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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century

In the annals of Scottish agriculture, and specially of agriculture as it concerned that limited district in the north-eastern part of Scotland to which the jottings that follow will be chiefly confined, the eighteenth century was, throughout almost its whole course, a period of remarkable stagnation. It opened inauspiciously, in so far as the close of the preceding century had been marked by a series of very ungenial seasons, which brought with them disastrously deficient harvests, and want of food, amounting in many parts to absolute famine. The method of tillage too, had seen no improvement from time immemorial; and as a natural consequence of this, the land, even in ordinary seasons, had in many cases come to yield not more, but less than it had yielded in the time that had gone before. The system pursued was one of exhaustion, and the cultivated part of the soil was to a large extent getting quite worn out. The native cattle were small, ill-grown animals; and they were correspondingly ill fed.

The spirit of enterprise was not yet abroad. For the first thirty years of the century, that is from 1700 to 1730, "the medium price of lands sold in the county of Aberdeen did not," we are told, "exceed sixteen years’ purchase of the then low rents." It was not always that the lairds could find tenants willing to "keep in the rigs" at a merely nominal rent, until resort was had to the practice of stocking farms as occasion required on "steelbow," a technical term, the signification of which was that the landlord provided a "stocking" of cattle, corn, and implements, and the tenant became bound to return to him articles equal in quantity and quality at the end of his lease, if he could not free himself sooner. A man, if he were so minded, might readily obtain a "tack" on very easy terms, so far as a money or other payment was concerned; and that tack to last not for his own lifetime only, but for the period of one or two lives thereafter of such persons as he chose to name.

And small in amount as the money payments to rental were, they were not always, nor indeed generally, made off the produce of the land. It was chiefly through the manufacture of home-spun cloths, and the knitting of stockings for exportation that money came into the hands of the smaller tenants, sub-tenants, and cottar folks; and it was chiefly through them that it reached both the principal tenant and the proprietor, other sources of revenue hardly existing for either, in so far as local industry was concerned.

The roads they had were roads only by courtesy. Wheeled vehicles were scarcely known, and would have been but little serviceable if they had been more plentiful. The best frequented lines of road were not much else than mere tracks, that had taken their form from the hoof-marks of the cattle that traversed them; a few stones being sometimes roughly thrown into the bottom of a soft bit, forming a kind of rude causeway, sometimes not. And thus came the story of a certain man and his mare. As he plodded along, driving the animal before him, with the pack saddle on her back, the wary beast boggled at a particular part in the road, where she had "laired" on a previous occasion, and fairly refused to go on. But the mare had overlooked the fact that it was now in the drought of summer, whereas it had formerly been raw winter. And her master, failing to persuade her that it was safe to hold on her way, exclaimed "Wae-worth ye, beastie; yer memory’s a hantle better than your jeedgment."

The people dwelt almost of necessity much amongst themselves, living in a simple, homely style, on the produce of their own cultivation. Observant strangers, in speaking of diversities in manners, and style of speech, among the common people, professed to note specific differences, if not between the inhabitants of one parish and the inhabitants of another, certainly between those of one district and those of other districts in the same shire; and it might be, in some instances, not half-a-dozen miles apart. The state of matters was not unfavourable to the growth of certain virtues, such as neighbourliness, social sympathy, and the like. And along with these there was almost necessarily contractedness of view and lack of the spirit of progress. It was equally natural that there should exist a considerable tinge of superstitious feeling, manifesting itself in such forms as the prevailing beliefs in fairies, ghosts, witches, and water kelpies, as well as in a sort of character who seems to have held a midway place between the fully developed warlock, who had his commission directly from the Prince of Darkness, and the seer, or person originally gifted, more or less, with superhuman power which enabled him to cope with certain bodily ailments and various other of the ills that afflict humanity.

Among the peasantry generally, as indeed amongst other classes of society during the same period, religious fouling was in a rather dormant state. The prevailing sentiment was pretty much that which, at a later era, came to be described by the term "moderate," understood in its worst sense. The "Seceder," when, in due time, he became an existing entity, here and there, was ordinarily regarded, and described as a pestilent fanatic simply; the "Missionar’," who in his turn was held in similar repute, did not come on the scene till a later date. It is not very easy, and might not be altogether wise, to pronounce an explicit judgment on the social morality of the period, comparatively viewed. In the north-eastern part of Scotland the great religious movements that accompanied and followed the Reformation, down to the Revolution of 1688, did not pervade the commonalty to the same extent, nor stir their feelings to a like depth, as in districts further southward. How far this may have been significant of, or have tended to promote, obtuseness of moral feeling in a comparatively rude state of society, we do not profess to say. But in so far as local records lead us, there does not at any rate appear to be much ground to believe that the social morality of the eighteenth century was in many of its phases of a higher or purer type than that of the century that has followed it.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, and even a little before it, the subject of improvement in agriculture had engaged the attention of men of intelligence; chiefly men of some position, who, while they had a direct interest in the subject as landed proprietors, were in several cases also actively engaged in professional life or in commerce. Some of these to advanced theorising added successful practice in such matters as turnip cultivation and the establishment of a rotation of crops; and notably also in the planting of timber trees. But it took long time till their example, in the matter of improved husbandry, was generally followed by the tenants, who were, as a rule, equally devoid of means and of the spirit of enterprise. Prejudice in favour of the old system and against the new was strong, too; and in some cases manifested itself in direct attempts to obstruct or defeat efforts toward improvement. Nor need we be altogether surprised at this. The time had not long gone by, when the highest agricultural wisdom merely sought to conserve the experience of the past as a creed for the present, and a guide in the future.

And the changes mooted must have seemed exceedingly revolutionary. It was not at an early date in the century, but towards the latter part of it—somewhere between the years 1770 and 1780—that a decent woman in the district of Garioch, in Aberdeenshire, found herself left a widow, with two sons coming toward man’s estate. The family had cultivated the same farm for several generations, perfectly contented with their lot. It was a good farm; but under a constant succession of cereal crops, with no variation except from oats to bore every third or fourth crop, even good "intoon" land did not improve; and now the elder son and heir to the "tack"—like a headstrong young man, and disregarding the example of his seniors—would follow the new fashion of husbandry, which some of the neighbouring lairds had begun to practise. His mother was sadly distressed at the idea; but what availed it that she had the sympathy of her younger and more timorous son if the other would have his way; his latest extravagance was the determination to apply lime-shells as a quickening manure to the exhausted and inert "rigs." The perplexed widow could only send for a neighbour farmer of acknowledged sagacity and prudence to decide what ought to be done. The neighbour, came, duly took note of what was going on, and, seeing the hopelessness of the case, proceeded to discharge his office of counsellor faithfully; and of course, very adversely to the youthful improver, winding up with this deliverance—"Weel, ‘oman, I dinna believe that that loon ‘ll halt till he herry ye oot at the door, an’ syne gae to the sodgers." The result of this "finding" was that the hot-headed young man threw up his birthright and was paid off with the sum of £30 sterling, his cannier brother assuming the office of farmer in his stead. The wilful young man did not go to the soldiers, it may be said, but betook himself to the county town for the purpose of acquiring as perfectly as he could the handicraft of the blacksmith, then in a rather primitive state in country districts. And having fairly mastered his business at a somewhat mature stage of his life, he set up his "smiddy," building his fire wholly of coals in place of home-made charcoal, and otherwise prosecuting his calling in accordance with his own advanced notions: although it was not he, but his son, who followed in succession to him in the same business, whose services came to be in repute in the first quarter of the present century as the only blacksmith over a wide district who understood, and could, with his own hand, fit up all the iron work of the thrashing mill and winnowing machine, then coming into general use, and if need were of the "meal mill" as well.

Generally, the latent energies of the people, which in the early part of the eighteenth century had been starved down by the meagre style in which physical life was sustained on the one hand, and the discouragement to enterprise found in the existence of heritable jurisdictions and the repressive fiscal system of the time on the other, had been only partially stirred at its close. Old customs; old habits of life, thought, and speech; antiquated implements, and obsolete modes of operation still kept their place with a wonderful tenacity; and the march of improvement, clogged as it was by sundry extraneous impediments, the weight of which we have difficulty under our greatly altered conditions in realising, was yet but slow and halting.

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