13 May, 2009

28. The Long View

Climate change and deforestation causing ecological collapse, recession, poverty, famine, lawlessness, religious and internecine warfare, foreign interventions -- Scotland certainly was a mess in the 17th and 18th Centuries.[1]. It was not a place you would want to visit, but luckily others have visited for you, and left accounts of their travels. Seeing the past through contemporary eyes is about as good as it gets, and it has become part of a highly specialised form of archaeology known as history.

However, while modern historians and archaeologists are often interested in complex social issues, travellers are concerned for the condition of the roads, nature of the food, and quality of the beds. But explorers of all generations have always been aware of the importance of their reportage as substitute for the actual experience for their readers, and then as now, writers took this responsibility seriously, none more so than Samuel Johnson [left], who visited Scotland in 1773 with his Scottish companion, James Boswell, publishing his account, the Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland [2], two years later. Boswell’s own A Tour to the Hebrides appeared in 1786.[2] Johnson was an author, critic, and, more importantly, compiler of the first proper English dictionary, and has long been an major source of quotations:
“Oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
Scotland had been unified with England in 1706, but was still very much a foreign country, and though it was now on the up, it had developed an unenviable reputation as a dangerous and somewhat depressing place to visit. One thing that struck many visitors to Scotland was the lack of trees, as Johnson recalled:
"A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice. At St. Andrews Mr. Boswell found only one, and recommended it to my notice; I told him it was rough and low, or looked as if I thought so. This, said he, is nothing to another a few miles off. I was still less delighted to hear that another tree was not to be seen nearer. Nay, said a gentleman that stood by, I know but of this and that tree in the county."
An almost treeless landscape: the Isle of Skye, Black Cuillin Mountains [3]
What had gone wrong, and where had all the trees gone?

As an archaeologist taking the long view, I blame farming; bad move -- never should have started agriculture. Once you leave Eden, it’s a whole different ball game: You become dependent on agriculture and producing food by changing and modifying the environment.

When the first Neolithic farmer arrived, Scotland was fairly thickly wooded, the Caledonian forest covering perhaps 80% of the landmass, some 1.5 million ha. The main tree species was Scots pine, with birches, rowan, alder, willows, and bird cherry, and an under-storey of smaller trees and shrubs, principally juniper, aspen, holly, and hazel. Importantly, from a builder’s point of view, there is some oak (Quercus petracea), but it is not as common as further south, pine being an inferior substitute as a structural timber.

This vast forest was the principle host of biodiversity, storing water nutrients, stabilising the soil, and bringing shelter to the environment. It originally had wide range of animal life including beavers, wild boar, wolves, elks, aurochs, and bears, all of which had been hunted to extinction by the time of Johnson’s visit, along with many other species such as the capercaillie, a large form of grouse, subsequently reintroduced.
Glen Affric, one of the most beautiful places in Scotland, has a fragment of the Calodonian forest.
An estimated 1% remains of this great forest, scattered over several dozen locations.[4] It is no wonder the axe was such an important symbol in early societies.

For all but the most recent centuries, material culture was largely fabricated from wood. In addition, woodland provided the majority of the fuel for cooking, heating and industrial processes, as well as meat, foodstuffs, forage, and materials like furs. As more and more of the forest was cleared, its products became increasingly rare and valuable, further stimulating its destruction. However, most of Europe had once been forest, and despite extensive clearance, managed to maintain the supply of woodland products by careful management and investment in the remaining areas. The shortfall in timber was made up by importing timber from the Baltic and Scandinavia, at great cost to the economy of Scotland.
Modern Scotland on Google Earth: Highlands and Lowlands clearly visible
While greed, ignorance, and incompetence may be immediately responsible, there were deeper factors at play, principally climate change, which has become an important, complex, and controversial topic. But archaeologists have long been aware that human progress and civilisation is intimately bound up with changing climatic patterns. Agriculture was the engine that drove societies, and Scotland, being a long way north and quite mountainous, was particularly susceptible to changes in the climate. However, it is important to bear in mind that Scotland has two distinct regions: Highlands and Islands. An area of mountains, lochs, and numerous islands, this contrasts with the Lowlands of the south and east.
There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.” Billy Connolly
A smoothed graph of average surface temperature fluctuations during the last 11,000 years [5]
In cold, wet, and windy periods the natural range of the Caledonian forest was reduced, and agriculture became more difficult, further increasing the stress on woodland resources. When Samuel Johnson visited Scotland, it was towards the end of the 'mini ice age’, a prolonged cold spell. It is this variation in climate that is most disruptive; previously viable agricultural systems become incapable of properly supporting the population.

The pleasures of global cooling: The Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, attributed to Henry Raeburn, 1790s
The logical implication of this is famine and depopulation. However, there is another possible outcome: If you can’t grow enough food yourself, an alternative strategy is to take someone else’s, as the Rev. Thomas Morer, an earlier visitor to the Scottish Lowlands, observed the in 1690s.
“Once or twice a year, great numbers of [highlanders] get together and make a descent into the lowlands, where they plunder the inhabitants, and so return back and disperse themselves. And this they are apt to do in the profoundest peace, it being not only natural to them to delight in rapine, but they do it on a kind of principle, and in conformity to the prejudice they continually have to the lowlanders, who they generally take for so many enemies
Highland cattle were a portable, and self-propelled, form of wealth [6]
Cattle raiding was an ancient and honourable tradition, but add dynastic struggles, general internecine warfare, and English invasions, raids, and hostage taking (and vice versa), and it was somewhat pointless for the landowners to make the necessary investments and improvements.
In the Highlands, the landowners, the Clan chiefs, had little agricultural surplus to exploit. The value of the land is low, so they had traditionally taken surplus manpower in the form of manrent, fighting men from the tenants/clan. The Scots were well known mercenaries throughout Europe.

Taxable Land values (Cess) in Scotland in 1696 [7]
The clan chiefs, having a surplus of fighting men rather than some other form of produce, had a predictable effect on the Scottish economy and its built environment, as Thomas Morer observed:

"The houses of their quality are high and strong, and appear more like castles, made of thick stone, with iron bars before their windows. Yet now they begin to have better buildings, and to be very modish both in the fabric and furniture, though they want their gardens, which are the beauty and pride of our English seats.“

He was referring to the homes of the rich, who had something to protect and the resources to do it, for the vast majority of the rural population it was a different story:
"The vulgar houses, and what are seen in the villages are low and feeble. Their walls are made of a few stones jumbled together without mortar to cement them, on which they set up pieces of wood meeting at the top, ridge fashion, but so ordered that their is neither sightliness nor strength, and it does not cost much more time to erect such a cottage than to pull it down".
There is a striking contrast between the rich and poor. For the latter, the constant threat from highlanders and other marauders made it hardly worth the effort of building a decent house. This was exacerbated by the shortage of timber; structural timbers, door frames and other wooden components had become so rare and expensive that they were counted as family heirlooms.[1].

Morer was also surprised by the widespread use of turf for roofing:

"They cover these houses with turf of an inch thick, and in the shape of larger tiles, which they fasten with wooden pins, and renew as often as there is occasion; and that is very frequently done. ... It was matter of wonder at first that so great a corn-country as Scotland is should not be able to afford 'em straw enough to thatch the houses: But calling to mind their want of hay, which makes 'em employ the straw in feeding their horses as well as foddering their other cattle, . . . “

Something he could have added is that turf roofs are harder to set alight than thatched ones.

The built environment of Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries was a product of a society in which human aggression was an all-important factor, and this ultimately conditioned its form and materials.

Dun Carloway,Isle of Lewis, built in the 1st Century bce and last occupied around 1300 AD [8]
As noted in an earlier article [9], probably due a lack of timber, stone was already in use for housing on Orkney during the Neolithic, and the late Iron Age in Scotland is marked by the appearance of stone buildings such as brochs. The timber frame tradition so typical of medieval England is almost unknown north of the boarder. Another key feature, fairly evident in many built environments, is the mix of defended and undefended settlements, dependent on status, a common arrangement in traditional feudal society.

What also struck visitors in the 17th and 18th Centuries was the lack of progress in agriculture and the built environment compared to England. There was even a noticeable a lack of field boundaries and hedges. On one level, the core of this problem was the instability caused by Highland over-population, and some frankly rather arcane and disturbing attitudes to other people’s property and right to life. However, the common man was not to blame for lack of proper investment and the deforestation of Scotland; it was the clan chiefs who had the ultimate power over these resources, and they also chose to use their military levy in the wars that impeded the development of a normal economy.

Black Middens Bastle house, Northumberland [10]
In my last article we looked at the development of farms in northern England around 1800, a built environment made possible by the ultimate solutions to these problems, a process well underway by the time of Johnson's visit. Up until that point, castles, towers and defensive farmhouses known as bastles were the norm, with animals downstairs and people upstairs.
A sketch and plan of a bastle house [11]
In the next post we shall look at this solution in the context of the wider history of Scotland and England up to this time, and find out what happened to the people who lived in this ruined landscape; so lots of executions, unnatural death, warfare, bloodshed, misery and mayhem to look forward to!

Unnatural beauty - can you imagine it before humans wiped out the trees?
The Yarrow Valley, Dumfriesshire; a few scattered trees and blocks of modern Canadian spruce on valley floor pasture [12]

Sources and further reading:
[1] Dr Richard Saville and Dr Paul Auerbach: Education and social capital in the development of Scotland to 1750. http://www.ehs.org.u.htmk/ehs/conference2006/Assets/VBAuerbachSaville.doc
[5] After Dansgaard, et al, 1969 and Schonwiese, 1995
[7] Andrew Browning, David Charles Douglas: English historical documents, 1660-1714 p653
[8] Lewis MacDonald: "Dun Carloway." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dun_Carloway.jpg
[11] R W Brunskill, 1999: Traditional farm buildings of Britain and their conservation.


Timothy Reid said...

Hi Geoff

Excellent post, here in British Columbia clear cutting and the pine beetle are big issues with our forests. The pine beetle has killed millions of trees but the real insidious destruction of the forests is by man, We go for drives through forest covered mountains rarely realizing that the backs of the mountains we cannot see from the road are clear cut wastelands.

There is something to be said for living in concrete boxes.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi Tim
That’s not a nice image. The pine beetles are thriving with global warming, which could be good for Scottish forests.
Ironically, we have plenty of Canadian spruce here,it is one of the commonest species in Scotland and northern England