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April 23rd 1794

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A farming manual for the 18th Century

At the end of the 18th Century the Board of Agriculture in London published a series of volumes under the overall title of ‘A General View of Agriculture.’ One was published for ‘The southern Districts of the County of Perth.’ It gives a comprehensive description of the state of farming in the area. It was a time of Agricultural Improvement, a time of optimism and with the French Revolution leading to war with Britain a patriotic (and profitable) duty to raise more food. “Apply your wealth to cultivate your own soil, that it may produce the greatest subsistence for man.” 

The old days of small farms was passing. “It must occur to every person who travels through the County and is at any pains to make observation, that where the farms are large the tenantry live better, clothe better and are more comfortable in every respect than where they are small… About half a century ago the farmer went on foot to market; now he rides properly accoutred in every point; formally he ate his food off his knee and it consisted of meal, vegetable or milk; now his table is covered, his knife and fork are laid down before him to dine on meat; his father lay on a straw bed without curtains, he sleeps on feathers with his curtains drawn round him. Servants and labourers have advanced in the same proportion in their desire for the comforts of life. Since they are more industrious than their fathers why should they not be more comfortable? And while they are inferior to no other men in their regard to things sacred, in their dress and deportment, in their practice of the social virtues, in loyalty to their Sovereign, submission to the laws and love of order, long may they enjoy the well earned fruits of their industry.” 

This very handsome tribute to the farmer and his workers was no doubt genuine but it was also indicative of the fears that agricultural improvement might denude the countryside of that reservoir of manpower needed for the defence of the nation. This was a time when emigration was both feared and frowned upon and the problem is discussed at some length in the Report.

“To prevent emigration two things seem to be necessary. First, to provide food for the people and second to provide accommodation for them. The quantity of the food will no doubt be increased under the auspices of the Board. But, considering the situation of the Highlands of Scotland, unless villages under wise regulations be increased in number and size, and hired servants kept in the arable farms, the evil is only half removed; whereas, if maintenance, employment and lodging be provided for the people their attachment to their soil will do the rest…There is more humanity in rendering mankind happy and comfortable than in driving them from their native home to wander they know not where… and surely there is more patriotism in contributing to keep the people in their own country, to fight our battles in time of need than to chase away the natural guardians of our privileges and independence, to seek an asylum on a foreign shore.” 

The creation of new villages and expansion of existing ones is a recurrent theme in the Report. “Several people still alive, remember Callender particularly, when it consisted of four families amounting in all to about twenty souls. There are now at least a thousand souls and the number is rapidly increasing. Comrie is nearly in the same predicament, besides Crieff and others. New villages are planned where there never were any before.” 

The Report invites comments on the proposals for agricultural improvement but the general advice given would not be too out of place today. Rotation of crops, improvements in breeds of cattle and sheep, the benefits of potatoes and turnips and the useful effects of liming. (Though it was not realised that the main benefits of liming lay in correcting the acidity of the soil.) There is good advice on draining, the use of threshing machines (operated by horse or water), the necessity for more roads and the benefits of afforestation.

As a farming manual for the times it is a credit to the author or authors and highlights the immense advances that had been made in agriculture in the last half of the 18th Century.

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