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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


WHEN we keep fully in view the prevailing system of tillage and the implements with which the work was accomplished, it is not difficult to understand how the results in the way of produce must often enough have been sufficiently poor to be some way short of satisfactory to the tiller. The difficulty rather is to understand how the soil in certain cases could have been kept under tillage on any terms. We have already seen something of the struggle that went on between the arable farmer and the indigenous "growth" that sought to re-assert its right to the possession of the soil; and it was undoubtedly creditable to the sheer hardihood of our forefathers that they did not oftener than actually happened give way before the perversity of those less fertile parts of the stubborn glebe that yet owned their full share of the effects of the primeval curse, and allow the land to run again into a state of nature. In ordinary times the products of cultivation in the form of crops raised and reaped for the sustenance of man and beast were frequently but meagre. It is, however, when we look at what we find recorded regarding seasons of dearth, or absolute famine, from failure of the crops, or their destruction through inclement weather, that we most readily obtain a distinct picture of the harder conditions of life in what has been occasionally spoken of as "the good old times."

The concluding seven years of the seventeenth century (1693-1700) were years of dearth over the greater part of Scotland, tbough some of the northern districts suffered earlier and more severely than many other parts of the country. The pinch of famine had begun to be felt in various parts of Aberdeenshire and Banffshire, in 1693, while it was not till 1695 that the crop in certain of the southern and western counties was " stricken in one night" by an easterly fog, "and gat little more good of the ground." These were "King William’s dear years." In accordance with the fiscal system of the time, an Act had been passed in 1672 forbidding the importation of meal while the price in Scotland remained below a certain rate. And an order of Council had actually been issued for "staving" grain, unlawfully brought from Carrickfergus in two vessels in 1695; the vessels themselves to be handed over to the person—Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck—who had seized them on their way to a Scottish port. But now, when one season after another was only threatening the "misgiving and blasting of the present crop to the increase of that distress whereby the kingdom is already afflicted," it was found expedient to allow the importation of meal from Ireland. And not only so, for in 1698 exportation of grain was strictly prohibited; and various emphatic edicts were issued against "forestalling" and "regrating." A solemn fast was ordered on 9th March, 1699—as fasts had been appointed in some of the previous years—on account of "the lamentable stroke of dearth and scarcity ;" while "King William, his kindness is not to be forgotten," offered all who would transport victual to Scotland, that they might do it custom free, and have twenty pence off each boll."

The pictures we have of the sufferings endured at this time are very lamentable. It was represented in Edinburgh in 1696, that if extraneous supplies of victual were not speedily received in Aberdeenshire "a good part of that and the next county {Banff] will undoubtedly starve." This was in July, and George Fergusson, a generous baillie of Oldmeldrum, and a member of a family long well known in that region, with Alexander Smith, writer in Edinburgh, proposed to purchase 1000 or 1200 boils of corn and bear, to sell to the people at a price to be fixed by the authorities, they having no desire of profit, "but allenarly the keeping of the poor in the said shire from starving." They wished their cargo protected from the risk of French privateers on its way to Aberdeen; and the Privy Council agreed to recommend their petition to that effect to the Lords of the Treasury.

"These manifold unheard-of judgments," says Patrick Walker, the Packman, "continued seven years, not always alike, but the seasons, summer and winter, so cold and barren, and the wonted heat of the sun so much withholden, that it was discernible upon the cattle, flying fowls and insects decaying, that seldom a fly or cleg was to be seen; our harvests not in the ordinary months; many shearing in November and December; yea, some in January and February; many contracting their deaths, and losing the use of their feet and hands shearing and working in frost and snow; and, after all, some of it standing still and rotting upon the ground, and much of it for little use either to man or beast, and which had no taste or colour of meal."

"Meal became so scarce," adds Patrick, "that it was sold at two shillings a peck; and many could not get it. It was not then with many, ‘Where will we get shiller?' but ‘Where shall we get meal for siller ?" "Deaths and burials were so many and common that the living were wearied with the burying of the dead. I have seen corpses drawn on sleds. Many got neither coffin nor winding-sheet. I was one of four who carried the corpse of a young woman a mile of way, and when we came to the grave an honest poor man came and said—‘ You must go and help to bury my son; he has lain dead these two days; otherwise I shall be obliged to bury him in my own yard.’ Many . . . did eat, but were neither satisfied nor nourished; and some of them said to me that they could mind nothing but meat, and were nothing better by it, and that they were utterly unconcerned about their souls, whether they went to heaven or hell. The nearer and sorer these plagues seized, the sadder were their effects, that took away all natural and relative affections—so that husbands had no sympathy for their wives, nor wives for their husbands parents for their children, nor children for their parents." "These and other things" made the worthy man "doubt if ever any of Adam’s race were in a more deplorable condition ;" but "the crowning plague of all" was that, though many were cast down, few were humbled; there was "great murmuring, but little mourning ;" "the great part turned more gospel-proof and judgment-proof."

The picture given in part, applies to the south-west of Scotland. It is singularly like that supplied by several writers of the state of things at the same period in some parts of the county of Aberdeen. Concerning the district, of which Turriff forms the centre, the misery of the people was very great— "One Thomson, wadsetter, of Hairmoss, driven from his home by want, was found dead near the shore with a piece of raw flesh in his mouth." Of sixteen families that resided on the farm of Littertie, thirteen were extinguished. On the estate of Greens, three families (the proprietor’s included) only, survived. A number of farms, being entirely desolated, were converted into a sheep walk by the Erroll family, to whom they belonged. "The inhabitants of the parish in general," it is added, "were diminished by death to one-half, or, as some affirm, to one fourth." "Until the year 1709 many farms were waste." The minister of Keith-hall parish, in writing of this time, says, "many died; in particular, ten Highlanders in a neighbouring parish, that of Kemnay, so that the Kirk-Session got a bier made to carry them to the grave, not being able to afford coffins for such a number." And we read of other parts of the county being "almost depopulated" by those years of famine. In illustrating the moral effects of the prevailing physical misery, a writer already quoted says, "when the means of saving the living and of burying the dead began to fail, natural affection was in a great measure suspended. A fellow, George Allan, having carried his deceased father upon his back half way from his home to the churchyard, threw down the corpse at the door of a farmer, with these words, ‘ I can carry my father no farther. For God’s sake bury his body; but, if you choose not to take that trouble, you may place it, if you please, on the dyke of your kailyard as a guard against the sheep."

It may be observed, in connection with the state of matters indicated rather than described, that while in those seven years there were some seasons " not altogether unfriendly to vegetation," and while the failure of the crops was only partial in its range, yet so miserable were the means of communication from want of roads, as well as want of wheeled vehicles, that, though the inhabitants of some districts of Aberdeenshire were comparatively well off, those in other districts were, at the very same time dying of absolute starvation. The minister of Turriff says of the inhabitants of his parish, that most of them, "reduced to misery, had neither money to purchase nor horses to carry" victual from the Formartine and Buchan district, where, we are told, "seed and bread abounded."

Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, in describing the misery

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