Review of the state of Scotland during the latter half of the Eighteenth century – Forfeited Estates – State of Agriculture – Poverty of the people – The Dear Years – Degraded political condition of the people – Corruption and tyranny of the Bench – State Trials.
AFTER the harvest of blood the Government sought to enrich themselves at the expense of the rebels. But the Scots were a cautious people in those days, even more so than they are now, and as the hazard of the enterprise was well known various devices were resorted to to secure the family estates. They were encumbered by real or fictitious debts, and as the Courts held these debts to have a prior claim upon the estate the price that was paid for them amounted to little more than a smart fine. The notoriously cumbersome character of the feudal title was usefully employed to produce delay, and so well was the dilatory nature of the Court worked that the general amnesty was proclaimed before a large number of the estates could be conveyed.
But the most fortunate circumstance of all, and to which Scotland owes much of her rural peace, was that there was no English colony planted in Scotland. Englishmen had an insuperable objection to Scotchmen; they gave them credit for every species of villany, and also that their ability was such that the most astute Englishman was no match for them. The complete collapse of the York Building Society, who had largely invested in forfeited estates in 1715, confirmed them in this opinion, and so Scotland was saved from an English garrison. The estates that were not bought back by a friendly family arrangement were taken up by Scotchmen of means, so that the friendly relations of landlord and tenant were never disturbed. The tenant farmers have always been warmly attached to their landlords, and it would not be amiss to state some of the reasons for this mutual esteem.
At the time of which we write, the latter half of the eighteenth century, agriculture in Scotland was in a most deplorable condition. Few, if any, of the fields were enclosed, more than half of the land was unreclaimed from the wilderness, and the most slovenly modes of tillage prevailed all over Scotland. As the political world was too dangerous for country gentlemen to meddle with, it became the passion of the hour to improve their estates. A home farm became the universal appendage to a property, and there the lairds studied agriculture in a practical manner, and with greater means at their disposal than their tenants, they were able to prove by experiment the value of certain crops. The tenants were not slow to improve upon the lesson shown them by the landlords, and the result of sound theory and practical experience was embodied in those nineteen year leases which for so many years after played so important a part in Scottish agriculture. The rents were fairly adjusted to the advantages, one mode of apportioning them being, in our opinion, a particularly happy one, which might with advantage be adopted now, that it, the rent was fixed at one-third of the corn crops, and if paid in money the fiars’ prices determined the amount to be paid. The enclosure of fields enabled turnips to be raised. So, slowly but surely, the landlord and tenant working together built up the arable and pasture land of our day. The bogs were drained, the boulders blasted, and by constant labour, in spite of a poor soil and a dour climate, Scotch farms became models of agriculture science. These facts would be well to be borne in mind by land reformers who claim the lands as national property.
It cannot be said that any great wealth had flowed into Scotland from the incorporating Union; the progress had been, like that of the crab, backward. We will be better able to estimate the poverty of the country by reference to the wages paid for labour. Thus a gentleman’s gardener got £2 a-year of salary and his board, and a maidservant £1 a-year. Day labourers were paid 6d a-day, while an itinerant tailor got 4d; these in local parlance were called ‘whip the cats,’ and made up the garments in their employers’ houses. The cloth was manufactured at home, spun and dyed by the eident housewife. The most rigid economy prevailed in every department. Animal food was scarcely ever partaken of even by the tenant farmers. The oatmeal bannock was considered a luxury, but singularly enough salmon was relegated as a fitting food for servants. All classes seemed to follow a uniform plan in their meals. Thus they breakfasted at eight, dined at one, and supped at eight. The houses of the farmers were of the meanest description, being built of turf; and even in Edinburgh the houses occupied by the gentry would be spurned by the smallest shopkeeper now. There were very few wheeled carriages or carts, the state of the roads did not permit of their extensive use; both for business and pleasure riding on horseback became the universal habit. Slowly, but surely, the Scots, by their own industry, raised their country from this deplorable slough; the making of good roads went on steadily – statute labour roads as they were called; many returned from abroad with considerable fortunes, and in the improvement in their dwellings and mode of living gradually raised the whole status of the people. The flow of capital into Scotland by this means, and the admirable banking system by which the capital was regulated, enabled the people to develop the resources of the country. Although the improvements in agriculture made food more abundant, it could never do away with the fickleness of our climate, so we find it recorded that famines were frequent.
Those who read the works of contemporary writers find frequent allusions to the ‘dear years’ – periods when the crops had partially or entirely failed. The starving people at these times often rose in tumult, and the magistrates had to step in and suspend the usual operations of commerce. We have a lively recollection of some of these times, as told by relatives, when a certain amount of meal was allowed for each family, who had to go in regular turn and pay their money and carry home the priceless store of food to their starving children. Be it remembered, these were not paupers, but people in fairly good circumstances. This dislocation of the natural supplies of the country was brought about by the absurd fiscal policy of the English Government, against the wishes of the whole Scottish people. An ignorant or malicious Government can destroy the commerce of a country by a single Act of Parliament; not twenty Acts of Parliament can restore it again. The English Custom House officers destroyed the commerce of Scotland; for the Scottish people at the time of the Union were as much in advance of the English in the principles of free trade as the free trader now is from the ‘fair trader.’ The commerce of Scotland being destroyed, the means of supplying wholesome food from abroad when our own harvests failed were cut off, and so when famine came upon us, the poor were reduced to the direst distress, and forced to partake of unnatural food, which shortened their days.
No Scotsman can but blush at the political state of his country during the latter half of the eighteenth century. The forty-five members returned by Scotland were simply the nominees of the Government, and that country was treated as the pocket county of England. What other thoughts could Englishmen have? Cornwall sent up forty-four members, Scotland forty-five. Could they possibly think of her as an ancient kingdom, with separate interests and laws? No, they only counted votes, and Cornwall was but one vote behind Scotland. The English elector, however, had means of making his influence felt unknown to Scotland; for the forty shilling freeholder introduced a large yeoman element into the electorate which tempered the despotism of the large landowners. But in Scotland no such class existed, and a Member of Parliament was often returned by some half a dozen votes – the price of every one being well known and duly paid for. The lives and liberties of the Scottish people and all their possessions were at the mercy of a handful of favourites, who were controlled by the Ministry in London – truly a striking example of the blessings flowing from the incorporating Union of 1707, which its promoters impudently declared was to extend the blessings of civilisation to Scotland. The natural result of this state of things was that Scotland was either totally neglected or favoured with coercive statutes, – such as the closing of the Episcopal meeting-houses because the Scottish gentry were tainted with Jacobitism, and the forbidding the Highlanders to wear their national dress.
These penal statutes were not allowed to remain a dead letter. Partisan judges of the worst description were placed upon the Bench, who never even pretended to administer justice. Juries were chosen to convict, and if there were witnesses bold enough to appear for the accused they were tripped up by a clever advocate, and speedily found themselves inside a jail. There were many Judge Jeffreys in those days. The State trials towards the close of the eighteenth century will for ever stand as a foul stain upon the College of Justice. The spirit which animated the Government will be understood from this sentence which dropped from the lips of the Lord Justice-Clerk when charging the jury at the trial of Mr Muir:- ‘A Government in every country should be just like a Corporation, and in this country it is made up of the landed interest, which alone had the right to be represented; as for the rabble, which had nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation of them?’ Fox’s exclamation, ‘God help the people who have such Judges!’ will find a response in the heart of every lover of his country.
So little did Government respect the terms of the Treaty of Union that at the trial of Watt and Downie at Edinburgh in 1794 the Scotch law was entirely set aside, and a grand jury and a common jury after the English fashion substituted. We will close this reference to the State trials by quoting the motto on the Martyrs’ Monument, which was erected in 1844 in the Calton Cemetery at Edinburgh:-
THE MEMORY OF
THOMAS FYSHE PALMER,
‘I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause; it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph.’ – Speech of Thomas Muir in the Court of Justiciary on the 30th August 1793.
‘I know that what has been done these two days will be rejudged.’ – Speech of William Skerving in the Court of Justiciary on the 7th January 1794.
There was nothing done by Government at this time to promote the well-being of the people, or to develop the natural resources of the country, and so little did they think of the liberties of Scotsmen that bands of kidnappers freely exercised their odious calling and shipped many a score to the American plantations, where they were sold as slaves, much in the same way as the negro was captured for the West Indian Islands.
This brings us now to consider the state of the English Colonies of 1707, and what was their extent, for it had been freely asserted that Scotland secured the high privilege of trading to the English Colonies by the Treaty of Union, and so opened a field of industry for her sons, which had gone far to bring about her present state of prosperity.1 It is only necessary to point out that all these advantages would have been secured by the federal connection proposed by our fathers if such advantages really existed. The colonies possessed by England in 1707 consisted of a few of the West Indian Islands, the chief of which were Jamaica and Barbadoes, and a portion of the North American Continent, now forming a part of the United States of America.
This latter possession was principally considered of value as a penal settlement for political criminals, a considerable number of whom were afterwards sent out from Scotland. Many went out as voluntary exiles – the Pilgrim Fathers, sturdy Republicans, if somewhat gloomy and narrow in their religious ordinances. These were the whole colonies of England. As the population of the American colonies in 1775, when they declared their independence, was only three millions, they could hardly be much over two millions when the Union of 1707 was consummated; and as the English had the start in their intercourse with these States, the good that came to Scotland would require a microscope to find out. Our present magnificent Indian Empire had no existence in 1707. There was a Company of Indian traders who had a monopoly secured to them by the English Parliament, and that Company called the East India Company, had a few factories along the Indian coast, the chief of which was at Calcutta; but we find no mention of this field of enterprise in the Treaty of Union, and the Scots, if they had any share in the good things to be derived from such enterprise, could only receive it as servants of the Company.
It was in 1757 that Lord Clive fought the battle of Plassey, and he and Warren Hastings were the founders of our Indian Empire. The history of India, however, records the exploits of our countrymen, and in the great Mutiny of the native troops the gallant Highlanders, under Sir Colin Campbell, were mainly instrumental in securing this magnificent possession of the Crown. Canada was taken from the French in 1759, and here again the Scotch regiments played a gallant part. The Cape of Good Hope was taken from the Dutch in 1806. New Zealand had not been discovered or Australia taken possession of in 1707, so that the assertion that Scotland owes her prosperity from trading with England’s Colonies is untrue, while the honourable part which Scotland has played in the acquisition of the Colonies there are few Englishmen who will be hardy enough to deny. This necessary brief review of the last fifty years of the eighteenth century can only be of use in stimulating further inquiry. The main facts are given as a skeleton; the student can clothe it with flesh and blood for himself. Up to this point of our history the fears of our countrymen had been abundantly verified, the Union had brought ruin upon Scotland, her commerce had been destroyed, her taxes had been increased, her liberty invaded, her laws and institutions tampered with and destroyed, and the free kingdom of Scotland made the servile tool of the English Ministry.