Ploughs and Improved Agriculture

Author: Florence Notté

Florence Notté, a 4th year museum studies student at Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, spent the summer working at Auchindrain, mainly to translate the museum’s interpretive information into French. Here, she discusses her favourite items from the museum’s collections.

Auchindrain seeks to represent life in a different time. To that purpose the museum collects items from past centuries. Eddie’s Barn, one of the township’s buildings, houses a display of agricultural implements. The exhibition covers the process of enclosure, the creation of individual farms, liming, the improvement of grassland and growing corn, and the better feeding and controlled breeding of livestock.

The ploughs are particularly revealing of the progress of agricultural improvements. They started to change in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, ploughs were primitive: made mostly of wood, they just scratched the surface of the ground. They required several animals, often 8 oxen or a mixture of horses and oxen. The ploughman worked the plough and another person controlled the animals. A third man was sometimes needed to press down the beam so the plough stayed in the ground. This type of implement did not meet the needs in the context of the agricultural improvements. The evolution of the agricultural tools was then possible and necessary and in the nineteenth century, the plough manufacture became industrialised. In the early 1800s, Auchindrain people probably used ploughs made by companies as Wilkie of Uddingston (nearby Glasgow).

The oldest plough preserved in the museum is from the early 19th century. It is a type called a “swing plough” because it does not possess wheels. The heavy knife at the front is called a “coulter” and is used to cut the turf in front of the “share” which dig into and turns over the ground: this helps to make the furrows straight.

Ploughs like these was used in the small fields laid out when Auchindrain abandoned the strip-fields of runrig after 1842. This made it possible to work the land more efficiently with horses and the better ploughs then available. With the runrig system, the land was divided into narrow strips, or rigs. Every year one third of the rigs were reallocated by drawing lots. The system did not encourage tenants to invest in improving their land. Ploughs like these represent the radical changes in agriculture that included the Highland Clearances. The process saw the end of most of the joint tenancy townships which had existed for centuries, and by the 1860s only a few of these remained, including Auchindrain. The people here gradually adopted elements of improved agriculture during the 19th century, but uniquely Auchindrain remained a joint tenancy well into the 20th century, and was the Last Township.

Ploughing requires the ploughman to have considerable skills and experience. It is very important to be able to adjust the plough to the type of land and the crop to be planted. With swing ploughs like those seen here, the ploughman needs to be able to maintain a firm and well-controlled grip, and to find the point of balance so the plough will turn over the ground easily. This comes with experience: if the user is unskilled, the plough will dig too deep and be hard to work. Swing ploughs have longer handles and a shorter beam than wheeled ploughs.

Ploughs were hauled by one or two horses, and being able to drive the horses as well as control the plough is an essential skill for a ploughman. The horses work to spoken commands by the ploughman, and need to learn to recognise and follow his voice. The horses used at Auchindrain were not large, which ensured they would not get bogged down in the wet ground. Before the 1840s, horses were not greatly used at Auchindrain because most of the work of cultivation was done by hand. When runrig ended and the small fields were established, horses became more important and each of the tenants seems to have had two horses to work the land. The last two working horses at Auchindrain were named Polly and Rona, and were kept in the byre in ACHDN.D, Martin’s House. In 1961, they were replaced by a tractor known as a “Little Grey Fergie”.

Images from top:Type ‘MP’ (moveable point) iron swing plough made by George Sellar & Son, Huntly, Aberdeenshire; early 1900s. ACHDN.2013.196.1, from the Recognised Collection at Auchindrain Township; Scottish iron swing plough, maker unknown, with a hand-forged share or sock that butts up to the front of the mouldboard or breast; 1800-1850. ACHDN.ATN.0037, from the Recognised Collection at Auchindrain Township