Case Study: Global Markets and Local Environments

A photograph of a ruined post-medieval farmstead and circular enclosure at the foot of grass-covered hills with old field boundaries visible in the distance

Leadour, looking from the north over the remains of the farm to the southern side of the valley where the plantation cuts the head dyke and the remains of old field boundaries are just visible, © Alastair Hamilton.

The inter-disciplinary investigation of particular landscapes can strengthen our understanding of the ways in which broad economic trends and processes materialised in specific circumstances.  Recent research on the Breadalbane Estate (central Highlands) has combined analysis of documentary and environmental evidence to investigate the effects of changing patterns of land management on the upland environment in two locations: the farms and shielings of Leadour on south Loch Tay, and Corries by Loch Awe (Davies and Watson 2007).  The results provide new insights into the actions and strategies of tenant farmers (who were often actively involved in change),  alongside the motivations of their landlords, and the local impacts of wider commercial economies.

The differing interests of the estate and its tenants are recorded in estate regulations and court records relating to trees and livestock, and in pollen evidence for changes in the relative abundance of woodland cover and grazing resources.  Woods were already a scarce resource by the start of the historic period and the use of trees and wood was heavily regulated from at least the 16th century.  Breadalbane estate records indicate that the woods were a multiple-purpose resource, used for grazing as well as providing controlled tenant access to timber.  Because the relative value of woods and livestock fluctuated in response to market opportunities and other changing circumstances, tensions were inevitable between the needs of the trees (owned by the estate, but used by the tenants for timber and as sheltered grazing) and the animals (owned by the tenants, but the main source of rent to the landowner).

The Cromwellian occupation of Scotland in the 1650s may have provided a new market for cattle.  In this period, the Breadalbane estate was in need of cash and, in 1656, the tenants of Corries and several neighbouring farms mortgaged their holdings from the estate, giving those tenants control of an area possible used for cattles droves moving south, thus perhaps catalysing the commercialisation of livestock production on the farms.  Leadour remained under the direct control of the estate at this time, but its economy also appears to have undergone change, as the farm moved from a mixed economy to one specialising in cattle. There is some evidence that the estate was experimenting with different breeds – documented as ‘English cattle’ –  perhaps indicating a more profound shift towards commercial and ‘scientific’ agriculture, and this a century before the classic period of agricultural improvement.

The Cromwellian occupation seems to have stimulated economic activity in other ways, as English merchants were involved in contracts to buy up timber in the west Highlands (Smout et al. 2005).  And this emerging commercial attitude to woodlands continued to develop into the 18th century (Sansum 2004, Davies and Watson 2007).  At Corries conflict emerged between the commercial aspirations of the estate towards its woodlands and the commercial aspirations of tenant farmers with regard to their cattle.  The environmental evidence suggests increased grazing pressure at Corries during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, despite – or perhaps provoking – renewed estate regulations to protect and plant trees there.  Far from all being at the mercy of their landlords, some tenant farmers actively pursued their own agenda and engaged in the commercialisation of their farms.  The conflict here is, therefore, not so much between estate-led modernisation and reactionary tenant traditionalism.  It is between the commercial aspirations of the estate, tied to forestry, and the commercial aspirations of the tenantry, wishing to exploit new market opportunities for cattle.

The setting for Glen Orchy Corries shieling showing the relatively lush high grazing (with highland cattle taking advantage of this). The shieling buildings are out of shot in the lower middle ground, within the arc of trees that hug the burnside, © Althea Davies.

Against a backdrop of Agricultural Improvement in the late 18th and 19th centuries, estate woods, particularly coppiced oakwoods, continued to be commercially managed,  and we see woodland continuity at Corries shieling and the concurrent spread of woodland enclosure and tree planting (Sansum 2004, Smout et al. 2005).  However, a decline in oak and pine populations in the landscape around Leadour during the second half of the 18th century suggests that estate policy on tree husbandry may not have been universally successful.  In particular, the transition to a market dominated by livestock resulted in woods losing their value to tenants, who began to express increased concern over access to and control of pastoral resources.  Around Leadour, between 1775 and 1786, there were disputes over access to shielings, concerns over boundary dykes and ditches, loss of winter pasture rights and enclosure of common grazings.  When woods were cleared from Corries shieling with the establishment of a granite quarry in 1885, the tenant farmer made repeated complaints about the disruption that this caused to the availability and quality of grazing resources, but he did not mention the loss of trees.  This is an indication of the profound changes in the value of woodland resources relative to livestock.

In cases such as this, the collaborative analysis of landscapes through archaeological, historical, palaeo-environmental and other means can develop powerful understandings of the relationships between localities and the people who lived and farmed them, on the one hand, and wider regional, national and global developments.

Return to Section 3.4 Global Economies and Local Lives

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