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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


IN early notices of agricultural matters, we now and again stumble upon such expressions relative to the measurements of land as "oxgate," "ploughgate," "forty-shilling land," and somewhat more rarely, "davoch." By the learned industry of Mr. Cosmo Innes, it has been settled "beyond reasonable doubt," that an oxgate meant 13 acres. A ploughgate consisted of 104 acres—it and the forty-shilling land being equivalents—and the davoch was "as much as four ploughs could till in a year." [Strathbogie was of old divided into forty-eight davochs, each containing as much as four ploughs could till in a year. (Antiq. Shires, vol. IV.) Hence the phrase "the aucht-an’-forty dauch."] There was, too, the "husband land," which consisted of 26 acres, being the extent of land held by a single husbandrnan. Each husbandman furnished two oxen to the common plough, and, with the four pairs thus supplied, the ploughgate, which was a joint occupancy, was tilled. This principle of joint holdings, which found its extreme development in the "run rig" system, where two tenants cultivated alternate ridges on the same field, was well fitted to breed difficulties in the practical business of cultivation and so the overlords had rules of "good neighbourhood" established, under which the several tenants were bound to perform their respective shares of the farm labour at the sight of "birley men" chosen by themselves.

There are examples as early as the 13th century [Rental of Monastery of Kelso, 1200.—Legal Antiq.] of a land tenure, and regulations of the kind just indicated. It has been truly enough said that the Church in those early times was the great cultivator of the land as well as the great improver of the arts. While the rude unlettered barons devoted much of their energies to breaking each other’s skulls and despoiling each other’s possessions, the monks, so long as they continued to be men of moral lives and simple tastes, promoted husbandry to very good purpose, both as actual cultivators and as good and merciful landlords. The complete agricultural economy under and in connection with the monastery would consist, first, of the grange or farm-stead, where were gathered the cattle, implements, stores, and so on, required in the cultivation of the land; as well as the serfs, or carles, who did the actual work, and their families. The whole would be overlooked by a lay brother, who rendered his accounts to the cellarer of the monastery. Outside the grange there dwelt the "cottars," each with a little bit of land, for which he paid some money rent, with certain services in seedtime and harvest. Beyond these again lived the "husband-men," of whom we have heard, who paid each half-amerk in money rent, with a variety of personal services, including four days’ reaping in harvest of the man, his wife, and all their children; carrying home a certain quantity of peats yearly at the fitting season, and so forth.

The agriculture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was prosecuted with more success and intelligence, all things considered, than we are apt to imagine. Various enactments of the Scottish Parliament in the fifteenth century indicate an enlightened and earnest regard for the interests of the cultivator. Leases in some sort date from the fourteenth century ; and we find an Act of James II. (1449) conferring a tenant right adapted to the time in a single comprehensive sentence, thus—"For the safety and favour of the puir pepil that labouris the grunde, that all tenants having tacks for a term of years shall enjoy their tacks to the ish of their terms, suppose the lords sell or analy their lands." Another statute of James I. (1424), titled "Of bigging of ruikes in trees," in respect that the said ruikes "does" great "skaith upon comes," provides for a penalty upon those who fail to despatch the young birds before they have flown from their nests. And there was a statute of the same monarch binding every man "tillan with a pleuch of aucht oxen" to sow a certain quantity of wheat, pease, and beans yearly. Mr. Hues points out, as an interesting and creditable fact in the history of the social life of the rural population, that the amelioration of the condition of the nativi or serfs belonging to the land was accomplished voluntarily during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. "From the thirteenth century, when the serfs must have formed a large proportion of the population; when gifts of serfs and sales of serfs, and claims of runaway slaves, are of as frequent occurrence as any transactions connected with land—between that century and the end of the fifteenth, hereditary slavery had ceased among us without any legislative act." From the beginning of the sixteenth century, the serf, formerly an important adjunct of the glebe, has disappeared, and we have a free agricultural class; a rather remarkable result, certainly, to be wrought out naturally and without the intervention of Parliament.

During the sixteenth, seventeenth, and greater part of the eighteenth century, we can trace the general features of the old rural economy. Lord Forbes’s rental, of date 1532, quoted by Mr. Innes, shows the land divided into ploughs, each of eight oxen: the ploughgate being "sometimes let to four tenants, each of whom contributed the work of his pair of oxen to the common plough. These joint tenants were bound to keep good neighbourhood," in the way already explained in carrying on the common tillage operations. Again, in the rental of the Bishopric of Aberdeen (date 1511), under the conditions of sub-letting on the lands of Fetternear, "a crofter was bound to build one rood of the fold for every cow which he had in the town of his master. The tenants were answerable for the conduct of their crofters in the grazing of their cows and in other things that belonged to good neighbourhood." Probably, as time went on, and the Church lands had passed to other owners, the prevailing regulations were. neither better systematised nor more regularly enforced, but rather the opposite. The mode in which the Church lands were dealt with at the Reformation did not reflect credit on those more immediately concerned. John Knox, in his History, speaks of some of the "nobilitie" who "had greadelie gripped to the possessionis of the Kirk," and done other selfish deeds despite the rebukes of the preachers; and in point of fact a number of the ostensible lay adherents of the Reformation, upon conveyances from the prelates, or in their office as "cornmendators," unscrupulously seized the temporalities of the Church, and, with equal indecency, turned out the old occupants of the land as they saw fit in order that they might fill their places with a subservient following of their own friends and dependants. These were hardly the men to encourage and foster honest industry in any shape; and for a time the peaceable and industrious cultivators of the soil, in many cases, suffered not a little injustice and oppression at their hands. Still, in its main features, the agricultural economy of the country seems to have undergone but little change for a very long period. At the earliest date to which we have referred, the different grades in the rural community had recognition; and their relations to each other, from the landowning class of ecclesiastics, barons, or lairds, and principal occupiers, to the humble cottar, who mainly represented labour, were distinctly understood. And so it continued to be up to a time less than a hundred years ago. It was, indeed, left to the enlightened nineteenth century to adopt the principle of segregating classes; to foster a policy that allowed the tenant occupier to grasp his holding, and too often in selfishly seeking to extend its boundaries, rid himself of all trammels of "good neighbourhood" by pushing the manual tiller of the soil off the manor altogether, even as a cottar occupier.

In the records of a Garioch Kirk-Session, under date 1720, I find an incidental illustration of the rural economy then in operation. Certain neighbours were "delated" to appear before the Session for "breach and prophanation of the Sabbath, by beating and blooding on ane other." A principal in the "scandal," on being interrogated, declared that "he had neither beat nor bled any person ;" but that the two sons of his neighbour, who was "possessor of one of the ploughs of Twadam, had that Sabbath morning singled by their father’s cattle from the cattle of the other three ploughs, and brought them from the common fold, thorow the midest of his corns, to feed them in places where no cattle were wont to graze; and that all the cattle of the other three ploughs had broke the fold to come after them ;" whereupon he interposed. Thus far the two sides substantially agreed. A divergence of testimony occurred concerning the precise intentions of the first narrator in the scuffle that ensued between him and one of the young men for possession of a cudgel carried by the latter, he averring that his single object was to "turn the cattle from among his corns," while the two brothers, who had severely pommelled their assailant, asserted that it was to "strick" his opponent "withal." A couple of independent witnesses ‘deponed to the facts, but declined to give an opinion on the merits, whereon the session found them all guilty, and appointed them to be publicly rebuked.

The noticeable point here is the four ploughs working jointly, as we find them at any time during the four hundred and fifty years preceding 1720, and presumably also the common pasture, with the common fold, wherein each husbandman put his cattle along with cattle belonging to the others, each occupier having however his own arable rigs.

Up to a considerably later date the practice of "run rig" cultivation was pursued more or less; and for its smooth working "good neighbourhood" must certainly have been essential. It was a curious system, and gave scope for queer, and at times amusing results. A good story enough was wont to be told some sixty odd years ago, of two neighbours on a farm in the lower part of Aberdeenshire—Eastertown and Westertown let us say. Their "hyeucks" had "kempit" side by side through the hairst till only one run-rig field was left to "shear." It was gloamin, and the harvest moon beginning to peep over the eastern hills when Wastie descried a form, which he judged to be that of his pawky neighbour Eastie, passing along the head-rig on the skyline, and stooping down at every dozen paces. "Ay, an’ ye wud like to hae klyock first," Thought Wastie to himself as he quietly followed the trail to find that Eastie was with great pains sticking up "a bit knablick stane" at the top of every second rig, the rigs so marked being of cowrse those that belonged to himself. With equal care he lifted each of these marks and transferred it to the next alternate rig, and then slipped leisurely home to bed to await the result next morning. It was precisely as Wastie had anticipated. At the hour appointed, Eastie’s "hyeucks" had gone out to take "kiyock" by the light of the moon, and so have the pleasure of accomplishing a stolen march on Wastie. They had duly shorn their "stent ;" only that through the small piece of dexterous manipulation of the way marks just mentioned, daylight revealed the fact that it was Wastie who had got "klyock"—not Eastie!

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