May 2017 is here!
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Here's the first of our special featured articles, brought to you by Carmel McMurdo Audsley, from Australia. Carmel edits Scots News Magazine and has several books avaialble at
Many people have heard of the Highland Clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries when people from traditional small-scale land tenancies in the Scottish Highlands were displaced. The Lowland Clearances (or The Enclosures) were just as disruptive. In the 18th century the Scottish Agricultural Revolution changed the traditional system of agriculture which had existed in Lowland Scotland. Thousands of cottars and tenant farmers from the southern counties (Lowlands) of Scotland migrated from farms and small holdings. Some went to America, others into the industrial towns and many worked as day labourers on the new bigger farms. This extract from Faeries, Farms and Folk by Carmel McMurdo Audsley, brings to life the reality of losing your generational home.
by Carmel McMurdo Audsley
Durisdeer, Scotland 1763
Stephen and his family returned home from a trip to Dumfries to find a note nailed to their cottage door. Even those who could not read and write recognised the crest of the Queensberry Estate that owned the land upon which the peasant farmers toiled. Several of his illiterate neighbours approached him, waving their notices, as he stepped down from the cart.
“What does it say? What is it all about?” they asked.
Stephen walked to his cottage door and ripped the notice down. He read out aloud, stumbling over some of the bigger words:
“The improved farming practice of enclosing larger estates has been investigated and proven to have merit for the future benefit of all. Progressively over the next six months, the practice of allowing run rig farming on the common lands of the Queensberry Estate will be ceased. The Duke of Queensberry will take up the practice known as enclosure, to improve agricultural practices and to introduce sheep farming on a large scale. At the end of the period stated above, common land will be enclosed for the express use of the Duke of Queensberry and the run rig and free pasture system will be replaced by a series of large farms. Selected tenants may be given leases as an incentive to farm well for the benefit of the whole estate. Those who are not offered leases will need to find alternative means of livelihood.”
Stephen put down the notice and looked around at the astonished faces of his neighbours. Many stood incredulous at being asked to leave their ancestral home and others simply didn’t understand at all what was about to happen.
“What does it mean fer us, Stephen?” asked his wife. The gathering of neighbours listened as Stephen spoke.
“It means that we will lose our land, our houses and our crops. Our way of life will be lost forever by this action.”
“Aye, it’s all right for the gentry with their fine houses and money, but what about the poor commoner – what about our rights?” shouted a neighbour.
Stephen rubbed his chin, the way he always did when he was thinking.
“Aye, well therein lies yer answer,” he said. “We are commoners living by the good grace of his lordship on common land provided by the estate. We have taken it for granted that it would always be so, but we have made a grave error of judgement. A man does not own his land here in the fermtoun. We have been living on borrowed land and on borrowed time for it was only a matter of time before the gentry would find a way to make more money and we, my friends, are just a hindrance. We are standing in the way of their economic progression.”
“We’ll stand in their way all right,” shouted his neighbour known to all as Fighting Freddie to the cheers of the crowd. Freddie was always up for a fight, drunk or sober. “Just let ‘em try to come and take what’s mine. They’ll have a fight on their hands.”
Stephen had no more to say and let his neighbours talk and shout among themselves. He walked into his cottage, followed by his wife and sons. He sat down at a chair by the table and looked again at the notice from the Duke. He re-read it and mulled it over while his wife sat in the chair beside him and cried.
“What will we do? Where will we go?” she asked. “What’s to become of our home?”
“Steady yoursel’ lass,” Stephen comforted her. “We have six months to see this through to an outcome that suits us best. Let us have our supper and I will sleep on it. It will be the end of autumn before we have to move and we will have gathered our crops. Remember we have some good cash crops. Aye, faither would be proud of me now for increasing our run rigs. It will stand us in good stead.”
Agnes stood still, wiping her eyes with a cloth. She had never felt so disheartened and unsure.
“Look lively, woman,” Stephen cajoled her as he folded the parchment and put it in his pocket. “Ye have four hungry men to feed and nothing will change that.”
Agnes smiled and took a small piece of bacon and a cabbage from the larder and began to prepare the supper.
Stephen stared into the peat fire and worried for the neighbours who had allowed themselves to become complacent and idle. He feared that they would be swept away on the winds of change.
The next morning Stephen met with some of his more industrious and informed neighbours before they set out to work on their plots. Overnight they had become landless labourers where their families had lived and worked for generations. While some men had stayed up half the night drinking strong ale and plotting revenge, the more sober of mind and emotion had thought about the ramifications of losing their ancestral homes. It was a huge event in their otherwise simple lives. They sat down by the side of the dusty road that ran through the centre of the fermtoun and Stephen broke the silence.
“My faither would turn over in his grave to know of this situation, and his faither before him and his before him,” Stephen began. “I cannae say I’m happy about this at all, but we are powerless landless men who have no money and must deal with whatever situation is put before us, in whatever way we deem fit. Now for all the power of the kirk, I cannae see them helping us – they will side with the gentry as they always have. I’ve got to say that even though I’d heard of this enclosure system happening down south, I had hoped it would not become a reality here.”
“Aye,” said the men in unison, some shaking their heads in disbelief. Stephen continued.
“We have until the end of autumn to make other arrangements, whatever they may be, so we can get our crops in and I say we sell what we can as we will have nowhere to store them. Money in our pockets is something we are not used to but I think it will be very useful for our future.”
“I stayed up half the night speaking with my Ginny,” said Fighting Freddie. “While I’d like to stay and fight, what’s the use? We are striking out for America. She has a brother over there and we will have to try to scrape enough money together to buy passage. He has a large farm and could use the help.”
“America,” Stephen said. “So far away. It hasnae crossed my mind to leave Scotland.”
“I’m no’ going to work in a factory at my age,” Freddie said. “Farming is what I know and if I have to go to America for some security in my old age, then that is what I’ll be doing. It’s breaking Ginny’s heart.”
“Well, I dinnae know what plans the rest of you have, but I’ve no’ a mind to leave this country or this parish for that matter. The notice said that leases would be offered to some. Now I’m no’ saying that I’d be among them, but if the estate is to be broken into several large farms then whoever the farmers are they will need labour. That’s the road I’m taking.”
“Well we wish you luck, Stephen,” Freddie said. “I think the farming life in Scotland has suffered a major blow. You’re a brave man for wanting to stay and see it through, whatever way it goes.”
The men stood up, dusted themselves off, picked up their farming implements and walked off separately to their respective plots. There was a sadness in their stooped shoulders and pinched faces as the reality that they would lose their small farms started to sink in. There were still those who were planning to fight, but Stephen saw little point in fighting. Besides he had heard about some of the improvements that the landowners wanted to make and it made sense to him. His father would never understand, but he was willing to give it a go. He may have been just a peasant farmer but he had high hopes for the future of his children that they would one day own the land on which they toiled. He would learn all that he could about this new system and make sure that his children learned as well. It was the only way to secure them a future if they were to stay on the land.
An illustration of a traditional 17th century house, plus a photograph of a 17th century farm in the lowlands still standing. (taken from a Wikipedia site – origin unknown).