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The Social and Industrial history of Scotland, from the Union to the present time
Eighteenth Century: 2. The Progress of Agriculture


During the first half of the eighteenth century there was no appreciable advance in agriculture, though enterprising and enlightened landowners like Adam Cockburn of Ormiston, and his son John, and the Earl of Haddington set a praiseworthy example in adopting new methods to increase the productiveness of their estates. Their example was, however, but sparingly followed, and it is only in the second half of the century that a notable advance becomes observable. Even towards its close it was far from complete, the old methods surviving alongside the new in the more sequestered districts of the Lowlands, not to speak of the Highlands. A variety of adverse conditions worked against progress in the earlier part of the century. As the result of a series of inclement seasons at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth, large tracts of land went out of cultivation and were for long left in a waste condition. Till far into the century the method of tilling the soil was still very primitive. The plough in use varied with the district. But it was usually a cumbrous implement which required four or more horses or oxen to draw it, one man to hold it, another, walking backward, to lead the team, and a third, or even a fourth, to follow it and compress the furrow and break the clods. Sometimes the crooked spade, or cascroin, worked with the hand, was used instead of the plough and the turning over of the soil involved an immense amount of manual labour. The harrows had wooden teeth which wore quickly away and merely scratched the stiffer soils. In some northern districts they were tied to the horses' tails to save the expense of providing harness.

The system of cultivation, like the mode of ploughing and harrowing, was also of a primitive kind. The farm was usually divided into "infield" and "outfield." Infield was the land nearest the steading which absorbed all the farm manure and was perpetually under crop. The outfield was the pasture land beyond, which was occasionally ploughed in patches for corn for four or five years running, when it was exhausted and then left for some years in pasture till it recovered. The system of "runrig" was also in vogue, under which a number of tenants living in a town or village cultivated the adjacent land, divided into "rigs" or ridges which changed hands every year—a practice very adverse to enterprise on the part of the individual cultivator. Another common method was to lease a farm to a number of tenants, each cultivating his separate portion, but each dependent on the consent of the others in the working of it.

The land was usually leased to tenants by the year and this short and uncertain tenure tended to discourage enterprise. As the cultivator might be turned adrift at the end of the year, he had no incentive to improve the land, and if, nevertheless, he attempted to do so, his rent might be raised. Without a reasonably secure tenure in the form of longer leases, agricultural improvement was impossible. What could be done by this expedient was conclusively shown by Adam Cockburn of Ormiston, Lord Justice Clerk at the beginning of the century, whose wise policy was continued and extended by his son John, with most beneficial results to both landlord and tenant. The generality of proprietors were, however, all too slow to profit from such an example. Moreover, rents were paid largely in kind and only to a comparatively small extent in money. Money was, indeed, very scarce throughout the first half of the century and without money it was impossible for the proprietors to improve their estates. Loans for such a purpose were very difficult to raise and could only be obtained on "wadset," which pledged the land of the borrower to the lender if the loan was not repaid by a specified date. The enterprise of the tenant was farther hampered by the remains of the feudal obligation that persisted from past centuries. Serfdom had long disappeared in the sense of binding the tiller of the soil to the estate and selling him along with it. But restrictions remained which greatly impeded his economic freedom even in the eighteenth century. Part of the rent was paid not merely in kind, but in service, which bound the tenant to give so many days' work to the proprietor in manuring and ploughing the home farm, reaping his crops, carrying peats or coals to the mansion house, such service being included in the general term arrage and carriage. "Bondage days " and "Bonnage" were the significant terms also applied to these services. No less grievous was the custom of "thirlage"—another remnant of feudal times—which obliged the tenant to pay to the barony miller a certain proportion of the grain he produced (multure) whether ground at his mill or not, in addition to the miller's charges for the corn actually ground by him. He was also "thirled" to the local smithy and had to pay annually so much in kind to the blacksmith for plough irons and shoeing of horses though he might not have made use of his services. These dues and services were not only felt to be very vexatious and gave rise to much ill-feeling and contention. They were a serious bar to productive energy.

Lack of sufficient care in cleansing the soil of weeds greatly lessened production and one inveterate weed called gool was all too common in spite of laws punishing those who neglected to keep it down and of gool courts, which survived in some parishes till the end of the century, to inflict the penalties on offenders. Another drawback was the lack of proper means of transit owing to the bad roads, and of serviceable vehicles. Goods were carried in sacks or creels on the backs of horses, or in tumbrils with wooden wheels which revolved with the axles. It was in this primitive fashion that manure was transported to the fields and peats from the moss. Carts were not in common use in the Lowlands till 1760, while in the north the old method of locomotion lasted much longer. The absence of proper drainage prevented the farmer from making adequate use of the low-lying, swampy ground, and led him to cultivate the poorer land on the hill sides. He sowed this land with the least productive kind of grain—grey oats and bere—whilst the late ploughing and sowing resulted in late and precarious harvests. Before the general sowing of turnips and artificial grasses, which only became common in the second half of the century, there was no adequate supply of winter feeding for cattle and horses, which were fed on straw and mashed whins. On this poor diet the farmer's stock was so emaciated that the cattle had to be carried ("lifted") to the pasture in spring and fresh meat could not be had in winter. During this season only salt beef in the form of "the mairt" killed in the autumn was available for who

could afford this luxury. The supply of animal food was further limited by the ravages of foxes, which preyed on the flocks, though the hired fox hunter, with his pack of dogs, who was to be found in every district, or the less expensive method of trapping or poisoning, helped to some extent to counteract this pest. The food of the people was largely vegetarian, consisting of oatmeal porridge and cakes, pease bannocks, barley and kail broth. In some districts, however, salmon was so common during the season that servants stipulated that they should not be given it more than three times a week, and in the early part of the century it was sold at from 1d. to 2d. per pound. If simple, this diet was at least wholesome and free from modern adulteration. On this simple life large families were reared, though the lack of proper sanitation tended to breed disease and epidemics which thinned the population all too frequently. Unfortunately in virtue of the growth of population and the backward methods of cultivation, the land had ceased to produce sufficient food to feed the inhabitants. In many districts the lack of food was only too general, and in seasons of dearth it was disastrous.

The wages of farm labourers seem to have been very inadequate, though they began to rise from about the middle of the century. The rate varied with the district, but even in the more liberally paid districts and in cases where the wife might earn a few additional pounds by spinning and the children, if old enough, might also add to the scanty family income, a bare subsistence was usually all that was possible. Only by the most economic housekeeping and the simplest diet could the income be made to square with the expenditure.

In the second half of the century the agricultural depression began to give place to a marked improvement, due to the gradual removal of the defects and drawbacks which had hampered this primary industry. The general introduction of long leases gave the farmer a more secure tenure and an adequate return for his enterprise, whilst binding him to employ more serviceable methods of manuring and working the soil. Equally effective were the abolition of the runrig system, the introduction of a mixed rotation of crops, the substitution of more fruitful seed for the grey oats and bere, the use of artificial grasses for pasture and hay, the enclosure of fields by dykes or hedges, the drainage of swampy ground, the use of lime in addition to farm manure, the invention and application of machinery and improved implements, the abolition of "thirlage" and services. The winnowing fan and the barley mill, which improved upon the old method of grinding barley by " knocking stones," had been introduced from Holland by James Meikle at Saltoun in 1710 and became common after the middle of the century. The swing plough, drawn by two horses, was invented by John Small of Dalkeith in 1750, and was a great advance on the ponderous and ineffective implement hitherto in use. The threshing machine was at last, in 1787, perfected by Andrew Meikle, son of James, and ere long displaced the flail, though this old-fashioned way of separating the corn from the straw prevailed in some districts far into the next century. Before the end of the eighteenth there were as many as 350 threshing machines in operation in East Lothian, with a marked saving from the new method in time and labour and in the quantity of grain threshed. The growing of potatoes and turnips in fields as well as in gardens, to which their cultivation had for long been confined, greatly increased the supply of food for man and beast. The cattle, which had starved through the winter on straw and mashed whins, grew fat on the more substantial keep provided by the hay and turnip fields, and salt beef ceased to be the only available commodity in the larder in winter. The reclaiming of bogs and moors brought more land under cultivation. The improvement of the roads in virtue of the Turnpike Act of 1751, which assessed proprietors and tenants for the upkeep of the highways, led to the use of improved vehicles and to increased and more rapid communication, and enabled the farmer to bring his produce more easily to market. The growth of trade and manufactures in the towns, which created a larger demand for food stuffs, also encouraged agricultural enterprise. The value of land rose in proportion, and the increased rents, which began to be paid exclusively in money, enabled the proprietor to spend much more in the improvement of his estate. Loans for this purpose were more easily obtainable from the banks which were established in the county towns as well as in the larger cities. The Montgomery Act of 1770, so named from the Lord Advocate of the time, further enabled the proprietor of entailed estates to undertake improvements by placing on his successors part of the expense of enclosing, draining, and planting his land. Estates also came into the hands of those who had made fortunes in commerce at home and in the Plantations, and the business capacity and freedom from conservative ways of these new proprietors favoured agricultural development. The spirit of change was, however, sometimes more enthusiastic than practical and the experiment of adopting English methods in a country, whose climate was less propitious than that of the south of England, was not always a success. The new system of combining small into large farms involved hardship to the small tenants, who were compelled to become labourers, or drift into the towns, or emigrate to the Colonies. The policy adopted in the north of turning small holdings into sheep runs caused acute misery and led at times to violent resistance, with transportation as the penalty of the luckless resisters. The raising of rents by the proprietors in the Highlands was not justified by greater returns from the land. The tacksmen who became leaseholders also rack-rented their sub-tenants, the productivity of whose holdings was far more limited than in the south. There was, in consequence, destitution in many a Highland glen and this destitution was aggravated by the limitation of arable land, lack of employment and enterprise, over-population, the persistence of backward methods of cultivation, frequent failure of crops, vagrancy, wretched housing, and eviction of the small holder. For these evils emigration to the North American Colonies provided a harsh, though only a partial remedy.

In the south, on the other hand, the rise in rents was only an indication of the increased value of the land and the rising prosperity of the farmer. In Berwickshire, for instance, rents rose from between Is. 6d and 8s. to 21s. an acre, in Perthshire from 5s. to 45s. in 1784, in the Carse of Gowrie from 6s 8d. to even 6. in 1783. Though a similar advance took place in all the Lowland counties, the farmer could become prosperous in virtue of better cultivation, enlarged production, and higher prices, and in not a few cases could buy his farm even at the enhanced rates going. And not only the farmers, but their servants benefitted by this improvement. Though wages and conditions of life varied for the peasantry with the district, the general trend was an upward one. In the interval between the middle and the end of the century the wages of ploughmen and labourers had doubled, rising to an average of 14 or 15 for the former in the more developed regions, and from 6d. in Bummer and 5d. in winter to Is. and lOd. a day for the latter. Better houses for the working class had also begun to displace the miserable hovels of an earlier time, and a notable improvement had also set in in dress and diet. It is not too much to say that before the end of the century the agricultural industry had been revolutionised, though the old conditions of tenure and the old methods of cultivation lingered in the Highlands and the remoter districts of even the Lowland counties. Whereas in the early part of the century the comparison between England and Scotland was all in favour of the former, by the end of it Scotland was beginning to redress the balance and was laying the solid foundation of that eminence in agriculture which in the following one was to reverse the comparison in its favour.

A striking result of this development was a marked change in the external aspect of the country by the planting of woods and forests. Woods were still nearly as rare in the Lowlands during the early part of the eighteenth century as in previous centuries. The improvement of the land and the landscape by plantations was at first the concern of only a few progressive proprietors like Lord Haddington, Cockburn of Ormiston, Lord Loudon, the Duchess of Gordon, and the Countess of Eglinton, and Dr Johnson could still in 1773 say with some truth, if far more exaggeration, that " a tree in Scotland is as rare as a horse in Venice." Trees might be seen around the mansions of the gentry, and hitherto unknown varieties like the larch, the silver fir, the walnut, the maple, the laburnum, the beech and chestnut were grown in sheltered gardens and carefully nursed on the assumption that they could not thrive in the open. Farmers opposed extensive planting on the plea that hedges and trees spoiled the land and harboured the enemies of their crops. The prejudice against this improvement was long inveterate and showed itself in the destruction of plantations by the people overnight in spite of the old pains and penalties. This prejudice was all the more surprising inasmuch as the waste land was found admirably fitted to rear a great variety of trees, and the scarcity of wood, which had to be imported from Norway and the Baltic for building and other purposes, was a general grievance.

It was only in the second half of the century that this prejudice began to give way to more practical considerations and progress in afforestation immensely improved the monotonous aspect of the country, afforded shelter to growing crops, helped to drain the soil and temper the climate. Planting on a large scale became a sort of passion with both lords and lairds, and the forests of Nairnshire, Morayshire, Perthshire date from this period. The Duke of Atholl, for example, covered 16,000 acres with larch. Grant of Monymusk, Lord Findlater, Lord Murray and others planted spruce, beech, oak and elm by the million. To "be aye stickin' in a tree" was now an essential of rural economy. These plantations are sufficient to take the edge off Dr Johnson's sarcasm, though there were still treeless regions along his route and the improvement in the general aspect of the country, even where tree planting was in full swing, was not the work of a day. Gardening also profited from the general advance of the time, the earlier style of artificially ornamental trees and shrubs in the form of animals, copied from Holland, giving place later to a more natural arrangement. A variety of fruits and vegetables began to be cultivated and even the kailyard of the cottar showed in this respect a marked improvement by the end of the century.


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