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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


Various facts, stated in the preceding pages, serve to show the comparatively backward condition, not only of agriculture, but of the mechanical arts as well, during the greater part of the eighteenth century. Other illustrations of a similar kind might be given. But in place of dealing with particular details of that sort, it may serve the end equally well to glance at the subject from a different point of view. Few things can be clearer than that the capability of readily forging iron, and bringing it into use for the purposes of industrial life within a community, is essential to real progress under the conditions of modern civilisation. Without that, all kinds of mqchanism must remain comparatively rude, and the results achieved thereby be correspondingly inconsiderable. Now, in the business of forging iron to purpose, the aid of coal as a potent fuel has been found of the utmost consequence. And during a great part of the eighteenth century very little coal, indeed, was used in those districts of Scotland that were dependant on other parts for a supply. We get an idea of the quantity in an indirect way. At the Union in 1707, the Scottish Commissioners opposed the exaction of a duty on coal ; yet till far through the century a duty of 3s. 8d. a ton continued to be levied on all coal "carried coastwise" to any part of Britain. It was only by carriage coastwise, of course, that any such heavy article as coal could be conveyed a moderate distance. Want of roads and of wheeled vehicles made long land carriages impracticable. In 1775, a House of Commons Committee had the duty entrusted to them of inquiring into the state of the fisheries on the west and northern coasts of Scotland. They seem to have entered on their remit in a comprehensive spirit, dealing with the fiscal condition generally of the districts under their notice. And the account they give of the state of the revenue in the nine northern counties, including Argyle, Inverness, and Moray, on to Shetland, could not have been encouraging in the eyes of those in charge of the Exchequer. The average yield of the taxes levied for ten years had been £5073 12s., and the cost of collection, £5167 19s., leaving a deficit on the debtor side of the Treasury account of £94 7s. In speaking of the coal duty, the Committee say—" It. appears from accounts laid on your table that the whole nett duty collected on coal over all Scotland does not exceed £3000 a-year ;" which they sensibly enough remark, "furnishes the most convincing proof to your Committee that the present duties are too high, and operate more as a prohibition on the article than as a benefit to the revenue." At 3s. 8d. a ton the net revenue from coal carried coastwise to every port of Scotland that lay outside the coal regions—probably three-fourths of the whole area at last—would represent a supply of less than 18,000 tons. As illustrating the absolutely insignificant character of this supply in the light of present-day requirements, it need only be stated that at the one port of Aberdeen the yearly import of coal "coastwise" now is much beylmd 200,000 tons, while many thousand tons are imported by railway.

About the date just spoken of, the sum paid annually by the inhabitants of Aberdeen for peat as fuel was as much as £3000, frequently it was £4000; a greater sum than appears to have been realised off the coal duty from the whole of Scotland. And as dried peat probably did not cost much more per ton than the amount of the duty on that weight of coal, the yearly consumpt by town’s folks must have been very considerable. In the country districts the article coal was practically unknown. About 1785, it was recorded as a thing worth making a note of that "some of the gentry burn coals in their houses." But even then coal had not come into general use with the ordinary blacksmith; and without coal the smith was not good for much. To fit up a machine of any sort where wheels and pinions and a "journal" on which they might run came into use was quite beyond him. It taxed the powers of his peat and charcoal fire and his rude "studdie" sufficiently to furnish forth the plough and plough "graith," of the style already described, and, if a moderately skilful man, to put a pair of shoes on the fore-hoofs of the farmers’ horses to wear while the peats were driving, and then to be taken off and laid aside for renewed use when the like season of work came round again. [From the "Brieffe Narrative" of Gilbert Blakhal we learn incidentally that country blacksmiths could, in some case, do the farrier’s office readily enough in the middle of the seventeenth century. In the Autumn of 1641 the worthy priest, travelling with his "Mass cloathes" concealed in his valise, put up at a hostelrie on Moor of Rhynie to feed his horse; and there had his coolness and courage put to the test by the rude captain of a local company of "soldiers, all drunk as beastes," who vainly endeavoured to bully the father into telling him who he was. He passed over the hills of Cushnie, "as wyld a piece of ground as is in all Brittaine," to Deeside; when his horse, which had been stung in the breast by an adder by and bye, got so lame on the off fore-foot that he could not put it to the ground. "I did make remove the shoe of that foote at the Churehe of Birs," says the Father, "to sie what did hurt his foote. The smith did not discover anything, nather in his foote or legge, and therefor set on the shoe again, and so I did sometimes lead him, and sometymes ryde upon him to Aberdeine, wher the ministers were holding their General Assembly."]

The wright did his part without calling iron very prominently into use. He could "knit the cupples" and set up the whole roof timbers of a house, mainly, or indeed wholly, by the aid of stout wooden pins driven into wimble holes. Even when slates came into use as a roofing material, they were attached to the "sarking" not by iron nails but by hardwood pins. And in the construction of a box bed, or the hanging and fixing of a door, the resort to iron was wonderfully minimised. In the case of the barn implements, including flail, and thrashing floor, it could be dispensed with altogether. The ingenious business of wheelwright, in which the turning-lathe was called into use, did not necessitate resort to iron work to any noticeable extent. And the cooper or mugger, who manufactured wooden cogs, caups, and ladles, articles of very essential use in the domestic life of the time, was still less indebted to it as a materiaL

Apart from the smith and wright, the two other indispensable craftsmen were the shoemaker and the tailor; and of these the tailor was the most important. During summer a good part of the population did not much trouble themselves about shoes; or if they. did, were content with brogues of untanned leather, fashioned by themselves. But clothing of some sort for the main part of the body was a necessity at all seasons, and a "stan’ o’ shapit claes" could not be had without the tailor, who pursued his craft after the peripatetic mode, travelling from house to house, and fashioning suits for the goodman and his grown up sons off the blue or grey woollen web, spun by the women of the household, and woven by the weaver driving his loom in the "mid-house" or other section of his dwelling, to the order of his customers.

A far from unimportant member of the community was the chapman, or "pack merchant," who supplied the wants of the people in so far as cloth and other articles not of home manufacture were needed. With his pack slung over his shoulder, and a big pack it often was, and his eliwand in his hand, the chapman travelled on his round day by day. He was known to his constituency, who gave him a ready welcome, and, with the due amount of deliberation and haggling, bought such things as they required. They were respectable men and industrious the chapmen, and at times succeeded, as has been already hinted, in realising surprisingly large sums ofmoneycomparatively. Here is the obituary notice of an Aberdeenshire chapman, who departed this life in January, 1751 :—"Last week died, of a short illness, William Urquhart, a well-known travelling chapman, who, without noise or hurry, without horse or packs, without fraud or dishonesty, acquired about £500 sterling, most of which was found in his pockets in bank notes and good bills at his death—a singular instance, "adds the chapman’s biographer, of the good effects of sobriety and frugality." William Urquhart’s case had no doubt been a remarkable one in some particulars, though by no means without parallel in the matter of pecuniary results. The chapman, tramping away on his rounds day by day; and attending the yearly fairs in his district to open out his pack into a "stand" for the day—the cooper and mugger taking places alongside of him with their wares—occasion ally worked his way to the possession of a well-furnished "chop i’ the toon ;" and where his ambition did not lead him that way, he frequently amassed what was to him a comfortable competency. An inferior branch was the sale of chapbooks; a species of popular literature well enough known so long ago as the time of Swift, who names among the productions of "writers of and for Grub Street" various chap books, such as "The Wise Men of Gotham," which, along with Dougal Graham’s "Witty Exploits of Mr. George Buchanan, the King of Scots Fool," and much else of a similar character, found circulation through the medium of itinerants of no great standing, socially or otherwise, who perambulated the rural districts and visited fairs and markets, vending their penny chap books and halfpenny ballads, until long after the close of the eighteenth century.

A craftsman who found place somewhere between the classes who really earned their bread by the sweat of their brows and the class who were utterly given over to sorning and vagabondage, was the homer— nearly allied to the "tinkler," whose office was t~ "clout the cauldron." The homer supplied the community with spoons; and the essential implement of his craft was the wooden "caums," wherein the horn—cut up and partly dressed—after being reduced te a state of greater pliability by heating, was moulded into the form of a "cutty." The homer was of course a peripatetic; and as he tramped about, he easily carried his kit of tools and a moderate supply of horns in a rough wallet slung over his shoulder. He was not particular about his workshop. It might be in the open air, by a convenient dykeside; or, if the weather was bad, in the barn or other outhouse belonging to some friendly person who did not begrudge him quarters for a night or two. The crafts of "tinkler" and homer were followed generation after generation by certain families of " cairds," habit and repute. One of these families, of the name of Young, furnished a noted thief and prison breaker, who, for the offence of mortally stabbing a fellow caird, ultimately terminated his career on the gallows. A younger and less notorious scion presents himself as a good type of the vagabond homer: a wandering, homeless being, alien to the comforts and hating the restraints of civiised life, ignorant and totally unlettered, yet not without a certain technical knowledge of his own, and a certain utitutored mannerliness of address. Such was Jock Young, secundus, the homer, who flourished in the early years of the present century. Among his extra-professional accomplishments, Jock was a deft and willing dancer, and, when fit occasion offered, would foot up the Ghiffie Callum or Highland Fling to his "am sowif," for the delectation of his friends and patrons. Like every true and pure-bred caird, Jock dearly loved whisky, and when he got elevated with liquor was apt to be talkative, and a little too demonstrative perhaps. At all other times his bearing towards those among whom he was known was respectful and unobtrusive. When victuals were needed or quarters had to be asked he would lie off about the "loan" foot till his wife or other female of the party had done the necessary pleadings, and then quietly lift and go elsewhere, if need were; or retire to the barn, where his straw couch was to be for the night, not presuming to intrude himself into the farmer’s dwelling unless asked. Jock’s partner was Tib Doo; and as Jock loved whisky so did Tib; and through that very love, it is to be feared, came to a caird’s end. It was at a favourite haunt in the Garloch. Jock had gone elsewhere temporarily; on business, no doubt; and it might be that there had been a tiff between him and Tib. Anyhow, Tib, learning that there was to be a wedding next day at Lochie’s, was wondrously loth to leave. But, while she might have the barn at will, there was not a single wisp of straw for a bed. Tib would borrow a "winlin" for herself she said; and so she did; and next day, of course, saw her at the wedding, partaking freely of the "brakins" at the close of the wedding feast. Likely she had not been able, by the end, to stir further than to creep into Lochie’s barn somehow and unnoticed; and there, by next morning, poor Tib Doo lay stark dead! The kindly neighbours did the last services for her as couthily and Christianly as they might. She was decently buried by the west gable of the auld "White Kirk," of which hath it not been prophesied by "true Thomas" that it shall yet fall on a Pasch Sunday! And all this was over some days ere her husband Jock came tramping round with his wallet and his horns, and wistfully asking tidings of Tib, towards whom his yearnings had begun to go forth again. On learning her fate, his grief burst forth in a way that had not been expected. Because Jock Young could drink and swear and quarrel, they had thought that the emotional feeling within the rough bosom was incapable of any other form.of expression; but, when Jock had been told the site of the grave; when, as the parish choir, who had met for their weekly practising, between the gloamin’ an’ the light, sang—

Guide me, oh ! thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim. through this barren land—

the poor homer was seen casting himself with wildly despairing moans and lamentations above the spot by the White Kirk, where the remains of Tib Doo lay, it was not wonderful if the more susceptible of them should start at the gleam of intense realism cast athwart the familiar words. Nor would it have been in the spirit of Christian charity either to deify to the hapless half-civilised wanderer a word of respectful sympathy; or to hold him incapable of genuine human affection, as well as some dim longing after the spiritual life.

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