Ayrshire History

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Ayrshire in the Age of Improvement (Monograph 27)


Reproduced here without endnotes.

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The two works reproduced in this book, by Andrew Wight – published in 1778 and 1784, and William Fullarton – published in 1793, are vivid and informative records of the condition of Ayrshire during a time when Scotland became "the most dynamically modernising society in Europe." Against the background of the Enlightenment – a revolution in all fields of thought – came the improvement, a practical revolution founded in agriculture, but leading to new roads, better housing, growth of towns and villages, the burgeoning of old industries and the foundation of new ones.

By the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century, improvement of agriculture in Scotland had become a national obsession. This was a pivotal point in the great transition between a peasant, subsistence agriculture – unchanged in 1750 in most of Scotland – and the productive, market–orientated agriculture that became the envy of Europe. It was then that improvement ceased to be the concern of a few pioneers risking their own fortunes, and of gentlemanly societies that debated much and improved little, and became a necessity for every self–respecting landowner.

Before improvement, agriculture in Scotland was characterised by short leases, giving no incentive to the tenant to improve either the land or the buildings; rack rents and servitudes, which kept the tenants at best just above starvation; and overcropping and absence of fallowing, which impoverished the soil and kept yields low, again maintaining the tenant at a bare subsistence level at best. Fullarton pictured the county as it was around 1750: "farm–houses were mere hovels, moated with clay, having an open hearth or fire–place in the middle; the dunghill at the door; the cattle starving; and the people wretched." Mere tracks served for roads, and there were few wheeled carts.

With improvement came long leases, usually 19 years and often with renewal at the same rent guaranteed, so that the tenant would remain to enjoy the benefit of his labour; enclosed fields, so that the cattle could be kept off the land when wet or during the growing season; the introduction of turnips for feeding cattle and sheep, and of potatoes for feeding people; use of grass seed, to improve pasture; rotation of crops, interspersed with fallow years, so that the ground was not impoverished, and crop yields became higher; selective breeding, to raise the quality of stock; use of lime and dung to improve the soil. These and many other concerns will be seen in the words of Wight and Fullarton as they travel around Ayrshire, praising here and criticising there.

After Culloden, and the brutal suppression of the Jacobites, the government moved to improve the circumstances of the Highlanders, to make them less likely to be rebellious in future. This was the work of the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, who administered those estates, mostly in the Highlands, which were confiscated after the 1745 rebellion from landowners who had supported the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was many years later and with much, they thought, already achieved in this direction, that the commissioners instructed an East Lothian tenant farmer, Andrew Wight, to tour Scotland and report back on the best farming practices, so that they could be applied in the Annexed Estates. Wight owed his nomination for the task to Henry Home, Lord Kames, one of the commissioners and the author of a recent work on improvement, The gentleman farmer, Being an attempt to improve agriculture, by subjecting it to the test of rational principles, published in Edinburgh and London in 1776. So useful were Wight’s reports that, before his work was half done, it was decided that they should be published, in order that the knowledge could be spread throughout the Kingdom, for the instruction of all. Wight surveyed all the mainland counties of Scotland, with the exception of Argyll, and his surveys appeared, in six books, in 1778 and 1784.

In 1718, the then proprietor of the Ormiston estate in East Lothian, Lord Cockburn, had granted Andrew Wight’s grandfather, Robert, a 38 year lease of Muirhouse farm, on which he was already a tenant, renewable on certain terms for further periods of 19 years. Cockburn was one of a select few later accorded the title "father of Scottish agriculture." He was certainly a pioneer, and corresponded with his gardener and tenants on the latest ideas in agriculture. In 1724, Robert Wight was probably the first tenant farmer in Scotland to cultivate turnips in drills. Cockburn sent the sons of his tenants, among them Alexander Wight, to England to learn from the improvements already introduced there. Later, in the 1750s, Alexander was brought over to Ayrshire by Alexander Montgomerie, 10th Earl of Eglinton, so that the successful practices of East Lothian could be transferred to his estate; as Fullarton put it, "to introduce the proper mode of ploughing, levelling ridges, fallowing, drilling, turnip husbandry, and rotations of crop."

Cockburn was an unhappy exemplar. He over–reached himself with the creation of the village of Ormiston, and had to sell his estate. The purchaser, the Earl of Hopetoun, the Wights’ new landlord, became one of the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates and, if not instrumental in the selection of Andrew Wight, would have been in a good position to know his worth.

Andrew Wight surveyed and reported with all the confidence of one born and raised on a farm that had been in the forefront of improvement in Scotland for fifty years. He commented on practices good and bad, and stated his conclusions and opinions in a plain fashion: "The operations of William Jackson, another of Sir Adam’s tenants, have every appearance of good husbandry, regularly conducted." He thought that progress required the close interest of the landowner: "Every operation depending on activity of servants, will be expeditious in proportion to the activity of the master. This gentleman makes it a rule to be at the head of every thing himself." He sympathised with local difficulties: "the water of Lugar is a troublesome neighbour." He gave praise where praise was due: "Lady Dumfries … is the very soul of husbandry and manufactures in that part of the country." He cast his eye over villages and towns, whose growth and industry was to provide markets for the higher yields of improved fields: "Girvan is a clean little town, and the inhabitants industrious and thriving, particularly the shoemakers, who tan their own leather, and make shoes for America, which are carried to Glasgow." Lord Kames had advised his fellow Commissioners well, and Andrew Wight’s lucid report makes fascinating reading today.

In contrast to Andrew Wight, Colonel William Fullarton of Fullarton was a gentleman landowner, with all that that implied in wealth, family connections and education. As he was an Ayrshire man, a Biographical Note, contributed by Rob Close, has been included in this volume.

Colonel Fullarton’s breadth of learning and extensive travels were reflected in his report. But it was also informed by the sixteen years that had passed since Wight’s first survey of Ayrshire, and all that had happened during that time. Symon lists 18 books on agricultural topics that were published in Scotland in that period, not including The Statistical Account of Scotland, the first volumes of which appeared in 1791. Most of the Ayrshire accounts were available to Fullarton, as may be seen from the Statistical Summary which he abstracted from them. During the intervening years much had been achieved: "there is no country in Europe, where men, possessing property in land, have so generally applied their skill and capital, to the encouragement of husbandry, and the introduction of new modes of cultivation." Most of the principle roads had been turnpiked, and were suitable for carts and carriages. And there were new industries: in particular, the tarworks and ironworks at Muirkirk, and the cotton mills at Catrine, and new houses built to accommodate the workers.

If there were achievements to be trumpeted, there were also alarms to be raised. Subsistence peasants may have gone from the fermtouns, but in their place were workers in villages and towns, all too ready to absorb radical notions. The horrors of the French Revolution were an ever–present warning of the danger of complacency: "the signal calamities, accumulated on the landed proprietors of a neighbouring and distracted nation," though these could be happily ascribed to the French landowners’ neglect of their estates and the consequent distress of the peasantry. Higher rents were the reward of improvement for the landowner; there had to be a sufficient share of the produce for the tenant farmer to improve his condition. Landowners owed "their first duties and attentions to their tenants and estates."

"Don’t neglect horse–howing if you love Scotland." What better captures the spirit of patriotism that attached to improvement than this advice, the postscript in a letter written by Alexander Montgomerie, 10th Earl of Eglinton, to his brother Archibald? Alexander was about to fight a duel. With a real fear for his life, he asked his brother to honour his memory and "to execute … what I should have done if I had time."

In annotating this book, the intention has been to provide brief explanations of what may be unfamiliar, and to suggest possibilities for further reading. The editor wishes to acknowledge the very considerable contribution, which Rob Close made to this task, as also the many notes from Bill Layhe, whose experience is particularly relevant to the subject matter. There was also an invaluable contribution from Alastair Hendry, who translated Fullarton’s many Latin quotations. He has corrected the references given by Fullarton, which were often misleading or incorrect. He has identified sources where Fullarton did not provide them, and in these instances the information is given after the translations. Rob Close applied his patient and painstaking proof–reading talents to the entire text. Any remaining errors, typographical or of fact, are the editor’s.

The transcriptions were made from the original texts. Wight’s Present State of Husbandry was consulted in Glasgow University Library and Fullarton’s General View of the Agriculture of the County of Ayr in the Scottish and Local History Library, Carnegie Library, Ayr (South Ayrshire Libraries). The editor acknowledges with thanks the assistance of the staff of both institutions.

The footnotes of the original authors are identified by o.f. and Original footnote. In the case of Fullarton, whose footnotes were many and in some cases long, they have been inserted into the body of the text, indented and identified as above. The subheadings in the transcription of Wight’s work have been inserted by the editor; in the case of Fullarton they are his own.

The spelling of the original authors has been retained, except in the case of obvious typographical errors, which have been corrected. Two changes, however, were made to conform to modern typography and practice: the old long s, similar to f, has been replaced by s; and £, s and d have been used throughout for sums of money.

Finally, acknowledgement is made of one of the society’s own publications, from which the "Directory of Ayrshire" and the "Gazetteer of Ayrshire", both 1750–1800, provided information about the individual landowners and estates mentioned in the text: Strawhorn, John, ed., Ayrshire at the Time of Burns, Ayr, 1959; generally abbreviated ATB. This was Vol. 5 in Ayrshire Collections (AANHS).

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