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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


ALTHOUGH the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture had, as already stated, been formed in 1723, and individuals among the proprietary class had soon after that date made creditable efforts towards improvement in farming, it was not till fully the middle of the century that any movement of much consequence took place in that direction in any of the north-eastern counties of Scotland; nor, indeed, over a wider area. From the Union downward, to 1745, Scotland "experienced a state of extraordinary langour and debility. Her trade was inconsiderable, her agriculture in the most wretched state of neglect, and her manufactures nothing. Her people were oppressed, abject, and dispirited; her nobles poor, proud, and haughty, even to a proverb, and there seemed to be no hope of ever seeing a spirit of active industry excited in this nation." Dr. Anderson, whose words these are, seems to think that the abolition of heritable jurisdictions, after the date of the last Rebellion, removed the main obstacle to improvement.

The first experiment in Scotland in cultivating potatoes in the field was made at Kilsyth, in 1739. An entire half acre was planted, and many persons came from great distances to see the extraordinary novelty. But it was not till about 1760 that the potato was generally cultivated, even in gardens; and, for twenty years thereafter, it was not greatly in use as an article of food in the North of Scotland. The turnip, which had received earlier attention iii Norfolk, seems to have been introduced into Aberdeenshire about the year 1750. One of the Old Statistical writers says, "Mr. Burnett of Kemnay is said to have been the first farmer in the county of Aberdeen who raised turnips in the fields ;" but he gives no date, The first time turnips were seen in Kincardineshire. was about 1754; and ten years thereafter, in 1764, they were still so great a rarity—half an acre being deemed a large plot—that they were sold, by the few who grew them in small quantities, at the rate of a penny the stone weight as kitchen vegetables.

Imported grass seeds had been sown in but very few cases earlier than 1750. It was only about that date that they began to be kept for sale in a few shops in Aberdeen. Previously hay had been little known to the farmer, and, where known at all, chiefly in the form of indigenous meadow grass, dried more or less skilfully, and not too succulent at its best. The stall food of the poor pot-bellied " garrons" (horses) consisted, to no inconsiderable extent, of dried thistles— a plant mistakenly understood to be the special prerogative of the ass.

The name of Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk, in Aberdeenshire, has been already mentioned. In all schemes of improvement he was prominent, and one special part of his operations was planting wood. Dr. Anderson says Sir Archibald assured him "that he alone had planted during his own lifetime upwards of 48,000,000 of trees, and he lived several years after that, and sent me word about two months after I saw him that he had in that time planted 200,000 more." Dr. Anderson expresses his belief that "no other man ever existed on the globe who had planted so many trees." The Earl of Fife and General Gordon of Fyvie planted largely, General Gordon as many as 3,000,000 trees in a single enclosuin. James Farqullarson of Invercauld, in the years from 1750 to 1806, is said to have planted 16,000,000 firs and 2,000,000 larehes on his property in Braemar, through which he constructed more than twenty miles of roads. Toward the close of the eighteenth century, the cultivation of timber trees seems to have become an object of very general attention, as testified by the statement (in 1794) of the writerjust cited, that "there is scarcely a private gentleman in Aberdeenshire who owns an estate of £500 or £600 a year who has not planted many hundred thousand trees."

The Earl of Findlater, who, for several years before his death in 1776, resided constantly at Cullen House, was the first to attempt improvements in agriculture and manufactures in Banffshire. He brought an overseer from England, and cultivated a farm near Banif in a way then quite new to the district. He introduced turnip husbandry, and granted long leases to his tenants on condition that they should enclose the lands within a certain period, sow grass seeds, and adopt summer fallowing, to a certain extent, within the first five years of their final occupancy. As early as 1752 he established a bleachfield at Deskford ; and at a later period a manufactory of linen and damask cloth at Cullen, both of which enterprises fell into decay when household spinning ceased.

Mr. George Robertson, in his General View of the Agriculture of Kincardineshire (1807) states that about the year 1760 "there arose in this. county a constellation of cultivators, which dispelling the mist that till then obscured the horizon of agricultural science, threw out all at once such a splendid light over the labours of husbandry as has not been exceeded, and perhaps hardlyequalled even, to the present day." The detailed statements given by Mr. Robertson bear out his eloquent figure very welL And one phase of the new movement here too seems to have been "a strong bias for planting," inasmuch as during the last quarter of the century, probably 10,000 acres, previously bare and bleak enough, had been planted in forest trees.

In the case of a great many proprietors and tenants, too, in the Mearns, the spirit of general improvement seems to have moved strongly. Beginning at the north aide we are told, for example, that there was not a more "haggard or uncultivated spot" in the whole country than the estate of Glassel. There were not over 30 acres of it "into which a plough could have entered." In the course of some years, 150 Scots acres had been improved, the enormous quantities of stones taken off the surface serving to form "consumption" dykes, from 12 to 16 feet thick, and many hundred yards in length. The remaining 400 acres of unreclaimed land were planted, and all this was carried out by the proprietor, Mr. Baxter, sending instructions personally down from London. The estate of Durris was held on lease by Mr. John Tunes, Sheriff Substitute, who carried out very extensive improvements towards the close of the century. He made, at his own cost, a road " equal to any turnpike," running through the property from east to west, seven miles in length, besides promoting formation of the turnpike to Stonehaven and making other necessary roads. He erected a number of improved farm-steadings and cottages, and reclaimed at great cost 451 Scots acres, sub-dividing and fencing it, besides enclosing other 2500 acres. He planted 740 acres of muir ground, and built about 50 miles of stone dykes; and all this in seven years, the result being to increase the rental from £1000 to £2500, with the prospect of its soon reaching £3000. Then we have such instances as that of Alexander Walker, tenant of the farm of Auquhiries, who not only laid out and cultivated his farm in a style far in advanc6 of his time, but planted forest trees on the barreii knolls and waste corners to such an extent, that in 1796, when the lease expired, "the value of the wood which was then paid to his heirs amounted to £500."

Mr. Silver of Netherley, an old West India planter, who dipd in 1791 at the age of eighty-two, trenched and drained 150 Scots acres, some of it at a cost of £50 an acre. He imported lime for manure to the reclaimed land, which for some years, for lack of roads and wheeled vehicles, was brought six miles from Stonehaven "in sacks and creels on horses’ backs." Mr. Graham of Morphie, was the first to introduce "broad clover," which he cultivated with success, the result being "a vast acquisition to the night food of the horses, in a country where they had been accustomed to be fed with thistles only, from the corn fields, or with the coarsest of aquatic herbage from the different swamps." He cultivated turnips too in drills as early as 1760, and had both very superior cattle and horses; some of his oxen weighing 80 and even 90 stones, while before 1775 he refused £80 for a pair of horses. And the beautiful property of the Burn is described as "an estate that may be almost literally said to have been a creation by the late Lord Adam Gordon," who built "The Burn House" in 1791.

Probably the most remarkable improvers in the~ Mearns were the Barclays of Ury. Mr. Barclay, who succeeded to the estates in 1760, and who was not indeed the first, any more than he was the last, improver of the name, comes chiefly under our notice. [The title of "Father of the Shoe-thorns" was wont to be applied to the last Barclay of Ury by his brother farmers in the north, who possibly were not aware that their "forbears" had dubbed the previous Barclay "the Father of Farming."] At the time that he succeeded to the estate it consisted largely of marsh and nnreclaimcd moorland. "The part cultivated was badly laid out in small farms, very insufficiently tilled. The mansion was but scantily sheltered with wood, while there was not a single tree on any other part of the estate." To facilitate his operations, Mr. Barclay took a number of the farms into his own hands as he could get them, and "in the course of about thirty years improved most thoroughly 900 acres of arable land," 300 of which had been altogether marsh or heath; and he planted from 900 to 1000 acres with wood. The cost of these improvements must have been very great, as much as £40 an’ acre being laid out on some fields in trenching, draining, removing stones, and other operations. And it is expressly stated that his outlay for lime-shells alone exceeded £6000.

Mr. Barclay was an athletic man, and come of an athletic race. His predecessor, David Barclay, of Mathers, who had been an officer under Gustavus Adolphus, afterwards became a convert to Quakerism. On retiring to his estate, he wished to have his land well cultivated—a point that gave him some trouble, owing to the prejudices of the peasantry. And it is related of him that, finding a certain ploughman obstinately disobedient to his instructions, on one occasion he addressed him thus :—" Thou knowest, friend, that I feed and pay thee to do my work in a proper manner, but thou art wise in thine own eyes, and regardest not the admonitions of thy employer. I have hitherto spoken to thee in a style thou understand est not; for verily thou art of a perverse spirit. I wish to correct thy errors for my own sake and for thine; and thereforethus tell thee," (coming over his head with a blow which brought him to the ground). "Though the weapon was carnal," adds the narrator of the story, "this was the demonstration of power, and had the desired effect; the ploughman became tractable and quiet as a lamb." The last century Barclay of whom we have been speaking adhered to the family belief in this respect. Of him Mr. Robertson says, that while employing "only the people of the country that were bred on his own lands or in the vicinity" (he had himself acquired his agricultural knowledge in Norfolk), "his discipline was severe, but it was very correct. He would admit of no slovenly practice—no slighting of the work. Nor did he reqnire anything of his people, but what he could do himself; for while he delivered out his directions in the most clear and distinct manner, he could with his own hand show them the true mode of. peformance. He could even enforce his authority with something more effective than verbal injunctions; for it is said that the clownish obstinacy of his people was not unfrequently corrected by manual discipline. I have, indeed, met with different people that confess (and even in some measure glory in it) that they had the knowledge of their work beat into them by Mr. Barclay. This strict government had the happiest conseqnences, for not a little of the general dexterity in the Kincardineshire labourers is still to be traced to the original system of their education, established by Mr. Barclay of Ury. To have been in the service of Mr. Barclay always was, and still is, a great recommendation to any servant."

Sir William Nicolson of Glenbervie was the first person in the Mearns who raised hay from sown grass, about the year 1730, the seeds he used being the best he could select amongst the natural meadow hay. These he sowed among oats of the third or fourth crop from ley; and the result was so far sulierior to the ordinary mode of allowing the soil to replenish itself with wild herbage as to excite the astonishment of his neighbours. For in the Mearns, as elsewhere, the only hay obtained up to that time had been from the. natural grasses that grew in the swamps and marshy spots to be found on almost every farm. It was not. till about 1760 indeed that clover came to be much known in this country; and it was ten years later still before sown grasses began to be commonly cultivated.

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