Notes on the history of Stormont

 

The district extending from just north of Perth to Birnam Hill, just south of Dunkeld, has been known as Stormont since medieval times. Originally one of the Stewartries under the jurisdiction of the great landowners given titles by the Scottish Kings, it was divided into East and West Stormont, the dividing line being the River Tay. The name is said to mean ‘main battle or strife’ and on this derivation is founded the notion that somewhere in the region was fought the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83-84 between Agricola’s Romans and the Caledonii, led by Calgacus. After the battle, Agricola is said to have established a barracks at Inchtuthil on the north bank of the Tay near Easter Caputh.

To the north, close to the Loch of Clunie, is a large green mound called the Castle Hill, on which, tradition says, was erected the Summer Palace and Hunting Seat of Kenneth MacAlpin, who conquered the Picts and united the Scottish and Pictish kingdoms. He defeated the Danes in 845 in the neighbourhood. In the 15th Century, an island in the loch was a stronghold occupied by a gang of robbers, who sacrilegiously carried off the pious offerings being carried by parishioners from Alyth to Dunkeld. Bishop Brown of the Dunkeld see succeeded in rooting them out and later built a Castle for use as a summer residence. He died there in 1514. The adventurer James (Admirable) Crichton is thought to have lived on the island in the latter part of the 16th Century.

The agricultural landscape - based on the 1791-99 Statistical Accounts

 

The landscape of the district in the late 18th Century was one of sparsely wooded rolling hills dotted with small lochs. Fertile black loam meadows bordered the River Tay and away to the north lay craggy hills and large tracts of black, barren moors. In places like Murthly, Delvin and Forneth, the elegant houses of the lairds were set in pleasant parks, lawns and gardens.

 

The period that the Inches family spent in Stormont was one of great change - as the 18th Century progressed, an Agricultural Revolution was gathering momentum, with the old system of farming slowly being supplanted by more efficient arrangements. Under the old 'runrig' system, each farm was subdivided among several tenants, who would each have a separate lease or verbal bargain, the duration of which was mostly from year to year, at the will of the proprietor. “Under such a system,” commented the Minister for Kenmore parish, “agriculture cannot be expected to make much progress.”

 

The reverend authors of the 1791-99 Statistical Accounts for Caputh, Clunie, Little Dunkeld and Kinclaven were greatly concerned with the productivity of the land and its effects on the living standards of the population. They remarked on the distinct improvements in agricultural practice that they observed. One wrote that “50 years ago in Clunie little else was to be seen but broom, furze, briers, thorns and stones”; but at the time of writing, “wet grounds are drained, rough grounds are cleared, stone fences are built and hedges are planted”.  On the Little Dunkeld side of the river, “an active and enterprising spirit is now beginning to discover itself among the farmers …. meadows that yielded from 30 to 40 stone per acre of miserable bog hay and pieces of ground that produced nothing but rushes, briars or other useless vegetables, are daily converted into the best arable land in the country”. And all this was largely because “farms begin to be reduced to some form and the marches to be straightened. Each man begins to know his own [land] and to have it in his power to improve it”.

 

These advances came about as proprietors attempted to improve their lands. The Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland, established in 1723, showed the way by promoting new crops and breeds, new machinery, rotations and new systems of farming. The ultimate goal was to improve the yield and profitability of the land. By the end of the century, a proprietor could decide, by auction if necessary, who would become the new tenant farmers on his improved, enclosed lands. As an incentive to carry out the improvements he desired, he could offer leases of reasonable length. Payment of rent was regularised and an ever-greater proportion was paid in cash. A new class of tenant farmers began to emerge, working a larger acreage on the improved land, getting better yields. They hired labourers and farm servants, paying them in cash. They were able to sell their surplus produce and, as a result, became more and more independent of their landlords. Even though rents had doubled and in some cases tripled since the 1750s, “farmers and their families are better lodged, better dressed and better fed than ever. These remarks are applicable to tenants in general and they are particularly applicable to a few leading, active and sensible men…”.

 

With the consolidation of farmland, many of the dispersed 'ferm touns' were broken up and large numbers of people could no longer work their own plot of land. At first, the majority of the displaced people remained on the land and became farm labourers or farm servants. Others became tradesmen as the demand for all kinds of products increased - weavers, stone masons, wheelwrights, millwrights, slaters, saddlers and farriers.

Some landlords used the displaced labour as part of their improvement schemes, collecting “weavers and other handycrafstmen into small villages where they are accommodated with neat dwelling houses and each of them with an acre or two of land to afford them the benefit of a milk cow and some other comforts of agriculture without being too much hindered by the labours of the field from a vigorous application to their respective trades”. The writer gave no examples of such villages in his Little Dunkeld parish, though Stanley and Bankfoot are well-known planned villages in Kinclaven.

 

But it was slow going: the Kinclaven Statistical Account reported that more than half the parish remained unenclosed, “a circumstance not much to the credit or profit either of the proprietors or tenants”. In Little Dunkeld too little land was enclosed; except for land around gentlemen’s seats, farms were unfenced and too small and wanted for the application of marl and lime and bars to improvement such as the feudal practice of thirlage* and the lack of long leases still existed. Far from having their heads stuck in ecclesiastical clouds, the writers of these Accounts obviously knew a thing or two about farming. One recommended that “everything practicable should be done in this parish for procuring manure in a greater abundance”.

* “the old oppressive customs of bonnage [an obligation to cut the proprietor’s corn], thirlage [an obligation to grind corn at the landlord’s mill] and servitudes … disgraceful to the country and to humanity … are not yet quite abolished”.

 

Wood, Water and Ice

Among the improvements were vast fir and larch plantations on the lower ground to replace the Caledonian forests ravaged by everyone from Neolithic farmers to iron smelters and shipbuilders. The Duke of Atholl alone planted a million trees for shelter, for ornament, for fuel and for timber.

 

Proof that the country was well wooded in former times was provided in the spring of 1790 after the river breached the green Inch below Inchtuthel and 2 large oak trees were uncovered. Frequent changes of course by the Tay and regular flooding events were responsible for the creation of extensive marshlands in the shape of oxbow loops. To the north of the present-day course, the marsh of Delvin was said to have once been on the south side of the river; indeed, its ancient name, Inchtuthel means ‘island in a flooded stream’. On the south side, the Bloody Inches is a cut-off loop that has been filling in with flood deposits since the 1760s, assisted, no doubt, by improvements to the drainage. Most of the district’s marshlands were drained in the 18th Century, bringing about an end to the ague, a malarial-type, insect-borne fever that was prevalent in the plain up to the 1740s.

 

By regular floodings, the Tay enhanced the fertility of the riverine plains. It also provided a good living for fishermen. One writer noted that “salmon fishing on the Tay is inconsiderable [sic], enhanced by the great demand of the London market”.

 

In those days, the river often froze over in the winter. It froze in 1739-40 for 6 weeks when it was recorded that “loaded carts passed & repassed on the ice”. 1739 had a poor summer and the crop did not ripen properly. The price of oatmeal doubled, to £1 per boll (at a time when wages were only 6d per week). The following season was “as mild as the former had been severe; the crop was uncommonly fertile” and the price of meal halved.

Temperature records were kept in Caputh in the years from 1783 to 1792. They show that the coldest year of the period was 1791-92 when the summer temperature reached 60°F and the winter minimum was 17°F (-8°C). In Clunie that January, “neither man nor horse could venture abroad without having their feet secured with iron”.

 

In bad years when the crops failed, the parishes would provide assistance to those worst affected. They all possessed mortification funds established by their wealthy heritors and these were used to help the poorest families in the parish. In 1740, the year the river froze, the most indigent poor were given 6d a week; those that were able to beg only received 2d a week. The Government sometimes gave a helping hand. After a bad year in 1782, when the price of meal again rose to £1 per boll, £12 was taken from the parish funds for distribution and the Government also sent 10 bolls, 1 firlot & 1 peck of meal to be distributed. “By these means a temporary relief was afforded to many of the industrious poor.”

 

Weaving

Despite such occasional setbacks, agricultural productivity was rapidly rising. For example, 4000 bolls of barley were exported from the district in the 1790s compared to the 1760s, when only 1500 bolls were sold outside.

 

Notwithstanding the improvements, most small tenants remained poor “except they are weavers, in which case they live very comfortably”. This remark calls for some explanation, and the writer of the Kinclaven Statistical Account supplies it. He describes the farms as generally small, of 20 to 50 arable acres. An exception was Innernytie Farm, where the Inches family lived. Its rent was about £125 per annum, indicating a size of around 120 acres. He goes on to say that a considerable number of farmers, to make ends meet, were also weavers. “Each of them has a loom or two in the corner of the house….They employ themselves at the weaving business, chiefly during winter”, making coarse cloth for the Perth market. Several looms were “employed by manufacturers in Perth, who furnish the yarn, and pay a certain price for the yard weaving”. Otherwise, yarn was supplied from flax spun by the local women, who were said to be able to spin good quantities of fine thread on recently introduced spinning wheels with no previous experience. Any surplus yarn not used by local weavers would be sold to hawkers who would sell it on to the great manufactories in Perth.

 

To get to the spinning stage, the lint (flax) was put through a number of unpleasant processes, some of which were carried on in lint mills built for the purpose. Little Dunkeld parish had five such mills. Arntully, the principal village of Kinclaven, probably had at least one mill. The Account says that many of its inhabitants were weavers occupying small plots of land where they grew vegetables and kept a milch cow or two. The writer remarks that the miserable state of the village is compounded by the “abominable, but too general practice, of placing the dunghill (midden-hole, vulgarly) before the doors of the dwelling-houses”.

 

Living Standards and Health

Activities associated with the linen industry seem to have contributed to an improvement in living standards, though not as much as that achieved by the more enterprising larger farmers. These “extensive farmers” adopted a style of living that was characterised by elegance and luxury: “Many new houses have been built and old houses allowed to go to ruin, for six or seven years past. Five farm houses are two stories high, with slate roofs. A taste for cleanliness, and even some degree of elegance, with respect to the articles of lodging, household furniture and dress, is beginning to display itself. Instead of mean dirty hovels, built with stones without cement, dwelling houses are now built by good masons with mortar, cast on the outside with lime, and neatly finished within”.

 

Evidently, many houses were built without chimneys, leading to the comment that people had weak eyes from the smoke in their homes. However, and no reason is advanced for this happy state of dental perfection, they have “fine teeth, even to old age”. Among other health problems, smallpox, once a terrible scourge, had evidently been controlled through inoculation, so that in Clunie, only one person died from the disease during the period. The minister thought the other scourge, consumption, was caught during flax processing: “Spinning, which is the employment of the young women during the winter months, is justly reckoned the occasion of consumptions among them, by the waste of saliva requisite in the laborious exercise”. The same writer also thought that worms in children were “the effect of living too much on potatoes [introduced some 22 years earlier], which they prefer to oat meal”.

 

The Statistics

One of the briefs of the writers of the Statistical Accounts was to compile population statistics, including births, marriages and deaths, the numbers engaged in each occupation and to note any trends they might discern. In Caputh, which was fairly typical, there were 456 inhabited houses, giving an occupancy of over 4 people per house. 312 were employed as servants, 130 as weavers, 106 as farmers, 24 as masons, 12 as shoemakers and 8 were boatmen. Of the 44 proprietors or landholders in the parish, only 4 of the greater and 7 of the smaller proprietors were consistently or occasionally resident: several others live in neighbouring parishes. Many, it seems, were absentee landlords.

The Rev William Innerarity was highly critical of previous incumbents, noting that “It is a subject of regret, that the session records of country parishes have been generally kept in a manner so slovenly and negligent, that it is now almost impossible to form a just estimate of their population a century ago, or even less….With respect to the following lists [of births, marriages and deaths] taken from the parish-register, it is to be remarked 1. That many children in distant parts of the parish, not being baptized by the minister, are neglected to be registered by the parents. 2. That many of the inhabitants bury in other parishes and never pay the tax imposed by act of Parliament in 1783, which being unpopular, is not collected in some places. No accurate conclusion can be drawn from these lists of [births, marriages and deaths]”.

Roads

On the subject of transport, it is surprising to learn that there was not a single bridge across the Tay from the east, though a new road was planned, and would include a bridge at Meikleour. The Perthshire Highway Commissioners of the day proposed to apply the services of “ye lands of Innernytie by Kinclaven to the Road from the Boat of Kinclaven to Perth”. At the same meeting, the Commissioners appointed a committee to report on whether a bridge should be constructed over the Milnburn of Colrie [where the Inches lived] on the existing Perth to Dunkeld road on the west bank of the Tay. This, “the road from the Ferry [at Dunkeld] is very much frequented but, notwithstanding many good bridges, in wretched repair.” In the parishes of Stormont, it was hoped that the new road and the improvements to the existing road, would facilitate the carriage of coal and lime from the docks at Perth.