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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century

In no department of social economics has progress been more signally manifested within the comparatively recent past than in the department of roads and means of locomotion. It has been said, and truly enough, that the past half-century, or thereby, has witnessed a greater advance in the facilities for rapid locomotion than all the intervening centuries back to the era of the Pharaohs had witnessed. It is just the difference between the speed of the horse going by "posts," as was done in the days of Ahasuerus, king of Medo-Persia, and the speed of the express train in the days of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain. At the former date, they could no doubt keep up to at least eight miles an hour on a long journey; and when George Stephenson practically tested his "Rocket" engine in A.D. 1829, little if anything more had been accomplished in the way of accelerated speed; and as George had occasion to know it was not deemed credible that the speed mentioned could be safely increased to twelve miles an hour. During all the years that have elapsed since the present century began, however, the country has been traversed, to a moderate extent at least, by fairly passable roads. Over a large part of the eighteenth century it was very different. Passable roads were scarcely known; and the bulk of traffic of the heavier sort that went on (as well as mere personal touring) was almost incredibly small. Think of "the whole intercourse between Edinburgh and Glasgow" being carried on by means of "ten or twelve pack horses going and returning once a week," as we are told was the case, so late as about 1760!

It was not till 1810 that that "most eminent of road surveyors," Mr. Loudon Macadam, succeeded in getting public attention called to his improved system of road-making, by first securing the support of the Board of Agriculture through its President, Sir John Sinclair, and in virtue of that support obtaining the approval of a Parliamentary committee. And it was several years after till macadamised roads came into anything like general use. Before Macadam t~iere was General Wade; but apart from the military roads constructed under his direction, and up to fully the date when these were "made," "the communication by land" in Scotland was "along paths which necessity had traced out, that were marked only by the footsteps of the beasts that travelled along them, unless it was in a few bad passes through bogs that could not be avoided, where a rough and narrow causeway of stones badly laid together afforded at least a solid footing to the beasts, though a very disagreeable and dangerous path to those who were obliged to use it." Such is the description of a writer, speaking of what caine almost within his own personal recollection.

In the county of Aberdeen, Sir Archibald Grant of Monyrnusk, who began his operations as an agricultural improver about 1716, was among the first to move on the subject of road-making, as of many other improvements. In describing the condition of his paternal estate at the date mentioned, he says :—" At that time the~c ‘Was not one acre upon the whole esteat enclosed, nor any timber upon it, but a few elm, cycamore, and ash about a small kitchen garden adjoining to the house, and some straggling trees at some of the farm yards, with a small copscvood, not inclosed and dwarfish and i~roused by sheep and cattle. All the farms ill-disposed ~and mixed, different persons having alternated ridges,

not one wheel carriage on the esteat nor indeed any one road that would allow it." "In 1720 I could not in chariote get my wife from Aberdeen to Monymusk," wrote Sir Archibald. Macadam had yet to come, and the causeways had evidently been neglected. The question of road reform was just about to be taken up in earnest, however, and for probably the first time on any comprehensive plan. In that very year, 1720, after due advertisement "att the several paroch churches," the Aberdeenshire county gentlemen "met, and having read the Act of Parliament of 1719, relative to the Highways and I~ridges, they unanimously agreed ‘That the whole Highways and Bridges, within the said county, should be repaired, amended, and built with all convenient diligence." And, to defray the charges that would ensue, they agreed to stent themselves at the rate of lOs. Scots on each £100 of valued rent; a scale of rating which continued in force for many years thereafter. The Commissioners have approved of persons in each parish as "overseers," to look after the roads ; but something more definite was needed; and in 1721 Alexander Jaifray of Kingswells was appointed "General Surveyor of all the highways, causeways, and bridges within the countie, who is to ryde and run the same, and make report what bridges or causeways may he necessary to be built or repaired within the county." His salary was 200 merks, with "half-a-crown of ryding charges for each day he has served, or shall serve the shire, anent the reparation of the said highways." The expenditureior riding charges was afterwards limited to £3 sterling a-year. It was the Surveyor’s duty in reporting on the hridges and causeways, to state the cases which "could not be sufficiently wrought by the labouring men in the respective parishes," and where consequently the services of masons and other artificers were required. [For statement relative to Early Aberdeenshire Roads, Post Towns, &e., see Appendix (2).]

This state of matters, substantially, continued for a number of years with a moderate amount of success.

A description that would apply to the state of the country a very little before the date at which Duke William of Cumberland passed through Aberdeen and Banffshire, to fight the rebels at Culloden, is to this effect—" There was no road in the county of Aberdeen on which wheels of any kind could be dragged; weighty burdens of every kind were of course carried on horseback." And when the county gentlemen had begun to form roads in the different districts, their engineering and constructive skill was not of the highest, any more than the labour they could command was efficient or heartily given. The Commissioners of Supply were empowered by statute. (1719), to call upon every householder to give six days’ work in the year toward the making and maintenance of the roads. And when they had decided to exact the "statute labour" more rigorously, which they did soon after road reform had been taken up as a practical question, they would employ the precentor to read out a notice on Sunday from the "lateran" immediately before the benediction; or engage the bellman to utter a " scry" as the kirk "scailt," whereby the people were asked to "take notice" that their services were needed at such a place on such a day, to work under orders of this or the other J.P. at road-making. But the people did not see why the roads that were good enough for their father~ should not be good enough for them; and they hated and scamped the statute labour, so that the man’s six days frequently came to yield little more than one good day’s work; a circumstance which ultimately led to the involuntary labour being generally "commuted," for a modified money payment. In commuting, they reckoned the man’s labour at 3d. a-day. Thus, his six days’ statutory work would amount to eighteenpence. And that was the sum at which they ordinarily let him offi As ninepence was paid ~r a road labourer with some "can" in him, and a little heart to the business, two days’ work was thus secured; so that the sum exacted would seem to have been fairly equivalent to the services that had been given.

Flow averse the people were to performing their statute labour, and how little alive to the importance of good roads, is curiously illustrated by such facts as that, while warrant was granted to "poynd deficients conform to law," at least as early as 1739 no amendment seems to have taken place in their conduct up to 1755, when it was agreed that each Aberdeenshire parish should repair its own roads "as ane expedient to try if the roads will be repaired without commuting the labourer’s money, and charge each man in each parish a sixpence in place of the labour they are obliged to give by law." The schoolmasters were instructed to make out lists of all the persons in their parishes liable to statute labour (nearly all the male population between fifteen and seventy years of age, except the ministers and themselves). The precentors were "ordered" not only to announce the statute labour days from the "lateran," but to certify the County Clerk where no application had been made to them on the subject; failing which, they would be "prosecuted forthwith as contemners of the law." The ministers were "entreated to prompt all concerned to forward so good a work that they may be the agreeable instruments of preventing the disagreeable necessity of imposing or incurring the several penalties."

The highways made by statute labour were of this sort——" though the principal roads have been in general lined out so as to mark their directiol), and some stones and other obstructions removed out of the way and bogs filled up, yet the roads still continue to be in such a miserable state that unless it be for a few months in summer it is impossible to drive a carriage upon them with more than half an ordinary load." "What has contributed to this evil," we are again told, "is that when the roads began to he formed gentlemen were not sufficiently attentive to carry them in the most proper direction; they generally followed as nearly as they could the old course of the road; and as bogs had been originally the most dreaded obstructions, to avoid these, ‘the roads had been in general carried along the high grounds where they could be come at; so that in many cases they were carried a considerable way about to shun a vale and get up a hill. After wheels began to be employed, it was found that the pulls going uphill were very inconvenient, to avoid which it has been necessary, in many instances, to abandon a road that had been smoothed at a considerable expense, and to make a new one in a more proper direction."

‘This description applies to the Aberdeenshire roads of the second half of the eighteenth century. These roads which were simply narrow, unmetalled tracks, with ditches cut along the sides, the hollows filled, and large stones removed, but rarely causewayed, speedily became a muddy slough when the weather was wet. And as early as 1741 we find the recommendation to try a layer of "small stones and chingle" (a rough approach to macadamisiug) "in time coming" on some of the roads. Six inches depth of this had to he applied, and the fact duly certified before "the usual allowance" would be made to those who were charged with the maintenance of the road.

Directly after the Rebellion of 1745 Government roads and bridges for wheeled vehicles began to be systematically engineered and constructed, the roads having a hard bottom of stones. The first two lines of modern road across the Eastern Grampians were made by the military. These are the road from Brechin by. Fettercairn, the Cairn o’ Mount, and Potarch Bridge, to Alford, Clatt, and Huntly, made about 1746; and the road (named after General Wade) from the Spital of Glenshee, by Castleton of Braeniar, Crathie, (iairnshiel, Corgarif, and Tomintoul, to the Spey near Grantown, finished in 1754. Such roads as these, made by soldiers, had a sort of special recognition as the King’s lllighways.

The ordinary roads continued still to be of a very primitive sort. In June, 1751, at the Aberdeen County Meeting, "Meidrum" produced a letter " from my lady Dowager of Forbes, representing that the public road ‘twixt Inverury and Castle Forbes is quite impassible in sevrall parts thereof, particularly that part ‘twixt Pittodery’s dykes and Overhall, which is dangerous to pass, especially with wheel carriages:

and that lately her ladyship’s chaise had stuck there and broke the graith: and therefore craving the commissioners to allow her a share of the highway money for helping the road, and power to call out the country people to give their assistance: which being considered, the meeting thought the request of my lady Forbes just and reasonable," and ordered accordingly. In 1756, an Act was passed by the Aberdeenshire Commissioners for making all public highways "20 foot in breadth, and where broader they are to be kept so." Several counties, it is said, had resolved that the roads should be at least twenty feet in width "over and above the ditches on either side," which were to be five feet. Many of the’ roads and highways in this shire, it is added, "are represented as being very narrow, and will not permit wheel carriages to pass by one another, or even loaded horses with curracks and creels." The roads were directed to be raised in the middle so as water might run off them, or otherwise they would be reported to the Lords of Justiciary "as disagreeable to law, and the parishes they belonged to would have to make them over again." Tenants who had arable land adjacent to public roads, were enjoined to make "head rigs next to the highway," and to cease the abuse that prevailed of ploughing across the roads.

The date of the oldest Scotch Turnpike Act is 1750, but it was not till close on the end of the century that the system came north of the Dee.

In October 1769, the question of turnpikes came up for the first time at the Aberdeen County Meeting, in consequence of a scheme being "presently in agitation among gentlemen of the neighbouring county of Kincardine, for an application to Parliament to have turnpike roads in that county." The meeting declared "they were not presently ripe to give their opinion upon the expediency and consequences of the plan proposed." Before the year was out, however, they unanimously resolved to oppose the introduction of turnpikes into Kincardine county, unless the road ‘twixt the Bridge of Dee and Stonehaven were kept free of tolls: the town of Aberdeen which had been equally moved on the subject, having made offer to maintain the road in question by calling out the statute labour. This question of turnpikes was the subject of much discussion a quarter of a century later, a draft Turnpike and Commutation Road Bill being at last ordered to be printed in 1794. This Bill, which provided for the levying of a money payment in lieu of statute labour became an Act of Parliament in 1795. The turnpike system came into operation in Aberdeenshire three years after, by the construction of the Deeside Turnpike, in 1798. This was followed by the Ellon and Peterhead turnpike in 1799. Most of the other roads of this class in the county were made during the first twenty-four years of the present century.

The current ideas on the subject of roads wheil improvement in that direction began, were somewhat conflicting. The minister of a West Highland parish says, a consequence of the formation of General Wade’s Highland Roads and Bridges, was, "that the mind expanded by degrees to embrace within its grasp people of other denominations, and to weaken that prejudice which it conceived in favour of an individual and a particular clan." But then the cost of forming and maintaining these did not come so directly home to the community. With roads of the turnpike and "commutation" class it was different. In some quarters it was averred that nobody entertained a doubt of the advantage of a turnpike " since, at least, three times as much weight can be drawn in a carriage as was sufficient to load it before they were made." Still the engineering of those who lined them out, was not always perfect; even the turnpikes were too often "conducted over the summit of every eminence in their course, when with a little judgment and attention a direction might have been found equally near and incomparably more easy and convenient." And some could boast that "there are no turnpikes in these parts, and none are wanted ;" others maintained that it was a mistake to commute the statute labour into a money payment. If they had divided the districts properly, and made each small community make and mend their own particular roads, they argued, it would have brought the matter so closely home to their practical feelings that, in place of slothful and slovenly labour, they would have been incited to give something more than measure, seeing themselves and no other would have the main if not the exclusive benefit of it. The experience of the county of Aberdeen, under the experiment of 1755, would, however, seem to teach a contrary lesson.

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