It was the greyest of grey days in grey Galloway. It was January 2003. I was standing in the dreich drizzle on the Old Military Road on Kelton Hill just outside Castle Douglas, trying to describe what the landscape would have looked like on the same spot in 1724 for Andrew Cassell and Peter Aitchison.
There would have been none of the trees, none of the houses, none of the neat rectangular fields, not even the road, which wasn’t built until 1764. There would have been a newly built dry-stane dyke though, since in the summer of 1724, the laird of Kelton and the minister of Kelton managed to save it from being demolished by the Galloway Levellers.
Andrew and Peter were interviewing me for a BBC Scotland radio series they were making on the Lowland Clearances. Most of what I said that cold, damp day didn‘t make the final cut, but the saving of the dyke was included as a dramatisation, along with my answer to Andrew’s question ‘But was what happened in Galloway back then clearance?’. Yes, I said, yes it was. The people, the families, who were evicted from their homes to make way for cattle farms were cleared from the land. As a ballad written at the time put it
The lords and lairds they drive us out
From mailings (crofts) where we dwell
The poor man says ‘Where shall we go?’
The rich says ‘Go to Hell!’
However, although the people of Galloway rose up in armed resistance against the first of the Lowland Clearances, when the main wave of clearance took place between 1760 and 1830, there was no repeat performance. The Lowland Clearances were a silent revolution, evoking none of the passion and outrage which still mark the Highland Clearances. What happened in the Highlands has never been forgotten. What happened in the Lowlands has never been remembered.
This difference between what is remembered and what is forgotten is now deeply embedded in Scotland’s historical consciousness. Along with the Gaelic language and the Jacobite rebellions, ‘the Clearances’ are taken as marks of a historical as well as geographical division between Lowland and Highland Scotland.
Yet Gaelic was once spoken across virtually all of Scotland and support for the Jacobites was found where ever the Episcopalian church of Scotland resisted its Presbyterian twin.
If there is a difference between Highland and Lowland experience of what was called at the time ‘improvement’ it can be found in the soil.
On the brink of war in 1939, the reality the U-boats could starve the UK into submission hit home. The Ordnance Survey quickly produced maps showing ‘land-quality’, ranging from Grade 1 -high quality land capable of growing a wide range of crops to Grade III -low quality land only fit for low intensity livestock grazing. The poorest quality land was shaded yellow on the maps.
For Scotland, the map is dominated by a huge block of yellow across the Highlands and western islands, with another smaller block extending across the Southern Uplands. The better quality land, shown brown and green, extends from around the Moray Firth and down the east coast where it expands inland to meet up with a broad band across the central Lowlands.
In the Borders, there is a eastern block extending in land from Berwick and another centred on Carlisle, but extending along the north Solway coast into Galloway where the yellow of the Southrn Uplands separates the fertile lands of Wigtownshire from those of Ayrshire.
The ebb and flow of Scotland’s history can be traced across the colours on the map. North of the Forth, the fertile lands to the east where the Kingdom of the Picts grew and flourished. The estimated population of Pictland is between 80 000 to100 000.To the west the Gaels of Dalriada possessed only a little good quality land. The estimated population of Dalriada is 10 000. When the two kingdoms joined to become Alba, expanding into the Lothians at the expense of the Northumbrian Kingdom was the next step. By the early twelfth century, David I of Scotland was able to make Carlisle his capital for a few years.
David is usually associated with the introduction of feudalism to Scotland, for example granting Annandale to a ‘Robert Bruce’ in 1124. But the deal with feudalism was that in exchange for grants of land, the new lords had to provide the king with an armed and mounted knight plus foot soldiers. This was an expensive- suits of armour did not come cheap.
So along with feudal grants of land- usually good quality land- came an agricultural revolution- the heavy plough. Made of wood but with an iron tipped cutting edge, these ploughs took a team of 6 or more oxen to pull. With these new ploughs, it was possible to grow more oats and barley. The trick was to build up the ploughed soil into long, wide raised beds called rigs, separated by drainage channels called furrows.
To manage the ploughs and their oxen took a whole team of workers who lived in new fermtouns, some of which still survive as modern day farms. Although it took more workers to manage the new ploughs than the old ‘Celtic’ foot ploughs and light ploughs, the new system provided enough oats to feed them and their families and a surplus for their feudal lord. The male farm workers also doubled up as the lord’s foot soldiers as required.
The new system worked fairly well in the more fertile areas, but not so well in upland and highland areas where there were only small patches of potential arable land. In these areas, cattle, sheep, horses (pony sized) and goats were grazed extensively on the poorer soils while the patches of better land were worked intensively to grow oats and barley. As a result, the upland and highland areas had a lower overall population density. In Galloway, the most mountainous area of about 100 square miles had farms around its edges, but none in its granite and raised bog heartland. It was probably only ever visited by deer-hunting expeditions.
The basic pattern of land use which emerged in the twelfth century continued for the next 500 years. It is possible that the population of Scotland reached one million before the impact of the Black Death in the mid fourteenth century knocked it back to only half a million and it took until the end of the seventeenth century to reach a million again.
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