Last of the Westland Whigs

In the late 17th century, the 'Westland Whigs' were the radical descendants of earlier Covenanters who had defied the absolutist rule of Stuart kings in south west Scotland.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Clearance by tractor

Rural clearance through mechanical improvement.

On a journey along the A 75 from Castle Douglas to Gatehouse of Fleet via Twynholm I discussed the significance of the Dundrennan Range cultivation rigs with my brother Kenneth whilst peering through the murk at every field we passed.

Thinking about the changes in the landscape and the corresponding social and economic changes since the 1940ies, Kenneth suggested that the period 1950 to 1980 must have seen the biggest ever change in Galloway/ rural Scotland. I wasn’t so sure, arguing that the period 1760 to 1830 is considered to have marked the biggest ‘discontinuity’. But then, how would we know? No-one has ever carried out such a study in Galloway, or if they have, I have missed it…

For example, in this week’s Galloway News and Dumfries and Galloway Standard there is a Farming Review ( a monthly feature) and in it there is a double page feature ‘Farming scenes from archive libraries’.
This is a set of eight photographs of farming scenes from 1900 to 1969. Two are of particular interest. One shows two horses and four people (farmer and farmer’s son, a Land Army ‘girl’ and a farm worker) at Barcloy farm near Kirkcudbright, the other shows baled hay being loaded onto a horse drawn cart near Balmaclellan in 1969. The fact that the hay has been baled in the 1969 photograph reveals the hidden presence of a tractor [balers require a ‘power take off‘ from a tractor to work] , thus even the hill farms of the Glenkens were mechanised by then.

The physical impact of mechanisation on the rural landscape has been studied, since it has had a marked and obvious impact on natural heritage/ bio-diversity/ ecology/ environment/ archaeology. But what of the impact of mechanisation on rural society and culture? Adam Gray [Borgue - the Land and People, Annals of a Parish : G.C. Books: Wigtown: 2001: 253] notes:

The advent of the tractor meant a great reduction of the numbers of farm-workers required. Lennox Plunton and Plunton Mains comprising of approximately 1100 acres (449 hectares) in 1931 employed 16 people, in 1972 employed 5 and at the end of the century 2. In many places there is one man to one farm. Gone are the pleasant conversations of horse-farming days at ‘piece-time’ [meal time] sitting behind a dyke on the headland of a field being ploughed, or leaning against a rick in a sunny hayfield, or behind the stooks in the harvest field…nowadays the tractor driver lives a life that is more solitary and not half as interesting because he spends ‘most of his waking life as a slow moving hermit with his transistor radio in a world filled with mechanical clatter’.

Janet Dwyer and Ian Hodge [The Challenge of Change: Demands and Expectations for Farmed Land: in T.C Smout (ed.) : Nature, Landscape and People Since the Second World : Tuckwell: Edinburgh : 2001: 117 ] sum up this change :

With mechanisation and increases in land and labour productivity , farms became larger and concentrated on fewer enterprises. The eastern counties increasingly specialised in arable cropping in general, and cereals in particular. The west of the country in grazing livestock… Developments in agricultural technology also profoundly altered rural landscapes and biodiversity.

But such typical ‘objective’ descriptions of rural change since WWII totally miss (evade, discount, silence, elide) the human dimension which Adam Gray manages to include in his account of the impact of mechanisation. It is also this human dimension to the historical rural experience of ‘progress, modernisation, rationalisation, improvement, mechanisation and industrialisation’ which the work historians like Tom Devine (e.g. Clearance and Improvement : Land, Power and People in Scotland 1700-1900: John Donald: Edinburgh: 2006) have brought to the fore.

What is ‘history’? And when was it?

My wife died in 1996. Between 1981 and 1984, she was an active participant in the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. About four years ago I was somewhat taken back when our daughter came back from school with a Standard Grade History handout on ‘Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp’.
I said to her ‘ This can’t be history- your mum was there! I went to visit her at Greenham in 1984...”. My daughter just shrugged.

So does the mechanisation of farming in Galloway count as history, despite still being within living memory ? I guess it does. In which case… I wonder if I can take the strongest (as advised on the day) theme from my Oral Presentation [see blogs below] - the final section quoting from Neal Ascherson’s ‘ Stone Voices’ and develop it. But how?

Feel free to use ‘Comment’ section below to make suggestions.


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