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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


AN English tourist who visited Scotland in 1702, speaks thus of the general aspect of the Country at that date:—" The surface was generally unenclosed; oats and barley the chief grain products; wheat little cultivated; little hay made for winter, the horses then feeding chiefly on straw and oats." "The people of the Lowlands partly depended on the Highlands for cattle to eat, and the Highlanders, in turn, carried back corn, of which their own country did not grow a sufficiency."

In even the best cultivated parts of the south of Scotland, "the arable land ran in narrow slips," with "stony wastes between, like the moraines of a glacier." "The scanty manure was conveyed to the field by manual labour; and the unpleasant scene has often been attested by English travellers, of the crofter’s wife carrying the unseemly burden on her back" "The hay meadow was a marsh where rank natural grasses grew, mixed with rushes and other aquatic plants; and the sour wet ground not only remained undrained, but was deemed peculiarly valuable from the abundance with which it yielded this coarse fodder." [The natural meadows of this country may be all comprehended ~& the denomination of swamps and morassee, of which there are specimens in almost every farm. Formerly these produced only hay in the country, and they are still, almost exclusively, applied to the same purpose. It was from hay of this kind that] It has been averred that "nine-tenths of the corn produced in the country was raised within five miles of the coast." This may probably be accepted as rather a loose statement, yet cultivation was mainly confined to the lands that lay along the courses of rivers and streams, while in the interior wide areas of unbroken waste land prevailed extensively. It was not till near the end of last century that blackfaced sheep were introduced into the Highlands. The only use previously made of the hill pasture, apart from feeding wild animals, was to feed the small black cattle sent thither during the summer months.

A precise and detailed account of the modes of tillage practised in the north of Scotland toward the close of the seventeenth century occurs in a letter written by Alexander Garden of Troup, and the date of which is 1683. Mr. Garden, in describing the usual course of husbandry, says—" The husbandman keeps in some of his ground constantly under come and bear, dunging it every thrie years, and, for his pains, if he reap the fourth come he is satisfied." That is to say, if he has four returns of the seed sown he is satisfied. This, Mr. Garden informs us, was the "intown." "Our outfields," he says, "when they have been grass four or five years, are plowed up, and letting them lie a summer thus ploughed, we plow them over again, and sow them the next spring; and in our best outfields if we reap the fourth or fifth corn the first year we are satisfied. Yea, the third is very well thought off." Then he tells us that they took at least three corn crops in succession off the outfield, and if the cattle had been folded upon it before being broken up it was considered fit to carry another crop before it required to lie in grass again. The laying out in grass consisted, of course, of merely letting the land alone without ploughing or sowing in a corn crop, till the surface grew green with whatever species of weeds were indigenous to the soil. A specific description, applicable to a somewhat later date, sets forth that when the "outfields" would no longer pay for seed and labour, "they were then allowed to remain in a state of absolute sterility, producing little else than thistles and other weeds, till, after having been rested in this state for some years, the farmer thought proper to bring them again under cultivation, when, from the mode of management before described, a few scanty crops were obtained."

[the Duke of Cumberland’s cavalry were supplied in 1746, when in Aberdeen, on his march to the north, in pursuit of the rebel army. Even this miserable forage was not obtained without much labour; part of it being furnished from the swamps among the woods of Fetteresso, at the distance of 16 miles, by, at that time, a very bad road—General View of the Agriculture of Kincardineshire; by George Robertson. 1807.]

Before adverting to individual views of agricultural improvement, as held by persons taking a prominent interest in the subject, a brief glance at the general state of cultivation during the century may be taken. And it is a curious illustration of the slow rate of progress in those days to find that when the close of the eighteenth century was almost come, though not a few energetic improvers had arisen and set a better example, exactly the same modes of tillage were in almost universal use over a great part of the country, as at the beginning of that century. Of this we have abundant evidence in the pages of the Old Statistical Account of Scotland, begun to be published in 1791, and actually completed in 1798, in twenty volumes, through the heroic perseverance of Sir John Sinclair, by whom it was originated, and its publication super-intended, the reports for the several parishes being drawn up chiefly by the ministers. The detailed testimony of one of these witnesses may be accepted as nearly sufficient; and we take the statement of the minister of Alford, in Aberdeenshire, who is very definite and copious. Writing in 1795, he says :— "The infield or intown lands are constantly in white crops, unless where the farm has very little or very bad pasture, and then, perhaps, a ridge or two is left untilled, to throw up the weeds which ages have nourished in it to maintain the farmer’s cattle. One third of it is manured regularly with all the dung of one year’s gathering; and thus, in three years, all the infield on a farm has been once dunged." This, it will be observed, is precisely the practice that was followed a hundred years earlier, as detailed by the Laird of Troup. The writer goes on to state that "the infield land is generally an excellent soil, full of manure, but stocked with destructive weeds, of which wild oats and knot-grass are among the worst. The average produce in tolerable seasons will not," he says, "exceed from 4 to 5 bolls per acre." In regard to the management of outfield land, the "most proper way," we are told, was to have it divided into eleven parts which were folded upon in succession. The cropping is thus described :—" In spring oats are sown, and as soon as the crop is off the ground, it is again ploughed for a second, and so on until it has borne five successive crops of oats ; and then it is left five years lea to throw up whatever poor grass such worn out soil will produce. The first two years the grass is as bad as possible, and though during the other three it thickens, yet, even at the best, it gives but a scanty bite to the cattle." As to the grain produce of the outfields, it is said "the first three crops are nearly alike, and will rarely run beyond four bolls per acre on an average; and, for the last two years they dwindle down to betwixt two and three, and often less. The produce of the untoathed fields is much inferior in quantity as well as quality; and, indeed, the return from faughs in grain will seldom defray the expense of labour and seed; and the farmers are tempted to plough them though it is to their own loss, merely for the sake of the small quantity of straw which they yield."

Another of the Old Statistical writers speaking of outfield tillage, says, after the land had grown the sixth grain crop in succession, "it was seldom before the fourth year that it got a green surface." The minister of Birse speaks of some portions of the ground having been cropped continuously, with an occasional dunging, without having been allowed "any rest for a century." The minister of a Buchan parish says :—" A rotation of crops is not yet established in this district. While the heritor only plows where he cannot get grass to grow any longer, the tenant sometimes plows as long as corn of any kind will grow." Another minister, who had made some inquiry on the subject, got this statement from one farmer—" On my farm there was a field of four acres which, for twenty-five years during my residence there, yielded alternately full crops of grain, viz., beans, peas, and oats, without any manure. I have reason to think my predecessor for five or seven years employed it in the same manner." This rare field always grew a conspicuously rich crop however; but "another farmer candidly told me," says the writer, "that from twelve boils of oats which he sowed last crop, there was only produced twenty boils ; and of crop 1793 he had not three returns."

Samples of fields which had grown ten, fifteen, or twenty grain crops in succession with little or no manuring were not confined to a single district, nor to a single county; for we hear of them in Banff and Kincardineshires, as well as in Aberdeenshire, toward the close of the century. It was in the first named county, and in the parish of Alvah, that fields to which lime had been applied, were reckoned fit to yield from twelve to nineteen crops of oats in succession. And it was to Kincardineshire the old school farmer belonged, who, on being complimented on the good appearance of his crop, said—" It’s nae marvel, for it’s only the auchteent crap sin’ it gat gweedin’ (dunging)." In some of the old leases, it was formally stipulated that " there shall not be more than five crops of oats in succession."

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