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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


UNDER the date of October, 1730, the compiler of the Domestic Annals says :—" We are now arrived at a. time which seems to mark very decidedly a transition in Scotland from poverty to growing wealth, from the Puritanic manners of the seventeenth century to the semi-licence and ease of the eighteenth, and corisequently from restricted to expanded views." This statement is no doubt true in a genera] sense, though one rather hesitates to accept without considerable abatement Mr. Chambers’s averments concerning the severe theological creed and dismally morose habits of "all respectable persons" in Scotland previous to 1730. There is some temptation even to say that there must have been a dash of conscious if not intentional caricature in the picture given—" Amongst the upper classes, the head of the family," we are told, "was for the most part an awful personage, who sat in a special chair by the fireside, and at the head of the table, with his hat on; often served at meals with special dishes, which no one else, not even guests, partook of. In all the arrangements of the house his convenience and tastes were primarily studied. His children approached him with fear, and never spoke with any freedom before him. At meals the lady of the house helped everyone as she herself might choose. The dishes were at once ill-cooked and ill-served. It was thought unmeet for man that he should be nice about food. Nicety and love of rich feeding were understood to be hateful peculiarities of the English, and unworthy of the people who had been so much more favoured by God in a knowledge of matters of higher concern. There was, nevertheless," it is added, "a great amount of hospitality." How the virtue of hospitality could possibly be exercised under the depressing influence of such morose and gloomy hosts is not quiet apparent. And, despite any reliable evidence yet produced to the contrary, we are convinced that Puritanic theology, even where it was most generally influential, was never in our history effective in snppressing the features of humanity to the extent indicated, except it might be in the case of a rather limited number of fanatics; whose example would not seem to have been by any means slavishly imitated by the great body of the people.

Up to about the time mentioned the almost universal dress of middle-class gentlemen was "hodden grey ;" though we are told that as early as 1731 "hoops were constantly worn" by the ladies, "four and a-half yards wide," and which "required much silk to cover them." An ungallant local writer, twenty years later, speaks of the ladies at a public ball wearing "hoops of immense deformity." The heads "were all dressed in laces from Flanders ;" but though "the price of these was high, two suits would serve for life; they were not renewed but at marriage or some great event." An English gentleman who visited Scotland at the beginning of the century, states that about 1702 he found the Low-landers "dressed much like his own countrymen, excepting that the men generally wore bonnets instead of hats, and plaids instead of cloaks; the women, too, wearing plaids when abroad or at church." Women of the humbler class generally went barefoot, "especially in summer." The children of people of the better sort, "lay and clergy," were likewise generally without shoes and stockings. This description would apply very fairly to the state of matters a hundred years later.

After the Union with England in 1707, amid a good deal of grumbling over that event, the consumption of "flashes and wheat bread" sensibly increased with the growth of trade among the better-to-do of town populations. In the rural districts tbere was little improvement in that way for a long while after. And change was by no means universally welcomed when it came. It is amusing to note the vehemence with which many of the writers in the Old Statistical Account (A.D. 1782-94) bewail the degeneracy creeping in through extravagance in dress and luxury in respect of food, and so on. The minister of a Banffshire parish asserts that "a very great change as to diet and dress has taken place during the forty years last past." Prior to that era "neither tea kettle nor tea could be found but in two families" in his parish. "Two hats only appeared at church; a lady adorned herself with the plaid, and a gentleman was not ashamed of homespun clothing. But now most families drink tea once, many twice, a-day. The ploughman appears at church and market with his hat, linen, and good broad cloth, and it may be taken for granted that the country belles will exert themselves to outshine the country beaux." Another writer tells us that "about fifty or sixty years ago there were not above seven tea kettles, as many hand bellows, and as many watches in Forfar; now tea kettles and hand bellows are the necessary furniture of the poorest house in the parish, and almost the meanest menial servant must have his watch." A third, who is even more explicit, says :—" The dress of all the country people in the district (central Aberdeenshire) was some years ago, both for men and women, of cloth made of their own sheep wool, Kilmarnock or Dundee bonnets, and shoes of leather tanned by themselves. Then every servant lad and maid had a quey or steer, sometimes two, and a score or two of sheep, to enable them to marry and begin the world with. Now every servant lad almost must have his Sunday coat of English broadcloth, a vest and breeches of Manchester cotton, a high-crowned hat, and watch in his pocket. The servant maids are dressed in poplins, muslins, lawns, and ribbons. And both sexes have little else than finery to enter the world with, which occasions marriage to be delayed longer than formerly, and often brings distress along with it."

Of the usual dietary of the common people during last century, a writer of the time gives a concise and comprehensive account in the interrogatory form. If one wished to know how they lived, it might, he says, be indicated thus :—" Have you got your pottage I— that is, your breakfast. Have you got your sowens i.e., your dinner. Have you got your brose ?_i.e., your supper." The use of tea had become pretty common in the upper ranks from about 1720. It was gradually creeping in amongst the "commonality," but was strongly denounced by many as not only extravagant, but also calculated to make the people effeminate and weakly. Even the good Lord President Forbes of Culloden had his doubts, and wished for a law to restrain people under a certain income in the use of the leaf. During 1744 there was a sort of general movement over Scotland to put it down, and towns and parishes passed resolutions to that effect. The tenants of one Ayrshire laird, whose findings were put upon record, declared, with an air of high superiority, that it was needless for them to enter into any formal bond against the use of tea, which, say they, "would be but an improper diet to qualify us for the more robust and manly parts of our business; and therefore we shall only give our testimony against it, and leave the enjoyment of it altogether to those who can afford to be weak, indolent, and useless."

So, with only their porridge, their sowens, and their kail—(whether common greens or the not too delicate "red kail," which had latterly become the exclusive perquisite of the bovine race, and seem now to be much neglected as an article of cultivation)—supplemented at exigent times by a dish of nettletops or "mugworts," it is not to be supposed that the food of the common people was over luxurious. Their favourite drink was home-brewed ale, which they manufactured to pretty good purpose, the proportion of malt used being probably quite as liberal as is the case now in certain instances. And concurrently with lamentations over the introduction of tea, we have strong laudations of the superior virtues of home-brewed ale. One Edinburgh physician, who denounces those "baneful articles, tea and whisky," as tending to " corruption of morals and debility of constitution among the poor," says expressly that their introduction "is one bad effect of the present practice of debasing and vitiating malt liquor. Formerly," he adds, "when that liquor was the only beverage in use, excesses from it did not affect the constitutiQn, as it contained a good deal of nourishment. But now, since it has been debased, it is entirely given up."

It sounds a little odd to us, who have been accustomed to regard whisky as specially the national liquor, to be reminded that about the close of the seventeenth century French claret was the usual drink among the gentry and well-to-do classes, and twopenny ale among the common people. While brandy and whisky were comparatively rare, claret was to be found "in every public-house of any note except in the heart of the Highlands, and sometimes even there." And great quantities of it were drunk in many of the hostelries, as also in the houses of private gentlemen. In Arniston House, the country residence of President Dundas, the annual consumpt of claret about 1750 is stated to have been sixteen hogsheads; while it was the practice of John Forbes of Culloden, "Bumper John," as he was called, "to prize off the top of each successive cask of claret, and place it in the corner of the hall to be emptied out in pail-fuis."

The drinking habits of the time were indeed of a somewhat outrageous kind. Many hospitable gentlemen made it their practice at the social board to see all their guests, if not literally under the table, at least in a condition to require assistance to bed before breaking up for the evening. And it was wonderful how even the common people "boosed" and got glorious on their "tippeny" when what seemed fit occasion, public or private, offered.[Captain Burt says the price of the ale he got acquainted with was twopence for a Scots pint. The liquor was disagreeable to those not used to it, the malt which was dried with peat, turf, or furze, giving it a taste of the fuel. "When the natives drink plentifufly of it," he adds, "they interlace it with brandy or usky."] On this question of fitness the notions that prevailed were certainly not over strict amongst any of the classes of society. Nothing, for example, strikes us as more incongruous or ill-tirned than the excesses that were wont so generally to prevail in connection with the solenmities of death and the grave. In his book on "Social Life in Former Days," Captain Dunbar gives a letter from a Mr. William Forbes, excusing himself from attending a funeral at Elgin. The date is 1742, and the writer says, "I told you that 1 could not doe myself the honour to witness the interment of your worthy father. This is to tell you that I have been drinking this whole day with our Magistrates and Town Council (God bless them), and am just now almost unfitt for your conversation, and therefor choose to goe home rather than expose myself; which I hope you will approve off." Mr. Forbes had either been an unduly sensitive man, or the "spate" in which he had indulged with the Magistrates must have left him in a very queer state; for in his day, and even a good deal later, it was not very uncommon to find that the major part of a funeral company had got more or less tipsy before they "lifted." Instances have been known of the "bearers" staggering so badly from the effect of their libations as nearly to pull the coffin they carried in pieces; and such tales have been told as that of a funeral company at starting being unable to determine which was the proper route to the grave-yard; or even that they would "tak road" in utter forgetfulness of the melancholy burden they should have carried with them, but did not. A story is told in connection with the death of Sir Alexander Ogilvy, Lord Forgien, one of the Judges of the Court of Session in 1727, which shows how cordial was the belief in deep draughts as an antidote to grief. Dr. Clerk, his medical man, had called on the day he died. The doctor was let in by David Reid, Lord Forglen’s clerk. On his asking how his patient was, David solemnly replied, "I houp he’s weel," which meant, of course, that all was over. The doctor was conducted into a room, where he was shown two dozen of wine under the table, and other doctors coming in, David made them all sit down while he told them his deceased master’s last words, at same time pushing the bottle about briskly. After the company had taken a glass or two, they rose to depart, but David detained them. "No, no, gentlemen; not so. It was the express will o’ the dead tbat I should fill ye a’ fou, and I maun fulfil the will o’ the dead." All the time the tears were streaming down his cheeks. "And indeed," said the doctor afterwards in telling the story, "he did fulfil the will o’ the dead, for before the end o’ ‘t there was nae ane o’ us a’ able to bite his am thoomb."

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