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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century
FIRST IMPROVERS —AN EARLY AGRICULTURAL ESSAY


FIRST IMPROVERS—A SMALL SOCIETY OF FARMERS IN BUCHAN—AN EARLY AGRICULTURAL ESSAY.

IT is believed the very first person to introduce agricultural improvements effectively into the north of Scotland was an English lady—Elizabeth Mordaunt—who was married to the eldest son of the Duke of Gordon in 1706, the year before the Union. She was a daughter of the Earl of Peterborough, himself a great improver, and she brought down to the Duke of Gordon’s estates English ploughs, with men to work them, and who were acquainted with fallowing—heretofore utterly unknown in Scotland." She taught the Morayshire people how to make hay, and set them the example of planting moors and sowing foreign grasses. About ten years later the Earl of Haddington began to plant extensively, and introduced other improvements, including sowing clover and other grass seeds. Nearly contemporaneous with him was Sir Archibald Grant, second baronet of Monymusk, who writes—-" Soon after the Union, husbandry and manufactures were in low esteem. Turnips raised in fields for cattle by the Earl of IRothes, and very few others, were wondered at. Wheat was almost confined to East Lothian. Enclosures were few and planting very little; no repair of roads, all bad, and very few wheel carriages." -

On July 13th, in the year 1723, there was instituted "the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland." Its membership included 42 peers and 260 commoners, of whom 4 peers and 25 commoners belonged to Aberdeenshire. This society, which assumed the character of a national institution, published its transactions occasionally for the information of its members. Only seven years later a local society was established, which embraced in its membership a good many names of note, such as those of Alexander Lord Pitsligo, the Hon. Alexander Fraser of Strichen, one of the senators of the College of Justice; Sir James Elphinstone of Logie; James Ferguson of Pitfour; Alexander Garden of Troup ; James Gordon of Ellon; Ernest Lesley of Balquhain; George Skene of Skene; and William Urquhart of Meldrum. The title they appear to have assumed was that of " A small Society of Farmers in Buchan," and an Essay published by them in 1 735, which presents in good set terms their notions concerning the main points of practical husbandry, is somewhat of a curiosity in its way, were it only for the graphic picture it gives of the difficulties the farmer had to struggle with in keeping down weeds when he had not the advantage of green crops to clean the land, but grew cereals year after year. The Essay extends to ten separate Articles, treating of the different crops, and the appropriate cultivation, and varieties of soil, each article being subdivided into several Rules. In their modest preface the authors say that the essay "contains nothing purely speculative, but a plain and genuine relation of our practice, as we have learned from tradition, and our own repeated experience, put into method to ease our memories, and for the instruction of beginners."

These worthy men were thus content scrupulously to adhere to the modes of farming they had learnt by "tradition"; and in place of hunting after novelty or change in the way of alleged improvement, they only sought to stereotype established practice, and put on record well-proved methods for their own convenience and the behoof of posterity. The land, they go on to say, was divided, in the common course of husbandry, into "bear land, bear root, and awal bear root." They first give rules for the ploughing of the bear land; a "break" followed by a " clean furrow ;" the latter, which covered in the dung, being given as late as possible—at the end of April or beginning of May—in order to prevent that growth which "infallibly disheartens the field for corn, when it gets footing by ploughing bear land early." The "growth" here spoken of, in other words, the weeds in the land, formed evidently a serious matter of consideration. And thus, while the farmer is advised to sow immediately after the last furrow, he is also advised to let the newly-sown field lie at first half harrowed, and then cross-harrow it when the seed has begun to take root; for, say the essayists, when the weeds—" yarrs, skellachs, gules, and others"—begin to spring, "it will be fit to crush them with the harrow." "After the brier blade falls, the corn makes no progress till the stock be formed; the weeds taking advantage of this delay, advance with incredible celerity, and unless they be crushed at this juncture they soon overtop the brier, and maintain their victory till they render the corn both thin and feeble; but a judicious management of the harrow will set back the weeds and give the brier, which in that season naturally grows up very quickly, the advantage over them, and having again recovered the former loss, it will preserve its distance to the end."

Harrowing down weeds among the briard, then, is strongly recommended; and "because they cannot be suppressed at once, they ought to be torn up as oft as they appear until the brier begin to recover after stocking." No method yet tried had proved so effectual with the weeds as this of tearing them up with iron-tined harrows; "and," say the essayists, "if any one apprehends loss by the harrowing his brie; we do assure him that that scruple is contrary to experience, several of our own number having followed the above directions with great success."

Thus far of harrowing down weeds among the springing corn. But even the free use of the harrow among the briard was not quite enough at all times. Of course it was when it came to the awal, or second crop after bear, that the contest between the crop and the weeds for possession of the ground became most serious. And then, evidently, it not unfrequently assumed the form of something very like a life-and-death struggle; became a question, in short, whether the weeds, with which the land was so densely stocked, or the corn was to be the predominant crop. The roots of the weeds "being turned deeper down in ploughing" formed one reason why the bear-root crop "sometimes escapes their clutches. But if they miss the one, the other, to wit, the awal, is sure to feel the weight of their revenge." Our essayists, in speaking of the management of the awal crop, repeat their advice about the use of the harrow among the briard in order to cheek the weeds; and after observing that "it will be fit to harrow down the weeds about the time of stocking," they add, "and if~, after all, the weeds happen to prevail, it may be eaten up with beasts betwixt the beginning and middle of May." A truly sage advice it may be said; yet, it was given in all sincerity. For it was the case that the knot-grass and other weeds were often so deeply rooted as to "baffle the harrow, however carefully applied." So say our authorities. And that being the case, "it is very reasonably advised to eat both weeds and briard up with beasts to bring them upon one leveL" And this being done, the chances were, we are assured, that the grain would in all probability "soon overtop the weeds."

The essayists give specific directions how this rather nice agricultural operation might be best performed. "The animals that are fittest to be employed in this affair," say they, "are young nolt, because they cut cleverly, without disturbing the root, whereas old or ill-toothed beasts very often pull up the brier by the roots. Horses and sheep are not so fit to be put upon this expedition, unless they be carefully kept or tethered upon the field; for, although their teeth be sharp, yet we evidently observe them to eat the corn and leave the grass untouched, which is directly contrary to the design; and this their aversion is probably raised from the roughness of grass in respect of the smooth and sweet blade of corn." "This experiment," it is added, "will no doubt much offend the timorous and unthinking part of mankind; however, it hath often proven very beneficial both for keeping back the weeds and preventing the lying of corns before they be full."

But even after the awal crop had, by the friendly aid of the harrow and the young nolt’s teeth, battled through the initiatory stages, and come off victorious over " yarrs," "skellachs," "sorrel," and all their aiders and abettors, it had yet another enemy to contend with—viz., the wild oats, which, while they did comparatively little harm among the two former crops, in the awal, we are told, "do very notable mischief to their neighbour corn; for the wild grows up much faster, and ripens much sooner than the tame, and thereby exhausts the nutriment thereof. This never misses to render it both weak and thin, and therefore ‘tis well worth the owner’s pains to endeavour by all means to prevent this imminent danger of his corns, which will in a great measure be done by cropping the wild oats how soon they come out of the hose, who appear always about eight days before the tame. Thus is Providence so kind as to tack that to their nature which is the mean of their own destruction. Any one that is careful may perform this work, with the hook in one hand, and grasp the crops with the other, which will be good entertainment for cows; or, if he hath no mind to take the trouble to preserve them, let him fix a sharp-toothed hook in the end of a small pole or hazel rod, and strike them down therewith, which is more expeditious, though less profitable." But there was a possibility that all these rules—rules which, their authors quietly insinuate, reason and experience alike recommend—might fail of the desired end; and such contingency was not left out of view. For, it is added, "If a field be so backward that it does not answer by following the foregoing rules, it will be fit to lay it down in gi~ass until it contract a body, which will take five years to ly."

It were scarcely profitable to follow the essayists through the detailed rules for tillage applicable to infield and out-field, and the method of toth-folding, and so on. For the bear crop we note that "Ebb tilling is recommended to retain the dung as near the seed as possible, and the remainder of the mold is to ly in the meantime to contract a body." For the first crop after bear, "Let it be ploughed with competent sap both deep and tight"—the " two good reasons" for the deep furrow being "to bury the grass roots," and "that the rested mold which lay idle underneath last year may appear to act its part." Indeed, the Society, in the case of out-field, at least, seem to have had some vague kind of notion that each succeeding furrow should go a little deeper than the one given the previous year, till, as they say, "the pan" were reached. The "faueh" is justly declared to be "in all respects inferior to dung, seeing it adds no benefit to the soil for the future, but only extorts, as it were, by violence whatever productive qualities Providence has bestowed upon it." And then they lay down one or two general principles which we may carry along with us; thus :—" If we look into the common way of managing husbandry, especially in those parts where nature has been less liberal of her favours, we will have just reason to reprove the inadvertancy of some in bestowing their labour without any prospect of an adequate return, and condemn the inhuman practice of others for wounding so unmercifully the sides of our common mother earth, without ever offering any medicine. There is no excuse can be made to alleviate the severity of this censure, except it he the prevailing humour of landlords in exacting what they possibly can of their dependants, and they, as the phrase is, must put at the rigs. However, it were a far more equal way for masters to allow their fellow-creatures a reasonable subsistence, their lands, in the meantime being improven, as well as greater justice done to their own children, to succeed to a thriving tenantry and well-managed ground. This would be a sure way to raise a more plentiful fortune, and transmit their memory with more honour to posterity, than the heaping up a store of money by those means that have such an affinity to extortion, and seldom enrich the third heir."

One fancies that in these latter sentiments he hears the voice of some nineteenth century radical, rather than that of the aristocratic members of the small society of Buehan farmers of a hundred and forty years ago.

We take a step onward and listen to the advice obtained in a particular ease by an ardent improver. About the year 1757, Sir Archibald Grant had addressed a set of queries to the hon. the "Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland," concerning the most advantageous way of managing a field of sixteen acres, said to be "of good black soil," "abundantly dry, or can easily be made so." It had produced clover and ryegrass for three years, but could not be longer pastured. The advice Sir Archibald receives for the treatment of the field—. and it is given in the month of January—is to plough with all convenient speed, "that it may have got three furs betwixt and the latter end of April or beginning of May." Pease were then to be sown, the object being to manure the field, and when they came to be in full bloom, they were to be pressed fiat to the ground with a roller, or in absence of such an implement, with harrows thrown upon their backs, or "an old door may be used." The land was then to be twice ploughed, and sown out with twelve pounds of clover and two bushels of ryegrass seeds to an acre.


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