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.
By 1755 the population was about 1 250 000, with roughly 1/3 living in the Highlands and 2/3 in the Lowlands. But within 100 years, the census of 1851 showed that the population had doubled to 2 888 742. For such rapid growth to occur, something must have changed.
The medieval pattern of land use was able to sustain a population of up to one million, but only just. If the Black Death is discounted as a one-off, the limiting factor on population growth then becomes the medieval farming system itself. It produced just enough food to feed the farm workers and a small surplus for the feudal land owners.
While these landowners may have been better fed and wealthier than the farm labourers, as they discovered after the Union of Crowns in 1603 and again after the Union of Parliaments in 1707, compared to English landowners they were little more than ragged beggars.
As is very well known, virtually every Scottish landowner became convinced that the infamous Darien project would magically make them as rich as English landowners without having to do any more than invest a bit of money in it. What is less well known is that many of the landowners in Galloway had already found a way to become wealthy by using their land in a different way.
This was because in 1666, English landowners were able to get a law passed in the English parliament banning the import of Irish cattle. Before the law was passed, about 100 000 Irish cattle were imported into England every year. Most of these went to feed London which already had a population of 500 000.
From customs records of cattle crossing from Scotland to England at Gretna, about 10 000 of these Irish cattle had originated in the Plantation of Ulster and crossed over to Portpatrick in Galloway before being driven south. Some of these cattle came from Donegal where the Murray family of Broughton in Wigtownshire owned 60 000 acres of Plantation land.
After 1666, Galloway landowners began sending their cattle to England, although from evidence of fines and seizures of cattle in Galloway and in England, at least some of the cattle were originally Irish but had become ‘Scottish’ after a few weeks grazing in Galloway. This forced the landowners to start rearing authentically Scottish cattle in Galloway.
There was, however, a small problem. Between 1666 and 1688, Galloway along with most of southern and western Scotland was caught up in a low-intensity civil and religious war with Charles II and then James VII and II. During this period, only landowners who were Stuart loyalists could sell cattle to England. But if they wanted to increase the supply of cattle, they would have to clear both upland farms-where the cattle were grazed in summer- and lowland farms -where they were kept over winter. But if they tried to do this, they risked provoking a major conflict.
But after 1689, it became possible for landowners loyal to the new regime of William of Orange to begin clearing their lands to make way for cattle. Leading this move were the firmly Presbyterian and loyal Williamites the Herons of Kirroughtrie in Minnigaff parish. The Herons were able to export 1000 cattle year from their upland and lowland farms in the 1690s.
By selling their cattle in England, the Herons were able to earn hard cash- English gold guineas- with which they could buy up more farms where they could breed and fatten more cattle. From owning one small farm in the 1660s, by the Union of 1707 they owned 1/3 of all the land in Minngaff parish which, at 120 squares miles, was the largest in Galloway. However, as the Galloway Levellers pointed out in 1724, the Herons’ cattle herds had depopulated the parish and reduced the town (village) of Minnigaff to a ‘nest of beggars’.
That the Levellers had a point can be seen from a list of the inhabitants of Minngaff parish complied in 1684. This shows that while upland livestock farms in the parish supported only one or two families, arable farms along the fertile flood plain of the river Cree supported one tenant farmer and between five and ten cottar/ sub-tenant families. As the Herons bought up these farms and converted them from arable to pasture land for their cattle, most of the sub-tenant/ cottar families became redundant. Working a traditional arable farm needed a large workforce. Managing a herd of cattle did not.
Unlike most of Scotland, where land ownership was concentrated into a few hands, land ownership in Galloway had been fragmented into lots of small estates and even individual farms ever since the forfeiture of Douglas Lordship of Galloway to the Crown (James II) in 1455. Since then no one landowner had managed to acquire more than a small portion of the region. This led to a constant ‘churn’ of land ownership as the fortunes of several hundred minor lairds rose and fell.
The example of the Herons rise from small to large landowners on the back of the cattle trade was not lost on those Galloway landowners who were struggling to hang on to their estates. While their more successful peers could afford to stick with tradition, the fear of losing their lands persuaded some of the strugglers to have a go at the cattle trade and turn their arable farm into cattle pastures.
By 1724, what had begun as a trickle of evictions and clearance from the arable lands of Kirkcudbrightshire threatened to become a flood. The fear that their landlord might decide to enter the cattle trade and clear them from his lands united tenants and cottars across the county. What gave their uprising a militant edge was a recent event.
By 1714, the ‘Killing Times’ of the 1680s were beginning to fade into the background of everyday life in Galloway. But then in late 1715, a small group of local Jacobites joined a larger group of northern English Jacobites and two thousand Highlanders in an attempt to capture Dumfries. The focus of the Hanovrai9n government was on the main Jacobite rebellion in the north of Scotland, so the defence of Dumfries was left to a locally raised volunteer militia. Some 3000 volunteers were raised and armed. This level of resistance persuaded the Jacobites to turn south where they were defeated at the Battle of Preston in November 1715.
As a side-effect, it also meant that in 1724 there were a lot of folk in Galloway with a wee bit of military training. And muskets. And a grievance.
Although other landowners were involved, the grievance focused on Sir Basil Hamilton of Baldoon and St Mary’s Isle. In Hamilton’s case it was a triple grievance.
1. In 1723 he cleared several families of his land near Kirkcudbright to create a large cattle enclosure.
2. The 400 cattle in his enclosure were illegally imported Irish cattle.
3. In 1715, he was one of the local Jacobites who tried to capture Dumfries.
On point 3, by rights he should have had his head chopped off at the Tower of London and forfeited all his lands. However, Hamilton was only 18 at the time and his mother Mary Dunbar, and his grandmother, Duchess Anne of Hamilton managed to save both his lands and his head. His fellow Jacobite William Gordon, Lord Kenmure had been executed and William Maxwell, earl of Nithsdale’s wife had smuggled him out often tower of London dressed as her female servant…
On point 2, his great-great grandfather David Dunbar I of Baldoon had been fined as early as 1669 for trying to pass off Irish cattle as his own. In 1682, he was still at it when an English magistrate seized 100 of Dunbar’s cattle, having declared them Irish rather than Scottish. What made this a grievance is that by smuggling in cheap Irish cattle and then passing them off as his own, Basil Hamilton was undercutting the legitimate local cattle trade -which was a threat to the Herons of Kirroughtrie amongst others.
On point 1, when the future king James II and VII was living in Scotland in the early 1680s, his wife Mary of Modena had become exasperated by Galloway and its rebellious Whigs (Covenanters). The whole district she declared, should be cleared of its revolting inhabitants and turned into a great hunting park. Her husband was very keen on hunting. The Galloway Levellers quoted this in their (printed) propaganda broadsheets. Having failed in 1715, they said, the Jacobites (ie Hamilton) were now taking Mary of Modena’s advice and clearing King George I’s loyal subjects from the land so that they would face no local opposition when they next rebelled.
If the Galloway Levellers uprising had been a simple peasants revolt, the regiment of dragoons which arrived in June 1724 would have made short shrift of them. In a straight fight they would have been slaughtered. If they managed to avoid a direct confrontation, it would have been easy enough to capture a few ring-leaders and hang them.
None of this happened. Instead, in October 1724, the dragoons confronted a group of several hundred Levellers, but had been told by their commander to use ’only the flats of their swords’ against them. There were no fatalities and 200 Levellers were captured, but most were allowed to escape on the march back to Kirkcudbright.
A few Levellers did stand trial, but in a civil not a criminal case. The case was brought in January 1725 by Basil Hamilton who pursued a small group (25 out of the 1000 who had taken part) for damages to his cattle park dykes. He did win, but is unlikely to have received much in the way of damages from the Levellers, since only two owned any property and one was a 14 year old boy.