AYRSHIRE ROOTS

 

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THE STORY OF KYLE AND CARRICK FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO.

 

It is not easy to bring up a mind picture of everyday life a hundred years ago, and the further away "back we go the task becomes the more difficult. In a hot July day you way talk of winter with its lowering skies and its crisp breezes and its cold snow drifts, but you cannot, even in the wildest stretch of imagination, fancy the sensation of a frosty morning. You know quite well what the frosty morning is like, but under the sultry suns of midsummer it is as intangible as a dream of the night. So is it with the centuries that went out long ago. You can read about them, you know that our forefathers did certain things, were imbued with certain conviction attired themselves in a given garb, and ate certain foods; but not without the utmost difficulty can you place yourself down in the midst of them, walk with them, see the scenes they saw, hear the language they talked, or enter into their feelings concerning the every day events of their lives. And so far as they were concerned individually, these were what made their lives worth living or not worth living. The moving of the nations, the changing of dynasties, the crashing of empires, these do not as a rule much affect the ordinary countryman of domestic habits. A line of monarchs may die out, empire may succeed kingdom, or republic be raised on the ruins of empire, yet his little world wags all the same and his rooftree stands sure above his head, independent of forms of government.

But while we cannot without a vivid use of the fancy transport ourselves to other day's, we can utilize the experience and the observation of others, and this must be done if the picture to be presented is at all to be true to the life. And fortunately there were observers of the passing ages and of the simple manners and customs of the countryside. In Carrick, for instance, there was the Episcopal clergyman of Maybole, or Minniebole as it was then called, Mr. William Abercrombie, who utilized his short stay in the capital of the bailliary to some useful purpose. In all probability his congregation was small, for he was a Prelatist forced upon a Presbyterian people, but nevertheless he made good use of his opportunities for collecting knowledge and recording his impressions of the times in which he lived. A century later there was Colonel Fullarton of Fullarton who noted things as they were at that date, who spoke from a long experience, and who, apparently, was eminently solicitous to help on the social progress of the people among whom he spent his days.

Earlier observers also left their impressions, and to-day we can look back through their spectacles and produce a faithful picture of the Ayrshire that then was. There is no need, however, to go back in detail further than the two centuries which have all but elapsed since the minister of Minniebole sat in his study and transcribed his contributions to "The Geographical Collections relating to Scotland, collected by Walter MacFarlan of that Ilk, Esquire."

When Colonel Fullarton began to indite his "General View of the Agriculture of the County of Ayr," he professed himself sensible that "this must unavoidably be the dullest of all writings And no doubt he thought so, too. Were we to follow him in detail, our readers might be inclined, possibly, to side with the gallant colonel, but this there is no need, for the attainment of the object we have just now in view, to do. We are dealing with social and not agricultural progress, and therefore we must discard the merely technical study and confine ourselves to such passages as bear on the general social condition of the shire.

We have said that Colonel Fullarton wrote from a long observant knowledge of Ayrshire, and the picture which he draws of its condition in the middle of last century is dark and somewhat dismal, At that period there was hardly a practicable road in the county. The farm houses were mere hovels, "moated with clay," having an open hearth or fireplace in the middle, the dunghill was it the door, the cattle were starving, and the people wretched. Ditches were ill-constructed and hedges worse preserved. The land was over-grown with weeds and rushes, and "drowned" with water, save in the centre of the ridges, which were very high.

There were no green crop, no sown grass, no carts or waggons, no straw yards. Garden vegetables were almost unknown. Hardly a potato was to be seen. The little bits of gardens contained poor, straggling kail stocks, which, with milk and oatmeal, composed the standard food of the countryside. Sledges for the carriage of manure were still employed in many districts, in others the manure was carried on cars set on what wore called tumbler-wheels, which turned with the axle-tree, and these cars hardly sufficed to bear half a ton in weight. The ground was literally scourged with a succession of crops of oats until it would bear its wretched crop no longer, and then it was allowed to lapse into a condition of sterility and into a wilderness of weeds until it had sufficiently recuperated to produce again a scanty harvest.

Farms were small. A very ordinary sized holding was a ploughgate," or as much as could employ four horses, the one half of the farm annually being turned up for seed. Three or four farmers frequently lived together in a common centre and worked their holdings on the mutual help principle. Rents were in many cases paid in kind, the landlord receiving half the produce of the land. In addition to his share of the crops, the laird exacted various servitudes from his tenants. They had to plough his fields for him, work his hay, lead it in, and generally to attend to his business ere they were permitted to mind their own, and, as a consequence, their harvests were not unfrequently ruined from over exposure to the rains and the frosts of the fall months. Cattle were out on the fields, roaming at will, from the end of harvest to the ensuing seed-time, and the result in many cases was that on the clay lands the roots of the natural grass were broken, or the grass itself rotted with the water which gathered in the footprints of the stock. The horses were fed in winter on straw, on boiled chaff, on inferior corn, and on such coarse hay as could be collected from the bogs and marshes. It took four horses to each plough and three men, one to hold, another to drive, and a third to clear the mould board and keep the coulter in the ground. The plough was invariably heavy, in order that it might contend on fair, equal terms with. the stony ground. As a rule enough flax was grown on the farm to keep the women of the family busy at hours that might otherwise have been leisure, and enough hemp for the making of sacks and other coarse material, the stacks of the hemp being substituted in place of candles. Even when there were coal pits in the vicinity, the farmers spent months in cutting, drying, and loading peats to serve as fuel. In winter the cattle were in a condition approaching starvation. By the spring time they were hardly in a position to rise without assistance. In summer they were perpetually harassed by the herds and the yelping dogs which followed at their heels, and the result of their year's round of existence was that they were seldom fit for the market. The country people, however, used very little butcher meat and in the towns, save among the better class, flesh was not by any means a common article of diet. Porridge, oatmeal cakes, milk, cheese, groats, or prepared barley, and broth, formed the staple fare. The population of the town of Ayr in the middle of the eighteenth century was from four to five thousand; but so sparing were the burghers of butcher meat that one single animal was all that was killed per week, on an average.

Black cattle and blackfaced sheep had a monoply of the moorland farms. The former were regarded as heavy when they turned the scale at twenty stones, and the supply of wool obtained from the latter was no more than two or three pounds to a fleece.

The picture so far is a terribly black one, there is hardly a white or a bright patch on the canvas, and we might almost be inclined to think that the colours had been laid on with too heavy a hand. It is to be remembered, however, that Colonel Fullarton was not writing for the mere sake of writing, or even simply to record his impressions or his reminiscences, but that he was penning an official document for the Board of Agriculture, and that his statements were sure to be subjected to the strictest survey and the most critical analysis. Reluctantly therefore, they must be accepted as at least a very close approximation to the truth. Bearing this in mind it does not surprise us to learn that the low condition of agriculture was productive of constant misery, that on many estates this misery was shared alike by laird and by tenant, that mortgages sat heavy on the shoulders of the encumbered landlords, and that a series of bad seasons was the sure precursor of starvation. The, latter years of the seventeenth and the opening years of the eighteenth centuries produced incalculable suffering. The shire was reduced to something approaching actual want and many families were compelled to leave the country and seek refuge in the north of Ireland where anew they took up their occupation, and where their descendants remain to this day. When the depth of misery was the greatest the inhabitants were not unfrequently compelled, in order to obtain bare subsistence, to bleed their cattle, so that they might mix the blood with what oatmeal they could procure.

It was not until the latter end of last century that a permanent and beneficial change began to make itself felt. The proprietors of the smaller estates were unable, from pecuniary embarrassments, to initiate reform, but those of the larger properties stepped into the march of progress and set seriously about the improvement of the land, and, with the land, the improvement of the people. The Earl of Eglinton initiated the new departure, and immediately following him were Mr. Fairlie of Fairlie, Mr. Fullarton of Fullarton, and other public spirited men. They set about draining and fencing; they devised methods of communication between the populace of the towns and the dwellers in the rural districts; they found markets for butter, for eggs, for cheese; they introduced stallions whose sires had been imported from Flanders or Holstein; they improved the breed of dairy cattle, gradually driving out the black cattle and putting in their place the progenitors of the present red and white Ayrshires, they made roads which were highways worthy of the name; they planted trees in large districts of the shire where at that period they were practically unknown ; they taught the farmers the use of manures; they laid down systems of rotation in cropping; they, induced the tenants to discard the agricultural implements of their fathers, and generally promoted the dawn of a brighter and a better epoch than the old.

But they had their own troubles to contend with. There were old prejudices to combat. Labourers were ignorant and indolent; and even the farmers were slow to join in the advance which was visible in more favoured or more populous counties. Against these somewhat natural obstacles to progress, however, had to be placed incentives to industry. The population of the shire was rapidly increasing, coal-pits were being sunk, blast-furnaces were being erected or in full working, mills were being put down here, and there, harbours were being deepened, and facilities for reaching the markets were being devised. There was no possibility of standing still; and so Ayrshire went forward. Yet were there drawbacks. In the multitude of advanced theories and systems of agriculture, all could not prosper; and so it happened that while one man did fairly or even excellently well, another came to grief. All soils were not alike, any more than were the capacities of the tenants to assimilate change. What suited the fertile holms by the rivers was not by any means adapted to the cold clay lands which stretched, and which still stretch, across the county; and what was applicable to the deep loam of the lower lying lands of the interior was out of place on the light, early dry soils of the coast. These things had all to be comprehended, and they took time to comprehend. But a score of years ere last century ran in, it could be affirmed of the Ayrshire farmer that there was no county in the kingdom where crops, especially in wet weather, were more handily or expertly reaped.

Thrashing mills were in adjunct to the improvement. It cost from 30 to 40 to erect one of these, to be worked by two horses. Where the farmers preferred to go to the millers they were at liberty to do so; and in that case drying and grinding cost sixpence per quarter of oats; while the drying, steeping, and malting of barley involved an outlay of two shillings. The cost of preparing an acre of ground for seed was estimated at from thirty to forty shillings; of draining, three to five pounds an acre; of making a turnpike road, five or six shillings a fall; and a complete, single-mounted horse cart cost 5. For a time, even in an improving age, the people looked askance at pigs; but their remunerative, as well as their eating qualities came to recommend them. Asses were very rare indeed there was hardly a "quadruped of this description to be seen. Mr. 0swald of Auchincruive made an attempt to introduce a good serviceable breed of mules. He sent to Spain to purchase jackasses, and succeeded in turning out large-sized mules, but the farmers turned their backs upon the hardy, long-lived, patient animals, and showed a distinct and not an unnatural, preference for horses. The price of these, for good working beasts, ran as high as from 30 to 40. Ayrshire cattle ranged from 7 to 12, according to their size, shape, and qualities, and they were expected to give from twenty-four to thirty-four English quarts of milk daily during the summer months, and yield eight or nine English pounds of butter weekly. Sweet milk cheese realized from twopence halfpenny to fourpence per pound, butter from sixpence to sevenpence. Irish cattle fetched 2 or 3 less in the fairs than did the native; and two or three-year old Highland "knouts" only realized at the most 3 per head, falling, in the case of inferior beasts, to twenty shillings. The aboriginal sheep, blackfaced, hardy, active, and restless, were purchased when three years old at 10 or 12 a score. They only carried from two to three pounds of wool; but when fed till they were five years old, they afforded the finest mutton in the kingdom.

Labourers who gained a livelihood by hedging ditching, mowing, thrashing, and ploughing, by turning their hand, in short, to anything in the country they could find to do, were paid from a shilling to fourteenpence a day. The rents of their cottages, including a cow's grass, ground wherein to grow their potatoes, and a little garden, varied from 1 to 3 sterling, according to accommodation and extent of ground attached. A journeyman mason received one shilling and eightpence, in some cases two shillings, a day. When the Catrine mills were erected labour was at a premium. Where in former days the girls with their spinning-wheels had to work hard to make fourpence a day, the men found they could earn from two to three shillings daily; women from one to two shillings daily; and children from one and sixpence to three shillings a week. The increase of public works and of wages was not, at least in the view of Colonel Fullarton, an unmixed good. It begat speculation, which frequently resulted in disaster; it substituted for "the civil cordial manners of the last generation" "regardless, brutal, and democratic harshness of demeanour;" the drinking of spirits, with the attendant evils of smuggling and of immorality, increased; frauds were committed and perjury occasioned, and litigation increased so much that the Sheriff Court at Ayr had frequently forty cases a week to dispose of. Schoolmasters were too often neglectful of the manners of the rising generation, rather encouraging them in rough and boorish incivilities than in acts of reciprocal kindness and urbanity ; butt seeing that, in addition to their houses and gardens, their salaries in rural districts did not amount to more than 6 or 8 a year, it is not easy to see how they could be expected to inculcate a high standard of either learning or of politeness. Country gentlemen indulged the natural tendency "of counting upon imaginary rentals long before they became real ones, and they indulged also in a systematic course of "entertaining, drinking, hunting, electioneering, show, equipage and the concomitant attacks upon the purse," to such an extent that it was surprising to the gallant observer how any unentailed property could possibly remain in the same family for more than two generations.

                                                                                            1696.

Two hundred years is not a long time, in one sense, in the history of a country. National growth is, or if healthy ought to be, a slow traveller ; and, as far as social life is concerned, it will be found that development has been very gradual. We are all conservative of our customs, of our faith, of our beliefs, of our traditions, and even of our superstitions. We know, for example, that the dead do not return from the realms of silence; but when we hear of mysterious appearances and eerie sounds at more or less regular intervals in keeps and in chambers which, in the popular belief, are haunted, while we may coldly dismiss the ghostly sights and noises, and laugh at them, we are very apt at the same time to put in a saving clause so as to keep open the possibility of supernatural occurrences. We cling to them, though cold reason and hard common-sense tell us they do not exist. And in like manner we are tenacious of our customs. We cling to them too. We do not want the countryside to lose its character; and so we do very much as our forefathers did before us. We go to the same kirk, we adopt the same political creed, we attend the same fairs" we do our business in the same markets, we tell the same stories, we live in the same beliefs, and we die in the same faith. But withal, while this is largely true, the world keeps on advancing, and we with it; and thus it comes about that we have to plant our old-world customs and traditions in modern soil. We cannot get rid of the roots of heredity, or of the main stem of our fatherhood, but we engraft new shoots upon the stem, and they draw their nourishment from the long-stretching deep-reaching, tough fibrous roots that were planted so long ago that we cannot tell when the seed was sown or the sapling unfolded its first tiny leaves to the breeze.

The Carrick of two hundred years ago was very much the Carrick of to-day. Its boundaries were the same then as they are now. The same rivers watered it, the same hills shadowed it, the same Kennedys dwelt in it, the same keeps and castles dominated it. It had the same traditions, it had pretty much the same faith. The same kindly Nature smiled on it, the same human nature animated it.

But to see what it actually was, we must look at it through the spectacles of the Episcopalian minister of Maybole. In his eyes it was a country that was abundantly furnished with all the accommodations of human life. All it needed was iron, in order to enable it to exist without dependence on the outside world. It had the sea open on the one side; it had coal not far removed from the coast ; its population was not so large that it could not grow all the grain that was required to feed them; on its broad plains pastured all the cattle, and on its hills all the sheep that were necessary to keep the inhabitants in the very limited supply of butcher meat which fell to their lot. It was a reciprocal district. The plains supplied the graziers with corn, and the hill-sides provided the plainsmen with beef and mutton, with wool, and butter and cheese. Store cattle were extensively preserved. Veal was seldom eaten, save such as came from Kyle or from Cuninghame. The poultry yards were well stocked, and the fowls were sold at easy rates. Wild birds were numerous-so plentiful indeed that the very poorest of the people had bountiful supplies in season of partridge, moor-fowl, black-cock, and plover. The solan goose was a staple. article of diet, as was also the Ailsa cock, which was obtained in any desired number from that conical rock which stands sentinel in the jaws of the Firth of Clyde, but which is a part of the Carrick parish of Dailly. The fishers who went down to the sea brought thence supplies of herrings, mackerel, whitings, haddocks, cod and ling; from the Doon, the Girvan, and the Stinchar were taken such quantities of salmon that, in addition to supplying the wants of the district, the fishers were enabled to send their supplies to districts beyond the boundaries, less blessed in. the king of fish; and from the lochs and the burns were fished pike, trout, and eels, to add variety to the overplus of the salmon fare.

Carrick was not so destitute, at that period, of forest as the remainder of Ayrshire seems to have been. There were one or two large forests in various parts of the division, which sufficed for material for the making of implements used on farms and for the building of houses; and Kyle and Cuninghame were largely indebted to the southern end of the county for their supplies of timber. The principal woods grown were birch, elder, saugh, poplar, ash, oak, and hazel. The banks of the rivers were lined, as they are largely to this day, with belts of trees; and the parks of the houses of the gentry waved green with the spreading branches of the venerable and veritable fathers of the grove. There were, there are, no lack of lochs and small streams, and springs abounded everywhere.

Four of these springs commended themselves to the observant clergyman as worthy of special attention and as having come under his more immediate and more constant observation. There was My Lord's Well at Maybole, springing at times so abundantly that when its waters were brimming over, it sent down the channel which carried them away, a very considerable burn. The Welltrees Spout was even more generous. It never failed. It gushed and ran in the drought of the hottest and driest summer so generously that its copiousness and sweetness would, in the view of the parson, have been accounted a treasure in the capital city of the nation. Saint Helen's Well was noted for its medicinal properties. The simple folks believed in its efficacy to strengthen weak and backward children, and at certain seasons of the year, and especially on May-day, it was visited by parents in great numbers, carrying to its healing waters their tender or enfeebled offspring. The last of the four gurgled up in Pennyglen, and was believed to do for cattle what Saint Helen's did for children. Not only were the suffering animals brought to it to be cured of their illness, but its restorative waters were taken to them, even far up into the moorland country, where its fame was a household word.

The prelatic clergyman, who enjoyed at best but a doubtful tenure of office and whose hearers had no sympathy either with the doctrines he proclaimed or his manner of proclaiming them, looked somewhat askance at the common People. Be admitted that the men were generally tall and stately, well-limbed and comely, and that nowhere else within his knowledge were women to be found with better complexions. He could not deny that they lived long, men and women alike, and that grandfathers were common appendages to the family circle. But putting aside what might be called the mortality aspects of the population, the minister was not quite satisfied that he resided among a race that was not deeply-dyed in original sin or inherited weakness. They loved ease. As a rule they preferred the pasturing of cattle and merchandizing, to digging in the soil or to any sort of hard labour. Even in trading, they were not inclined to carry their enterprise far afield; and so long as their energies found an outlet at home, they did not cultivate opportunities for extending business beyond the district. If taken away, however, from their native soil, driven out by adverse circumstances or emigrating from necessity, they seemed to have the knack of doing well and of prospering wherever they went. The general plenty at home begat turbulence and a tendency to be unruly; servants, instead of being obedient to their masters in all things, were insolent; and as a result of easy living and lax discipline in law and in morals, Carrick was what the minister called "a sanctuary, or rather a nursery of rogues bearing arms against authority upon pretext of religion."

But there were sheep as well as goats; there was wheat as well as chaff, devout Christians who came to hear the preaching of the Word, worthy successors of the men of former generations who had founded and endowed monasteries and built kirks and houses of devotion in the name of the Master. And these were the salt of Carrick.

Whatever may have been the condition of the common people, the gentry seem to have enjoyed life after their own fashion. Their houses were beautifully situated, as a rule, either on the coast or in the country, and though their strong fortifications, heavy gates, and deep-cut moats betokened that they were at least meant for purposes of defence, if not of defiance, they were not above cultivating those little social amenities which enhance every day existence. Newark, on the northern slope of Carrick, boasted a well-kept park and a well planted orchard; at Cassillis grew apricots, peaches, cherries, and all other fruits and herbage that the kingdom could produce ; the Castle of Ardmillan looked like a palace with its deep cut ditch, its large courtyard, its capacities for siege-standing, its early pears and apples, and its fertile meadows ; Kirkmichael House was regarded as desirable a dwelling as there was in all Carrick, with its sheltered gardens, its well-stocked orchards, and its adjacent lake ; Dalquharran, the best house of all that country, sat embosomed in vast enclosures of trees and afforded every comfort that the heart, of man could desire; Bargany was "mighty commodious" and as for the House of Drummochren, though small in size and comparatively unknown, it had beauties and conveniences sufficient to charm the hart of the somewhat unimpassioned recorder. It is, he says, "a most lovely thing" being every way commodious and convenient for living easily. It is, as it were, an abridgment of this country, having all the accommodations that are dispersed through it, all comprised within its short and small bounds. It has a house, not for ostentation, but for conveniency, fit to lodge the owner and his neighbours. It hath gardens, orchards, wood, water; all the fishes that swim in rivers ; all sorts of cattle, sheep, cows, swine, and goats; all sorts of fowl, wild and tame; all manner of stone for building, freestone and limestone; coal, moor, moss, meadow, and marle; a wauk-mill and a corn-mill; and all manner of artizans and tradesmen within its bounds." Such was the dwelling of a Carrick gentleman two hundred years ago.

It cannot fail to strike the observant reader that, according to the narratives of those who were in a position to know whereof they affirmed, the Carrick of 1696 was, on the whole, a much superior place to the Kyle and Cuninghame of a century later. And it is not improbable that, in some respects, it was. In the seventeenth century Carrick was fully abreast of the age; in the eighteenth, Ayrshire had fallen behind the times. The feudal system, with all its faults, reigned supreme in the one case ; in the other it was being broken in upon by the increase of independent populations, by the progress of manufactures, and by the necessity to derive new methods of keeping in the van of progress. The old Carrick families were still in the enjoyment of their strength and their privileges; the population dependent on them was never large; the variety of the, productions of the soil and the wealth of sea, of rivers, of plains, of hillsides, and of forests, were quite sufficient to stave off anything like serious depression or want. There was not the same rapid transition of estates from one set of owners to another as there seems to have been elsewhere; and the peasantry, like the lords, were native to the soil, and could look back to generations upon generations settled in the saline dwellings and occupying relatively the same position to the owners. But while this may be so, and while the peasantry were, no doubt, fairly well to do, as careful an inquiry into their social condition is that bestowed upon the shire a century later might have been productive of revelations of a different character from those of the Episcopalian minister of Maybole. Probably the good man, holding uncertain tenure, and himself, from the nature of his position, unpopular, did not care to mix much with the common people, and drew his ideas concerning them from those who sided with him in creed, and whose social position commended them to his good graces more than did the stern, dour, uncompromising Presbyterianism of the lower classes. They did not want to have anything to do with him, and he in return seems to have had very little to do with them.

A vast change has come over the country since the days when the Earl of Cassillis was hereditary Bailie of the whole district of Carrick. A couple of centuries ago he was the ruling spirit in its destinies; and he gathered about him in Maybole a fashionable assemblage of Carrick squires. There they had their town houses. No doubt many of the gentry went up to Edinburgh for the "season," as to-day they go to London ; but as a proof that the ancient capital of Carrick was not despised as a residental centre, it is enough to note that within a comparatively recent time no fewer than twenty-eight winter mansion-houses could be counted in the town. To-day, it is unnecessary to say, there is literally not one, though the grey castle of Maybole still frowns upon the visitor who approaches by the Ayr road. The high court, and Carrick had a complete system of jurisdiction within itself, sat at Girvan, but the ordinary courts, civil and criminal, were located in Maybole. Maybole itself was a burgh, but neither a Royal burgh nor a burgh of Barony. It had a direct charter from the King, and appointed its own magistrates and officers; and it disputed the claim of the head of the House of Kennedy, Lord Cassillis, to be its superior. Into the ecclesiastical conditions I do not enter.

The good old times were only good on the same principle that far birds have fine feathers. Romance has thrown its halo round them. The novelist has depicted the courtly charms of the fair ladies, and the balladist has sung the valour of the knights, until a picture of universal grace and charm has been revealed. Even the raids and the forays have been gemmed in poetry until in the far distance there seems" to have been nothing more romantic than their rides, on purpose bent, by the pale moon beams. In all probability, save for its occasional excitement, the life of those days was a terribly hum-drum and monotonous affair. Education was limited; the more delicate sensibilities were left studiously uncultivated ; sectarian and family feuds occupied the place of Christian charity and social brotherhood. But they were times of transition, as these of our own are, and, to be properly understood, they require to be viewed through the somewhat dim light which shines reflected on them, and not through the fierce, discriminating rays of the latter end of the nineteenth century. We cannot afford to belittle our forefathers; for, as we belittle them" so we belittle those who have sprung from them.

 

 

 
 

 

 
 

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