Girvan and the Agricultural Revolution

Girvan sits within the district of Carrick in South Ayrshire. The area was originally part of the Kingdom of Galloway and was ruled over by its lords until 1186 when it was granted to Duncan who became the first Earl of Carrick. Robert, one of his descendants, was crowned King of Scotland at Scone in in 1306. He led the campaign against the English that culminated in Victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the district’s powerful landowning families openly engaged in bitter and deadly feuds with each other over land, property and honour. The Kennedy’s were the most powerful and influential family in Carrick and their Cassillis (the origin of Cassilis in East Gippsland?) and Bargany branches even resorted to murder. The Kennedy’s were the lairds of Millenderdale, where we found our first reference to James McCoid in the 1841 Census.

By the 1750s many of the influential and wealthy landowners turned their attention to making agricultural improvements to their estates. Existing farmlands were ‘enclosed’ by stone dykes (walls) and lime and manure used to improve the quality of the soil for crops and livestock. This strategy might well have been necessary, as the run rig system of agriculture was inefficient and the standard of living very primitive.  Scotland was to undergo both an agricultural revolution and then an industrial revolution, but not without significant social upheaval.

For the tenant farmers the ‘enclosures’ meant losing their homes and land as they were ‘enclosed’, within the greater farms of the lords and bordered by dykes (stone walls). Historians today refer to this period as the first Lowland Clearances (1760-1830) with as much social impact as the Highland Clearances of the 1820 – 1830s, although these are far better known.

The lairds may have owned the land but the tenants farmed it. The tenant class consisted of many layers: wealthy farmers who sub-let or employed others, down to cottars, the vast majority, whose families would receive very small patches of land from tenants or sub-tenants, in return for service. Some were skilled tradesmen – weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths – but they relied on their small holdings for survival. According to the order of the times, all tenants enjoyed a considerable measure of legal protection, even if their lease was simply verbal. Except for the cottars.

What happened to them all? Many tenants were simply evicted when their leases expired, their sub-tenants too; some stories were recorded of families thrown off their land to shelter in the lee of the dykes from the ravages of winter. The cottars were the most severely affected as most lived on the edge of poverty. Many families migrated to Canada and America; some moved into towns and took up their trade; others took up new leases, this time with conditions of improvement, which meant the improved land could ultimately be consolidated into a larger farm.

Now all this was before our ancestors decided to leave for Australia but we don’t know anything yet about their parent’s generation. Were they cottars? Were they evicted from the land? Whatever their story, the foundations of the agricultural upheaval were in place and economic changes continued, this time with the industrial revolution, and that did seem to affect our ancestors.

Read: Aitchison, P & Cassell, A. (2012) The Lowland Clearances. Scotland’s silent revolution. 1760 – 1830. Edinburgh: Berlinn.