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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


IN 1782, the harvest was unusually late, even for a time when from imperfect cultivation and similar causes the normal period of ripening of crops was apt to be put well into the autumn. The season had been a very backward one throughout; and the harvest of that year in Aberdeenshire is said to have been the worst on record. The summer was so cold and rainy that most of the oat crop was only beginning to shoot in the end of August. Early and severe frosts came soon after, the first in the middle of September which damaged some part of the grain then in the milky stage, so as to render it unfit for seed. And again we read, that on the night of the 5th of October, "when growing oats and barley were still generally green"

"a frost, armed almost with the vigour of a Greenland climate, desolated in one night the hope of the husbandman." At the end of October, when but little of the crop had been cut, a snowstorm of extraordinary severity for the season ensued. Snow lay a foot deep in many places, and the storm continued for a fortnight. After it had passed away, the crop, still green but now past hope of proper ripening, was cut as it best could be in the continued cold and wet, though portions remained uncut at 28th November. Hardly any of the crop was got carried to the stackyard in the usual way, but was first put up on the fields in small "buicks," which could not be finally "led" home till December, when two weeks of dry "open" weather occurred. Of the crop generally, the statement is made that while—" the fields yielded not one-third of an ordinary crop," the oatmeal, "dark in colour, was acid and disagreeable to the taste." Neither potatoes nor turnips had yet come so prominently, into use as they were destined to do but potatoes where grown were damaged by the frost, and turnips were a very poor crop. Even the produce of the garden was, we are told, " destitute of its usual nourishment."

And the famine was not local in the narrow sense. Owing to the high price to which grain had risen ui the month of November, the Scotch ports, generally, were by that time opened for importation of corn upon pay-lug the low duties. Sir William Forbes and his fellow banker offered the Lord Provost of Edinburgh to advance £2000 free of interest for six months, his lordship and the Town Council having it in view "to procure a supply of corn for the advantage of the poorer sort of the community," and they having it " much at heart" "to facilitate so very useful a plan." The Lord Advocate, in whose mind " very serious apprehensions had arose relative to the supply of provisions for the lower class of the inhabitants of Scotland for the ensuing year," had previously written to the Provost suggesting the propriety of people contributing according to their means in order to keep the markets " from rising to any immoderate height." The Lord Advocate is persuaded the Lord Provost and his brethren will take the requisite steps in the matter ; and as his excuse for troubling him, requests that in case he should be absent from Scotland when any plan is in agitation, his lordship "would dispose of him to the extent of £100 for promoting the same.

At the meeting of Aberdeen Town Council held on 8th November, the Provost represented that "the state and condition of the country was universally allowed to be alarming; and that, notwithstanding the advanced season of the year, a very large part of the crop was in many parts still uncut down, and consequently in imminent hazard." At same time, there was "but a very small quantity of meal in town for supply of the inhabitants." The chief magistrate further stated that his Monthly Committee had thought it right to confer with some of the principal traders as to a speedy supply of meal, and a subscription had been set on foot "with considerable success." What further happened was, that the Council voted a donation of three hundred guineas out of the town’s funds to aid the citizens’ subscription. A "proper person," Robert Gibbons to wit, was next appointed to proceed southward to purchase grain or meal to the extent of. 1000 boils, to be got through British or foreign ports; only it was the determination of the general meeting by which the appointment was made "that the encouragement to be given for importing grain be confined to grain imported for the sole purpose of being converted into meal."

This was in November, and as stated early in that mouth. By and by matters were getting more serious, and the pinch of actual famine seemed likely to be felt with some severity. On the last day of December, 1782, the famishing country people "could get no meal in Aberdeen, as the citizens were afraid of a famine, and a poor man in the district of Garioch could find none in the country the day after." In November oat— meal sold at thirteen pence to fifteen pence a peck ; at the market held on the first Friday of January, 1783, it rose to "the enormous price of twenty pence per peck." In that month the Aberdeen Bank and the Bank of Scotland offered each an advance of £3000 for twelve months, free of interest, "for the relief of the poor in both the new and old town," which advances were accepted, and no doubt largely used, as we find that by the beginning of the month of March £900 had been "given off by the magistrates" to importers of grain, and a cornmittee of nineteen, who had been appointed for "managing and conducting the business of the subscription," were authorised to intromit with the balance yet remaining.

So early as 29th October, the Commissioners of Supply for the County of Aberdeen had met and taken into consideration the alarming state of the country from "the almost certain appearance of scarcity," and the likelihood of dearth before next harvest. And being persuaded that meal of all sorts would not only be very dear, but in many parts of the country hardly to be got at any price, it was agreed that in the circumstances it would be a great injury to the poor " to give the smallest encouragement to any practice that might make their bread still scarcer and dearer." The commissioners accordingly declared formally that they were "resolved to punish in the most exemplary manner all persons who should be convicted of privately and illegally distilling spirits from grain ;" and they hoped the officers of Excise would exert themselves in discovering all transgressors of that class.

Circular letters were soon after sent out to the parish ministers, asking them to give in reports on the state and condition of the crop, "how soon the corns are got in," a method that was followed in some of the neighbouring counties as well. At another meeting held on 6th December, it was found that answers had been received from very few of the ministers, owing, it may be, to the fact that at that date the crop in many eases had not been got in.

On the 23rd day of December, 1782, a meeting of the proprietors and principal inhabitants of Aberdeen-shire was held, the Sheriff of the county, Mr. Robert Turner, being put in the chair. The expressed object of the meeting was "to take under consideration not only the present state of the country and the crop of this year, but also to consider of what may he done for the ensuing year, especially regarding the capital article of seed." The facts stated by individuals at this meeting from their own knowledge were, we are assured, "of a nature too singular to be allowed to fall into oblivion. At that time it appeared that great quantities of corn in many parts of the country were still to cut down. Some gentlemen who lived in the best parts of the county gave it as their opinion that a boll of the best oats might give about half a boll of meal." But others, "especially in the higher parts of the county" were of opinion that "it would require three bolls of the best oats to give one boll of meal; and many instances were produced where it had not yielded one-fourth of that proportion. From about thirty trials in the lands of Mounie, which is one of the earliest places in the Garloch, it was found to require three boils of oats to give one boll of meal on an average."

It was computed, in short, that from lateness, bad weather, destruction by rooks, heating, and other casualties, one-fourth of the crop was lost before it could be got in, and that between waste and actual deficiency little more than one-fifth of the usual quantity could be used for meal.

The computation made was, that while in an ordinary year each 100 boIls of grain grown might be reckoned in this way :—25 boils for seed, and 75 boils for as many boils of meal; each hundred boils of crop 1782, must be reckoned thus—30 boils for seed and 25 boils for waste, leaving 45 boils, which would average only 18 boils of meal. The inhabitants of the county were computed at 131,000, and the calculated ailowance of oatmeal to these was 300,000 boils. "It was admitted that the county used to supply its whole inhabitants with corn in an ordinary year, and no more, as it appeared from the Custom-house books, that the exports and imports, including transportation coastwise in both cases, were nearly equal on an average of years." Instead of 300,000 boils, the data submitted showed only 79,000, say 80,000 boils, making a deficiency of 220,000 boils. The crops in the southern parts of the island had not suffered nearly so much; and hence flour imported from England became comparatively so plentiful in Aberdeen as to be cheaper than oatmeal one result of which was that the Governors of Robert Gordon’s Hospital ordered coarse flour to be used in that Institution instead of oatmeal.

To meet a deficiency of the character indicated was no slight matter. A somewhat sanguine narrator of the occurrences of the time (Dr James Anderson) speaks of the "unanimous resolution" of the meeting of proprietors and principal inhabitants, that "all ranks" should abstain from malting bear. The usual annual yield of that grain, we are told, was estimated at 80,000 boils. Half of this, it was thought, could be made into meal, yielding say 60,000 boIls. The estimated "saving in consequence of scarcity" (in other words, the depth of the hunger bite) was put at 35,000 boils; accelerating next harvest by early sowing, "and mealing it as soon as possible," might, it was thought, be equal to 25,000 bolls; and, as the past harvest, by its lateness, had shortened the period of waiting, a favourable season, with very prompt resort to early potatoes, might give another gain of a month, or say 25,000 bolls. This would leave the actual deficiency in the meal supply of the county at 75,000 bolls. And this estimate, it is added, was pretty near the actual state of the case. The total importation was about 80,000 boIls.

The sentiments of the County Meeting found ostensible expression in a minute remarkable for its unusual length and the copiousness of its style. [If a guess might be hazarded on the point, the internal evidence would seem to indicate that this minute had been drafted by Dr. James Anderson.] It sets forth that in order to prevent the inhabitants from experiencing a total want of food before another crop can be brought to maturity, it is a matter of necessity "that every individual shall observe the most frugal economy in regard to provisions; that the smallest article which can be employed as the food of man be not on any occasion applied to other uses, or lost through neglect or inattention." And in the way of practical enforcement, it is argued that "with this view, all dogs, unless those of great use and value, should be instantly put to death. At a time like the present, when the whole produce of the country is not sufficient to sustain the life of the inhabitants themselves, it must," says the minute, "be deemed a heinous crime to suffer any part of that food to be consumed by vile animals. Those who must have useful dogs, and those of higher rank who can afford to keep dogs of value, ought to procure from abroad as much grain at least as would serve to sustain them till a new crop can be brought to market. Persons in lower circumstances who, regardless of the duties they owe to themselves and society, persist in keeping these animals, should be accounted enemies of mankind. They cannot in justice lay claim to the sympathising benevolence of their fellow-creatures, and their dogs ought to be destroyed by order of the civil magistrates and Justices of the Peace."

For the like reasons it was thought right that no corn that could be converted into meal should be given to horses. "Good hay and straw, with whins, where these can be had, will sustain, during the winter season, horses which are moderately worked. And in regard to chaise horses, which at present too much abound, it is believed the necessity of the times will greatly diminish their employment; and it is hoped that those who, through disease or otherwise, are under the necessity of employing them, will permit them to be so gently driven as not to hurt them, though greatly stinted in their usual allowance of corn." It was strongly urged that people should refuse to sell for horse corn what was fit to be made into oatmeal. Innkeepers might• get a supply from abroad; and it behoved them to devise the means of so obtaining it.

One of the numerous "resolves," and which bears on the question of malting bear, already spoken of, seems rather in the nature of a simple recommendation. It runs thus :—" To show an example of moderation in the use of the necessaries of life to those of inferior degree, it will be highly commendable, in all gentlemen and others, not only to give over entirely for a time the use of home-made spirits, but also, in as far as health permits, to abstain from the use of malt liquors of every kind that shall be brewed from grain in this country, and also prohibit their servants from using it as drink, permitting no malt liquor in their families but merely as kitchen (that is as a nourishing and palatable addition) to bread or other dry food where milk cannot be had; and in that ease to allow no more at each meal than shall appear to be indispensably necessary." Following on this other provident and precautionary measures were suggested. Gentlemen were recommended to make exact survey of "all the corns" on their respective estates, to ascertain what stacks contained stuff in a state sufficient for seed, and have these "marked off and appropriated to thst purpose alone ;". to promote the sowing of bear in place of oats as coming earlier to harvest; and, in particular, that a subscription should be opened to import early potatoes for seed," especially the early Henley," which, it seems came two months sooner to maturity than the other varieties. And as early Dutch turnips came "into eating in May and June," these would he found highly usefuL Moreover, "the meal of the present crop, on account of its bad quality, will, with too much certainty, subject those who must live entirely upon it to various disorders and nothing it has been said, proves usore efficacious to remove this species of disorder than turnip." To all this is added the recommendation that, to render next crop as abundant as might be, farmers should prepare only the best of their land for sowing—(proprietors sanctioning departure from the usual rules of husbandry)—disregarding "that which would yield but a poor return."

The general conclusion of the meeting was expressed in this wise—" But when all this shall be done there will still remain a frightful deficiency, which must in one way or another be made up, or many of the poor will inevitably perish for want." It was agreed to petition Government to give a bounty on importation of grain; and other measures of purely local application were adopted, including that of printing and circulating the resolutions of the meeting, a step that appears to have so far re-opened the question; for at a meeting of Commissioners of Supply in January 31, 1783, with Sir William Forbes as preses, Mr. Turner of Menie had the question put formally—" Whether or not the resolutions of the said meeting, which had been printed and dispersed, were not hurtful both to the town and county of Aberdeen, and the fears of want therein exaggerated I" A majority of votes decided the question in the affirmative ; but in order that the sense of the county might be more fully ascertained, an adjourned meeting " of landed gentlemen and freeholders" was held on 14th February; and they agreed "that the dread of so fatal a want, as had been formerly suggested, was groundless, but were sensible that the crop had proved remarkably deficient, and therefore made no doubt that this would become an object of most serious consideration and attention to every gentleman in the county."

Beyond question there was famine in the land; and there is abundant evidence that but for extraneous supplies, death from want would have been far from an uncommon experience. The estimate of crop, as we have seen, gave less than a third of the crop of an ordinary year in quantity; and in an ordinary year they grew only enough to meet their own wants—precisely what the generation of a hundred years earlier had done. And the quality of such crop as they had was bad, being greatly lacking in wholesomeness and nourishment. Well might it be that, as put by one of the local chroniclers, a man evidently exercised in the construction of sentences—" Temperance stern but friendly established her reign on the solid base of necessity." But the pressure of dearth went much deeper than this; and but for the importation of bread stuffs already spoken of, and which took the shape, to a considerable extent, of grants by Government of oatmeal and peasemeal, or rather of pease to be ground into meal, there is no reason to doubt the statement that "numbers would have perished."

Neither of the two adjoining counties seems to have suffered quite so severely. The parish reports asked for and obtained by the Commissioners of Supply for Banffshire in the late autumn of 1782, led them to conclude that "the condition of the crop was not so bad as was apprehended." ln Kincardineshire a portion of the cereal crop was wheat, which gave better results comparatively than the oat crop; and the farmers ground it in the ordinary corn mills, using it for porridge, while they made cakes of the oatmeal and bearmeal.

In country districts the distribution of these grants of meal was a duty that fell to the Kirk-sessions, who, as a rule, did their part with a creditable amount of shrewdness and humane feeling. Here, in brief, are the arrangements in a large parish in a central Aberdeenshire Presbytery, and which maybe taken as typical of the county parishes generally. On Wednesday, 8th January, 1783, a fast was observed according to the Presbytery’s appointment, and the occasion no doubt carried with it more of a practical aspect than "fasts" frequently do. On April 13th, the Session, " considering the deplorable situation of the parish through the dearth and scarcity of meal, and being well informed that even they who cannot properly be ranked amongst the poor, find very great difficulty in getting meal even when they have money to ~ay for it," resolved "to bespeak forty boils of pease on their own account." They held a bond of a principal heritor for a certain amount, and, he being out of the country at the time, "the interest could not be uplifted till his return ;" but several "generous and charitable" individuals made offer of sums without interest to pay for the pease purchased; and others "cheerfully promised" their assistance in fetching the purchase home. The price of the pease was £1 2s (sterling) per boll; and as the carts told off to convey the "forty boils" numbered fourteen double and three single carts, the separate loads would not be very large even for a twenty mile journey. The quantity of pease-meal yielded was "not fully sixty boils," and as the cost, including milling and drying, was £44 I 6s. 8d., the Session found they could not sell their pease-meal under is. per peck. What happened next was that, under supervision of the elders, appointed to the duty in turn, over forty boils were sold, and four boils given away gratis early in May. It was not till July that five boils of meal were got from "the Royal bounty ;" and between that and the beginning of November it seems to have been a continued struggle with want. One or two further doles were got from the Government grant; while the Session, in addition to distributing the remainder of their own purchase, bought a further supply of oatmeal when harvest had come to distribute among poor people who, from the long distress, were unable to supply themselves even after the price had fallen.

The "ill years 1782-3" had the effect of ruining many farmers in Aberdeenshire, and some landlords as well; and a good deal of emigration to America followed. And while a further result was to stimulate improvement by the introduction of earlier and better varieties of grain, and greater attention to green crops, the necessities of the time greatly promoted the granting of long leases during the immediately succeeding years. Previously the leases given had been of varying length, seven, nine, twelve, fifteen, or nineteen years being terms occasionally granted indifferently by the same proprietor. The prevailing poverty on both sides made it an object now to secure substantial tenants; and thus, when a man, possessed of a few hundred pounds came in the way, he was encouraged in ‘the idea of permanency of occupation by the offer of a lease not merely for his lifetime, but for the period of one or two lives in succession after his own, he naming his successors. Some of these leases granted soon after 1782 had not finally expired in 1860.

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