Before the Sheep
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There Were Sheep...
Or "The Devil's Advocate"

The Lowland Clearances, beginning in about 1760, have been characterized by the replacement of people with sheep and cattle. While true in many cases, it must be remembered that some data may somewhat contradict this generalization, or perhaps even offer another perspective.

For example, the Minister of Old Cumnock reported in his 1792 Statistical Account that, in the entire Parish, there were about 100 score of sheep or about 2000 in total. By this time, many small plots had been consolidated into larger farms. At a guess, there may have been about 50 farms at this time -- or about 40 sheep per farm on average (two score). At a time when sheep were increasing in numbers, this approximate figure seems fair enough.

It is surprising, then, to find the Inventory of John McCowan, tenant in Whitehill and Changue in 1614, showing fourteen score sheep in his possession. This was almost two centuries prior to the count of two score sheep on a sizeable consolidated farm.

What do we make of this contradiction that, 150 years before sheep began to displace people, John McCowan had about seven times as many sheep as he should have had, had he been in the "business" of displacing people?

Clearly, John McCowan was not an average tenant farmer in 1614. Indeed, his worth of over 730 seems quite extraordinary for a tenant. A yearly wage for a male household servant of a laird was in the 30 to 40 range. For a tenant, his assets probably compared favourably with those of his landlord, George Crawfurd. In 1582, the farm stock and plenishings of George Craufurd, an earlier Laird of Leifnoreis estate, was worth just over 1310 while rents due from tenants were 448.

Second, John McCowan was perhaps 150 years ahead of the landlord in terms of land use, that is, in maximizing return from the land. He was renting two farms about a mile and a half apart directly from the landlord. He owed cash wages of 11 to five people -- for harvest fees and for herding. This, at a time when one would have expected cottars to simply perform herd and field work in simple exchange for the use of a small plot of ground beside their cottage.

It could very well have been that John McCowan's numerous sheep had displaced cottars and their gardens from his pasture land fully 150 years before Lord Dumfries started to do the same. Perhaps John had recognized that the old feudal arrangement between tenant and cottar was not sustainable, that some farms in the Parish were simply over-populated and that crops were sub-standard because of it and that a larger farmer could be more prosperous in a part-cash local economy.

So, several conclusions are possible, indeed probable:

  • Moving people around (and off the land to some extent) had been going on since at least 1600 -- further background on this is in "To Sustene the Personis: The Agricultural Revolution".
  • New ideas for maximizing return from the land probably initially came from progressive farmers, not from the Landlords.
  • John McCowan was clearly exceptional -- rather "off-scale" in terms of typical farm economic data and farm operational principles. He was probably simply "not typical" of the period.

The Scarboro Heights Record V12 #1