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Scotland and Its First American Colony, 1683-1765
By Ned C. Landsman
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
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The Structure of Scottish Communities
The first Town we come to is as perfectly Scots as if you were 100 miles North of Edinburgh; nor is there the least appearance of anything English, either in Customs, Habits, Usages of the People, or in their Way of Living, Eating, Dress or Behaviour, any more than if they had never heard of an English Nation.
Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.
To the English visitor who ventured north of the border to Scotland at almost any time before the middle of the eighteenth century, the way of life of his Scottish neighbors seemed strikingly different from the ways of his countrymen back home. Nearly every visitor who recorded his impressions noticed immediately the barrenness of the land, the primitive state of agriculture, the unvarying crops of oats and barley, and the lack of trees and enclosures. For eight miles after entering Scotland, Defoe wrote, "you see hardly a Hedge or a Tree ... nor do you meet with but one House in all the Way." John Ray observed "little or no fallow grounds in Scotland ... [and] rarely wheat or rye." Whatever the outlook of the observers, they seemed to share some common perceptions about the state of rural society. Thus John Macky, normally a favorable reporter, wrote that "there is neither Hedge nor Ditch by the Road's side, as in England , but wherever you see a Body of Trees, there is certainly a Laird's House." Compare that with John Love-day's caustic recording: "We pass'd over the Esk-Water, and so came into Scotland, as the houses would easily have convinced us, being-some of 'em-mud cots cover'd with Turf."
The houses of the commonfolk — "straggling farmhouses," in Defoe's words — and the poverty of the people, were frequent objects of attention. Much of the English countryside had been rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but apparently no such "housing revolution" had occurred in Scotland. "The ordinary country houses are pitiful cots," wrote John Ray, "built of stone and covered with turves, having in them but one room, many of them no chimneys." Thomas Kirke's first observation was "a miserable poor village called Lamerton ... in the best cottage herein (which was a miserable mean one) lived the Laird of Lamerton." Thomas Morer described "vulgar houses ... low and feeble ... it does not cost much more to erect such a cottage than to pull it down." All of those observations described the eastern counties of Scotland; worse by far were the western Borders, "one of the coarsest parts of Scotland," according to John Macky. "[H]ere I must confess I could not but look with Grief and Concern upon the Country, and indeed upon the People," wrote Defoe. "The common People all over the Country not only are poor, but look poor."
It was not only the habitat of the people that seemed strange to visitors, but their habits. John Macky, on his very first stop in Scotland, noted that "even the Manners, Dress, and Countenance of the People, differ very much from the English. ... There is nothing of the Gaiety of the English, but a sedate Gravity in every Face." The odd clothing of the Scots was also frequently mentioned. "a partly coloured blanket which they call a plad, [worn] over their heads and shoulders," as John Ray described it. "They lay out most they are worth in cloaks," he continued, "and a fellow that hath scarce ten groats besides to help himself with, ye shall see come out his smoaky cottage clad like a gentleman."
The society the travelers described was far different from the rural English society that is so familiar in the historical literature. Part of the difference was due to a simple backwardness in Scottish society, as Daniel Defoe argued, but this alone cannot explain all that was distinctive. The Scottish society from which so many New World settlers derived differed from that of rural England both in the state of its economy and the structure of its society, which was organized into different units and along different social lines from that of its southern neighbor. Such distinctions were fundamental to virtually every aspect of Scottish social life.
Of all the differences between Scotland and England noted by the travelers, none was more striking than the absence in Scotland of the familiar English pattern of village organization. Scotland had no villages comparable in style or in scale to the open-field, nucleated villages of the English Midlands, which have been the objects of so much historical attention. Nor did the Scottish countryside resemble the other well-known English pattern, that of the enclosed farming communities that prevailed in Kent and East Anglia, and that came to predominate in colonial America. The prosperous enclosed fields of England's Southeast represented the most advanced agricultural areas of Britain, a description hardly appropriate to Scotland. While those areas were noted for their yeoman farmers and neatly fenced farms, observers described the eighteenth-century Scottish countryside as "awkwardly divided and ill fenced," with a "wide tract of open muir" surrounding every farm.
Lacking villages or enclosed farms, the landscape of the Scottish countryside most closely resembled that of the least familiar of England's field systems, the unenclosed West Country landscape of small hamlets or, as they were called in Scotland, "farmtouns." Scottish farmtouns, sometimes called simply "touns," contained small clusters of houses grouped together. They ranged in size from two to perhaps fifteen households; one historian has put the average number of houses per toun at six to eight. Most parishes contained a dozen touns or more. Thus farmtouns were far smaller than English villages, the slightest of which would have contained close to fifty houses. Hamlets of such small size could be found not only in Scotland and western England but in parts of the north of England, Wales, and Ireland also and can be considered a common feature of much of the outlying territory of Great Britain.
While farmtouns differed from villages in scale, they differed from enclosed farms in structure. These were no isolated farmsteads. Instead, small groups of families worked the farmtouns, and they often divided the lands into long, narrow strips called "rigs" or "ridges." This "runrig" system frequently required a considerable amount of cooperative work; interspersed holdings required joint decisions about planting and harvesting and even the pooling of animals to pull the bulky Scots plow. In this respect many touns bore a closer resemblance to open-field villages than to enclosed farms, albeit on a far smaller scale.
The method of cultivation on the farmtoun was the primitive "infield-outfield" system. Near the farmhouses lay the "infield," the most intensively cultivated section of the farm, where Scottish husbandmen raised "here" (a form of barley) and oats. Farmers concentrated all of the manure produced by farm animals in this area. Beyond the infield lay the "outfield," which was left for pasture and the less intensive cultivation of oats. Scotsmen rarely employed a fallowing procedure on their farms; instead, they plowed their fields successively until the soil was exhausted, after which they would pick a new infield area within the farm.
Primitive agricultural methods led to poverty for the Scottish people, a fact noted by almost all of Scotland's visitors. Few families lived in anything better than small cottages, most of which required no more than a day to put up or tear down; indeed, it was a common practice among the tenants in many areas when they moved from a farm to take their houses with them. When one eighteenth-century landlord decided to improve the appearance of his estate, he ordered that all of the cottages be torn down and removed to the dung-hill.
Of course, not everyone in Scotland lived in such shabby conditions; travelers to Scotland were as suprised by the disparities in wealth as they were by the poverty. Scattered throughout the countryside, not far removed from the cottages, lay an abundance of fine gentlemen's seats, many of which the visitors described in glowing terms. Defoe, for example, described Hamilton Palace as a place "well planted with trees. ... well stock'd with Deer. ... and very noble, and fit ... for the Court of a Prince ...," and he found gentlemen's houses near Edinburgh to be "distinguished by Groves and Walks and Firr-Trees." Yet the surrounding countryside left the Englishman quite unimpressed.
What the visitors observed in Scotland was an extreme stratification of wealth that was probably greater than in any other rural area of Britain. Indeed, except for parts of Southwestern Scotland, virtually the whole of the Lowland countryside belonged to wealthy landowners; there were very few small owners in Scotland, and freeholding as a status did not exist. In many areas all landed property was in the hands of as little as one or two percent of the population.
The economic stratification of the Scottish countryside was reflected in its social structure, which was probably the most hierarchical and conservative in the British Isles. At the top of the social scale were the landlords, also called "heritors" or "lairds." Their prerogatives were many and were embedded in Scottish law, based upon Roman law, which gave the landed class almost uninhibited control over their lands. The meliorating features of the English common law — common lands, common rights, copyholding, and customary tenancy — all were lacking in Scotland. Tenants held their lands only at the pleasure of the proprietors. Leases were rare and, where they existed, quite short, often lasting only a single year. Thus the authority of the landowner over his lands greatly exceeded that of his English counterpart. As Sir John Sinclair, compiler of The Statistical Account of Scotland, would write in 1814: "In no country in Europe are the rights of proprietors so well defined, and so carefully protected as in Scotland."
Below the ranks of the lairds on the social scale were individuals holding a variety of positions, including tenants, subtenants, and servants. Tenancy was an economic relationship more than a social status; a "tenant" was any farmer who held his farm directly from the landlord, either with or without a lease or "tack." The holdings of a tenant could vary greatly. Some possessed only tiny properties called "crofts," but a few held sufficient lands to take on the title of "gentleman," even where this required the payment of an additional tax.
Although we do not normally think of tenancy as an exalted position, Scottish tenants as a whole fared quite well compared to the other inhabitants of the countryside, all of whom were essentially farm laborers. A "servant" normally was a young, single person who lived in the home of a tenant, while "subtenants" more often were married with houses of their own. The function of a subtenant was much like that of a servant: he or she provided the tenant with labor and occasionally some rent in exchange for a small possession. Subtenants could be classified either as "cottars" or "grassmen"; the former were persons inhabiting small cot-houses with perhaps an acre or two of land attached, while the latter held no land at all but only grazing rights for their animals along with their tiny cots.
However insecure the positions of Scottish tenants may have been, the tenure of cottars and grassmen was even more tenuous. Subtenants held their small plots only at the pleasure of the tenants, and the authority of the tenants in that respect was every bit as arbitrary as that of the owners. Very few cottars or grassmen held leases. Thus subtenants were subjected to a system of double-jeopardy: they could be ousted by either proprietor or tenant, for eviction notices issued to tenants normally included the removal of their subtenants as well. The manner of allocating work on the estate reflected the chain of authority within the countryside. In general, rental agreements signed by Scottish tenants included not only the payment of money and produce, but services to the heritor as well. Rather than requiring that each resident of the estate work for the landlord, Scottish lairds normally allocated specific chores to the tenants, who in turn assigned the tasks to their subtenants. Thus a typical tack issued on one Scottish estate obliged the tenant to provide the heritor with one day of labor annually for every subtenant living on his farm.
The physical layout of Scottish estates reflected the hierarchy of the countryside. Off by itself but near the center in most estates lay the gentleman's house, which often was surrounded by the only hedges and trees to be found on the property. The farmtouns were scattered almost at random through the rest of the estate, and within the touns the tenants' houses were clustered together. When many cottars lived in a toun, they often set their houses away from those of the tenants, across the fields and dunghills grouped into tiny "cot-touns." Some touns housed many cottars, and the tax rolls list several hamlets that bore the name of "Cottoun," a few of which can be seen on extant seventeenth-century maps.
Unlike the villages of Midland England, the farmtoun served as the basic economic unit in the society but not as the primary social unit. The toun was simply too small, and each shared too many institutions with other touns to represent the basic unit of community life. Where in England the village itself often served as the unit of both economic and religious organization, in Scotland those functions rarely coincided, as estates and even farms often crossed parish bounds. Nor can we consider the parish as a primary unit of community, since individuals regularly moved between touns, estates, and parishes. Even communion was not a parish-centered ritual; communicants were as likely to attend the sacrament in parishes away from their residences as at home, and neighboring congregations regularly established staggered communion schedules.
While the whole of the Scottish Lowlands exhibited the essentials of a common settlement pattern, there were important regional variations in such features as the size of estates, the proportion of subtenants and servants, and the degree of social hierarchy. At one extreme, the parishes of the Northeast were dominated by exceptionally large estates; in Aberdeenshire, for example, there was an average of only about five landowners per parish. At the other extreme were southwestern parishes, where considerable numbers of smaller landowners, or "fewars," resided. In some parts of that region as many as fifty or even a hundred fewars lived in a single parish. To get a better idea of the variations in Scottish community life, we need to take a closer look at life within those two very different regions.
While most of Scotland north of the Firth of Tay is normally classified as a Highland zone, the coastal plain along the eastern shore has long been considered part of the Lowlands. The land all along the coast is low-lying and arable, in contrast to the predominantly pastoral Highland areas; travelers Defoe and Macky agreed that it was among the best farming areas they had seen in Scotland. Since the Middle Ages, the language spoken along the coastal plain had been English rather than Gaelic, another indication that it was a Lowland area.
Near the center of the Northeastern coast lay the region's cultural capital, the city of Aberdeen, a thriving port town in the latter part of the seventeenth century and long the second largest burgh in Scotland. Gentlemen from all over the Northeast frequented the town, and many made their homes there. The city served as one of Scotland's major cultural centers, boasting two universities and some important religious establishments. Inland from the city flowed two great rivers, the Dee and the Don. While the former cut through mountainous terrain, the valley of the latter was low-lying and fertile for many miles. Within the Don Valley could be found most of the great estates of the shire of Aberdeen.
For understanding the social characteristics of the Northeast of Scotland, no document is so revealing as the poll tax rolls compiled by Scottish landowners in 1696, of which only the rolls for Aberdeenshire remain from the Northeast. A poll tax was a levy on persons; every individual over the age of sixteen not on the poor rolls was assessed a six shilling tax. The tax list from Aberdeenshire gives the name of every poll, together with his or her status and residence.
Excerpted from Scotland and Its First American Colony, 1683-1765 by Ned C. Landsman. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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