...Slowly beginning in the last half of the seventeenth century, agricultural legislation was directed to "improvement". Acts to encourage fences and "enclosure" of fields, the straightening of property boundaries, drainage and the cultivation of legumes were generally aimed at improving the landlord's profit margin from the soil. Social change and depopulation of the land during the latter half of the eighteenth century were deemed a necessary step in the reorganization of the field system.
Some degree of rural Lowland over-population by the middle of the eighteenth century may have also contributed somewhat to the need for change in the countryside. The removal of people from the countryside during the agricultural revolution was an effect of one of the most dramatic social and economic upheavals in history.
The consolidation of small land holdings into larger, more productive and efficient units contributed to the displacement of an entire class of subsistence farmers in the Lowlands. Marginal and higher land was bypassed and abandoned in the early stages of "Improvement", the process by which landowners "spent money to make money" from their estates. In some areas in these early stages, there was more emphasis on "re-organization" than on spending money on technological improvements -- sheep were moved in and tenants were moved out. Tenants were now selected on the basis of their ability to pay rent -- to the exclusion of the traditional method of transferring land occupation rights from father to son. The planting of hedges, the construction of fences, dykes and drains, the application of lime fertilizer and new crops and mechanical implements were among the technological inputs to the improvement process.
In the early period of agricultural improvement, some of those displaced from their plot of ground found employment on the larger, improved farms as labourers while others engaged in handloom weaving and other village activities.
Some aspects of the Agricultural Revolution preceded other aspects within certain geographical areas. In much of Lesmahagow Parish, Lanarkshire, for instance, depopulation in the late eighteenth century was largely caused by adoption of the "re-organizational" aspects. The "technological" improvements came much later.
Local Patterns and Trends
As explained in the previous article, the late eighteenth century was a period of profound rural change in Scotland. Our understanding of this socio-economic upheaval would be greatly enhanced if more local historical investigations were conducted and published. A localized concentration of data and, perhaps, a local pattern or trend may shed some new light on this very important stage of human development.
Readers who have an interest in either social change or in agriculture or in Lanarkshire may wish to analyse a half dozen or so of the following "Testaments" of people who lived in Lesmahagow Parish in the eighteenth century. Readers' analyses could be published in a future McCowan Society publication and hopefully add to our understanding of the agricultural revolution.