this branch of industry. For one thing, want of a proper system of drainage kept the land in a sour, bad condition ; then the pernicious practice of succession cropping—taking successive crops of the same grain from the same land; for example, three crops of oats, in three following years, thereby necessitating a long rest of probably six years in grass, to allow the soil to recuperate, constituted a great hindrance to progress; another drawback was the wretched state of the roads leading to many of the farms, for, except in the drought of summer, or the frost of winter, the roads before the conversion of Statute Labour in 1836, were scarcely passable, and it would not be easy to over estimate the benefit agriculture has derived from good roads; whilst clumsy implements made it impossible to economize labour.

About the middle of the eighteenth century, it was no uncommon thing to see four horses in a plough, and three individuals attending it, a boy who acted as “gaudsman” (driver), the ploughman, and a gundy-man, who, with a long pole fastened to the beam of the plough, helped to guide it, by pushing it off or pulling it to him as required, and seeing that the furrows were turned over, for they were sometimes from twelve to fourteen inches wide, and the plough, save “the metals,” was made of wood, of strong, clumsy construction. Now two horses do the same work equally well, without either gaudsman or gundyman; no doubt this is contributed to in the present day by the land being more friable for one thing from improved drainage, and the great improvement in the breed of horses for another. It is to this form of plough-yoke that our national bard refers in his “Salutation to the Auld Mare Maggie when speaking of her offspring, he says—

"My pleugh is now thy bairn-time a’,
Four gallant brutes, as e’er did draw.”

And, again, in the “Inventory,” when describing the four brutes o’ gallant mettle he was possessed of, when he says—

“My Lan’ afore’s a glide auld has-been,
An wight an wilfu’ a’ his days been.
(This was the fore-horse on the left hand in the plough)
My Lnn’ ahin’s a w eel gaun fillie,
That aft lias borne me hanie frae Killie.
(The hindmost horse on the left hand in the plough)
My Furr ahin’s a wordy beast
As e’er in tug or tow was traced;
(The hindmost on the right hand in the plough)
The fourth’s a Highland Donald hastie.”

So that the custom of having four horses in the plough must have been quite common in Burns’s time.

The wages of farm labourers about the end of the eighteenth century were—for men servants, £10 yearly and board; women servants, £3 10s. yearly and board; and common labourers, 1s. 6d. per day. By this time also the system of succession cropping was mostly, if not entirely abandoned, and that of rotation cropping generally in use. This method was found to be advantageous in two ways—it produced more satisfactory results to the farmer, and the ground was kept in better heart by the manure used.

But with the advent of the nineteenth century, agricultural methods began to assume a different aspect, especially was this the case towards the middle of it; and concurrently with the improvements in the farmer’s implements and methods, the dwelling-houses and offices began to receive attention. One-storeyed houses gave place in a great many instances to houses of two storeys, with corresponding comfort to the farmer’s family; and the extension of modern conveniences generally greatly increased the facilities for carrying on the work. So much has this been the case in our own agricultural community, that it may now be said there is not a farm steading in the parish that has not undergone almost entire renewal, or received great enlargement in some respect, as regards either milk-house, byre, hay-shed, stable, or barn, and also a pure and abundant water supply, so that not only is there increased domestic comfort for the farmer’s family, but the cattle upon which so much depends, have now more comfortable and sanitary surroundings, which should aid in warding off disease. The land has been better drained, and fences have been made more efficient.

Sixty years ago, as now, sowing was begun generally by the end of March, but reaping, especially of oats and food-stuff, was a much slower process than it is now. Human food crops were then cut entirely by the hand sickle. To have cut them otherwise, as with the scythe, seemed to evince such a want of a proper sense of thankfulness for the gift of human food, as to amount almost to impiety; although the scythe was regularly used for the hay crop, and the harvesters who

came annually from Ireland “scutched” the corn crop with the hook. The writer can remember the first farmer in the parish to cut his corn crop with the scythe. His proceedings were at first looked upon with surprise, if not with something more, by his neighbours, but the advantage of it was soon apparent, and ere long the practice became general. The reaping machine, which was invented in 1827 by the Rev. Patrick Bell, LL.D., minister of Carmyllie, in Forfarshire, since so greatly improved, and the many other modern implements of agriculture, and the great advantages they have brought within the range of the present-day farmer’s work, were then practically things of the future. Sanitation as now carried out was to a large extent unknown, and certainly quite beyond the ken of the ordinary farmer ; nor was it then of such transcendent importance, as his connection with the outside public was chiefly confined to cereal cropping, oats, barley, flax, etc. But the broad hold the farmer has now taken of the general community, and especially upon every large centre of population within a radius of many miles of his steading, through the enormous development of dairy produce, especially the new milk trade, has put him on an entirely new footing. He has now become such an important factor for good or mischief, according to the care manifested in his productions, in regard to cleanliness and wholesome surroundings, as to make it matter of absolute necessity that the most scrupulous watchfulness and sanitary care should be bestowed upon his daily productions.

Another important factor, and one which has been largely exercised by the farmers of our parish, is the application of agricultural chemistry to the various crops grown. In point of fact, agriculture, to be profitably and successfully carried out in the present day, and I daresay this is the experience of every intelligent farmer, is the outcome of sound judgment, a good stock, and practical skill, aided by the discriminating use of chemical manures to ordinary manuring, and the latest mechanical implements. Leases used generally to run for a term of nineteen years, but of late many farmers have been less anxious than formerly for long leases. Another change has been gradually coming over farming operations in our parish, of late years, largely due no doubt to the great extension of dairy produce ; cereals, as oats, etc., have received less attention than formerly, and have been replaced by more grazing and hay crops, which the farmer no doubt finds to his advantage, as he can probably supply himself more profitably with grain for feeding from the foreign market, whilst dairy stock and Clydesdale horses are now double the price they were seventy years ago.

Present-day Wages of Country Servants.

Man servant (ploughman), £14 to £16 and £18 half-yearly, with board: woman servant (dairymaid), £12 to £14 and £15 half-yearly, with board; second girl (if she can milk), £11 half-yearly, with board; drainer, from 4s. to 5s. per day ; common labourer, 18s. per week. This shows an enormous advance over any previous record of farm workers in the parish, but it is only in accordance with the general advance in wages of all kinds of workers.

Current Prices of Produce.

Butter, on an average over the year, 1s. 1d. per lb.

Oats, 18s. per boll (Renfrewshire boll, 240 lbs., 6 bushels).

Oats grown in the upper part of the parish, about 15s. per boll of 240 lbs.

Barley, 28s. per quarter (very little grown in this parish).

Wheat, 35s. per qr. of 8 bushels (very little grown in this parish).

Rye Grass Seed, 8s. Gd. per cwt. (not much grown).

Probable Rental of Land in the Parish.

In the lower district of the parish, where the land is all well suited for cropping, on an average about £2 5s. per acre.

In the upper district, where the soil is more moorland, and better adapted for grazing purposes, £l 5s. to £1 10s. per acre.

Increase in Valuation.

In the valuation of Renfrewshire for 1907, there was £1,248 6s. 2d. of an increase in the valuation of Neilston parish, compared with that of the previous year.

In dealing with the agricultural interests generally of our own parish, it is to be observed that the cultivation of the land is carried on’ by a very intelligent and industrious class of farmers. In the eastern or lower division of the parish, where the land is of the best description, cropping of every kind is most successfully carried on, and the corn crops are generally amongst the earliest in the market in the season, and excellent in quality. In the middle division of the parish, where the ground is more of a mixed character, dairy produce is that to which the agriculturist devotes his attention; whilst in the higher or upland district, where the grassy slopes and rough moorland are better suited for pastoral pursuits, though the dairy is not neglected, grazing sheep and rearing lambs and young cattle and horses, receive the farmer’s utmost attention. Each in his own sphere brings to bear upon the productions of his particular branch of the business, the most recent improvements and advances that have been made in machinery, and the application of agricultural chemical knowledge ; whilst the landlords seem to possess a generous and enlightened desire of seeing their tenants fairly dealt by, and not rack-rented, the result being that the tenants as a class have a prosperous appearance. But the labours of the dairy-farm are of the most trying nature. In order that the morning’s milk may be in the city for the breakfast hour, it is necessary that the milk-cart leave the farm between the hours of three and four o’clock in the morning, and nearer three than four, in the upper and western parts of the parish. To admit of this being accomplished, the farmer’s household must be up by two o’clock, sometimes earlier, in the morning, in order that the cattle may be fed and milked, and the cans filled and put on the cart ready for the driver, and as this has to go on morning after morning, Sunday and Saturday, all the year round, the exacting character of the labour to the men and women alike, is obvious, and the consumer in the city, in the large majority of instances, has little idea of the labour his morning’s milk has entailed before reaching his breakfast table. In the summer mornings this is not so laborious, for then the cattle are in the fields all night, and only require to be driven into the byre and foddered before milking ; and then the cheery milk-boy drives his team citywards with song and whistle as the rising sun meets him with its early rays; but the per contra is the case in winter, when in the dark, stormy, sunless mornings, pinched with frost or pelted and battered with rain, he has to plod his way along the roads—a task frequently the duty of the farmer’s son.

For a considerable number of years past an influence has been at work in our parish, in common with most parishes in the neighbourhood of large towns, the tendency of which has been to induce the best and most thrifty class of farm labourers, both men and women, to leave the rural occupations of the country and crowd into the city, in quest of better wages and more leisure ; though, unhappily, not always with the best moral results. This great evil has, no doubt, been the outcome of much ungenerous treatment in bygone times, and now its effects upon all classes of farmers is of a serious character; but especially is this so upon dairy farmers who require female labour. Formerly a highly moral, robust, and reliable peasantry grew up in every farming district of Scotland, from amongst whom men for ploughing and women for dairy-work were obtained, who could be trusted by the farmer with as much confidence as could the members of his own family—

“Buirdlv chiels and clever hizzies.”

But now that this healthy source of labour has been removed, or greatly curtailed, a class of workers, drawn from entirely different environments and surroundings, has taken their place, with results, in many instances, disastrous alike to both the work and the household. This is, no doubt, a serious grievance, and anything of the nature of a remedy is worthy of most earnest consideration. This grievance, as has already been said, is not confined to our parish alone, it more or less affects agricultural interests everywhere ; and to counteract it, an endeavour should be made by presenting inducements of a kind that would appeal to the farm labourer’s sense of comfort and advantage, without which, the appeal would be in vain. At a meeting of the farmers of the parish, held under the regis of the Renfrewshire Agricultural Society, in the Glen Hall, some time ago, to consider the question of servants, amongst other things, speaker after speaker deplored the difficulties that beset the servant question, but without arriving at any practical solution of the matter. But to this end, every farm of any size should have a cotter’s house attached to it, with a piece of land, where a married ploughman could live in comfort and bring up a family. The members of such a family would, from their earliest years, be familiar with all the operations of the farm, and would form a nucleus from which, as they grew up, dairymaids and farm-workers of every description could be drawn, and who might be expected to have some moral stamina in them—when the picture of the national bard might again be realized in the cotter’s home—

“When the elder bairns come drappin in,|
At service out amang the farmers roun;
Some ca’ the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin
A cannie errand to a neebor town.”

That our parish at an early period had a crofting population is borne ample testimony to by the evidence discernible in the ruins of their homesteads in the neighbourhood, whilst the land belonging to them has been absorbed in the adjoining farms. The names of the places are, and they by no means exhaust the list:—The Mains, Mossneuk, Rhodenhead, Sclates, Broomdyke, Dunsmuir, Craigha’, Mid-Upla, Howcraigs, West Head of Syde, Windyha’, Tinnoch, and Newlands.

Connected with the agricultural interest of the parish there are two societies—Neilston Agricultural Society and Barrhead Agricultural Society. Both are in a flourishing condition, and hold annual exhibitions of every description of farming stock, in the month of May.

Village Life.

Amid the many changes that have taken place within the last sixty years, few things have undergone greater change than the internal economy of village life everywhere. Railway extension, by bringing rural populations more into contact with city life, has led to greater interchange of opinions, and new aspects of affairs have broadened out ideas in such a manner as to influence every relation of life; whilst the narrower and more contracted thoughts incident to isolation have given place to more enlarged views and almost cosmopolitan information, through the agency of a cheap daily press, with the result that something akin to public opinion is now found in every village.

In the earlier period, few facilities were offered for travelling. The mail-coach usually stopped as it passed through the town, night and morning, on its way from one large centre of industry and population to another, to take up or to set down passengers, and generally there would be a little bustle round the steaming horses. But a visit to the city implied a tedious journey, and, in winter, exposure to the inclemencies of the season, with often serious consequences; and, therefore, such trips, unless where absolutely required, were seldom indulged in. Social relations were thus very much restricted, and intermarriage became not uncommon, with the consequent result that the greater part of a village, and even large tracts of the parish around it, were frequently connected to each other by the ties of blood relationship. Clannishness, with all its prejudices, whether for good or bad, usually dominated the life of the place, and each one’s affairs being known to every other family of the community, became common property.

In this respect the town of Neilston bore a strong resemblance to other towns similarly placed, with this great difference in its favour as regards many places : that the great good sense of the original inhabitants so guided opinion that it never became intolerant. The people were interested in and helpful to each other, and the old proverb “that blood is thicker than water,” was frequently manifested through their consanguinity, when the sorrows, equally with the joys, the prosperities, no less than the distresses, were participated in, or rejoiced over, by their kindred neighbours.

In these conditional environments, constitutional peculiarities and idiosyncrasies were no doubt liable to be brought out, and there were at times odd characters to be seen—mental weaklings, with strange temperaments and tendencies, generally innocent and harmless, frequently hangers-on to their better-off relatives and neighbours, and often useful in their way. Sixty years ago there were several characters of this class to be seen in our community, but they have passed away, and it is satisfactory to know that their places are not being taken up in the newer generation.

Within that number of years the town was innocent of street lamps, and in the long winter nights, the streets were anything but attractive; and this notwithstanding that the gas work had been erected in 1837, that the gas had been brought into the town for many years, and that the shops and places of business were lighted by this illuminant. At this time the church bell—there was only one in the town then, there are three now—was rung at 5.30 o’clock a.m. for the purpose of awakening the people to their work; again at 8 o’clock p.m., for the shopkeepers to shut their places of business; and again at 10 o’clock p.m., for what purpose I have never heard clearly defined, although the influence of the custom—for it was very general in villages—is noticed in the words of the old song :—

“I’ve heard my uncle tell,
When he gaed wi’ the lass himsel’,
When he heard the ten-hour bell,
He would hie awa hame.”

But I am not aware whether or not it influenced matters in this direction in our parish. The morning bell, however, as the owners of works had evidently discovered, was not a sufficient method for rousing the sleepers, and as the invention of the noisy syren was not then known, the custom was for the night watchman, before going off duty, to perambulate the streets, each in the neighbourhood of his own work, about half-past five, blowing a fierce, loud, and protracted blast upon a long trumpet, similar to that used by the guard of the stage coach at an earlier date, in order that the sleeper might have no reasonable excuse for a late appearance at the hour of commencing work.


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