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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


IN the latter part of the seventeenth century the home manufacture of plaiding, fingrams, and stockings was a very important industry. Both spinning and weaving of wool and lint were carried on, not in large factories, but as domestic employments, pursued all over the country in their own houses by those who had no other occupation, as well as by the members of the farmer’s and cottar’s families. In a letter of date 1680, and attributed to the Countess of Erroll of that time, it is said "the women of this country are mostly employed spinning and working of stockings and making of plaiden webs, which the Aberdeen merchants carry over the sea; and it is this which bringeth money to the commons; other ways of getting it they have not." Very similar is the language of Baillie Alexander Skene of Newtile,~ writing five years later. He enumerates plaiding, fingrams, and stockings among "the natural products of our land "; and maintains that with due attention to keep the market by an honestly produced article, which condition it appears was not fulfilled latterly, the whole wool grown in Scotland could be wrought by "the commons of the nation," working at "such times as their other country work permits," at rates that defied competition by those who set up a "particular manufacture." In proof of this latter point, he relates how—in view of the large sums of money brought into the kingdom by the plaiding trade, especially through the Aberdeen merchants, who got their wool chiefly from the sonth of Scotland, and then sold it out in "smalls" to the country people—a "substantious merchaut in Edinburgh called Mr. Barnes," conceived the idea that having the wool at first hand he could, by employing people expressly to manufacture for him, sell in the market of Holland at a greater profit than the Aberdeen merchants with their roundabout mode of manufacture. But having made "about ten sea packs of plaiding, which might be reckoned worth twenty thousand pounds," he perceived that the Aberdeen men were selling their plaiding in Holland "at as low a rate as his stood himself at home "; whereupon -he "fell a wondering" as to the reason of this. Having put the case to Alexander Farquhar, an Aberdeen merchant of his acquaintance, the "substantious" Edinburgh trader was informed "that the people that wrought their plaiding had not by farr such entertainment as his servants had, and that they drank oftener clear spring water than ale; and therefore they had their plaiding much cheaper than his; whereupon he quickly gave over his manufacture." Baillie Skene adds that notwithstanding the "sober rate" at which the commons lived they were "so set at work upon the account of their advantage in the north parts of Scotland, that in former years the product of their lahours hath brought into this kingdom yearly upwards of an hundreth thousand rex dollars for mapy years together; without this the nobility and gentry in thir parts could not get their money rents well paid." Surprisingly high prices had been given; for our present authority speaks of a certain George Pyper, who to prevent decay in the trade and stimulate improvement in the style of knitting stockings, had encouraged the country people by giving them a little money or some linen at times, so "that from five groats the pair he caused them work at -such a fynness that he hath given twenty shillings sterling and upward for the pair." Mr. Pyper flourished a little after the middle of the seventeenth century, and about 1676 had as many as four hundred people spinning and knitting for him.

In a memorial to the Trustees for the Improvement of Manufactures, of date 1728, the local importance of the question is urged "as it will not be denyed, but there is a greater quantity of coarse wool, commonly called tarred wool, manufactured in the shire of Aberdeen, and the manufactures thereof exported yearly from the port of Aberdeen than from all Scotland besides." There was also a considerable quantity of linen cloth made and sold yearly; and thus "the gentlemen of the county of Aberdeen, whose rents are for the most part paid by the produce of their manufactures, have a very great concern that they should be improven."

Substantially the same style of domestic industry continued throughout the eighteenth century, as is seen from the statements of various of the Old Statistical writers. The minister of Kincardine O’Neil says of his parish, "600- women are employed in spinning and knitting of woollen stockings, at which they earn from 2s. to 2s. 6d. a-week." Of the women of Strathdon we are told that "they are in general capital spinners, and they bring a great deal of money into -the parish." The statist for the parish of Rayne calculates that the knitting of stockings—at which all the women and some of the boys, and old men even, of his parish were employed—yielded about £400 sterling; and, he says, if it were not for the results of the knitting "the rents of the crofts could not be paid." The minister of Glenmuiek says, with some emphasis, "while I accuse the men of indolence, I should do great injustice to the women if I did [not] exempt them from the charge, by whose industry and diligence their families are in a great measure supported." Those exemplary women of Glenmuick, it appears, spun flax for the Aberdeen manufacturers, as well as made blue homespun cloth and tartan webs of their own wool, and which they sold at 2s. and 2s. 6d. an ell.

The statements of various writers show that the-stocking manufacture was of much local importance all through the eighteenth century. James Rae of White-haven, a volunteer under the Duke of Cumberlaud in 1745, in his History of the Rebellion, says of Aberdeen trade, "the manufacture here is chiefly stockings, all round the adjacent country; and every morning the women bring in loads to sell about the town to merchants, who have them scoured for exportation to London, Hamburg, and Holland. They are generally all white from the makers, and knit most plainly; some are ribbed, and a great many with squares, which greatly please the Dutch. They make stockings here in common from one shilling a-pair to one guinea and a half, and some are so fine as to sell for five guineas the pair." And similarly, Mr. Francis Douglas, speaking of the rather sterile seacoast district in the north part of Kincardineshire, where one could see "numbers of poo~~huts and starved cattle," says, "being within a few miles of Aberdeen, the females have constant employnient in knitting stockings to the manufacturers. By their unremitting labour in this branch they earn money to pay their rents." The extent of the knitting industry must have been great. Douglas says, " the manufac-ture was supposed to amount to from a hundred and ten to a hundred and twenty thousand pounds sterling annually; two-thirds of which are reckoned to be paid for spinning and knitting; the other third goes to pay the materials, and afford a profit to the manufacturers." The wool was still, it may be said, imported from the south; and in 1778 it was stated on credible authority, "that in the currency of a year wool shipped at the port of London for Aberdeen was insured to the value of £40,000." Few women, according to Douglas, could earn "above eighteenpence a-week by spinning and knitting stockings;" but, as we have seen, some of them did earn considerably more. He adds, that at a former time worsted stockings had been worked in the country upon very fine brass wires, which sold as high as three or four pounds sterling a-pair. A pair of these, however, was almost constant work for a woman for six months; and thus valuable chiefly "as a mark of great patience and ingenuity in the worker." These, one would be disposed to believe, must have been the stcckings for which George Pyper gave his highest premium.

In domestic spinning the rock and spindle were the only available instruments during the first quarter of the century. With these a woman could produce only about three and a-half hears (each heer consisting of 240 threads or rounds of the reel) a-day. When the rock and spindle came to be superseded by the spinning-wheel, a *oman could spin twelve heers a-day.

The spinning of the thread was done in the farmers’ families, and the yarn was taken to the weaver to be wrought into webs. To be able to spin well was, of course, an important accomplishment; and thus in 1741, Elizabeth Thom, "spinning mistress" in Aberdeen, desires to make known her readiness to teach women to spin "with both hands." On her application, the County Clerk was authorized to sign her advertisement to that effect. Eight years thereafter, in 1749, a "further encouragement" was given to this lady, by the county gentlemen agreeing to draw the attention of the Magistrates to the spinning school, and recommending that people both in town and country should take the benefit of it. Tn 1751 a competition for prizes in the matter of brown linen -cloth and linen yarn took place, under the auspices of Isobel Swan, a spinning mistress in Putachieside, Aberdeen.

Long before these laudable efforts had been put forth the very prosperity of the trade, apparently, through the strong export demand, had led to systematic attempts being made to deteriorate the manufacture. So early as the tenth year of Queen Anne, an Act was passed to prevent "diverse abuses and deceits" in making linen cloth, and for regulating the length, breadth, and equal sorting of the yarn. A subsequent statute of George II., applied directly to "serges, plaidings, and fingrams," and " knit stockings." What we gather from various "advertisements" issued by the Justices of Peace and. Deans of Guild of Aberdeen, is, that many of the spinners and weavers contravened the statfttes "by making serges and fingrams of unequal wool and yarn; and by working the same unequally, having three or four ems of the firsL end of each piece considerable better than the rest of the piece :" also that "they continued to draw and overstretch the same after they are wrought, whereby the cloth is much prejudged, and by shrinking after it is bought, the buyers become losers ;" and they made them of "unequal and irregular lengths," and too narrow in the breadth. Their perverse ingenuity had even got the length of thickening the cloth with batter, "whereby the faults and thinness of the work cannot be so well perceived." The practice with stockings had evidently been none better: and so the statute of George II., which provides under penalties that all serges and fingrams should be "of equal work and fineness from one end of the piece to the other," the narrow fingrams to be twenty-eight inches in width, and the broad thirtyeight inches; also provided that "all stockings that shall be made in Scotland shall be wrought and made of three threads, and of one sort of wool and worsted, and of equal work and fineness throughout, free of left ioops, hanging hairs, and of burnt, cutted, or mended. holes, and of such shapes and sizes respectively as the patterns, which shall be marked by the several Deans of Guild of the chief burghs of the respective counties ;" all according to dimensions specified in detail in the Act. Authorised stampers, whose function it was to put the official stamp on all marketable webs and bundles of stockings, were appointed for each district; but though these gentlemen had to take the oath de fideli, and "find bail" on their admission to office, they seem not to have been universally free from the suspicion of allowing doubtful goods to pass occasionally; and then marking the stamp so faintly that it did not show legibly, as it ought, the initial letters of the parish from whence they came. And so detection of the offenders, who were liable to a pecuniary mulct, was rendered very difficult or altogether impossible. It was even charged against them that they did not do the measuring in the manner laid down to them, and, in some cases, marked a greater number of yards on a web than it contained. Legislation, imperial and local, failed to check the prevailing evil practices effectually, till at length the Aberdeenshire manufacture of fingrams got so "insufferably bad" that the Dutch market was irrecoverably lost, the Hollanders declining to buy them at any price.

The growth of flax to furnish lint for manufacture into family linen at least, was a branch of the agriculture of the time, but not a permanent one. Flax-growing was not much known before the middle of the century, and by the end of it it was again on the decline. About 1780 to 1790 as much as 400 to 500 acres were annually occupied with this plant—generally sown in small patches—in the county of Aberdeen. [*The Old Statistical writer for the parish of Cairney naively says—"The manufacture of linen has introduced a certain cleanliness all over the country. It has almost banished the itch."] Twenty years thereafter, by the introduction of the cotton manufacture, the breadth in flax had diminished to not above 100 acres; but in Angus and Mearns the plant was grown more extensively; the area in flax in the Mearns, so late as 1807, being 236 acres. The spinning of flax afforded much employment to women in the Buchan and Strathbogie districts of Aberdeen-shire about 1780; and at that date a good spinner could earn sixpence, and in some cases sevenpence a-day at her wheel, which seems to have been the maximum wage ever attained at this particular industry. Between spinning and knitting worsted, and spinning flax, the time of the Aberdeenshire women may be supposed to have been pretty fully occupied. It was so as matter of fact—occupied, one may venture to think, in a very suitable fashion. And so we have a tourist at the opening of the present century recording it as what appeared surprising to him that "he did not perceive a single female employed in field labour" in Aberdeenshire; such labour being "executed by men," contrary to the practice of the southern counties, "where work of that kind was performed by girls and boys," while the men worked the horses in the summer months. Other writers tell of the barbarous way in which the women in certain regions were made to do the roughest out-door labour as occasion required. Especially was this the case in certain Highland and half-Highland parts, where the inert lord of the creation would lie on his hip and complacently look on while his wife did the most menial and fatiguing labour on the croft, even to the extent, as has been already said, of carrying the contents of the scanty dunghill a-field on her back!

But in the north-eastern section of Scotland there was little to complain of either as to fitness in the distribution of labour as between the sexes, or the amount that each was expected to accomplish. In the years of childhood a certain measure of schooling was deemed needful. With girls it hardly went beyond giving them the capability of reading in a moderate degree; not always so far. Writing was regarded more in the

light of an elegant accomplishment, hardly as a thing practically useful for the female sex, and some who looked at the matter in the light of principle excused themselves from bestowing it on their daughters under the plea that "mony ane’s deen ill wi’ vreet." As it concerned the male sex, the school population, in the shape of sturdy well-grown boys, were simply expected to tramp up leisurely day by day during the winter months, each with his peat under his arm, to keep the school fire going, and without anything further in the way of prepared tasks than a question in the Shorter Catechism. The ordinary curriculum was not complicated with other branches, as English Grammar and Geography; as, indeed, the attainments of the dominie himself did not always admit of his handling these in any formal or exact manner. Up to at least the end of last century, the only reading books in use in the parish schools were the Bible and Shorter Catechism. The pupils read in succession the Catechism, and the Proverbs ; then the rest of the Bible, and it was reckoned ~a great feat to read fluently those parts which were full of proper names that were difficult to pronounce. The schoolmaster rarely if ever thought of questioning his pupils on the subject matter of their lessons, or of explaining to them the meaning of what they read. Under this moderate intellectual discipline, a youth got leisure to grow to his full stature, or at any rate to reach the age of eighteen or nineteen before any heavier task was imposed upon him than that of herding the cattle of his father, or, if a cottar’s son, those of some neighbouring farmer. Of course the total absence of enclosures made the occupation of cattle herd an essential and generally diffused one. We find the statement made in 1750, that the herds in the Synod of Aberdeen at that date were at least "five thousand in number."

Then when young men had got past the school and herd-boy period, the labour imposed was not very contihuous or systematic. In summer, with no green crops, such as turnips, to care for, and nothing in the shape of improvement to carry out, once the "fauld dyke" had been erected, which was done by the joint labour of the tenants of the plough-gate or hamlet, there was little to do except to see to the drying and carrying home of the peats and turves for winter fuel; and that in many cases occupied a large portion of the farmer’s time during summer. When shearing came, of course all were busy enough, and really hard work it was. The period of harvest was mnch more protracted then than now, and it was no unusual thing for the shearing to extend over six weeks or so. As was right and proper, they made harvest a time of cheerfulness and mirth ; and we read of a farmer in the Mearns who, to make his "hyeucks" go on lightly and pleasantly, "kept a piper to play to them all the time of harvest, and gave him his harvest fee." It was no doubt done on the same principle that the "gaudman" was expected to whistle a voluntary, or psalm tune, to the oxen he drove in the plough, as well as to give them sharper admonition as required with his "gaud"—leading us to the origin of a pithy variation of the proverb, Much cry for little wool—" Muckle whistlin for little red lan’."

A graphic and realistic sketch of the scene about the farmer’s fireside of a cvinter evening, when the young women of the neighbouring farm houses had met, as the custom was to meet in the several houses in turn, to pursue their knitting in friendly rivalry, while the goodwife ordered the house or "span a thread," and the men, in addition to caring for their cattle, took up such odd jobs of a light sort as could be fitly done for personal use or the benefit of the establishment, is given by a local rhymer who flourished early in the present century. He speaks presumably of his own time, but even then "the old order," had not been materially changed. [Fruits of Time Parings, by W. Beattie, Aberdeen, 1813; republished 1873.] We have first the farmer plunging round about byres and barn against the "endrift styth" in the growing gloamin darkness.

For fear the poor dumb brutes sud smore,
He staps wi’ strae ilk navus bore,
An’ ilka crevice darns.
Syne aifter he has deen his best,
The sheep sought hame, an’ a’ at rest,
He bouns him to the house,
An’ sits him doon upo’ the bink,
An’ plaits a theet, or mends a mink,
To sair an aifter use. -

And then the scene when the "shankers" are gathered by the fireside :—

The littleanes play at seek an’ hide
Ahint the kists an’ tables;
The farmer sits anent the licht,
An’ reads a piece o’ Wallace Wicht,
Or maybe AEsop’s Fables.

An’ little Pate sits i’ the neuk,
An’ but-a-hoose dare hardly luik,
But haud an’ snuff the fir;
An’ fan the farmer tines the line,
He says, "Yer light casts little shine—
Haud in the candle, sir !"

The gaudman sits an’ toasts his nose,
Or awkwardly heel-caps his hose,
Or maks yoke-sticks o’ rodden;
Auld Luckydaddy win’s at brutches,
An’ granny tells them tales o’ witches,
Until the kail be sodden.

And so on till the "brose is suppit," and they take to bed trusting to be roused betimes next morning for flail and plough by the waukrife goodman.

In autumn the "twal-owsen" plough -was set agoing, yhen the services of the ploughman and gaudman came into active request; and about farms of considerable extent there was in addition the barnman. In winter it was his business every day and all day long to ply "the thresher’s weary ifingin’ tree." Here we have an outline sketch of a professional flailman or barnman.—A gaunt, sinewy fellow, six feet in height, minus coat, waist-coat, and neckerchief, with his shirt collar loose; his towsy head bare, and barefooted too, as he shuffled to and fro in the floor and pelted away at the loosened sheaves he had strewn over it from end to end. He was paid by the boll; and when in the humour for a regular set-to, would thresh out the almost incredible quantity of six boils in a day. We need not suppose that he was over nice in threshing clean. Quantity was his aim, and too great nicety did not tend to promote that object; while he might justly hold, as indeed he avowed his belief, that the cattle would be "nane the waur o’ a wisp wi’ a Lyon o’ the berries. on’t." In the case of smaller farms the threshing was done of. a winter morning by the farmer and his "man" getting up early for a " spell" at it together. Before the degenerate era of clocks and watches, which were rare in country houses down to quite the end of the eighteenth century, the proper time to get up to thresh was a matter of guess work; and we have heard of a decent Garioch quaker who had erred on the safe side by leaving his bed about midnight and rousing his servant man. They threshed on and on, and were getting tired, and even hungry. The man had gone and looked over the barn door repeatedly for tokens of morning light; and at last he turned round with the pettish exclamation, "I’ve seen as inuckle as it never come daylicht ;" whereon the matter-of-fact quaker quietly asked, "Whanr wast thou, friend, when thou saw that ?"

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