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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


AN impartial survey of the life to which these illustrations refer, is fitted to suggest various reflections more or less to the purpose. On its material side, as compared with the life of the present day, it was poor; and that poverty permeated the "commonality" more or less in all its sections. In the measure of absolute wealth owned by the comparatively well-to-do amongst the rural population, the thousands of to-day may almost literally be said to have been represented by hundreds in the time at which we have glanced; and the hundreds by tens. And though the relative value of money has very much decreased, the social conveniences and comforts enjoyed, or that could be commanded, by even the "bein" householder of th~ eighteenth century, were meagre indeed in comparison with those in which a large part of the population now participate without difficulty, and as a matter of course.

The condition of the labouring population at any given period affords a reliable index to the general civilisation and social well-being of the community of which they form an indispensable part. And although the separation of classes was not by any means so distinctly marked seventy or a hundred years ago as now— the farmer and his helps, male and female, ordinarily eating their meals at the same table, while the weaver, the smith, and the tailor, could meet either class on a common footing—yet was it the case that those whose lot it was to earn a livelihood by the labour of their hands were alike indifferently housed, and meagrely fed at all times. Before the progress of agricultural improvement had so far mended matters, they also suffered severely from unsanatory natural conditions, such as the abounding marsh vapours that rose from stagnant undrained swamps, and crept about many of their habitations. Ague was a common complaint in many parts of Scotland during a considerable portion of the past century; indeed, it was so common in some districts among the peasantry, in spring and autumn particularly, that farmers occasionally found it difficult to get through the ordinary operations of the season for want of labourers. And when a special piece of work had to be executed it was not unusual, we are told, "to order six labourers instead of four, from the probability that some of them, before the work could be finished, would be rendered unfit for labour by an attack of this disorder. Indeed, in several parishes," it is added, "the inhabitants, with very few exceptions, had an annual attack." And when Sir John Sinclair wrote one of his later papers early in the present century, he deemed the fact that ague had become less common, and had been entirely banished from a number of districts, so highly honourable to agriculture," that he says he could not mention it without "a high degree of pride and pleasure." Malignant fevers too ravaged’ country localities now and again, with a severity unknown to the living generation, elder or younger, at times almo~t literally decimating the population of a parish. And of course small-pox, when it came, had its way unchecked; killing not a few, leaving its indelible impress on many a countenance, and often producing blindness, where the attack was not fatal.

Touching time religious and moral aspects of the question, it were perhaps easier than it is desirable, or quite wise, to make sweeping statements on. the one side or the other. Where the sense of religious obligation was really felt the theological opinions of the time were no doubt severe, and the prevailing notions concerning Christian liberty narrow and restricted. It does not, however, betoken any great depth of insight, nor is it indicative of a true and adequate comprehension of facts in their due relations or a really cosmopolitan philosophy, to misapprehend totally the distinction between earnest piety of even the gloomier sort, and simple fanaticism or pure hypocrisy. In the regions to which we have had reference, and during the time under notice, an actively religious spirit was certainly not a prominent feature. With considerable show of reason it might be said the very reverse was the case. The dominant Presbyterianism managed parish affairs creditably; supplied a reasonable proportion of passable sermons, prevailingly of the type of theology known as "Moderate," as contra-distinguished from "Evangelical," weekly; carried on the stated diets of catechising, yearly, and took oversight of the schools; its ministry yielding a• man here and there destined to eminence more or less, as occasionally, too a brother with pronouncedly erratic tendencies, who ruled his diocese after his own queer fashion, and left his corresponding moral impress upon a generation of parishioners when he had disappeared from the scene. Episcopalians, who, in due course "suffered" for their nonjurant principles, did not bulk largely ; neither did the followers of the first or second Secession. The feelings of contempt and aversion with which Seceders were regarded were very general; as one can readily understand from occasional references made to them by contemporary writers. A sufficiently pointed example of the estimation in which they were held by the landowning class is furnished by the articles and conditions of tack for his lands, registered in the Sheriff Court books of Abercleenshire, in February, 1781, by Alexander Fraser, of Strichen. In the second Article, in. which are specified the various offences for which tenants shall be held to have forfeited their tacks, such as their becoming bankrupt or the like, it is inter alia specified—" or, eighthly shall knowingly or wilfully take into their service, or harbour, or set ground to any Seceders or thieves, vagabonds or beggars, or any other person who has not sufficient testimonials of their former good and honest behaviour, to the satisfaction of the said Alexander Fraser, or his foresaids, or to such as are suspected to harbour any of the above-mentioned." We may possibly look upon the laird of Strichen,, himself a Roman Catholic, as somewhat extreme in his intolerance, yet putting it in a mildly negative form, one cannot, at anyrate, regard such facts as that Seceders were very limited in number, and that they were held in general contempt, as furnishing evidence of any deep or wide-spread interest in religious questions. Thus far, at least, we may safely go.

The question of the comparativ&morality of the people may be handled with all requisite freedom, even should it be at the risk of challenge on some points. The idea that degeneracy, in point of morals, has crept in amongst our rural population within the past half century or so, and that if a greatly higher standard was not uniformly maintained in the time immediately preceding, a sort of Arcadian innocence and simplicity prevailed very generally at least, finds acceptance with some who profess to have knowledge of the subject. Unhappily the records of the time do not seem to bear out such ideas in the very least. In their everyday life rude roystering, drinking, quarrelling, and fighting were, the too frequent recreations of the common people a hundred. years ago. Even then there were complaints that the people were not what they had been in the previous times of fancied guilelessness and primitive virtue. Only they did not gather up and tabulate the details of crime as is now done, and in so far as mere personal outbreaks went, if the offenders escaped the notice of the Kirk Session, the Civil Court would hardly interfere unless the fray had been so savage as to involve actual loss of life or very serious damage "to lith or limb." The character of those whose position placed them above the common people was not always indeed regarded as entitling them to be spoken of with unqualified respect. The writer of a letter of date 1750, discussing the agriculture of the time, gives his opinion of Aberdeenshire landlords, and the relations between them and their tenants in these words—" The landed gentlemen, many of them, look upon religion as below them, morality as an unnecessary incumbrance, economy as sordid, and their tenants as a species of animals, made to be abused and oppressed—to labour and spend their strength to maintain their luxury and riot." Like enough the writer desired to put in his tints strongly, but what nineteenth century Radical has ever denounced the territorial shortcomings of his time in more unsparing terms?

Nor even in relation to the sore subject of bastardy did the people of last century in the north-east of Scotland hold a greatly more favourable position than their descendants do. Possibly the actual percentage of illegitimate births may have been somewhat less. We have no available statistics of a comprehensive sort to compare with the Registrar’s figures of the present time. But the Kirk-Session records serve the end in a rough, yet reasonably reliable way. And a careful scrutiny of some of these records does not encourage the belief that even the proportional number of bastards to population was always very appreciably less—the number of aggravated and specially bad cases that needed severe dealing, and where the Session had to call in the aid of the Presbytery, was certainly as great or greater than now. Any inquiry bearing on the causes of a high rate of bastardy in these districts would lead us into irrelevant and probably fruitless discussion of a vexed question. But of one thing we may hold ourselves assured—that at no period known to history was the proportion of bastard births other than considerable. Starting on that basis and keeping clearly in view that so it has been all through, we can at least more readily understand bow the result of a traditional and inherited moral sentiment all too deadened arid dormant, should serve to take the edge off the feeling of shame and blunt the sense of honour in the sex amongst whom chastity is properly deemed the crown of all the virtnes. Born into and nurtured from childhood in a pervasive social atmosphere of this sort it becomes readily intelligible how women whose characters otherwise one would be sorry to impugn in the least barely realise it as any permanent stain on their womanhood to have been the mother of a bastard. And here, doubtless, we touch the most formidable phase of a species of immorality that has gained for the common people of these regions an unenviable notoriety. We need not contrast it with the measure of the like vice as it exists among the classes where purity in one sex is demanded and valued; and, indeed, such contrast or comparison cannot be made. Only this much may be said with truth that while the women who sadly fail in virgin modesty ordinarily prove true and faithful wives when married, even the men who join with them in wedlock do also as a rule act with conjugal ~delity thereafter. With them the vice as it exists is gross and open ; we see it in its full extent, and may kmow its limits ; and in this way the common people of the rural community probably suffer some considerable injustice when their sins in this respect are sought to be contrasted with those of certain other classes more highly civilised it may be, and enjoying far greater social advantages.

Generally viewed then the life of last century, in so far as it has come under our notice, cannot be regarded as strongly typical of the "good old times." Confining our retrospect to that period we should certainly be compelled to say—

Those times were never
Airy visions sat for the picture.

Along with abounding poverty of means and resources, we find that industry was stagnant, and unprogressive, and that the ordinary rural life of the time was strongly tinctured with superstition, or simply in the state of uninquiring indiffei’ence as regards its spiritual beliefs. It had nevertheless its own features of attraction, as contrasted with the life that has followed it. There was a sense of quiet leisureliness about the manner in which each man held his position and transacted the business of his daily life; an absence of hurry and headlong competition, and a feeling of neighbourliness and hospitality amongst the constituent membership of each small community that did much to make life not merely to]erable, but rationally enjoyable. The changes that have occurred in these respects, we may warrantably say, have not all been in the nature of an unqualified social gain.

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