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The Social and Industrial history of Scotland, from the Union to the present time
Eighteenth Century: 6. Social Conditions


Social conditions underwent a gradual change in keeping with the economic advance characteristic of the second half of the century. During the first half of it manners and customs still differed little from those prevailing in the previous century. In the country houses of lords and lairds, ladies in middle age wore the carefully handled dresses which had been part of their marriage outfit. Whilst these lords and lairds had little money to dispose of, there was plenty of substantial food on their tables, in virtue of the payment of rent in poultry and other kinds of produce. The standard of comfort was still, however, rather primitive even in the houses of the country gentry. The beds usually stood in inlets in the walls, with sliding doors, and the windows of the rooms were without sashes. Food was eaten from wooden or pewter plates. Glasses were scarce, if bottles and casks were numerous, and in many households the ale or wine was drunk from the same glass, which went the round of the table. Knives and forks were not too plentiful and it was not considered boorish to pick the bones and make use of the knife to convey food to the mouth. Tea drinking was creeping in and became common in great houses towards the end of the first quarter of the century, in spite of the protests of old-fashioned people against "the vile drug." Men of rank kept a lumbering coach, imported from Holland and drawn by six horses, to convey them when on a journey over the deeply rutted roads, with two footmen standing behind armed with long poles to prise it out of the ruts, and one to go in front to give warning of any obstruction. Lairds went on horseback with their ladies behind them, and one of their labouring men on another horse to attend them. Both wore homespun made of the yarn which the members of the household spun on the rock and reel, and later the spinning wheel, and woven by the village "wabster," except on special occasions when gayer garments were donned. The plaid was an indispensable part of feminine clothing for gentle and simple, though it differed in quality according to rank. English broadcloth and foreign fashions were, however, like tea, beginning to appear from about the first quarter of the century. The younger generation was learning these fashions in the capital, or in Holland and France, whither the sons of nobles and gentry went to study law or medicine.

Despite these greatly deplored innovations, fashion changed slowly, and in Edinburgh in 1720 there was only one milliner. In the country the travelling tailor and weaver long sufficed for the simple needs of the country housewives of the upper class. Family life in these homes, under the Calvinist regime, was of the Spartan type, parents being regarded by their children not only with reverence, but with awe, the rigid intercourse between them allowing no scope for familiarity or endearment. Sunday must have been for the young a fearful and tiresome day, being devoted to religious exercises, private as well as public, from morning to night, including attendance twice at long and heavy services in the kirk. Whilst there was much intercourse and mutual hospitality among the gentry of a parish or district, it was conditioned by the political passions and prejudices of the day. Whig and Jacobite assorted little together, the Stuart loyalty of the latter being obnoxious to the former, while the Jacobite hated with a perfect hatred the Hanoverian allegiance and the Presbyterian strictness of his Whig neighbour. In those days of limited incomes and large families it was not deemed a humiliation to apprentice younger sons to shopkeepers in training for the vocation of "merchant," who was a retailer of a miscellany of articles ranging from candles and tobacco to lace, wine, and pearls. Many of these Edinburgh "merchants" were the brothers of lairds, baronets, and even lords. In the Highlands, where prejudice and pride were strong, a gentleman, whilst despising shopkeeping, might be found keeping an inn, or plying the trade of a cattle dealer and selling to English graziers the black cattle which he drove down from the hills and glens to Crieff market or tryst.

The lack of communication tended to prolong this old world social life. In 1740 Lord Lovat took eleven days to travel in his chariot from Inverness to Edinburgh, with numerous mishaps to the vehicle by the way. In 1749 a stage coach began to run between Edinburgh and Glasgow twice a week at a fare of 9s. 6d. and performed the journey of 46 miles in twelve hours—a great improvement on previous times, when a coach and six horses required a day and a half. By the middle of the century carriers were only beginning to carry goods between the towns, in place of cadgers with their creels on horseback. Even as late as 1770 a carrier took a fortnight for the journey from Edinburgh to Selkirk and back with a load of six hundredweight. Up to 1754 there was only a monthly stage coach between Edinburgh and London, which did the journey in from twelve to sixteen days, letters being carried by the post in six days. From Edinburgh to the larger towns as far north as Inverness and Thurso letters were at first carried by foot postmen, till the horse-post gradually introduced a quicker mode of transport. The primitive character of Scottish roads, which underwent no improvement till the second half of the century, certainly offered little inducement to travel.

From about 1760 the old ways underwent a marked transformation. New mansion houses, better furnishings, a more varied diet, and more sumptuous fashions came in. Better roads led to better vehicles and more rapid communication, and this of itself always brings with it social change. Instead of one stage coach a month from Edinburgh to London, there were now two daily, which reached the Capital in 60 hours. Glasgow ultimately came into direct communication with London, the journey lasting five hours longer. By the end of the century the journey between it and Edinburgh was reduced to six hours. Postal communication and inns were also greatly improved. The improvement in agriculture and trade brought increasing 1 wealth—another unfailing innovator of old habits and customs in I the style of living. The Statistical Account of Scotland, written between 1790 and 1797, and throwing a flood of light on the social condition of the people, is full of complaints of what the writers, who were usually the parish ministers, deem the extravagant addiction of their parishioners to new fashions in dress and unwonted luxuries. The round hat has replaced the Kilmarnock bonnet as the headdress for men on Sundays and market days, English broadcloth the old homespun. Their women folks despise the coarse stuffs of less pretentious times for silks and cotton. Formerly a watch and a clock were rarities in the parish. Now every farmer has an eight-day clock and nearly every farm servant a watch. The use of whisky and tea for ale and beer has spread like a plague over the land, and the widespread practice of tea drinking comes in for more severe censure than even the immoderate use of whisky. Fifty years ago a tea kettle was usually only to be found in the laird's mansion or the minister's manse : now the tea kettle is in evidence in nearly every cottage and is almost invariably regarded by the writers as a most ominous sign of the degeneration of the times. The growing use of tobacco among both men and women is equally dangerous to both health and morals. The increase in the consumption of tea is all the more surprising in view of the price, which was 4s. per lb., whilst the pound of sugar sold at ll^d. Wages had begun to rise and with this rise the price of food had also risen during these fifty years. A pound of beef or mutton, which cost Id. or l^d. per pound about the middle of the century, cost 5d. or 6d. towards the end of it. Similarly the price of a dozen of eggs had risen from Id. to 4d. or 6d., a fowl with a dozen of eggs from 4d. to between Is. 4d. and Is. 9d., a pair of geese from 2s. to 5s. 6d., a turkey from 3s. to 7s., a pair of pigeons from 1d. to 6d., fourteen haddocks from 1d. to 1s. 6d., and a bottle of claret from Is. to 6s. Another indication of what even these censorious writers regard as an improvement was the general use of forks and knives at table, which had previously been unknown among the country people at least. The diet of the farming class, if not so generally that of their servants, showed a corresponding advance in the greater use of meat. The housing of the working class was also beginning to show a relative improvement in the better cultivated districts at least.

The fishing population—a numerous body in the east coast towns and villages—constituted a class by itself. The women took an active part in their husbands' labour, gathering bait, baiting the lines, carrying the fish in creels, containing perhaps a hundredweight, to their customers or to the market, often a long distance off; carrying, too, their husbands on their backs through the shallow water, even in the coldest weather, to their boats in places where there was no pier, in order "to keep their men's feet dry." Withal a hardy race to whom Dr Carlyle, in his account of Inveresk, and other writers devote a well merited meed of admiration.

The people led laborious lives and seem to have taken life rather seriously. Holidays were few, recreation and festivity limited. Hallowe'en and Beltane (1st May) were celebrated by the lighting of bonfires, with the quaint practices, reminiscent of pagan times, so racily depicted by Burns in the case of the former. Yule and New Year were feast days in the material sense, and the occasion of shooting matches, football, and other diversions. On Shrove Tuesday the boys indulged in cock-fighting, the dues going to the schoolmaster as part of the perquisites of his office. Curling^ was the favourite winter game in the south. Archery still had its devotees, and there was golf on the links at Musselburgh, Leith, St Andrews, and Montrose. The tendency by the end of the century was towards increased social intercourse among neighbours and friends by the giving of dinners and suppers. The reaping of the last sheaf, called the maiden, was celebrated in some parishes by bringing it home to the music of bagpipes or fiddles and spending the evening in dancing and merriment, the girl whose fortunate lot it was to gather it acting as queen of the feast. Another old time occasion of festivity was " the daubing," when the neighbours assembled to assist in building the mud walls of a new farmhouse, and after the operations, were regaled with meat and drink, the feast finishing with a dance. Marriages and even funerals were also the occasions of festivity and were associated with many popular superstitions. Certain days and months— Friday and the months of January and May—were regarded as unlucky for marrying. Some would only marry when the moon c was waxing and the tide flowing. The day once fixed for the ceremony must, if at all possible, be observed for fear of the evil consequences that were supposed to follow a change of date. Marriage being " a tying of the knot," all knots in the apparel of bride and bridegroom were loosed before the ceremony and tied again after it. A common feature was the penny wedding, the company present providing by its contributions the feast, which lasted for a couple of days and was usually the occasion of much rough merriment and excess. It was customary to invite the whole parish to a funeral, the beadle going round to proclaim the death and the invitation, and preceding the coffin ringing his bell on the way to the graveyard. Wakes or watching the corpse by the neighbours before burial were held, and the spirit of the departed was assumed to remain near the body till it was committed to the grave and to keep watch at the churchyard gate, till relieved by that of the next person who was buried. The day of the funeral was practically a holiday, for the whole of the inhabitants of a parish were invited to attend and refreshed themselves only too well before and after the obsequies. The funeral, in fact, seems to have often ended in a carouse. " From the death to the interment," notes one writer, whose account seems to be generally applicable, " the house is thronged by night and day and the conversation is often very unsuitable to the occasion. The whole parish is invited at 10 o'clock in the forenoon of the day of the funeral, but it is soon enough to attend at 3 o'clock afternoon. Every one is entertained with a variety of meats and drinks. Not a few return to the dirge (potation after the funeral) and sometimes forget what they have been doing and where they are." Happily he adds that in his own day (at the close of the century) these excesses were passing away.

Superstition was not confined to marriages and funerals. The belief in fairies, ghosts, and witches was still common, especially in the north. Ghosts of course appeared to the benighted wanderer in lonely places. Similarly the less fearsome fairies were to be seen in their green apparel and beaming faces, and one previously sceptical clergyman returning from a Presbytery dinner was fain to confess that he had been seized by them and carried in the air to his own door ! What were accounted supernatural sounds were heard at night about the farm steading and regularly repeated, it might be, for weeks and months on end, until some old man, who possessed the art of conjuring the evil thing, was sent for to exercise his skill on the haunted spot. No fisherman would dream of going to sea on certain days or turn his boat against the sun's course, and generally the lucky way in performing many actions was that from east to west. Second sight and the evil eye were articles of faith, incantations and charms as a protection from "scaith" or evil still common. Other devices, such as drawing imaginary circles, placing knives in the walls of houses, or branches of mountain ash above the stalls of the cattle also served to frustrate the ill intentions of the evil spirits. Lakes, wells, and rivers had their genii who could heal diseases and foretell events to those who sought their haunts and made them a present of some small object. Saints' or holy wells, such as St Columba's or St Fillan's well, were invested with the same virtue, the saint receiving for his kind offices in healing disease a variety of offerings such as pins, needles, bits of clothing, etc.


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