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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

V. Improvement

30. The Best Way to Improve, 1807

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1Henry Home, Lord Kames (see introduction to text 21) was also interested in agriculture: he introduced modern methods of cultivation and land reclamation in his estate of Blair Drummond and wrote several books on agriculture including Progress of Flax Husbandry in 1765 and The Gentleman Farmer in 1776.

2Alexander Fraser Tytler Woodhouselee, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Honourable Henry Home of Kames: One of the Senators of the College of Justice, and One of the Lords Commissioners of Justiciary in Scotland Containing Sketches of the Progress of Literature and General Improvement in Scotland During the Greater Part of the Eighteenth Century (1807) vol. 2, Edinburgh: A. Neill and Co., 1814, p. 225-240.

It has been already remarked, that among those objects of general utility to which the patriotic mind of Lord Kames was more particularly directed, there was none which occupied a greater share of his attention than the improvement of the agriculture of his native country.

When we look back to the state of Scotland about a century ago, and observe the extraordinary opinions entertained at that time even by men of the most enlightened understanding, with respect to fundamental principles of rural economy, we shall cease to wonder at the slow progress of agriculture, which not only found its usual obstacles in the natural indolence and prejudices of the peasantry, but in the erroneous ideas of the landholders with regard to their substantial interest.

In the period to which I allude, Andrew Fletcher of Salton, a man of an ardent and virtuous mind, and of a truly patriotic spirit, has drawn a picture of the state of Scotland, which, if it did not find its evidence both in the historical records, and in the laws of the country, would at this day pass for the fiction of a diseased imagination. He speaks of a fifth part of the population of Scotland as in the state of actual mendicants, begging alms from door to door, and of these a great proportion dying yearly from absolute want: of a hundred thousand gipsies, of vagabonds, living without regard to any laws human or divine, and seeking their subsistence by violence, rapine and murder; of one-half of the land-property of the kingdom, “possessed by a people who are all gentlemen, only because they will not work; and who in every thing are more contemptible than the vilest slaves, except that they always carry arms, because for the most part they live upon robbery”: And after the mention of these known facts, amid the assumption of a political principle sounded in the truest wisdom, “That numbers of people being great riches, every government is to blame that makes not a right use of them,” he proceeds to propose the remedies for those diseases. Of the first method of cure, which is nothing less than the introduction of Slavery under the sole restriction, that the master shall have no power to put to death, mutilate or torture his slaves, I forbear to enter into any discussion: it is enough to say, that it affords a striking picture of the actual condition of a people, when such a change could be proposed as a remedy of evils.

The second reform recommended by the patriotic Fletcher, is more pertinent to the present object of consideration; as it affords an useful lesson of caution in regard to the admission of general principles in political economy. It was his idea that the principal cause of the poverty and misery of the people of Scotland was, the high rent of lands; “the letting our farms at so excessive a rate, as makes the tenant poorer even than his servants, whose wages he cannot pay, and involves in the same misery day-labourers, tradesmen, and the lesser merchants, who live in the country villages and towns; and thereby influences no less the great towns and whole-sale merchants, makes the master have a troublesome and ill-paid rent; his lands not improved by inclosure or otherwise but, for want of horses and oxen fit for labour, every where run out and abused.” And, as no direct remedy could be easily applied to the correction of this supposed abuse, he proposed, in the first place, to prohibit by law the taking of any interest for money; which would oblige the rich to employ their wealth either in agricultural improvements, or in commerce and manufactures; and, secondly, he recommended some chimerical regulations, to the effect of gradually abolishing the leasing of farms, equalizing land-property, and making every man the actual cultivator of his own estate.

Experience has at length evinced the fundamental error of all these speculations, and demonstrated, that the poverty of Scotland was to be remedied, and the indolence of the lower classes of the people corrected, by means directly the reverse of those which this political writer has proposed: But this experience was very slow in its operation, as every change sound obstacles both in the habits of the people, and in some respects even in the condition and tenure of landed property. A very great proportion of the lands in Scotland being fit only for the purposes of pasture, was possessed in common by the vassals and tenants of many adjoining proprietors; while, at the same time, the arable lands, even in the best parts of the country, were occupied by a number of small tenants, who, instead of cultivating separate farms, divided either by fences or known land-marks, shared the ground among them by alternate ridges; a practice incompatible with good agriculture, and which rendered it impossible to improve the land by planting and inclosing […] It was only the operation of wiser and better notions of agriculture, gradually taking place from the increasing tranquillity of the country, and, the consequent decay of the ancient feudal habits, that at length abolished those hurtful usages.

The inclosing of waste lands for pasture was first practised in the district of Galloway, (Kirkcudbright-shire), about the year 1720, by the great cattle-dealers, who bought and pastured live stock, which they drove to the English market. The continual intercourse of these dealers with England, made them acquainted with various modes of husbandry, which they successfully introduced at home on the land-estates which their wealth enabled them to purchase. The example was imitated by a few spirited and opulent landholders in different parts of the country. Among these, the Earl of Haddington, and John Cockburn of Ormiston in East-Lothian; Mr Hope of Rankeilor in Fife; the Earls of Stair and Eglintoun in Ayrshire; Mr Craik of Arbigland in Kirkcudbrightshire; and the last Duke of Perth in Stratherne, deserve to be particularly mentioned, as zealous and successful promoters of the English husbandry upon their estates. These noblemen and gentlemen formed, in 1723, the plan of a Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture which, in a short time, comprehended three hundred of the principal landholders in Scotland; and this institution, subsisting in vigour for above twenty years, diffused the spirit of improvement over a considerable part of the kingdom.

The Rebellion in 1745 brought a great recompence for the temporary evils that attended it, in the many valuable improvements to which it gave rise in Scotland. Among these, the opening of the country by highways, the first step to all advancement in agriculture, and the primary engine of civilization; the suppression of the heritable jurisdictions; the abolition of the personal services of the peasantry, which kept them in the most abject dependance, and repressed all ingenuous exertions to improve their condition, were great and permanent benefits. Nor is it to be denied, that, in a few instances, even the forfeiture of many of the great estates, and their temporary annexation to the Crown, while it tended more effectually than any other means that could be employed to break the feudal bondage, was the immediate introduction to a better system of husbandry, and the cause of many material improvements in the state of the country.

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