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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century

For the purpose of arriving at a reasonably distinct notion of our country districts in their general features a century or a century and a-half ago, we shall do well to bear in mind that, along with the prevailing paucity of passable roads and absence of bridges on the larger streams, much of the surface of the land remained in its natural state. Cultivation was more picturesque than systematic in its developments; bogs, "mosses," and marshes continued undrained, covering in the aggregate a greater extent of the superficies of the country than it is easy now to realise. Natural forest grew in some places now bare enough of trees, but thousands of acres of the most valuable timber-land planted in the latter half of the eighteenth century had, prior to that date, produced little but stunted heather and clumps of broom.

If we go on to inquire how the rural population were distributed and how they were occupied, the contrast between the life of the people then, and what it has become since, is found to very marked. There is perhaps no county in Scotland in which materials fitted to illustrate this point are more abundant than in Aberdeenshire. By the aid of the Poll Book [The "List of Polable Persons within the shire of Aberdeen," printed by the gentlemen of the county in 1842, with the sanction of the Spalding Club, and under the editorial care of Dr. John Stuart, from MS. in the possession of General Gordon of Cairness, is almost unique in its way. In the year 1693, and again in 1695, a poll-tax was imposed by the Government of the time on all adults, fur the purpose of paying off arrears due to the army, &c. The tax consisted of 6s. Scots per head, on each grown-up person, male and female, and 6s. additional if the man had a trade, such as that of a tailor or smith. And if he had property he had to pay a fortieth part of its value; while if he chose to call himself a "gentleman," his poll was £3 Scots. Pretty stiff all this no doubt, considering the value of money at the time; and so apparently thought those immediately concerned, for it was with great difficulty they could be got to pay the poll-tax. The Poll Book gives complete lists of the adult persons in each parish. Comprehensive as was the poll-tax of 1696, it produced in Aberdeenshire only the sum of £28,148 1s. 1d. Scots, or £2,345 18s. 7d sterling.] alone, and a certain measure of local knowledge, the attentive topographic student might readily call up to the mind’s eye quite a distinct picture of any given locality. He would be able not only to form an estimate, very nearly correct, of the actual population of any particular parish 180 years ago; but could also ascertain how that population was employed, and how it was located—the forms of occupation corresponding to a great extent with those which had obtained for some hundreds of years, as we shall afterwards see. He would find the Poll List for the parish headed by the laird and his family and servants; then, apart from them, the tenants and sub-tenants, with generally a group, more or less numerous, under some principal tenant, of cottars and their wives, of "grassmen" and their wives; and occasionally a "lone" woman or two in a "malt house." Such was the more specifically farm establishment in which the relation of the various members of the small community to each other were readily intelligible. At the next place we have the hamlet. Here were congregated sundry minor farmers, along with the weaver or "wabstor," and the tailor and smith, each of whom usually had his croft or piece of land to till, and his "lair" in the moss to furnish him with fuel. The two latter, important enough functionaries in their respective spheres, do not figure so frequently in the Poll Lists as we, with our modern notions, might expect. The people wore not given to variety in "changeable suits of apparel" to the like extent that their descendants are. The common male dress consisted chiefly of coarse woollen, home-spun, and home tailored, with a scanty supply of linen, and thus comparatively little professional tailoring was needed. As for the blacksmith, with scarcely a particle of iron in the plough or any other farm implement, and no horse shoeing to speak of— even where he was capable of doing it, which was not always the case—he could meet the wants of a very wide district. It was necessary, indeed, that he should do so ere he could find employment; and, in some cases, the smith had his "sucken" bound to attend his smiddy just as the miller, who had his place on every laird’s land, had his "bun’ sueken" up to a much later date—the minister of a Highland parish, indeed, states that by an "immemorial assessment," the smiths in his region were paid in meal by the farmers, they being in some cases also entitled to "the head of every cow slaughtered in the parish." At the hamlet, too, we should find the "chapman" or "pack-merchant," a very important member of the trading community in those days; who could indeed have commanded a good deal more of ready cash, in most cases, than the ordinary class of farmers could. The "stocks" of individual chapmen are valued in the Poll Lists, in some cases, at as high a figure as 500 merks; and in a few instances at even more than that; and taking into account the relative value of money, 500 merks then was probably quite as large a capital, relatively, as many dealers in soft goods can boast of now who exhibit their wares by the medium of a grand shop front, in place of undoing the pack on the old kitchen "deece." In addition to the classes named, the "herd" figures pretty regularly in the lists. He was not seldom a grown-up person of the male sex; perhaps some one who had been lamed of a hand or arm, or who was of more or less deficient intellect. And his mode of living was apt to be dependant and precarious; "herd in summer, but begs his meat in winter," and "herd on charity, his winter maintenance being gratis," are definitions of this official that repeatedly occur. In any case the "herd" was an indispensable functionary. And we now and then find in the lists such people as the "tinkler," the "homer," the "pewterer," and more rarely the "pyper;" designations which sufficiently explain the occupations of those who bore them.

Let us attempt to sketch the general features in the outward aspect of one of these hamlets, or" clachans," as they were called in the Highlands. The site of the hamlet had at first been determined, perhaps, by the presence of a gushing spring of "caller" water, or the vicinity of some "wimplin burnie;" or by the fertility of the soil at that particular spot ; for men did not then ordinarily resort to such artificial means as the use of the suction pump to supply them with one of the essentials of life, nor did they contemplate setting themselves deliberately down to reclaim barren moors and hillsides for the sake of the other. They rather chose those situations where it was likeliest that bread would be given them without extra toil, and where their water would be sure so long as perennial fountains, fed in hills and heights, should seek the gladsome daylight where undulating hollows and rifts in earth’s surface allowed it. It thus came to pass that the hamlet, in respect of site, had frequently a fair share of the elements of natural beauty; and in time, these came usually to be enhanced by the presence of some goodly trees clustering about the place.

The walls of the straw-thatched cottages or huts were composed, in the upper part at least, of "feal" or turf; or it might be "heather and dub," or mud and straw. The roofing "cupples," firmly embedded in the walls at bottom, were fastened with wooden pins a-top to a short cross bar, the roof-tree extending from end to end of the house over this bar, and between the points of the cupple legs. Stout binders, formed of saplings sawn up the middle, were placed horizontally down the rib of the roof, and over these again transversely the "watlin," consisting of smaller sticks split with a wedge. The "watlin," which, with the cupple legs and binders, was quite visible from the interior, carried the "divots," and these latter the "thack," ordinarily fastened on with "strae rapes." Each house consisted of a "but" and a "ben," with little variation in the character or extent of accommodation embraced.

In certain districts the style of building described was known as "Auchenhalrig," from its having been first used at a place of that name in Morayshire. Of the Auchenhairig walls and the mode of constructing them, a detailed description informs us that:—"This work is built of small stones and mud, or clay, mixed with straw. The proportions of these materials required to make a rood of thirty-six square yards are about thirty cart loads of stones, ten cart loads of clay or mud, and twenty-four stones weight of good fresh straw." The straw and mud being properly worked together, "twenty-two inches are sufficient thickness for a wall of seven feet high—if higher, they should be two feet thick—carried up perpendicularly the same as other walls, and care should be taken never to build more than two or three feet in height in any one part in the same day; if raised more, the wall is apt to swell, for which there is no remedy but to pull it down and rebuild." These walls were "equal to the weight of any roof commonly put on mason work," and would, "when properly built, and kept well under thatch, last for more than a century."

Here then, in our hamlet, we have a number, varying from four or five to a dozen, of these homely yet tolerably comfortable houses, with their walls of rude "concrete"—some with their adjuncts of barn and byre—planted down in a miscellaneous sort of way, as if they had dropt from the clouds, or been scattered broadcast over the knoll by Titanic hands. A winding road, or track rather, partly fenced in by round-headed "Thai dykes," not in the best state of repair, leads up to the hamlet. This road expands into "the toon loan," and loses itself somewhere about the "head of the toon "at this end; most likely it loses itself at the other end among " the rigs outbye ;" or, at farthest, about the margin of the "moss," where peats, or more likely "sods" only, are dug as fuel for the community. About the place we find here and there an exceedingly rustic sort of garden. In these "yards," which occur in no regular order—are so placed, in fact, that a stranger could hardly guess from the position of any one of them to which of the indwellers it belonged—may be found, besides certain useful vegetables, as "kail," green or red, and "syboes," a few old fashioned herbs and flowers. Some clusters of rich-scented honeysuckle, a plant of hardy southerllwood, peppermint, and wormwood; with, mayhap, also a slip or two of "smeird docken," the sovereign virtues of whose smooth green leaves, in respect of sore fingers or broken shins, commend it to careful consideration. And, as already indicated, in almost every case we find trees about the hamlet. A few ashes about the loan head, some rough scrubby elder (or "bourtree ") bushes about the corners of the gardens, and, it may be, a plane-tree enriching the scene with its mass of dark-green foliage. Then, in some favoured corner there is the rowan tree, or possibly a pair of these growing side by side like twin sisters with their arms interlaced. They have yielded many a slip for crosses to put above the byre-door, on Rood even, to fend the bestial from "uncanny fowk." For, as we know,

Rowan tree and red thread,
Keep the witches fae their speed.

Such, in a general way, was the outward aspect of the hamlet and its surroundings.

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