The Scottish Clearances Part Three: Lowland Theory
The subtitle of Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell’s book on the Lowland Clearances is ‘Scotland’s Silent Revolution-1760 to 1830. But if the first clearances began in Galloway in the 1720s, why was the main phase of clearance delayed for forty years?
Part of the reason is that the main Lowland Clearances took place in arable farming areas and were almost a side-effect of attempts to boost production of oats, barley and wheat. In Galloway and later the Highlands, the clearances were a direct effect of replacing people with cattle and sheep. The new style of livestock farming only needed a few cowherds and shepherds, but the new style of arable farming still needed at least some farm labourers.
The market for Galloway cattle in the 1720s was England, but at that time there was no equivalent English demand for Scottish oats. As Dr Johnson noted in his Dictionary (1755) ‘Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’ The traditional (medieval) system of arable farming produced just enough grain to feed the farmers and their workforce, pay the landowners the rent and leave enough to sow to produce the next year’s crop. As an old Scots saying put it ‘Ane to saw, and ane to gnaw, and ane to pay the Laird witha’.
In a good harvest year, this system could produce a surplus of grain, but this was balanced out by bad harvest years when hunger compelled people to start eating the seed corn, which reduced the next year’s crop. This vicious cycle acted as a limit on Scotland’s population growth. Another effect was to limit the growth of Scotland’s urban population since they depended on buying rather than producing their own food. Periodic harvest failures pushed the cost of their food up and a major harvest failure risked cutting it off altogether.
After the failure of the Darien Scheme, many influential Scots landowners and merchants became persuaded that the Union with England would stimulate the Scottish economy so it could break out of this vicious cycle. But it soon became obvious that the Union was not delivering on this hope. Scots would somehow have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. This led to the foundation in 1723 of the ‘Honourable Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture’. As its title suggests the Honourable Society’s main aim was to modernise Scottish farming. However it also planned to develop the Scottish linen industry. This was achieved in 1727 with the establishment of the ’Board of Trustees for Improvement in Manufactures’ which the Society of Improvers helped set up.
The Society’s attempts to modernise Scottish framing were less immediately successful. Robert Maxwell of Arkland in Galloway was the Society’s Secretary. In 1723 Maxwell had taken a 19 year lease of Cliftonhall farm near Edinburgh and set about trying to improve it. He succeeded in increasing crop production, but bankrupted himself in the process. He inherited Arkland in1745 but to cover his debts was forced to sell the farm in 1749 for £ 10 304 Scots (£857 sterling). Another leading member of the Society of Improvers, John Cockburn of Ormiston was also ruined by improvement and had to sell his estate to the earl of Hopetoun.
The difficulty these early improvers faced was that levelling the medieval raised rigs, enclosing the fields with new dykes and hedges, cutting drains and fertilising the new fields with lime was an expensive and labour intensive process. Once the new system was in place, labour costs could be cut by clearing the cottars from the land and re-employing a few as day labourers, but so long as demand and hence the price of grain remained static there was little profit to be made from their expensive improvements.
Although Robert Maxwell managed to produce a weighty 450 page long ‘Select Transactions of the Honourable Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in 1743, the Society faded away after 1745/6.Politics as well as economics played a part in its decline. Among its 400 members were several Jacobite landowners. These included James Steuart (1713-1780) of Coltness who was forced into exile in 1746 as a Jacobite supporter. After returning from exile in 1763, Steuart published ‘An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy’. Although overshadowed by Adam Smith’s ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ (1776), Steuart’s was the first Scottish book on political economy.
This where things started to get complicated, with a whole combination of factors overlapping and interlocking feeding in to what were to become the Lowland Clearances.
One factor is that after 50 years, the Union of 1707 had started to pay off- but only for a few Scots. To the west, the Atlantic trade in slaves, sugar and tobacco made some merchants, especially in Glasgow, very, very rich. To the east, other Scots were able to make huge fortunes in India. But although they were now very rich, these merchants lacked an essential requirement if they were to become ‘gentlemen’. They were not landowners and so could not become part of ‘society’.
To raise their social standing, the newly rich elite had to buy land, the more the better. At the same time, as Henry Home /lord Kames made clear in his book ‘The Gentleman Farmer’ (1776), as landowners the new Scottish elite had a moral and patriotic duty to increase the wealth and strength of the nation by improving their new lands.
Another factor which came into play had its origins in Adam Smith’s theory of economic and social development. Smith, along with Kames and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers believed that there were four historical stages of social and economic development. The first was the hunting stage, the second the pasturage or livestock farming stage, the third the arable farming stage and the fourth the commerce or merchant trading stage.
Critically, Smith believed that while England and France had reached this the fourth stage, Scotland wasn’t there yet. Scotland was still in the process of transition from the second to the third stages of development. To reach the fourth stage, Scotland would have to increase the surplus produced by its arable farms so that towns manufacturing goods for trade could be developed. This is the gist of this quote from ‘Wealth of Nations’
As subsistence is, in the nature of things, prior to conveniency and luxury, so the industry which procures the former, must necessarily be prior to that which ministers to the latter. The cultivation and improvement of the country, therefore, which affords subsistence, must, necessarily, be prior to the increase of the town, which furnishes only the means of conveniency and luxury. It is the surplus produce of the country only, or what is over and above the maintenance of the cultivators, that constitutes the subsistence of the town, which can therefore increase only with the increase of this surplus produce. [Smith, Wealth of Nations, Vol 1, page 402]
Between 1764 and 1766, Adam Smith was tutor to Henry Scott, 3rd duke of Buccleuch. As one of Scotland’s largest and wealthiest landowners, Scott’s step-father had expected him to live in London and become a British politician. But under Smith’s influence, Scott decided to live in Scotland and start improving his lands.
A final factor which influenced the Lowland Clearances can be traced back to the Society of Improvers and their promotion of the Board of Trustees for Improvement of Manufactures. In 1728, the Scottish linen industry produced 2.2 million yards of finished cloth. Supported and encouraged by the Board of Trustees, by 1768 this had risen to 11.8 million yards and by 1798 output reached 21.3 million yards. Although output then declined, this was partly due to the rapid rise of the Scottish cotton industry after 1780.
In 1780 there were 25 000 linen hand-loom weavers in Scotland. By 1800 there were 58 000 cotton and linen hand-loom weavers. These weavers and other textile workers needed to be fed. So did the population of Glasgow. Between 1700 and 1750, Glasgow’s population only grew by 10 000, but in the next 50 years it grew by 54 000.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, there was little reward for any landowner or their tenants for improving the land. In the second half of the century there was, as demand for food grew and prices increased.
What drove the Lowland Clearances from the 1760s onwards then, was this combination of new super-rich landowners able to afford to improve their lands, an Enlightened economic theory which called for improvement and, most importantly, the prospect of financial reward which encouraged even the most cautious and conservative of landowners to get involved.
If you have enjoyed reading this, please tell Birlinn that you want to buy ‘The Lowland Clearances’
and sign and share our Petition to get the book reprinted.