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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

V. Improvement

V. Improvement

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1The term Improvement, which is generally used to designate the modernization of agriculture and farming practice that took place between the first decades of the eighteenth century and the 1850s, has to be understood within the context of the Scottish Enlightenment, a period which saw significant developments in industry, technology, social sciences and culture. The improving landlords (all the earliest improvers were landowners) thought it necessary to introduce fundamental changes to the existing farming practices.

  • 1 Devine, Nation, op. cit., p. 144.

2Improvement became an obsession for the landed elite: “What was new was good; the old was bad. This gave the Improvers a robust moral and intellectual confidence as they vigorously went about the crusade of thoroughgoing agrarian reformation.”1 Lands had to be drained and enclosed, new crops had to be planted, new roads and dykes had to be built, a more scientific approach for livestock breeding had to be taken. Many landowners constructed new villages to accommodate the small tenants who had to leave their lands because of the reorganization of estates. Among the leading practitioners of improvement were Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, John Cockburn of Ormiston, Lord Kames and Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk.

  • 2 The term runrig designates a system of arable farming where the land was worked by ploughing it in (...)

3Agricultural societies played a fundamental role in transmitting information about new techniques and new machines. The Honourable Society of Improvers, founded in 1723, included dukes and peers, judges, professors and landlords, all interested in the new techniques of agriculture. Even the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Patrick Lindesay, published in 1733 a book called The Interests of Scotland, in which he denounced archaic and primitive agricultural methods: the system of runrig2 was seen as a major obstacle by most improving enthusiasts. The Board of Trustees and for Fisheries and Manufactures, established by Parliament in 1727, offered bounties or subsidies to the best improving farmers or landlords. The Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, established in Edinburgh in 1784 as the Highland Society of Edinburgh, aimed at building towns and villages, facilitating communications by roads and bridges and at preserving the language, poetry and music of the Highlands. The Society offered rewards for the best contributions to improvement:

  • 3 Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, Prize-Essays and Transactions of the Highland and A (...)

Premiums have also been offered: —For Experiments in the Feeding of Stock, viz. the feeding of horses on raw and on prepared food; on the employment of substances, other than the common produce of the farm, in the feeding of live stock […] for information founded on experiments on the comparative nutritive properties of the different varieties of the Turnip, and how far these are influenced by the nature of the soil and season; for information as to the best mode of preserving Potatoes in good condition in their natural state for a period of not less than ten months from the time of their being taken up; and for information on the nature and causes of the injury or disease which occasioned a partial failure in the Potato Crop during the two last seasons.3

4In order to persuade the Highland peasantry to follow their example, the improving lairds offered long and secure leases to those who accepted to undertake the new husbandry. Some landlords threatened to evict the peasants who refused to change their habits. Many landowners became improvers not necessarily to increase the wealth of their properties but to imitate the type of life that was led by affluent Englishmen. Ramsay of Ochtertyre described the first Stirlingshire improvers as:

  • 4 Quoted in T.C. Smout, op. cit., p. 277.

Full of money and of course under no obligation of attending to immediate gain (yet) if their expenses sometimes far exceeded their returns, they were morally certain in the long-run they would be well paid for their improvements. Amusement and the reputation of being good farmers were in truth the great motives.4

5By the end of the eighteenth century landowners were becoming conscious that these new techniques could increase their profits. They gradually deserted their traditional patriarchal role; tenants who could not pay the rents had to leave the farms their predecessors had enjoyed for generations and make way for strangers from other counties. Here is what Samuel Robinson wrote about the sale of the estate of Baldoon to the Earls of Galloway in 1787:

  • 5 Ibid., p. 290.

Rents were offered that never had been dreamed of by a Galloway farmer… men of energy and capital came on to the field, and a great change passed over the spirit of people’s dreams generally. The old clumsy wooden plough became a thing of the past, iron ones were substituted with machinery ‘of a’ dimensions, shapes, and metals’ for clearing and pulverising the soil; draining and fencing went on with an energy truly surprising.5

  • 6 The Northern Ensign, 8 March 1855.

6Improvement cannot be dissociated from the clearances, the widespread displacements of population that took place in the Highlands in the course of the nineteenth century. Critics of the clearances contended that the word improvement was nothing but a semantic ploy aimed at masking the comprehensive attack that had been levelled against the traditional Highland way of life. This is for example what the Northern Ensign of Wick wrote in the 1850s: “What a prostitution of the word ‘improvement’ in clearing the country of its people!”6.


1 Devine, Nation, op. cit., p. 144.

2 The term runrig designates a system of arable farming where the land was worked by ploughing it into a series of ‘rigs’ (or ridges) and furrows; on the rigs the crops were grown, while the furrows served as ditches to drain off surface water.

3 Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, Prize-Essays and Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, volume 5, Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1737, p. 1-2.

4 Quoted in T.C. Smout, op. cit., p. 277.

5 Ibid., p. 290.

6 The Northern Ensign, 8 March 1855.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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