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Over-Population and Sustainable Growth

Land has always been in demand. While a particular property today is most valued for its proximity to markets, industry and labour pools, the principal value of land in the late-medieval period was its capacity to provide food. The more tenants that his land could support, the more rent that the landlord could collect.

By 1100 A.D., most regions in Scotland had been settled to some degree and Ayrshire's population was nearing 40,000. The forests were quickly disappearing as more and more land was brought under cultivation. For about a hundred years following the Black Death plagues of the fourteenth century (when a very significant portion of the population perished) the demand for new ground was relatively low. However, in the sixteenth century, the moors, common pastures and waste land came under increasing pressure to produce. Tactics by locals to feed themselves including breaking the law by using Crown pastures. Land use intensified as the growing population sought to avoid famine.

The "feuing" or selling off of church lands to upper and middle class tenants and other turnovers in property caused many ordinary folk to lose their place on the family farm. The technological and organizational innovations that were to promote increased yields from the land in the eighteenth century were not yet widely known. Given the prevailing agricultural technology, the land could no longer support the population.

By the end of the sixteenth century, legislation was being enacted to deal with the growing numbers of beggars and vagrants: the Act of 1606 permitted coalowners and coalmasters to "apprehend all Vagabonds and sturdy Beggars, to be put to Labour". That Cumnock Parish was divided and the parish of New Cumnock thus created in 1650 is perhaps evidence that there was some pressure on services from the growing population.

It had been very easy to harvest the timber resources and so, by the sixteenth century, Scotland was importing wood for construction. The serious shortage of local timber thus put a strain on the national economy. Peat had replaced wood as the household fuel. While Scotland had no shortage of coal and other mineral wealth, neither was the technology available to readily extract it nor mass uses for it yet devised. The Scottish economy was not growing fast enough to support the increasing population.

As some in the lower classes became more impoverished, a slowly evolving spirit of entrepreneurship and commercialism was giving the upper and merchant classes the opportunity to expand their interests economically. The royal politics for the sake of regional political power alone was giving way to the politics of imperialism, international trade and commercial exploitation of lands beyond. England was just beginning to think about mercantile prospects in America. Ulster in the north of Ireland had been ravaged by war, its population greatly reduced and its capacity to absorb settlers very promising. Some Scottish MacDonnells had penetrated northern Ireland in the late sixteenth century and by the time the English and Scottish Crowns united in 1603 a new set of economic, religious and political factors influenced the potential for Scottish emigration to Ulster. Overpopulation in lowland Scotland was one of these factors.

Shortly after James VI became James I of England in 1603, a program resembling governing by de-population began in the Scottish borders region where lawlessness had generally prevailed for centuries. Where there existed on a landlord's property a surplus of men "beyond the abilitie of the rowme [portion of land] to sustene the personis lauchfullie", some had to either enter a legal trade or join the military.

The primitive state of agricultural technology and the relative unavailability of economic and industrial options resulted in an atmosphere that is very similar to that prevailing in undeveloped nations today. The economic needs of undeveloped nations cannot be met unless they employ more advanced agricultural techniques, engage in industrial activity and control the population growth. Over the past two centuries, the developed nations have so abused the ground, air and water by disposal and deliberate application of chemicals that the health of the environment is threatened. Resources have been drastically depleted: the non-renewables are gone forever and we have been slow to regenerate those that are (theoretically at least) renewable (in a healthy environment).

The notion of "sustainable growth" is not new -- even the jargon is borrowed from the history of the relationship between humanity and land. The methods of dealing with the immediate problem of "sustening the personis" have ranged from:

  • war in the dark and middle ages to
  • the forced physical relocation of people after the sixteenth century (the "Ulster Plantation") to
  • more efficient use of the soil in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to
  • more diverse yet environmentally damaging economic and industrial activity in the nineteenth and twentieth.

While the "quick fixes" may have worked temporarily in the past, they have generally been harmful in the long run. The settlement and the breaking up of the Canadian prairie in the late nineteenth century will leave us with a dust bowl in the twenty first unless our immediate wants are tempered by an attitude of preservation and regeneration.

While it is our duty to find means to sustain life on the planet and the object of some to sustain their personal regional standard of living, it is very doubtful that either can be achieved in the long run if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past and explore earlier, less environmentally damaging ways of life. We cannot possibly "sustene the personis" unless we first sustain the planet and its other living and natural forms.

The prospects of economic rewards in Ulster and a perceived over-population in Ayrshire may have entered the game plan of George Crawford of Leifnoreis, Cumnock, "master" of John McCowan in Whitehill.

From To Sustene the Personis: The Agricultural Revolution
Scarboro Heights Record Vol 11 #3


Here is an example of the ingenuity of one family when they first arrived in Canada from Lowland Scotland. They discovered that most of the readily workable land had already been taken up. Closeness to markets was so vital for this entrepreneur that he went to certain extremes to put his isolated tenant holding into production.