Belhaven, a Toady and King Billy the Orange: a saunter through the agricultural revolution

Some Early Scottish Agricultural writers 

Lord Belhaven’s pamphlet, The Country Man’s Rudiments, or An Advice to the Farmers of East Lothian how to labour and manure their grounds (1699) must be in with a shout for longest title ever. This so embarrassed Belhaven he published it anonymously.

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But let us start with another famous name.

Sir Archibald Napier is mostly known for his associations: his father was the illustrious mathematician, physicist and astronomer, John Napier, who invented logarithms and an early calculator known as Napier’s bones; his wife, Margaret Graham, was a sister of James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose – the Covenanter leader who turned. Archibald himself was a judge and politician at the time of the Union of Crowns and he was among the coterie who accompanied James VI to England to be crowned king of England and Ireland.  

The Napiers’ estate was Merchiston at Edinburgh and Archibald thought he understood enough about agriculture to offer advice to others in the shape of an early publication on husbandry. Essentially his message was to dose cultivated land with common salt. It is not clear why he came to this view and it is doubtful anyone who worked the land would be persuaded to try this out but it did impress King James VI. Now I know little about James other than he was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and went on to become king in England and Ireland as well as Scotland at which point he was demoted from VI to I, oh, and that he was too lazy to get off his horse to take a pee. But so impressed was he with Archie he awarded him a 21-year patent to liberally sprinkle salt from one end of Scotland to the other.   

Scottish agriculture is not what it used to be, and if Napier’s practice is anything to go by then it’s just as well. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries life was mostly lived locally, apart from men called away to fight to defend someone’s else’s argument, and food was what you produced within your communities. Nowadays much less importance is placed upon agriculture within Britain – far less than elsewhere in Europe. That said there are parts of Scotland where agriculture still dominates the landscape and is vital to local and national economies: Aberdeenshire, Galloway and Orkney for example.

Back in Napier’s time there were the beginnings of agricultural ‘improvements’. Improvements is a loaded term I know which benefit some and are detrimental to others. Scotland adapted more slowly to new methods of farming than England and parts of the Continent but once she caught up Scottish improvers transformed how land was worked, how it looked and the relationship of rural dwellers with it; some of the best agricultural innovators in Britain coming from this part of the country.

Scotland, as we know, is hugely varied when it comes to how land is owned and worked with major differences between the Lowlands and the Highlands; partly as a consequence of the terrain and partly from the inheritance of the organisation of land where Highland estates were changed irrevocably following the Jacobite Risings of the 18th century when land confiscation was rife and and clan relationships destroyed.  

Times were transforming in other ways with the industrialisation of Britain establishing new ways of living; becoming dependent of earning a wage to buy food instead of growing it being one obvious change.

And for those who didn’t move to town to find work in one of the new manufactories how they engaged with the land altered, how they were housed, how they were paid as well as what was grown on the land.    

The number of printed works promoting new methods of farming increased from the 16th century, at first often written by owners of land, such as Napier, but in successive centuries others developed the confidence to air their opinions.   

An early writer was Thomas Tusser who gave us Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie in 1599. I would have thought one hundred ideas might have sufficed to get farming off to quite a good start and, well, five hundred seems a little excessive. Given there are only 365 days in the average year it would take a farmer one whole year to get through a mere 73%  of his suggestions, assuming he or she was adopting one per day, by which time it would be time to start back at number 1.  

Few Scottish farmers fell for his multiplicity of advice but Tusser proved a bit of a hit in England’s shires and his book went on to become a best-seller in South Britain. Tusser is also remembered (or Googleable) for coining the adage: A fool and his money are soon parted – whether that was a comment on those who bought his book or not we can only imagine.

Proving far more popular back in Bonnie Scotland was advice from John Reid, a gardener to Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, by Avoch (for all you non-Gaelic types Avoch is pronounced Och). Reid’s book admittedly was on gardening but he included observations and suggestions on growing crops so its inclusion it justified. Reid’s book became so popular it was reprinted in many editions following the initial 1683 print-run.

Just squeezing into my list is a guide by anonymous from Aberdeen who in 1684 published a directory of annual fairs and weekly markets (faires and weekly mercats) across Scotland – and I wish I had a copy of it.  

A trickle of advice grew into a veritable torrent of publications, each offering instructions on everything from the best way to feed the infield -as much manure as can be fitted onto a muckle graip seems to sum that up – to using the outfield to grow flax and hemp which was essential for homespun fabrics and later for commercial textile production  (I have an ancient mortcloth spun from home-grown Black Isle flax and home woven by my greeeeeaaaatttt-something Granny -obviously surplus to requirements).  Of developing importance in this world where eating flesh was a rarity for the majority was the rearing and raising of cattle and sheep, for food, leather and wool and much else besides.

Back to manure for a moment. James Donaldson, another laird’s son, published his Husbandry Anatomised, or, an Enquiry into the present manner of Toiling and Manuring the Ground in Scotland in 1697. It was possibly written as a money-spinner for, despite being a laird’s son (or perhaps because he was the scion of a laird) James was no horny-handed toiler of the soil and his instructions were of very little use to those who were. When that sunk in and the book failed to establish his reputation, one that would do him any good, Donaldson thought he would become a merchant only to discover that trade was not what he’d imagined either so he offered himself up to the army of a King always referred to as William III – although in Scotland he was William II, running a poor second to William the Lion of the 12th/13th centuries – and he never gets demoted, unlike James the pee-er. Anyway, William was king of just about everywhere as well as oranges and lemons and he was evidently tight because he didn’t pay Donaldson who eventually said sod this and made off, followed by his considerable debts and his creditors.

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Just think about this for a moment. King Billy II and III was forgetful about paying his soldiers, certainly Donaldson who ended up owing money to folk who provided him with food and other stuff and was therefore in debt. Donaldson’s debt came about, partly because he wrote a bad book on agriculture but also because King Billy didn’t pay him. Yet no-one hounded King Billy the Freeloader for not paying his debts, they were only interested in pursuing Donaldson (and other Donaldsons). Debts, you see, become less of a crime the greater your status.

Don’t feel too much pity for Donaldson just yet. When he returned from abroad he penned another book on farming based on what he observed on his travels across the Continent and nauseatingly dedicated this publication to the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, Patrick, Earl of Marchmont and ‘the whole Remnant Lords of His Majesties most Honourable Privy Council.’

His gross toadying made no difference. The book, as they say, bombed … as did his poetry… but that’s another story. However it would be wrong to dismiss his work entirely for Donaldson did strongly advise manuring the infield – the one-third of land nearest the house that was best cultivated – and rotating its crops of oats, barley or bere and peas. As for the farther off ground, the outfield, he recommended resting fifty percent of it for two consecutive years to recover from cultivating oats on its less enriched soil.  

Other helpful ideas Donaldson discovered abroad included providing shelter for beasts (now often lacking in Scotland with wire fences replacing stone dykes) during bad weather and enriching the land with marl, seaweed (sea-ware) and lime as well as promoting the planting of the new vegetable called potatoes and specialist grasses and clover for grazing and replenishing exhausted soil.

And good lad that he was, he criticised the Scottish habit of weaning lambs at around four week so farmers could get more milk from ewes for cheese-making, and which he claimed led to high numbers of deaths among lambs. Donaldson was spot-on too in criticising short leases for tenant farmers who then had no incentive to improve their fields as any improvements they made would be enjoyed by the next tenant in line.

I haven’t forgotten about Belhaven, it’s a name that lives on, if for different reasons.

Belhaven had, as a member of the Scottish Privy Council (this is before all that Union malarkey) had been one of a group of prominent men who asked King William the Orange to run Scotland and he joined the Orange King’s army but it appears any time was too long in the company of the old fruit and Belhaven became ‘a passionate opponent of the Union’ who could see where that small clique of prominent Scotsmen, the Squadrone Volante, who forced through the Union against popular opinion were leading their country – to obscurity and foreign taxation. Such was his passion, they (the new Great British state) arrested him for expressing his opposition to the Union and hauled him off to London where he was treated so abominably, it’s said under pressure from members of the Privy Council, that he died in July 1708 aged 51.

His legacy was a powerful, if futile stand, in defence of Scotland’s continuing independence and a successful book on husbandry which went into several editions. He reiterated the need for land to be fed to support annual crops and advocated cultivating turnips, as animal fodder, and the potato. Belhaven was also concerned over tenant farmer poverty and debt – suggesting rents should be paid partly in kind, with grain as they were traditionally, but partly with money for as he explained a laird might take all or nearly all the crop during a bad growing season leaving the tenant and his family to starve.  

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William Mackintosh was 10 years old in 1672 when he travelled from Borlum in Inverness-shire to study at King’s College, Aberdeen’s first university. He would go on to tour the Continent and England, eventually returning to Scotland, to Alvie near Aviemore, where he took over a farm and incensed his neighbours by experimenting with enclosures – closing off pieces of land into separate fields as opposed to the traditional open areas of infield and outfield through which animals could roam and graze on growing crops. The hedges he planted to divide up his fields were ripped out and the banks he built for the same purpose were broken down by angry locals who wanted to retain old and familiar ways of farming.

At the Jacobite rising of 1715 Mackintosh, as their Brigadier-General,  raised a company of  Mackintosh clansmen  which occupied Inverness for a time before heading south by foot and sail to take Leith. From there they continued into England, rendezvousing with English Jacobites at the Border and onward to Preston. Captured, Mackintosh was taken to London and imprisoned in Newgate goal from where six-months later he and some fellow-prisoners overpowered their jailers and escaped. A £1000 bounty, something around quarter of a million pounds today, was put on his head but Mackintosh made it to France, along with his son. Within a few years he was desperate to return to Scotland but still outlawed he was forced to keep on the move for government forces were ruthless in tracking down and silencing opposition. Mackintosh was captured in Caithness and locked up in Edinburgh Castle where he remained until his death, many years later, at the age of eighty in 1743.

But what about his book you are asking .  An Essay on the Ways and Means of Inclosing, Fallowing, Plant, &c, Scotland, and that in sixteen years at Farthest, by a Lover of His Country was published in 1729 while Mackintosh was a prisoner in Edinburgh. In it he encouraged farmers to leave some land fallow before re-sowing it and he favoured growing wheat instead of the bere which was commonly grown in Scotland for its quick growth that required only a short season to mature. He too supported cultivating flax and hemp.

 Mackintosh also supported extending tenancy leases, to 19 years in his view, to encourage better use of land and appealed for an end to tenant farmers being forced to work their laird’s fields which took them away from tending their own land. And, of course, Mackintosh promoted enclosing fields, separating stock from arable farming.

Adam Dickson, kirk minister at Whittingham, East Lothian thought he would add his penny’s worth to the farming debate and published a series of essays on the subject. His Treatise of Husbandry specified differences between farming in Scotland and elsewhere, with reference to the country’s climate and soil conditions. Dickson’s works took a more modern approach to land improvements,  more scientific than anecdotal.

Land-holding and social relationships on the land affected the development of agriculture in Scotland. The early 18th century was a period when the British state confiscated estates owned by Jacobite supporters of the ’15 and ’45. Following the 1715 Rising a commission of Scots and English was set-up to manage these properties and very quickly most of them were flogged off to a dodgy bunch of land speculators who went by the name of York Buildings Company for £411,000 and thereafter to the highest bidder. 

Mistakes were learned from that episode and following the ’45, land grabbed by the government and crown was managed entirely by Scots who were more sensitive to the complex relationships of tenants and their exiled lairds. As a result affordable rents were set, schools were built and local industries were introduced.

When, in 1784, estates were restored to some of their owners the terms were not ungenerous although the estates commissioners continued to take revenue out of these estates to fund expensive projects such as the Forth and Clyde Canal, the building of Register House in Edinburgh and a payment of £3000 to the Highland Society.

The agricultural revolution transformed food production in Scotland and as a consequence our relationship with land. Land-holding in Scotland is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century and what Scotland needs is another revolution – over the ownership of Scotland’s land.  As for professional advice to Scotland’s farmers it still comes in printed form and over the past three hundred years a myriad of farming societies, some local others national. Over the past century guidance has come through the Rowett and Macaulay Institutes in Aberdeen and the Scottish College of Agriculture, now called something else and regrettably not the institution it was once but indicative of the reduced importance of agriculture in Scotland.

2 Comments to “Belhaven, a Toady and King Billy the Orange: a saunter through the agricultural revolution”

  1. A fascinating jaunt through literature giving advice on agriculture. The Borders, which you don’t mention, is another area where agriculture remains important, as is shooting and fishing. So plenty squeals about the Scottish government’s Mugabee-type land grabs. I suspect land reform will be a slow business, carried out a little at a time, otherwise opposition will quash it or delay it for decades.

    • It was a rather unstructured ramble more than saunter and yes you are right about the Borders. I, too, think land reform will be slow in coming for I don’t detect much enthusiasm politically for shaking things up to radically at present. As with the issue of the House of Lords land reform has been debated at being necessary for over a century – and counting.

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