By Tim Roberton

Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, farming practices in parts of the United Kingdom had been undergoing a revolution, influenced by forward thinkers such as "Turnip" Townsend and King George. Fields were enclosed, winter feed preserved, new crops introduced and soil improved. These practices were slower in finding their way into the Western Highlands.

The 1795 Statistical Accounts for Moidart show three ploughs in the district whilst the later 1845 Account shows that output of sheep, cattle and potatoes had doubled in the intervening fifty years. But the land was hard. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, only half the land in Moidart was tilled by plough with the other half still being turned by spade.

Against this background, there were huge population increases.

Some of the extracts below come from commentators writing one hundred years and more ago. So, although they may have been nearer to the subject than the modern reader, the views they express are sometimes slightly dated.


In 1750 Moidart was described as a land of black cattle and drovers, of fishermen and farmers. But it suffered in the period after the 1745 rebellion, from overpopulation and from poverty. Tenants in Glenmoidart were reported to have said that whilst for six months a year they could live comfortably, they had to endure for the other six months in downright starvation. In 1790 and 1791 alone, over a hundred are reported to have left the district. Many, many more left in the fifty years to follow.

The 1795 Statistical Account shows Moidart to have had sixty farmers and drovers, three ploughs, twenty four horses, more than one thousand cattle and more than ten thousand sheep. The sheep may well have been of the inferior breed referred to by Osgood McKenzie in one of the extracts which follow.

Fifty years later, after almost continuous emigration from the district and, although the level of output was higher, the 1845 Account shows only a modest agricultural advance. By then of course the runrig system had in the main, disappeared.

The 1845 report comments that "carts are not uncommon and several good iron ploughs are in use". At this time, The Agricultural Associated met annually at Strontian under the Presidency of Sir James Milles Riddell Bart.

Set out in the paragraphs which follow are facts and comments from a number of different writers and from a number of different perspectives covering the period 1750 - 1850. These trace life under the runrig system and, subsequent survival in a landscape, which although moving towards enclosure and crofting, still required much of the agricultural activity to be personal and back-breaking. The writings and the historical evidence support the fact that despite the Agricultural Revolution, life in Moidart was extremely hard - so hard in fact, that most of the inhabitants left. Of course, the reasons behind the exodus were far more complex than purely agricultural, but understanding a part of the agricultural background helps place other matters into context.

Today in Moidart, there are visible traces all over the landscape from the period 1750 - 1850. There are lazy-beds and head dykes, shielings and kale yards, fanks and farmsteads and other marks of a rural population, now long departed for another life elsewhere.

In 1755, Moidart was described by Neilson in the following terms

"At the head of the Loch is the Ruins of the House of McDonald of Kinlochmoydart situated upon a small plain upwards of a mile long, and three quarters of a mile Broad divided by a River and surrounded with high hills…. The whole Country is very mountaineous, and only fitt for breeding and Grassing of Cattle…. ….The oats are sown betwixt the midle of March and the midle of April, and a little Barley about the beginning of May. The Harvest begins about the middle of September. The oats which are of a Small grey kind produce about Three fold and for these two or three years bypast there have been planted a few potatoes". Second Report to the Commissioners and Trustees for Improving Fisheries and Manufactures in Scotland. by Richard Neilson. 1755 (excerpts)

"Some of the Cottars are allowed a little Cottage with Grassing for two or three Cows. They are obliged to manure the Arable Ground of the farm on their own Charge, being further allowed the fourth part of the Corn produced. Others of them are allowed a Small piece of Ground (which they labour on their own account) and the Grassing of two or three Cows, for which they are obliged to labour the Landlords arable Ground on their proper Charge, but when otherwise imployed in his Service, he is obliged to maintain them". Ibid

How the runrig system operated

Runrig (1) - Perhaps the most serious obstacle to progress in agriculture was the almost universal system of runrig…..the land was redivided by lot each year or put up for auction. The tenants had their cottages clustered together, forming what was called a farm "town". The quarrels and the misunderstandings between these men were violent and incessant. Each had his own obstinate opinion on ploughing, sowing and reaping, that the bickering might cause a lapse of weeks before all consented to work together. So jealous were they of their neighbours that each one made his rig as high as possible, so that none of the soil should be carried to his neighbour's ground. Each alternate ridge had a different tenant and were usually 20 feet wide, crooked like a prolonged S and very high. Only the crown of the rig was ploughed and half the width between them was taken up by huge "baulks" or open spaces filled with briars, nettles, stones and water. The Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century. H Grey Graham. Pages 152 - 186

If one man dared to cultivate a neglected bit of ground, the others denounced him for infringing on their right of grazing on the outfields. Ibid

With a system so atrocious, with land uncleaned, unlimed, unmanured, undrained, it frequently happened that the yield could not feed the inhabitants of the district. In consequence of the bulk of their crops consisting of only gray oats, when the meal failed them - which always happened when bad seasons came - the people were in destitution and despair. This helplessness fostered in them a sense of awe and a dependence on Providence, which gave a peculiar power to ministers. Ibid

Runrig (2) - Some, but by no means all townships were farmed by small groups of tenants, holding their lands in the form of runrig open fields. At the most, the open field system represented by these runrig townships rarely involved more than 100 acres. This runrig was either cultivated on an arable/grass or an infield/outfield basis. The History of Soils and Field Systems, edited by S Foster and TC Smout

Runrig (3) - The sub division of arable land amongst the various landholders of a fermtoun or township, such that an individual tenant held land, usually based on the plough rig, intermixed with his co-tenants throughout the lands of a toun. This required a communal system of management. Ibid

Runrig (4) - "In the days of the runrig system there was no incentive to improve your patch, for what you had one year one of your neighbours probably had next….In spite of all this, and although the only implements of husbandry were the caschrom (plough) and croman (hoe)….more crop was raised out of the soil then than there is now…The modern crofter has given up these implements and hires ponies and an inefficient plough….They scratch over the ground in an inefficient way to a depth of a few inches, all the head rigs and difficult stony bits being left untouched…In the old caschrom days every inch of ground was cultivated, even among boulders, where the best soil is often found and which no plough can go near…and how beautifully the women used to weed the potatoes by hand..and how beautifully they earthed up with the cromanan. - A Hundred Years in the Highlands, Osgood Mackenzie, page 154

Runrig (5) - "Periodic Runrig" comprises strips reallocated at intervals amongst husbandmen; "Fixed Runrig" were strips permanently associated with a single holding; "Rundale" was where some strips had been consolidated into blocks which themselves lay intermingled with those of other joint tenants. TC Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 p 122

Rig (6) - There are many types of ridge and furrow and rig (cord-rig/broad or reverse S rig/narrow curving rig/narrow straight rig/). The last named is widely spread in Scotland where improved agriculture was practised prior to the introduction of underground drains. The History of Soils and Field Systems, edited by S Foster and TC Smout

The old Scotch plough - was unwieldy but served its purpose well. It needed a large team to pull it and because of this, turning in a headland caused some of the team to start turning before the plough had finished the row, leading to "reverse S" rig formations. An improved plough made by James Small was developed at the end of the eighteenth century; this produced straight narrow strips and was widely used until the introduction of underground drainage tiles in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Ibid

Infield/Outfield (1) - A rotational system of cropping land, based upon an infield core, regularly manured and cropped and a wider area of ground that was temporarily taken in and cropped as required. Ibid

Infield/Outfield (2) - The land nearest the house - the infield was manured and there was a constant succession of two crops, one year oats, next year barley. The Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century. H Grey Graham. Pages 152 - 186

Six times larger was the outfield, - wretched unkempt, untended ground, - each portion of which was put perpetually to oats, or more usually for three years in succession; and thereafter it lay for another three or four years fallow. Ground was cultivated till it produced only two seeds for every one sown; the third year being called the "wersh crop" as it was miserable alike in quality and quantity. Ibid

There were no enclosures, neither dyke nor hedge between fields, so that when the harvest began, or the cereals were young, the cattle were either tethered or tended by herds who took them out every morning over the same route where they picked up whatever whins or weeds they could find and, after being chased out of every unenclosed and tempting field of corn, were brought back at night half famished and wholly exhausted. When the harvest was over, the cattle wandered all over the place, till the land became a dirty dreary common; the whole being saturated by the water which stood in the holes made by their hooves. Ibid

The methods of tillage were supremely clumsy and primitive. The ploughs were enormous, unwieldy constructions, which being all made of wood, except the coulter and the share, could be made in the forenoon for a shilling. Ibid

Head dykes (1) - Many medieval or later field systems were characterised by a head dyke or a ring dyke that encloses the main area of arable of a farm within an earthen bank, or bank and ditch. It is difficult to say how early this form of enclosure was employed. Many of the recorded head dykes are demonstrably later features indicative perhaps of pressures on the common grazings in the post-medieval period. The History of Soils and Field Systems, edited by S Foster and TC Smout

Head Dykes (2) - Communally built around the in-by land to keep cattle out The Shieling 1600-1840 The Case of the central Scottish Highlands, Albert Bil

Tathing (1) - Confining cattle or sheep within an area of the outfield to manure it. The History of Soils and Field Systems, edited by S Foster and TC Smout

Tathing (2) - Inland, crofters would choose a piece of level land, then surround them with a low dyke of stones and turf, just sufficiently high to stop the cows from getting over. Into these the cattle would be driven after being milked in the evening to pass the night…for perhaps three weeks, until the wise men in the community considered they had sufficiently manured that particular plot…In the following spring these manured achaidhnan (fields) were turned over by caschrom …good crop of aboriginal black barley. - A Hundred Years in the Highlands, Osgood Mackenzie, page 154

Poindlers (1) - People empowered to impound straying cattle and levy a fine. The Shieling 1600-1840 The Case of the central Scottish Highlands, Albert Bil

Poind (2) - 1. To take (property of a debtor) in execution or by way of distress; distrain. 2. to impound (stray cattle etc). The Collins English Dictionary

Moving on

Doing away with runrig (1) - The Agricultural Revolution of the generations after 1760 enclosed the Scottish fields, broke down the rigs, consolidated the strips, drained the stagnant mosses, took in common, changed the crops and the rotations, and destroyed for ever the traditions of husbandry which, hallowed and inefficient as it was, had dictated the framework of life for most Scots for as long as our knowledge of agrarian history goes back. TC Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 p 302

Doing away with runrig (2) - By 1775 crofting began to be introduced and was a radical innovation. In the middle decades of the century the joint tenancy was still the dominant social formation in the western Highlands with land cultivated in runrig, pasture held in common and strong communal traditions associated with the tasks of herding, harvesting, peat cutting and repair. Over less than three generations the joint farms were removed and replaced by a structure of separate smallholdings or crofts…According to propagandists at this time such as Sir John Sinclair, it was explicit in the new order, that straths would become sheep runs and that the people should be relocated on crofts on the coast and earn their living primarily by fishing, kelping and other bi-employments…indeed the crofts were planned at such a size that the occupants would need to look for new jobs…. Eighteenth Century Scotland, New Perspectives, TM Devine and JR Young, page 231, Essay by Thomas M Devine

Doing away with runrig (3) - The Gairloch people were indeed devoted to their proprietor in those days….Still, when my mother and my uncle were ruling these five hundred to six hundred families of crofters it was an extra hard time for them, for first there was the potato blight - and want generally brings out the bad and not the good qualities of a people; then there was the great upheaval caused by the trustees deciding to do away with the runrig system and dividing all the arable land into crofts of about four acres. They forced the people to pull down their old insanitary houses, where the cattle were under the same roof as human beings, and where the fires were on the floor in the centre of the dwelling room, with only a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, and made them build new and rather better houses on their crofts, the proprietors providing the timber….There is no doubt that the people of the west coast went through periods of terrible hunger….especially before the introduction of the potato….But even prior to the destruction caused by the potato blight, when the potatoes usually grew so well, there was hardly a year in which my grandfather and my father did not import cargoes of oatmeal to keep the people alive, and those cargoes were seldom, if ever, paid for by their poor recipients. - A Hundred Years in the Highlands, Osgood Mackenzie, page 147

Doing away with runrig (4) - Demand for kelp, the ashes of sea weed used for glass making and soap; of oak bark for tanning and charcoal for smelting, wherever sea transport made the timber accessible; of fishery exploitation coupled with the hoped for abolition of runrig and cooperative methods of farming, meant major changes were on the way in the Highlands. However, instead of the emergence of a class of indigenous and wealthy farmers side by side with landless labourers, as happened in many other parts of rural Scotland, in the Highlands, the peasant society regrouped and based themselves on the small-holding rather than the joint farm. In this case, neither the peasants, nor ultimately the landowners, were better off than they had been previously, a situation somewhat mirrored in Ireland. TC Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 p 347

Despite the Agricultural Revolution, there was insufficient arable to sustain the population and, people still tilled by hand, land which could not be ploughed

Lazy-beds (feannagan) (1) - Ridges raised mainly by the use of a spade or caschrom, 2 m to 5 m wide, sometimes the furrows being even wider than the ridge where the soil is shallow. Unlike plough-rig, they are often on slopes far too steep for the plough-team to negotiate….Lazy-bedding is more labour-intensive than ploughing, but more productive, an important consideration if arable is at a premium. The History of Soils and Field Systems, edited by S Foster and TC Smout

Lazy-beds (2) - Before the potato blight in the early forties, it was fairly easy to raise food anywhere near the coast, where sea-ware was procurable. Though most of the ground consisted of poor peaty soil amongst stones and rocks, sea-ware with its potash would generally force a crop - -often a bumper crop - of potatoes out of almost any soil, even though wet and boggy, if it was made into what were known as "lazy beds". - A Hundred Years in the Highlands, Osgood Mackenzie, page 154

Lazy-beds (3) - One way of growing potatoes in the wilds was by substituting bracken for sea-ware and making "lazy beds" of it where the soil was fairly deep and moist. The bracken was cut in July when at its richest….ditches were opened about six feet apart and the soil from the ditches put on the bracken so that it had a covering of six to eight inches of earth on it….left for nine months to decay till spring came round again….holes bored in with a "dibble" and seed potatoes dropped in. - A Hundred Years in the Highlands, Osgood Mackenzie, page 154


The impact of livestock on Agriculture -

In 1755, Neilson reported that the Black Cattle are either sold to the Drovers in the month of May, or towards the latter end of the Season who carry them to the fairs of Falkirk and Crieff. Second Report to the Commissioners and Trustees for Improving Fisheries and Manufactures in Scotland. by Richard Neilson. 1755 (excerpts)

Within two decades of Culloden, the changing economic circumstances of the whole country transmitted a rising demand for Highland products, particularly cattle. This brought the promise of material rewards for the exploiter of Highland resources on a scale quite without parallel in previous history. Cattle were the export and oats the import, but between 1740 and 1790 the price of cattle rose by 300%, whilst oats did not quite double. The price of wool began to rise too. The organising of sheep farming, unlike cattle, was incompatible with peasant husbandry and any response to the rising demand for wool would entail a basic change in land and tenure. TC Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 p 345

By the end of the eighteenth century, under the old order of farming the sheep had been an all purpose subsistence animal supplying wool, milk, dung and mutton, but increasingly in the latter part of the eighteenth century it became a commercial animal prized for its wool and meat. Even in the late 1770s it was reckoned that the long coarse wool of the Blackface was worth double the value of the native (Whiteface) sheep's wool…The commercial sheep farm consisted mainly of wintering grounds and summer pasture, but usually there was also some arable, enough meadowland for a few cows and grass enclosure for rams. The availability of wintering grounds in particular determined the type of sheep farming practised….One feature was that farmers provided no supplementary fodder except the grazing of the winter stubble and pastures that had been hained in the summer months. The entire hay and straw produced on the farm was earmarked for the cows and horses on the farm. Even in times of acute food shortage the sheep were not fed….The shepherd was an indispensable person on a sheep farm…..Many had journeyed northwards from Southern Scotland in the 1760s and possibly again in the 1780s…Smearing was also a practice associated with the new ideas of sheep husbandry. Sheep, because they were kept increasingly out of doors, were dressed with tar and grease to protect them from the cold and also to improve the quality of the wool. The Shieling 1600-1840, The Case of the Central Scottish Highlands, Albert Bil, page 314

In about 1800, Osgood Mackenzie speculated that there were but few sheep kept, and they were all of the Seana chaoirich bheaga (little old sheep) breed, with pink noses and very fine wool, quite different from the modern black faced sheep, much less hardy, and accustomed to be more or less housed at night. - A Hundred Years in the Highlands, Osgood Mackenzie, page 154

The potato makes its way to the Highlands

The point in the eighteenth century, however, where the potato ceased to be a vegetable grown in the kitchen garden or the kailyards of the principal farm tenants and became widely recognised as a field crop is difficult to pinpoint. Certainly by 1755 the Annexed Estates factors advocated in their reports to their Edinburgh headquarters the cultivation of potatoes beyond the garden and the kailyard…The potential of the potato to solve the shortage of pasture and animal foodstuffs during the winter months must have been influenced by the impact that the potato was already making on the human population by then. It has been claimed that the potato was the single most important innovation in basic diet between 1600 and 1800… Unknowingly the humble potato was to be a god-send, for a crop which produced tenfold yields in comparison to the threefold returns of the oats and the fourfold returns of the bear permitted population growth without necessitating an accompanying rise in the amount of land under cultivation and helped to stave off hunger and starvation when grain harvests were poor or failed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Shieling 1600-1840, The Case of the Central Scottish Highlands, Albert Bil, page 288

The coming of the potato as a common field crop in the decades after 1760 provided the means to support a large population in a small area. It was possible for peasants to divide and divide again small-holdings, giving the occupiers the delusion that they had some sort of prescriptive right to hold land in clan territory. Furthermore, landowners were ambivalent, they had the need of a large work force to gather kelp and they enjoyed lots of people on their land as a sentimental reference to the recent past. TC Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 p 348

There was a population explosion between 1750 - 1850

Large population increases had been taking place in the Highlands. Skye had risen from 13,000 in 1755 to 24,500 in 1811; Mull and southern Inner Hebrides from 10,000 to 18,000. This meant that what had been small farms, now became tiny farms. TC Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 p 349

Population of the Highlands shown on census returns to be 362,000. Highland Folk Ways, IF Grant, page 53

By 1830, the Highlanders had become a society of small-holders living in great poverty on congested holdings either on crowded islands or next to extensive sheep farms: their existence hung above all else upon the condition of the potato crop, and if this failed (as it did so tragically in the 1840s) nothing could prevent the collapse of their economy and a subsequent exodus on a scale that would eclipse by far the Sutherland clearances. TC Smout, A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 p 358

The failure of the Irish potato crop occurred in 1846. British Parliament repealed the Corn Laws. A New History of Great Britain, Mowat, page 603.

During the same year during the winter months consumption of seed corn occurred in Lewis, Barra, South Uist, Harris, Skye, Arisaig and Moidart. Great Highland Famine, TM Devine and John Donald 1988

It was also reported that William Robertson, who had a sheep farm at Kinlochmoidart, discovered that there was more to his lease than wool and mutton…'I believe that one fourth of the population of my estate would have died of famine ere now, had I not supplied them with food. This I have hitherto done at vast expense, inconvenience and sacrifice. Were it not for an imperative sense of duty, I would not remain in the Highlands and see so much that pains me.'" The Highland Clearances, John Prebble page 178

By the Spring of 1847, almost all the able-bodied men in Arisaig and Moidart had gone to seek work in the lowlands. Great Highland Famine p321 TM Devine and John Donald 1988 temporary Migration and the Crofting Region, parish Patterns in the 1840s - Jean Lawson

Central Board figures and, those from Estate and Poor Law records for 1850 showed "acute distress concentrated in the Ardnamurchan peninsula and the parishes of Arisaig, Moidart, Glenelg, Kintail and Lochcarron". Great Highland Famine p46 TM Devine and John Donald 1988-JL

From the mid 1850s, estate policy was not violent eviction, but the quiet encouragement to remove, the easing out of a people who could often pay little rent and who might become a substantial liability if they stayed. A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950, TC Smout, page 69

Too little too late for a swollen population most of whom left

During the hundred years between 1750 and 1850, the rural community in the Western Highlands had moved from a feudal clan relationship into an impoverished and overcrowded peasantry. Mass emigration abroad during the whole of this period offered for many, the only option. Some were offered assisted passages, reaching a crescendo at the time when the failure of the potato crop occurred in the mid-nineteenth century.

But that is another story.