Experiments of Practical Farmers, &c.

[Scottish Potato Clearances Contents]

We can see there were articles with advice for farmers as well as calls for “practical farmers” to experiment with their crops and to provide their results, with a view to better future harvests and to find the cause and solution for diseases of potato crops, especially. 


Edinburgh, Feb. 17, 1800. 

   THE HIGHLAND SOCIETY OF SCOTLAND do hereby advertise, That they are to give the undermentioned PREMIUMS for raiʃing an early Crop of POTATOES, in the year 1800. 

   THE HIGHLAND SOCIETY being deʃirous to promote, as much as in its power, every meaʃure tending to prevent the continuance of the evils which have been occaʃioned by the failure of laʃt crop, has lately addreʃʃed to its Members and the Public, some Directions reʃpecting the Selection of Seed Corns for the enʃuing ʃeaʃon, accompanied by a warm recommendation of an Increaʃed and Earlier Plantation of POTATOES. 


– Caledonian Mercury, Saturday, 22nd February, 1800, p.3. 

   Sir John Sinclair called the attention of the society to the utility of promoting the planting of early potatoes over the country, particularly by those having small possessions, portioners in villages, and cottagers, as a means of affording an early supply of food, which was especially necessary at present, from the partial failure of the crop of last year in some parts of Scotland. A paper upon this subject, drawn up at the request of the directors, by Dr Duncan, jun. of Edinburgh. and Mr Neill, secretary to the Caledonian Horticultural Society, was laid before the meeting. The society highly approved of the suggestion of Sir John Sinclair as the propriety of recommending the cultivation of early potatoes, and remitted to the directors to publish and circulate such recommendation, with an abstract from the paper by Dr Duncan and Mr Neill, as to the proper mode of carrying it into effect. 

– The Scots Magazine, Friday, 1st January, 1813, p.44. 

   Neither is it true that restrictions on the corn trade afford any security for our obtaining an ample and independent supply of raw produce. On the contrary, the wider the surface from which a country derives its supplies of food, the less will it be exposed to fluctuations of price, arising from favourable or unfavourable seasons. A general failure of the crops of an extensive kingdom is a calamity that but seldom occurs. The weather that is unfavourable to vegetation in one species of soil is frequently favourable to it in another. If moist clayey lands suffer from a wet summer, the crops are rendered more luxuriant in dry rocky districts. The excess of produce in one province compensates for its deficiency in another; and, except in anomalous cases, the total supply is nearly the same. But if this be generally true of a single nation, it is always true in reference to the world at large. No one instance of universal scarcity blackens the history of mankind; but it is constantly found, that when the crops of one country fail, plenty reigns in some other quarter. A freedom of trade is alone wanted to guarantee a country like Britain, abounding in all the varied products of industry, in merchandise suited to the wants of every society, from the possibility of a scarcity. The nations of the earth are not condemned to throw the dice to determine which of them shall submit to famine. There is always abundance of food in the world. To enjoy a constant plenty we have only to lay aside our prohibitions and restrictions, and to cease to counteract the benevolent wisdom of Providence. 

– The Scotsman, Saturday, 5th December, 1818, p.2. 


(Letter 5th of MEDICUS in the Scotsman.) 


   I have already represented the great advantage of this discovery to the Highlands, in so clear and satisfactory a light, that I should conceive the landed proprietors in that country will lose no time in exerting their influence to promote an object ultimately so highly conducive to their own interest. There is not a shadow of doubt, that by the conversion of a large proportion of their potatoes into flour, they may save that people the enormous expense of an annual importation of several hundred thousand bolls of meal, whilst the southern parts of the kingdom would be spared that large drain from their stock of food, without injury to any party, so far as I can discover. I feel particularly desirous to direct attention to this subject at this period, when the meetings of the leading persons in the various counties take place, for considering objects of public importance. Improvements or discoveries cannot, unfortunately, be conveyed to the inhabitants of that extensive region through the medium of the press, and consequently other means must be adopted, such as the offer of premiums to the persons in various districts who will manufacture the largest quantity. Indeed, were this practice productive of no other good than the unquestionable advantage of it to the health of the people, every benevolent person ought to give it his countenance. – For several years, since poverty has forced them to subsist almost entirely on potatoes, they suffer much distress from diseases of the stomach and bowels, for the truth of which I appeal to all medical men of observation and experience among them. Attempts being now made to depreciate the importance of this object, the public will pardon me for recapitulating the peculiar advantages which it will be found to afford. When the root is ripe, and of good quality, it will yield between a fourth and a fifth part of its weight of flour. About two table spoonfuls of this flour, boiled in milk or water, will be sufficient for breakfast for the average of a family, and so in proportion for dinner, &c., and double that quantity of wheaten flour would scarcely suffice. It may be used for every other purpose of common flour, and makes a much more light, nutritious, and delicious article of diet. It is proof against vermin of all descriptions, and it may be preserved for many years without injury to its quality; according to the price I have paid for potatoes at the average of 17 years, I had the pound of it at one halfpenny, the boll of 140 lb. at 7s., and the sack at 14s. Potatoes will grow in every soil and climate in the habitable world, and either they or yams, which also will produce this flour, are actually found in every part of the globe. An acre of bad or indifferent land will yield from 6 to 8 times as much of potatoe flour as of oatmeal, and in good land, from 4 to 6 times as much of wheaten flour. The means of preserving the surplus of our potatoes from one year to another, for which Dr Adam Smith expressed so strong a desire, are now accomplished. Potatoes are less subject to failure in spring than green crops, and they are in a great degree independent of the weather, about the end of July, after which time grain suffers the greatest injury. With proper machines for the purpose, as may now be seen at 19, Regent Bridge Edin., they may be converted into flour in 10 minutes by a boy of fifteen. It may indeed be fairly asserted, that the worst of all the principal articles of human food known to us, is thus converted into the best with which we are acquainted, while the possibility of the occurrence of a scarcity of food, and much more that of famine, is for ever removed from us, and the quantity of animal food will also be increased very greatly, by the additional extent of land which will be turned into pasture, because 10 acres will yield as much food as 40 or 50 were wont to produce. 

– Inverness Courier, Wednesday, 17th October, 1827, p.4. 




   It is very observable that the draining and improving the country, has had a powerful effect on our climate. The winters now, in general, are nothing, either in duration or extreme cold, in comparison to what they were, even during the latter quarter of the last century; neither is there that sultry heat nor the frequent and tremendous thunder storms there use to be. The Tay was not unfrequently frozen, and the navigation for many weeks stoped [sic]. I have known the Tay to close from the month of December to the 10th of March. The year 1740 was long memorable for the length and severity of the winter, and was followed by the greatest dearth, or rather famine, ever experienced. I have heard an old man, who had a young family to provide for at that period, give a pityful description of their situation. 

   The frost set in with the greatest severity, early in the season, it continued [lacuna] for a week, bending the earth to a great depth, which happened to be very wet at the time, then a strong north-east wind set in, with a heavy snow, which continued for some days. The river was frozen almost to the bottom; an ox was roasted on the ice and a slice sold for 1s. The spring season came on, but there was no thaw to take the frost out of the ground, the frozen clods were ploughed down, and the seed sown in this state. The summer continued cold and bleak in the extreme, without any sun-shine; the harvest was the same, the consequence was, that the crop was very little, and that of the poorest quality. 


   Since that period, we have been frequently visited with bad harvests, which, for a time, brought on great distress amongst the labouring poor; there were few potatoes planted then, and, owing to the want of skill in keeping them, they were deemed unfit for use after January. Between the years 1770 and 80, there were several failures in the harvest, when many serious riots occurred here, and besides the rise of price, which was from 9d. to 15d. a-peck, the trouble of getting a little of it was often very great; a multitude was often seem at the meal-market, (which was then all full,) jammed up between the church and the market, scrambling for a peck of meal, for perhaps 2 hours, before they got out. There was a season after the year 1790, when the harvest-season was extremely wet; the crop was not deficient in quantity, but both grain and straw were severely damaged, and the substance gone; the meal was quite red in the colour, and had so little nourishment, that people were never satisfied with any quantity the stomach could take. The horses and cattle became so weak in the spring, that many of them had to be lifted in the mornings: But flour bread had by this time come more into use, and a good supply was obtained from other quarters. 

   But of all the dearths and bad seasons that ever occurred, none came round that were so severely and so generally felt by all classes, as the dear years, as they are since styled, – 1800 and 1801. They have been as remarkable for the revolution they brought about, in the value of agricultural property, and in raising the price of many of the first necessaries of life, as they were at the time for the distress they occasioned. At this period, too, the policy of the warlike powers shutting their ports against us, dreadfully aggravated the evil. The seed-time continued cold and wet throughout, strong frosts at night, with a bleak and barren sky, and at times cold snow blasts though the day, had almost blasted the hopes of the husbandmen, and created a general alarm amongst the poor. The summer continued cold and barren, and when harvest arrived, wheat, corn, and potatoes were found deficient in an alarming degree. When the grain came to be thrashed, it produced little substance but dust. I have known a famer take 16 bolls of corn to the mill, and bring home only 2 bolls of meal, of such a quality as made it fit only to feed swine. A general and unprecedented rise took place in the prices of grain, butter, cheese, hay, and straw, whilst a heavy reduction of wages took place amongst the manufacturing classes. The winter passed on with the labouring poor in a miserable manner, not only from the high prices of provisions, but also from the difficulty of finding any thing when they had the money. 

   The spring of next year [lacuna] in still more inauspicious; a cold barren drought, with furious north and north-east gales of wind that raised the very soil into clouds of dust in the air, completely checked vegetation. The summer set in with intense drought and heat that withered up every pile of grass, garden stuffs of every kind gave way, and, in general, the grain that had been sown was of such a bad quantity, that but little of it brairded, and what little did appear, was soon scorched. The general aspect of the country became alarming in the extreme, dearth and want appeared in every quarter. The failure of the crops was general all over the Continent, and from America little supply could be procured. A small quantity of Indian flour was got, but this at first was extremely ill liked, but necessity brought people to be glad of it, when it could be got, but this supply was soon exhausted, and of flour bread, where there was a family, the supply was very limited; a penny roll weighed about 2½ oz. and the quartern loaf sold at 20d., and even this supply could not at times be found for money. It was quite common to see some of the bakers’ shops shut by noon, this they did when their bread was sold, to avoid the importunity of people asking them. Besides the difficulty of finding grain, the want of water to grind it was a serious matter, almost all the country mills-leads were dried up, and even the Perth mills, that usually have such a command of water, were almost laid up. The farmers and people who kept milk cows were in a dreadful state with their cattle; fields of whins were let from 8l. to 12l. per acre, and great was the toil of cutting and thrashing them soft for both horses and cattle. Every class of society felt the pressure, the Legislature had to make regulations for limiting the consumption in the families of the rich, an act was passed, prohibiting the making up of any flour but that from which only the coarse bran was taken, and the consumption recommended to be limited to a certain quantity for each individual; and the baking of puddings and pastry was entirely given up. Large subscriptions were set on foot amongst the rich for the poor, to purchase meal to sell at reduced prices. Here a very liberal subscription was raised, and applied in this way. 

– Perthshire Courier, Thursday, 19th November, 1829, p.3. 


[To the Editor of the Inverness Courier.] 

   SIR, – A good deal has been said and written about the failure of the potatoe crop, but as yet there appears to be no satisfactory light thrown on the cause. I am myself one of those who have this year suffered by it. Of a field of about 6 acres, I first planted a boll of the white kidney kind, about the beginning of April. The manure was a compost midden of animal dung and black earth, moss, &c., all trenched together and allowed to ferment before putting it into the drills. This boll’s sowing has succeeded well, and has every appearance of turning out a good crop. The rest of my potatoes, about the first of May before we began to plant (and we commenced by setting about 4 bolls of the round blue kind, and a few of the round red sort, manured with the remainder of the compost midden already mentioned) have all come and have a good appearance. We continued to plant without interruption until the whole were finished in the course of a week or so, manured with the best sort of animal dung, trodden by the cattle in sheds, and a very small remainder of the compost midden, which was not trenched before, and which was now put into the drill in that state. 

   The potatoes in this part of the field came up very slowly and irregular, and to the extent of three-fourths of a Scots acre are totally a failure. I remarked that the best and most regular plants came up where the land was manured with the untrenched remainder of the compost midden; although not nearly equal to those where the trenched and consequently fermented compost was laid. The field was in excellent order, having only bore one crop of oats after being two years in grass, which grass was laid down with barley after turnips. My opinion, therefore, is that in the very clean and pulverised field the putrid fermentation had taken place in the dung too rapidly, and was so powerful in the dry weather which succeeded as in a manner to parboil the sets, consequently put an end to vegetation. Indeed, the splits on examination had every appearance of this being the case. I am led to this conclusion not only from what took place in my own field, but from the circumstance of a part of one of my neighbours’ potatoes having given way where the manure was similar. 


   Were the potatoes planted in the month of March, or while clean well-pulverised land retained a considerable degree of moisture and coldness, I am persuaded there would be no failure even if the drills were to be filled with the rankest manure. That the failure was not owing to the seed planted will appear evident from the following circumstances:- First, that potatoes out of the very same pit succeeded admirably in the immediate neighbourhood; and further, that a few basketsfull given to a poor woman out of one of the carts which contained the splits we were planting the very day those which turned out a complete failure were planted, has been with her the very best in the field. The manure with which this poor woman’s potatoes was planted was a collection of fog, i.e. the moss plant which grows so abundantly in woods and other sheltered places; mixed with the ashes of the brushwood and other materials which she used for fuel – enriched with the droppings of cattle gathered on the road sides. The whole heap having thus been gradually accumulated underwent the process of fermentation slowly and progressively previous to its being used as manure. 

I am, Sir, your obedient servant, 

                                                                A PRACTICAL FARMER. 

   Aug. 6, 1833. 

– Inverness Courier, Wednesday, 7th August, 1833, p.3. 




IN 1834. 



EDINBURGH, Feb. 10, 1834. 



   A partial failure having taken place in the potatoe crop of last year, the society hereby offers a premium of Ten Sovereigns for the best Essay on the nature and causes of the injury or disease, and on the best means of preventing or palliating it in future. The attention of the writer is especially directed to the probable existence of insects, in the sets or tubers; and if such have been detected, he is required to give a description of them, and, if possible, to transmit with his Essay specimens of the insects. Candidates are further required to examine the state of the growing plants in the present year, and to observe with care whether any or similar insects attack the sets, under what circumstances of soil or culture they appear to prevail, and generally, to state their opinions as to the cause of the disease or injury, and means of remedy. In the case, too, of the same injury taking place in the present year, specimens of the diseased plant in its different stages and of the insects, if any, found on it, are to accompany the Essay, which must be lodged with the Secretary of the Society on or before the 20th day of October 1834. 

– The Scotsman, Wednesday, 19th February, 1834, p.4. 


   The Quarterly Journal of Agriculture, and the Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. No. XXVII

   The present number begins with a most useful and interesting Article on the Potatoe, and from the various considerations there brought forward, conjoined with the history of the plant, the conclusion is drawn that “Chill alone is the native country of the Potatoe.” The uses to which it is applicable are truly various and numerous; starch, arrow root, flour, size, sugar, spirits, cheese, butter, coffee, chocolate, tapioca, and vermicelli; dye stuffs, cleansing liquids, and medicine. The history and utility of the Potatoe is followed by an article on its recent failures, which is the result of practical experience. The writer says:- 

   “I examined the sets, to find out the cause of the failure, and found fully half their number quite rotten; and, what is remarkable, every rotten set had been placed with its cut surface on the dung, and the dung had become as it were glued to it. These circumstances led me to think that the rotting of the sets had been somehow or other caused by the dung; but still I could not satisfy myself in regard to the cause. After I had observed all this, I had five drills of them put in with the same dung as the others; but, in order to guard against the rotting causing a loss of the whole crop, as this same kind of potatoe had rotted the year before, I caused a parcel of the sets to be put into the head ridge of the five drills, without any dung; my intention being to take up these sets on the head ridge after they had sprung, and, with them, to fill up any blanks that might occur in the five drills. 

   The ridge of the purple potatoe presenting so many blanks, I resolved on taking up all the plants that had sprung above ground, when I found all the sets quite sound, and putting out vigorous shoots, and their skinny surface next the dung. Some days after this operation, I examined the five drills, and found many of the sets rotten; but only those whose cut surfaces had been placed in contact with the dung, which was again glued to them. The sets were never effected when the round or skinny surface was placed next the dung. These facts convinced me that the dung was the cause of rottenness in the sets. I presume the dung put into the ground in warm weather continues to ferment, and that this fermentation is communicated to the cut surface of the set. The rotten set feels like a piece of boiled turnip, and has a most offensive smell. In some cases, about one-sixteenth of the substance of the potatoe was found adhering to the skin, and a puny shoot proceeding from it. 

   As a corroboration of what I have stated, I may mention that a neighbour, Mr Seeda, has three fields of potatoes, one-half of which has failed. He mentioned his loss to me, and on examining the crop, we found all the sets which had been placed with their cut surfaces on the dung, rotten, while the most forward and vigorous plants had the round uncut side next the dung.” 

– Fifeshire Journal, Saturday, 20th December, 1834, p.4. 


I remember being taught in school that as the lands weren’t farmed properly by the population, that the “potato famine” began with crops everywhere rotting, getting diseased, and going black and goopy, in the ground, prior to harvest. This, apparently, conveys the idea that the Scottish farming population didn’t learn or progress in agriculture. Which we can see, is entirely wrong. In 1857 a Scot, Mr John Kyle, of Clydeview, Partick, was awarded 10k Francs by the French government for having saved the French wine industry from a virulent grape disease that had been threatening French & Spanish vineyards;

   AWARD BY THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT TO A SCOTCHMAN. – Some ten years ago Mr John Kyle, of Clydeview, Partick, near Glasgow, an eminent horticulturalist, after a long course of experiments, propounded as a preventative and cure for the grape disease, which about that time commenced its ravages in France and Spain, the application of sulphur to the plant. Mr Kyle’s mode of cure was the subject of considerable discussion in the press among the English horticulturalists at the time, and not a few were the talkers and writing theorists who treated it as preposterous and ridiculous. The Scotchman, however, with native coolness, replied with the argument that “facts are chiels that winna ding,” and at last silenced every objection, by practical demonstrations, of the efficiency of the cure.  The subject was afterwards warmly taken up in France, to which it was of vast national importance; and after several years of careful experiment in that country, a report has just been presented to the French Government, mentioning that the cure of the disease, first propounded by Mr Kyle in 1848, is the only one which has proved successful in not only destroying, but preventing the disease, which has caused so much anxiety and loss in the vine-growing district in France; and the French Government, in conjunction with the Societe Industrielle, have awarded 10,000 francs to Mr Kyle as the first propounder of the cure – three Frenchmen who took a prominent part in testing it being also recipients of a portion of the same highly honourable award. Mr Kyle, we understand, knew nothing, and never even dreamt of such an honour, until his attention was drawn to the fact in the Times newspaper. 

– Glasgow Courier, 15th July, 1857. 

I think Scots were pretty on top of things when it came to farming crops.  

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