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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


IN exhibiting the advanced state of Scottish agriculture at the present day, as compared with the agriculture of last century, one could scarcely find a readier or more effective method of illustration than that of contrasting the implements of the farm then and now. Alongside the two horse swing plough, fashioned of iron, and marked by accurate proportion of parts, and absolutely artistic finish in the workmanship, we should have to place the large uncouth wooden implement, devised for the draught of eight, ten, or twelve oxen; with "beam "so disproportionately long, and " stilts " so relatively short, that collision with some big "earth-fast" stone in the opening furrow, really threatened, at times, to throw the hapless ploughman’s heels, if not against the seven stars—as a local Munchausen averred, had once happened at the cost of nearly obliterating one of their number from the firmament—certainly, to an elevation, at least equal to that of his head. Against the steam threshing machine, with its complete dressing apparatus, there would stand the primitive flail; and the equally primitive hand riddle and "wecht," for use in winnowing the corn between the open barn doors by the natural wind of heaven; and so on through the remaining implements of the farm.

Concerning the twelve oxen plough, Dr. James Anderson, (of whom some particulars are given further on) says :—" The plough itself is beyond description bad; and it is of so little consequence to perpetuate the memory of what can never be imitated elsewhere, that I shall omit the description of it. I shall only observe that it makes rather a triangular rut in the ground than a furrow, leaving the soil for the most part equally fast on both sides of it, so that if all the loosened earth were stripped from a plowed field, it would remain nearly in this form ΛΛΛΛΛ only, it would sometimes happen that a gap would be made in these protuberances." Yet, rude as the plough was and imperfect its equipments, under the steady persevering pull of the team of great sinewy oxen of six or seven years old, so long as it could be kept in the ground, it made a large if unshapely furrow, turning over or pushing aside a mass of soft earth, and clearing away obstacles, such as "earth fast" stones that stood in the way, aye and until the soam broke or other part of the gearing gave way.

The plough wright, when his services were needed, went to the farm, and if he was an early riser, and his wood looked out beforehand, would contrive to build a plough in sufficient time for the ploughman and "gaudman" to take their team a-field. The implement he had to construct was hardly more elaborate, though it may be safely believed a good deal clumsier, than that which had been used by the Israelites when they dwelt in the Land of Canaan. And certainly it was much inferior in design and material to the plough of the ancient Romans, described by Pliny, as in use in his time. The tools the plough-wright used were a saw, an axe, an adze, and a large forming iron and wimble. The only parts made of iron were the coulter and "sock;" and the "cheek-rack" or bridle (if such there were). The mould board was of wood, and the frame was kept together chiefly by

sturdy wooden pins. An expert wright could make three ploughs in a day, working diligently and he was paid eightpence to a shilling for each. For wood and workmanship, the plough seldom cost above four shillings ; and the iron furnishings did not exceed that amount, so that the total outlay for a completed implement was under ten shillings.

It was not till the century was pretty well advanced, that iron-tined harrows came to be commonly used. The tines or teeth, as well as the frame work, were of wood: and while oxen were used for the plough, the harrowing was done by horses, as were the carriages needed in conrfection with the farm. When improving lairds endeavoured to reform the style of the ploughs, and the method of ploughing, they were met by two obstacles. One was "want of experience among country servants in the management of horses ;" the other the fact that the wrights and smiths, in place of adequately imitating the improved ploughe put before them—as those of James Small, the father of the swing plough, on the basis of which others have improved so much—invariably continued to bring them nearer and nearer to their own defective models. And it was with a view to overcome such obstacles that in some cases, along with Small’s ploughs, expert ploughmen were also brought from East Lothian to Aberdeenshire, to set an example in working them.

The extinction as an operative agency of the old plough, with its team of ten or twelve oxen, was quite gradual. In 1770, it was still in all but universal use; twenty years thereafter it had to a certain extent given place to a better fashioned implement and a lighter team, the first modifications of the team being to four pairs of oxen and one pair of horses pulling together, the horses being next to the plough; then to two pairs of horsesin a team, and so on. In Cromar, the Garioch, and other districts of Aberciecushire, the

"twal owsen" plough was pretty common so late as 1792; and in exceptional cases it was in use a few years after the commencement of the present century. The late Dr. Cruickshank, of Marischal College, Aberdeen, remembered seeing such a plough at work in the parish of Culsalmond, so late as the autumn of 1807; and it did not go finally out of use in this part of the country till about 1815 or 1816.

A specimen of this cumbrous implement used after 1784, by Mr. Stephen, tenant of Millden, Belhelvie, was exhibited at the Aberdeen Show of the Highland Society in 1858, when its uncouth appearance made it an object of great interest and curiosity to those of the living generation of farmers and ploughmen who were present to inspect it. It was thereafter presented to the authorities of Marischal College by its possessor, Mr. Craighead, presumably for preservation in the Museum. No particular care would seem to have been bestowed on the interesting relic (the only remaining specimen of this particular kind of plough so far as we are aware), until sometime ago it was found to be literally crumbling into dust, and past all hope of staying the progress of decay.

The draught equipment was as primitive as the plough itself. The "soam" already spoken of—an iron chain, fastened to the cheek-rack, or to a simple staple fixed in the beam on the right hand side some distance from tbe point—ran along between the pairs of oxen all the way to the "fore yoke." [The names of the six pairs of oxen as fully given in Dr. Pratt’s .Bucham, with illustrative diagram, were—foremost pair, on wyner, and wyner; second do. on-steer draught, and steer-draught; 3d do. fore-throck on land and fore-throck in fur; 4th do. mid-throck on land and mid-throek in fur; 5th do. hind-throck on land, and hind. throck in fur; 6th pair, fit on land, and fit in fur.] A yoke lay across the necks of each pair of oxen; and a "bow," consisting of a piece of ash, birch, or willow, bent to the proper shape, surrounded every separate ox’s neck. The points of the bows were stuck upward through the yoke, and securely pinned in that position. A "brecham," or pad of dried "sprots," rushes, straw, or strips "tyave" of moss fir roots, intervened between the neck of the ox and the bow, to prevent friction in the draught. The more important animals in the team were the "fit owsen" and the "wyners." Connected with the yoke of the former pair, which, of course, were nearest the plough, was a short series of elongated links, or staffs, for raising or lowering the "soam" according as more or less "yird" was required by the ploughman. And a "fit o’ Ian" ox was not considered fully trained in his function till he had learnt to lower his neck when the ploughman cried "jouk," at such times as he wanted the plough to go a little deeper for the moment. The wyners again occupied an important position, in so far as the turning of the unwieldy team on a moderate width of end-rig depended on their easing the draught off gradually and featly. And then, as the young oxen were always trained in the steer draught immediately behind them, it depended chiefly upon the trustworthiness of the veteran wyners that these juniors should be kept steady, ‘and prevented running into untimeous and uncanny escapades, even to the extent of breaking their harness at times, and scampering off from the draught altogether.

A tolerably vivid idea of the harnessing and draught equipments of the time will be obtained, when it is kept in mind that, apart from the plough soam, there was no iron chain ordinarily in use. The "theets," or traces, used in harrowing, were made either of dried "sprots" or rushes, or of twisted fir roots— hempen rope being a little-known commodity. Thin "splits" of fir taken off logs that had been dug up in mosses and twisted into a sort of rope, because they stood wet well without rotting, were "preferred above all others for tethering horses in the field," as well as for draught purposes. "These ropes of a proper length," we are told, were "sold ready made under the name of fir tethers"; and, it is added, "when no longer fit to be used as a tether, they are employed as candle fir." For tethering purposes there was also the home made hair rope, the materials of which were supplied from the tails of the cattle.

It is not to be supposed that either the fir or "rashen" traces were capable of sustaining very great tension; and they were the less severely tried from the fact that the horses were small, potbellied, ill-fed, and consequently rather pithless animals. One is not so sure about even the soam, by which the whole eight, ten, or twelve oxen hung on. At any rate the story told of a certain smith, would seem to indicate that his notion of the strain which the welded links ought to be capable of bearing, had not been very enlarged. He had just mended a break in the soam from the Mains farm, and the "herd loon" took his way home therewith from the smiddy. Tired of other modes of conveying his rather onerous burden, the herd took to dragging it after him, when, unluckily the soam snapped again. On being told of this fresh disaster, and discovering the ordeal to which the soam had been subjected by the herd, the smith exclaimed—." Sorra set ye laddie, fat need ye ‘a trail’t it!"

The style of work accomplished by the great wooden plough has been already spoken of. The furrow opened was large and uncouth; and in their wide way of talking, the old fellows ~spoke of the ploughman occasionally turning down a refractory bit, which the rude mould board had failed to lay over "wi’ the tap o’s shooder." The "rigs" they made were crooked like an elongated S; and from the practice of "feering" always in the crown of the rig and "gathering" to the same point, the tendency was to pile up the ploughed land in a series of long narrow mounds. And thus it was that when the principle of straight furrows, and level rigs began to have place, the laird of Rothney, in Insch, endeavoured to persuade his ploughman to adopt the new mode, only to find him impervious to reasoning and obstinately determined on adhering to his old practice. At this the laird lost temper and turned away with the exclamation, "Augh min! It’s been some confoun’it idiot like you ‘t’s cairn’t up the hill o’ Dunnydeer there !"

The ordinary carriages of the farm were accomplished by means of "currachs" or creels of wicker work —hung from a "crook saddle "—one on each side of the horse. Dung was carried from the farmyard in these, and in harvest they bore home the sheaves to the stackyard. In loading it was needful to fill the two currachs simultaneously to keep them balanced. When one man filled more promptly than his fellow of any heavy material, he gained an advantage in depressing his own creel and correspondingly elevating that on the other side of the horse. Hence the phrase " coupin’ the creels" upon one, came to be a sort of "byeword," which has hardly yet died out in certain localities. When corn or meal had to be taken to or from the mill, or conveyed away for sale, a sack or "lade" was put across each horse’s back, and the animals followed one another in single file, the "halter tow" of the second horse tied to the tail of the first; and so on: a mode of transport that was still in use in the remoter parts of Aberdeen and Banffshires at the end of last century, as many as a dozen horses being occasionally to be seen following in single file, each bearing its lade. It was not that wheeled conveyances were utterly unknown. Carts and wheelbarrows too had been invented long before. But the cart was a clumsy vehicle indeed. It was made entirely of wood, including the axle-tree. As in the case of the plough, no plane was used to smoothe the surface of the wood in any part. In the "tumbling cart," in place of the wheels turning round on the axle, the axle-tree itself turned round. There were no iron bushes in the naves of the wheels, and as no grease was used the movement of the cart was apt to be accompanied by a noise more shrill than pleasant.

But the state of the roads, or rather the absence of "roads before they were made" did not favour wheeled conveyances. Up to fully the date of "the Forty-five" one or two carts in a parish would seem to have been all that existed. Toward the close of the century they had become much more abundant over the country, though, as just indicated, the currach still held its place to a moderate extent. The minister of New Deer (Old Stat. Ac.) says "when the present incumbent was settled, in 1737, there was not a cart but his own in the parish; nor were there roads which could be travelled in many places. Then, and for many years after, there was hut one carrier who went weekly to Aberdeen with a horse and packets; sometimes he even went with nothing but a back creel, and brought what merchandise and provision were at the time necessary. Now (1793), there is sufficient employment for three or four carriers, who go each with a cart and two horses." Similar statements are made by various others. Two-wheeled carts became common in most lowland districts during the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Of the primitive character of the farm implements generally, near the close of the eighteenth century, an incidental illustration may be given from the pages of a witness already cited. Dr. James Anderson, who was a keen improver and reformer of old things generally, credits his patron, Mr. Udny of Udny, with a useful invention in implements. That gentleman, who filled the office of a commissioner of excise, was an earnest agricultural improver. He was an early and successful cultivator of the turnip, and his invention was an improved sower—cost eightpence to a shilling. It was a perforated tin box with a wooden handle— neither more nor less than a "Bobbin’ John," which was carried along in the hand over the drill top and shaken to throw out the seed. Its capabilities as a sower are strongly lauded by Dr. Anderson, by whom it is averred that many hundreds of persons who could neither have purchased nor used a fine apparatus, had, by the possession of it, been induced to enter keenly into the cultivation of turnips. And he held that, "To induce such persons to go forward on a small scale is an object of much greater consequence than to have kings and princes, and the greatmen of the earth, displaying with a pompous parade a complicated apparatus which would prove the ruin of a poor man to attempt to purchase." And so, when the century was near its close, an implement like the ordinary turnip sower for horse haulage, had evidently been regarded, even by men of advanced ideas, as rather an elaborate piece of mechanism.

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