The Agricultural Revolution

Agricultural Revolution
Local Land & Soil
Farm Photos

The Agricultural Revolution in Scotland, as elsewhere, was synonymous with the Industrial Revolution, shares with it a similar chronology and was part of the same process of economic and social development that was common in much of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.  

It started modestly during the 17th century and into the early 18th century when forward-looking landowners undertook estate improvement. Slowly the revolution gained momentum from the mid 18th century onwards spreading northwards from the southeast of Scotland, and in its wake, generating enclosure schemes which resulted in planned housing and villages. 

Although often associated with more efficient land use, new strains of crops, different breeds of animals, and limited mechanisation, the Agricultural Revolution also represented a critical stage in the industrialisation of Scotland. It helped economic growth by raising income of landowners and farmers and contributed directly to industrialisation through primary processing industries such as textiles, brewing, distilling and grain milling. As a result it also forced the pace of social change throughout the country. While the Agricultural Revolution in Scotland is generally associated with the period from 1750 – 1850 the modernisation process continued throughout the 19th century and beyond, particularly with the arrival of modern and more efficient machinery. 

So what were the differences in farming procedures that would have been performed by our local farmers in the early to mid portion of the 19th century compared to earlier years?

The first changes would have had little to do with technology but everything to do with land management.  

Firstly, Trenching part of the land with a pick, spade or other digging implement, usually to a depth of around eighteen inches, and using great iron levers for raising the large boulders that were abundant throughout the local lands. By doing this the land was being prepared and made ready for the plough. In some places the stones were so large that the only way of removal was to blast them with gun-powder! 

Secondly, Draining was essential. This was an important requirement because much of the local land was interspersed with quagmires, waterlogged areas and underground springs. This wasn’t the only problem because much of the subsoil was compacted and adhesive in nature with a layer of concreted gravel which offered no filtration. Ditches had to be introduced, often at short distances to each other to maximise drainage and cope with surface water from heavy rainfall. 

Thirdly, the application of lime was required to transform the soil. Lime increased the pH of acidic soil, provided a source of calcium for plants and permitted improved water penetration for acidic soils. 

Fourth, the building of enclosures. As the land was brought into cultivation the farmer enclosed and subdivided it with walls and dykes or with ditches lined with stone and backed with earth. The stones were collected from the land itself; each field providing up to six times as many stones as were needed. 

Finally, the planting of wood. This practise wasn’t widespread but it was a bigger factor with the farms that were located away from the coast. Primarily the reason for planting trees was that they would serve as a windbreak and shelter from prevailing weather. With this in mind it would have seemed that the coastal farms would have utilised this strategy more widely however the likelihood was that it was attempted but with little success to begin with – the coastal environmental conditions were far from ideal for tree growing. 

Landowners also introduced “improved” leases to the larger, single-tenant farmers in exchange for cash rents. The old systems and methods were swept away as fields enclosed by wind breaking hedgerows and trees were introduced. Pastures were divided into manageable plots and had drystane dykes built around them. Crop rotation rejuvenated the soil, and larger expanses of land were brought into production through the drainage of marshes and clearing of peat bogs. 

The profitability and production of the land soared but this also meant that the farming communities had to endure greater stratification. What this meant was that for those who succeeded the rewards were great, however those that failed to meet these new demands were slowly squeezed out of existence. This resulted in much of the small crofts and smallholdings within the estate of Portlethen becoming less efficient and ultimately they were taken over by the larger farms to become efficient again – as a result the larger farms obtained more acres of land and could become even more efficient and profitable.

The development and mechanisation of agricultural machinery started around the mid to late 19th century with the introduction of the tractor. First there were steam traction engines which would have been used to move heavy loads and following those there were ploughing engines which would have been used for cable-hauled ploughing. It is doubtful if the farms of Portlethen jumped on the technology bandwagon in respect to obtaining these latest contraptions and instead would have relied on the tried and tested methods of horse and plough for some time after. It would have been around the turn of the 20th century before new machinery would have become more widespread. 

Prior to the arrival of the tractor, the implements and machinery that would have been commonly found on local farms would have included ploughs, harrows, rollers (which may have been of wood or stone construction), brakes, sowing sheets, carts, and threshing mills.