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Issue 48 - A working landscape

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009


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A working landscape

John Hannavy explores Scotland's lochs and landscape.

Some things apparently don’t change!

Writing in his 1933 book In Scotland Again, recounting his journey through south east Scotland, H. V. Morton observed that ‘No farmers have, of course, ever made money within the memory of living man, but you feel that if farmers could make money, they would do so in East Lothian and bank it at Haddington in a grey stone building which solidly suggests that the pound is still the pound, and will continue to be so – in Haddington!’ There always was something rather austere about Scottish bank buildings – often designed in quasi-baronial style.

Invariably unwelcoming, but by their appearance, reassuringly secure!

The East Lothian landscape from where those farmers would have brought their money is rich and fertile, and the fact that it has been farmed for centuries is underlined by the mills and dovecots which are scattered across the county. Nowhere is the farming heritage of the Lothians preserved more romantically than at Preston Mill on the outskirts of the village of East Linton.

There, amidst cornfields, stands the most eccentric of all Scotland’s corn mills, a delightful group of pan-tiled buildings around a small pond which has stood there for more than three centuries.

Here farmers from all around brought their corn; the miller was a key member of society, and his success mirrored the success of the land itself.

In contrast, in many of the more remote corners of Scotland, taming the land has always been a struggle, with farmers over the centuries making do with whatever they could find to work the land. Communities still built mills, but they were much smaller affairs, reflecting the limited market for the miller’s services in land where yielding a commercial crop was nigh impossible.

With abandoned mediaeval buildings littering the landscape, some cattle found themselves being sheltered in some pretty impressive accommodation! Thomas Pennant, describing the condition of Iona Nunnery church in his account of his 1772 tour of Scotland, had little to say in praise of the island’s farmers. ‘The floor is covered some feet thick with cow-dung; this place being at present the common shelter for the cattle; and the islanders are too lazy to remove this fine manure, the collection of a century, to enrich their grounds.

‘With much difficulty, by virtue of fair words, and a bribe, I prevail on one of these listless fellows to remove a great quantity of this dunghill; and by that means once more expose to light the tomb of the last prioress.

Her figure is cut on the face of the stone; an angel on each side supports her head; and above them is a little plate and a comb.’ Today, of course, the cattle are long gone, and the beautiful nunnery ruins are one of the first of the island’s ancient religious sites to greet visitors.

Pennant’s suggestion that farmers of marginal land were idle or listless could hardly be further from the truth. Coastal farming in particular was always challenging and, in the days before fertilisers and mechanisation, it was relentless and back-breaking work.

The splendidly-named Osgood Mackenzie, who created the wonderful sub-tropical gardens at Poolewe in Ross-shire, painted a detailed picture of life in the west coast during Victorian times in his delightful book A Hundred Years in the Highlands, originally published in 1921.

In it, he recounted his father’s stories of the years before the great potato blight of the 1840s – it affected Scotland as much as it affected Ireland – when farmers were as dependent on the sea as they were on the land. Seaweed – a vital source of potash – ensured a good crop of potatoes in the first year in even the poorest soil, and a good crop of corn in the second, with the crofters’ wives and daughters responsible for gathering what he called ‘sea-ware’. Inland where, as Mackenzie put it they were “too far from the coast for sea-ware to be transported on men’s and women’s backs, the only method of transit in the days when there were no roads and consequently no carts”, they moved their cattle into temporary pens, and used the cows to fertilise the land naturally, before laboriously tilling each fertilised strip of land by hand. The ruined crofts which are dotted across the landscape today attest to the large numbers of people who once eked out an existence in this way.

“Even an unobservant eye”, wrote HV Morton of his 1932 visit to Glen Garry, “will notice the dark clumps of nettles that mark the ruins of old crofts in this sweet glen. They dot the flat lands near the river and they lie like old sores on the hills. These are the remains of houses burnt down or left to rot during that barbaric and disgraceful episode in the history of Scotland known as the ‘Clearances’. I doubt whether the agrarian history of any country in Europe can match the heartlessness of that time, when Highland families were burned out of their homes and shipped abroad to make way for sheep runs.” Having steeped himself in history as he traversed the country, he was understandably enraged by some of the events in history which have been played out across Scotland’s magnificent landscape.

But in the final chapter of the book, as he prepared to cross the border back into England, the romantic in Morton comes to the fore once again, and his love of Scotland – a love we all share – is beyond question. “If you would see a country”, he wrote, “you must look for the good things and the kind things; and they will come to you. How easy is that search in Scotland.” Easy indeed, and it keeps us coming back for more.