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OLD RURAL CAITHNESS THROUGH WRITERS' EYES
An aerial view of the rural arable landscape of lowland Caithness gives an instant impression of neat geometry created by our agriculturalists. This is essentially a very modern picture, largely forged in the nineteenth century: it is a landscape of revolution rather than evolution. This revolution was accomplished by the consolidation of land and the replacement of joint farms by single holdings.
By the middle of the 19th century the old system of township agriculture was virtually extinct, the remaining examples of run-rig (or rig and rennal at it was sometimes termed) being mere curiosities. Yet, despite the glaring inadequacies and inefficiencies of the old system of agriculture and the long list of services due to the lairds the impression gained from various writers is that the tenants fared better than in most other parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
A 17th century observation made by a Cromwellian trooper, Franck, who was based in Caithness was published in 1656. He spoke of the county "where a rude sort of inhabitants dwell (almost as barbarous as cannibals) who, when they kill a beast, boil him in his hide, make a caldron of his skin, browis his bowels, drink of his blood, and bread and meat of his carcase".
Another 17th century visitor was William Lithgow who commented favourably upon the county's fertility and the well-being of the people.
If the people did not appeal to Franck, then the landscape had little attraction for Thomas Pennant . . . . "Caithness may be called an immense morass". He then instantly disagreed with himself by pronouncing that the county "produces and exports great quantities of oatmeal". Wright confirmed the abundance of provisions and their cheapness as well as the considerable export of bere and oats. The grain exported belonged solely to the proprietors who had grain houses (girnels) at Staxigoe, Murkle and Thurso.
The Old Statistical Account confirmed the significance of Caithness as a grain exporting county with surpluses from the parishes of Olrig, Bower, Dunnet, Thurso and Wick.
Charles Cordiner was almost euphoric in some of his descriptions of the Caithness rural landscape . . . . "the beauty of the farms is remarkable; many of the corn fields of great extent showing a rich, uninterrupted verdure, for several miles together".
Daniel Defoe's publication of 1738, which had a number of contributors, underlined the relative prosperity of the people who were, "extremely well furnished with provisions". Venison was "exceedingly plentiful and at all seasons, young or old". Salmon was "in such plenty as is scarcely credible, and consequently so cheap". The people have "no want of cows and sheep . . . . and as for herrings, the quantity of them was a prodigy".
John Brand, who visited Caithness in 1700 claimed that "cattle and fish are also to be had very cheap. The county is very fertile, abounding with grass and corn, hence yearly there is a great quantity of victuall (grain) exported". He added that the Caithness lairds, notoriously spendthrift, could live better on 1000 merks than could their brethren in the south on four times as much.
Thirty five year later, Aeneas Bayne remarked that in the public taverns food was free, the profit presumably made on the sale of alcohol! The county of Caithness "abounds with good beef, mutton, veal, pork, lamb, goose and fowl, He concluded that it is "one of the best civilised shires in Scotland". John Henderson would appear to concur with this view by his claim that "the most numerous, useful and industrious class of society, live in a simple and homely style, but are healthy, and contented". John Donaldson argued that the frequently recurring famines which afflicted the Highlands had much less impact on Caithness, "owing to the fact that here agriculture had long since been established on a profitable basis".
What then was the agricultural 'modus operandi' of the tenant farmer prior to the sweeping changes that compartmented the landscape into a neat quilted blanket? The introduction to the reprint of the Old Statistical Account gives a valuable insight. The typical farming family of Watten, then, was probably representative of Caithness. The farmer would pay a rent of £3 and from 6 to 9 bolls of victual (which meant that, by value, the bulk of the rent was in victual) and for this he secured 12 to 20 acres of infield and 2 to 6 of outfield; in other words in any year he would have between 13 and 23 acres under cultivation. The crops were oats (grey or black to stand the winds of the area) and bear, with only potatoes as a concession to the novelties of the eighteenth century. He would also keep a mixed stock of animals - 4 to 6 small horses (garrons) for ploughing and for the carrying of grain, dung and peat; 16 to 20 cattle, representing an annual sale to the drover of one, two or three head, and 20 to 30 sheep kept for a supply of wool for the household. His fuel was peat, cut from an adjacent moss, a labour which occupied much of the summer; usually supplies were conveniently near but the lack of roads meant that much time and labour went into transporting them from moss to farm. His dwelling house was made by his own hands - not many masons were to be found in Caithness - the walls consisting of stone (probably drystone) to a height of two to three feet, surmounted by three to four feet of feal (turf); the roof consisted of a thin layer of wood, covered with divots (or turfs), tied down with ropes of heather. The custom of housing at night all the animals except horses meant that even a small farm had a considerable area in this style of building.
First published in April 1989 in
Caithness Field Club Bulletin