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Aberdeenshire in the 18th Century
Conditions of agriculture and the social and domestic arrangements that prevailed in Aberdeenshire

In ”Blackwood’s Magazine” for October, 1892, there was an article by Mr James Colville, D.Sc., on “Lowland Scotland in the Last Century,” in which references were made to the conditions of agriculture and the social and domestic arrangements that prevailed in Aberdeenshire, as well as elsewhere. The following extracts will be found interesting: —


The introduction of turnips into Scotland was not a little romantic. James Lawson, a farmer near Roxburgh, went to Leicester, and hired himself to Bakewell, the famous sheep-breed, as a ploughman, he left in six months, against the wish of Bakewell—going north, however, with a scheme for drill-husbandry in his head. In the following year he had seventy acres of turnips sown. This was about the year 1760. The turnip had been known before this, and sown in gardens, like cabbage, but broadcast. The minister of Kinellar, in Aberdeenshire, unwilling to weed a bed of turnips growing in this fashion in his garden, and thinking it would not succeed, tore up the greater part with the hoe. The crop turned out better than had ever been seen before, and in a few years hoeing in drills became general.


The houses of Aberdeenshire farmers were commonly of sod, and consisted of a fire-house, where the family and servants sat and ate, and a pantry, with sometimes an intermediate space for beds and chests. This was a ha’-house. The cottage of a labourer was on an inferior scale. A crazy woman, listening to a preacher in Portsoy on the text, “In my Father’s house are many mansions," astonished everybody by exclaiming, “My oortie, your feether’s house— auld Baukie’s! I kent him weel—a but and a ben. and that but ill redd up.” A minister, rebuking a labouring man for sleeping in church, was told, “It’s because I canna sleep at hame for the rattons and the sklaters.”


All over, it may be said that at the close of the century the rural (population rarely had flesh in the pot. As fresh meat, visitors were treated to fowls so lean that southern strangers thought of carving them by using the breastbone of the one to cut up the other. Pork was looked upon all over with the greatest aversion. In these days travellers noticed the absence of the cottar’s pig. but admit that there wan little for it to live on in the meagre establishments of the time. The general culture of the potato did more than anything else for the cottar’s pig. At Aberdeen, and, again, in Galloway and Dumfries, there was a great trade in pork for the navy; but the staple grazing-stock was the black cattle, which prevailed everywhere, almost to tlie total exclusion of sheep.


The staple dinner-dish was kail. Round every cottage was the kailyard, fenced by a low turf-wall and sheltered by an elder-hedge. Little else but kail or open cabbage was grown in it, latterly such additions were made as gooseberry bushes, thyme, southernwood, balm, mint, and camomile. Water-kail or barefoot broth—that is, without meat—was a Teutonic dish, for the Highlanders of old abominated the plant as fit only for goats. In default of kitchen or meat were used butter, cheese, herring, or raw onions from Flanders. This dish was sometimes made of greens and grolls— oats stripped of the husks in the mill—for pot-barley was difficult to procure. In every cottage there used to be the “knockin’-stane" a deep cuplike block, in which the barley was allowed to lie in water, and then beaten with a small mallet till it was unhusked. Various were the dishes made with kail, for it was the mainstay both of dinner and supper. Burns praises its virtues in his “Epistle to M'Adam" —

“And when those legs to guid, warm kail
Wi’ welcome canna, bear me;
A lee dyke-side, a sybow [onionj-tail,
And barley-scone shall cheer me.”

The staple breakfast dish was porridge and milk, and for supper sowons, as in Burns’s Hallowe’en supper—

“Till butter’d sowens, wi’ fragrant hint,
Set a’ their gabs a-steerin’.”

The simple diet of those days may be judged from the dietary of the boys of Gordon’s Hospital, Aberdeen. Bread and milk, oat and barley meal, and vegetables, formed the chief part of every day’s fare. Animal food was seldom seen.


The dress of last century survived to within living memory. Dr Gregor, the venerable minister of Pitsligo, has thus described to me his mother’s preparations for church—“On her head she plated a skull-cap to keen the hair up, and over that a fine linen cap, lying quite flat, followed by a broad ribbon going round the head and fastened behind. Over all came a band of thin cambric, drawn into a ruching on the top, and having a broad Hat border, showing the hair on the edge. Her outer dress was a red cloak with a hood, and made of fine wool. Her ordinary errand-going cloak was a duffle or bluish-grey. My father at kirk and fair wore a long coat, with brass buttons, of bluish cloth, and, for a working dress, home-made clothes, with a smaller coat of home-spun wool. On all occasions he wore knee-breeches.”

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