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Scottish Agricultural Revolution

by Stuart Mark Howden
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Scottish Agricultural Revolution

The Scottish Agricultural Revolution was a process that changed the way Scots ate, made their wine, and grew their crops. It was the name of two major waves of changes that took place in agricultural practices in Scotland between the 16th and 19th centuries. The first wave, from the 1530s to the 1710s, included many new innovations such as spinning jute, land tracing, and crop rotation. The second wave, starting around 1815, included the process of overcoming traditional agricultural practices that saw the creation of more widespread maize, rice, and beans production. It also led to the increase in poultry farming and the decline of meat consumption as well as butter production.

Overview Of The Scottish Agricultural Revolution

Scotland’s agriculture started with the improvement of lowland farming, which became one of the most modern and productive practices in Europe after transforming into one of its least modernized systems. The transformation of the Lowlands involved the transition from a traditional farming system to one based on living ruminants (plants and animals). The first step was improving the soil by rotating the crops, and the second step was changing the diet. As a result, most plants were able to fix nitrogen at a rate of around 10-12% per year rather than the 8-10% required by most. This led to the growth of taller, and wider fruit trees.

The first agricultural revolution, around 10,000 and 2,000 BC, was a major event in human society because it led to the development of modern farming, food storage, and the beginnings of communities. It also allowed for the spread of agriculture and the beginning of an era where life would be controlled by humans from a more naturalistic perspective. It was a time of transformation that marked the end of hunter-gather society and the start of a new age in which humanity could have a portion of more food. It was during this time that the agriculture system around the globe, including in Scotland, underwent major changes.

One of the areas where there was a zeal for improvement in Scotland in the 17th Century was in the field of farming. The need to make agriculture more profitable and a sustaining venture for the local communities necessitated a shift from a traditional system to an improved system. Scottish Agricultural Revolution was a series of improvements in agricultural activities which began in the late 1600s and continued in the 1800s.


Overview Of The Scottish Agricultural Revolution

The revolution began with the improvement of the Lowland farmlands and the transformation of Scottish agriculture from traditional agriculture to one of the most modern and productive agriculture in Europe. The traditional systems had existed for hundreds of years with the land being worked by the cottars on subsistence farming. Crops were grown in the run-ring systems that were divided between communities around the farm settlement.

The term “Scottish Agricultural Revolution” was used in the 20th Century to refer to the period of dramatic agricultural change which occurred in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

History Of The Scottish Agricultural Revolution

Before the onset of the agricultural revolution in Scotland, there was little trade between different areas in the country due to the traveling difficulties arising from the Scottish terrain and poor transportation infrastructure, and a lack of modern transport technologies. Most of the farming was done on the lowland fermount where only a handful of families farmed an area that is suitable for more than three plow teams.


Plowing was formerly done with wooden plows pulled by oxen. In 1695, three acts of parliament were passed to allow consolidation of run-rings and division of common land. A society promoting agricultural improvement was formed in 1723 to spearhead the growth and development of Agriculture. Improvement continued into the 19th Century with the introduction of reaping machines, soil drainage systems, and other widespread agricultural improvements.


17th century

Before the 17th century, with difficult terrain, poor roads, and methods of transport there was little trade between different areas of the country and most settlements depended on what was produced locally, often with little in reserve in bad years. Most farming was based on the lowland fermtoun or highland baile, settlements of a handful of families that jointly farmed an area notionally suitable for two or three plough teams, allocated in run rigs, of “runs” (furrows) and “rigs” (ridges), to tenant farmers.


History Of The Scott Agricultural Revolution

Most ploughing was done with a heavy wooden plough with an iron coulter, pulled by oxen, which were more effective in the heavy Scottish soil, and cheaper to feed than horses. Those with property rights included husbandmen, lesser landholders, and free tenants. Below them were the cottars, who often shared rights to common pasture, occupied small portions of land, and participated in joint farming as hired labour. Farms also might have grassmen, who had rights only to grazing. Three acts of parliament passed in 1695 allowed the consolidation of runrigs and the division of common land.

18th century

After the union with England in 1707, there was a conscious attempt among the gentry and nobility to improve agriculture in Scotland. The Society of Improvers was founded in 1723, including in its 300 members dukes, earls, lairds, and landlords. In the first half of the century, these changes were limited to tenanted farms in East Lothian and the estates of a few enthusiasts, such as John Cockburn and Archibald Grant. Not all were successful, with Cockburn driving himself into bankruptcy, but the ethos of improvement spread among the landed classes.

The English plough was introduced along with foreign grasses, the sowing of ryegrass, and clover. Turnips and cabbages were introduced, lands enclosed and marshes drained, lime was put down, roads built and woods planted. Drilling and sowing and crop rotation were introduced.

introduction of the potato to Scotland

The introduction of the potato to Scotland in 1739 greatly improved the diet of the peasantry. Enclosures began to displace the runrig system and free pasture. There was increasing specialization, with the Lothians became a major center of the grain, Ayrshire of cattle breeding, and The Borders of sheep.

Although some estate holders improved the quality of life of their displaced workers, the Agricultural Revolution led directly to what is increasingly becoming known as the Lowland Clearances, with hundreds of thousands of cottars and tenant farmers from central and southern Scotland emigrating from the farms and smallholdings their families had occupied for hundreds of years, or adapting them to the Scottish Agricultural Revolution.

19th century

Improvement continued in the 19th century. Innovations included the first working reaping machine, developed by Patrick Bell in 1828. His rival James Smith turned to improve sub-soil drainage and developed a method of ploughing that could break up the subsoil barrier without disturbing the topsoil. Previously unworkable low-lying carse lands could now be brought into arable production and the result was the even Lowland landscape that still predominates.

While the Lowlands had seen widespread agricultural improvement, the financially broken Highland lairds took to replacing Highland agricultural practice with its own system of labour with Lowland agricultural practice plus labour in the Highland Clearances.

Revolutionary and Napoleonic War

A handful of powerful families, typified by the dukes of Argyll, Atholl, Buccleuch, and Sutherland, owned enormous sections of Scotland and had extensive influence on political affairs (certainly up to 1885). As late as 1878, 68 families owned nearly half the land in Scotland. Particularly after the end of the boom created by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1790–1815), these landlords needed cash to maintain their position in London society. They turned to money rents and downplayed the traditional patriarchal relationship that had historically sustained the clans.

One result of these changes was the Highland Clearances, in which many tenants in the Highlands were evicted as lands were enclosed, principally so that they could be used for sheep farming. The clearances followed patterns of agricultural change throughout the UK, though were notorious as a result of the introduction of Lowland farmhands or practice into Highland agricultural land or practice, plus the lack of legal protection for year-by-year tenants under Scots law, and the abruptness of the change from the traditional clan system. The result was a continuous exodus from the land—to the cities, or further afield to England, Canada, America, or Australia.

Societal Impact

The onset of the Scottish Agricultural Revolution brought about significant changes in land management. Landlords rented out their land to single-tenant farmers who were able to pay cash rent. Larger expanses of land were put into production through the drainage of marshes. The land became more profitable. Haymaking and crop rotation were introduced. The introduction of certain crops like potatoes improved the diet of the Scottish peasantry. There was also increased specialization with areas such as Lothian becoming a major center of grains while the Ayrshire area focused more on livestock breeding.

Negative Consequences of Scottish Agricultural Revolution

Scottish Agricultural Revolution led to Lowland clearances

The Scottish Agricultural Revolution led to the Lowland and Highland Clearances, which saw thousands of cotters and tenant farmers displaced from the farms which they had occupied for many generations. Only a handful of powerful families like the Dukes ended up with the best land and controlled most of the economic activities of the area.

Highland clearance also led to forced displacement of people for sheep farming. Some of the farmers emigrated to Glasgow, Canada, and Northern England to look for opportunities to own and farm their own land. Those who remained on the Highland were confined to small rented farms without any definite tenure to raise crops and animals.

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