Loudoun Kirk

Copyright Friends of Loudoun Kirk © 2015


An Account of the Modes of Improvement, pursued on the Estates

of the Countess of Loudoun and Moira, in the County of Ayr---

By Mr Aiton, Strathavon.


     As the object of your valuable Magazine, is to disseminate useful knowledge on agricultural subjects, --accounts of the improved modes of husbandry, and of the means used for enriching the soil, and meliorating the condition of the inhabitants of any particular district, however limited or remote, must, when faithfully given, be acceptable to you;  and when detailed through such a respectable medium as your Magazine, cannot fail to become interesting to the public.   It was from these consideration, that I offered you a short account of the islands of Bute and Arran, which was inserted in you LVIIth No.; and it is for similar purpose, I now submit to you, an account of the means that have been adopted, and are in a train of operation, to improve the estates of the countess of Loudoun and Moira, and meliorate the condition of her Ladyship's numerous tenants.  If the estates of a Noble family should appear too small for particular notice, I would merely mention, that, as the condition of these estates is nearly similar to that of  much larger tracts of the western counties of Scotland;  and as the modes of improvement adopted on them, seem to be judicious, and well adapted to many other districts, --an account of them must be so much the more interesting.


    To those who occupy districts, that are either superior in soil and climate;  or where cultivation has been brought to much greater perfection, the accounts of places more imperfect may appear unworthy of notice.   But if we consider how large a portion of Scotland, is inferior to these estates in soil, climate, and cultivation;  and how interesting it is to render such districts as productive as circumstances will admit;  and to better as much as possible the condition of those by whom they are occupied, the account may still appear to be deserving of notice.

    The estates of the Countess of Loudoun and Moira, are situated in the districts of Cunningham and Kyle, in the county of Ayr, and contain some of the best land in that part of the country;  some that is of small value;  and extensive ranges of a medium quality.  Some parts of these estates are at an altitude of less than 100 feet above the level of the sea;  and they gradually rise from that to the height of 800 feet above the level of the sea.-- Part is of a light sort;  and patches of moss are found towards the moors, on the verges of the estates.

    The climate is moderate as to temperature, but subject to much more rain than falls on the eastern side of the island.  With the exception of a few farms in the higher parts, the whole is arable;  and like the greatest part of such land in the county of Ayr, occupied in farms of from 40 to 150 acres.  Generally, about one-third part of each of the possessions, has hitherto been in grain crops, and the rest in pasture, eaten chiefly by a dairy stock.  The ridges were generally broad, high in the middle and crooked;  with rushes in the furrows;  and the fences frequently in indifferent or bad order.  The houses were ill constructed, and in bad repair, and the approaches to them deep and miry.  The tenants, though generally sober and industrious in their own way, were fare from being so comfortable as occupiers of land ought every where to be.  There are a few exceptions;  but such was, till of late, the condition of the lands, houses, and tenants on these fine estates.

    To improve them was worthy of the noble and amiable Countess of Loudoun, and the patriotic Earl of Moira.  But his Lordship was too much engaged in the service of his country, to be able to pay much attention to these subjects.   The details of the business, in granting new leases to the greatest part of the tenants, and otherwise arranging the improvement of the soil, and meliorating the condition of possessors, has been entrusted to the factor on the estates, John Hamilton Esq., who seems to have discharged that trust with the utmost skill, industry, and fidelity.

    Mr Hamilton has not, like some other improvers of estates turned out the native occupiers, and overthrown the former system of farming, to introduce strangers, who were ignorant of the soil, climate, and other local circumstances;  nor has he attempted modes of farming, which, though good in themselves, and pursued with advantage in other districts, were not suited to these estates, and the people with whom he had to deal.   He has very wisely attempted to improve, rather than destroy, the system of husbandry, so generally preferred in that part of the country.  In some of the best of the land, the tenants are bound to rotation shifts, adapted to the soil,  the state of the ground, and other circumstances;  but, in by far the greatest part of the estates,  the former system of dairy husbandry, with from one-fourth to one-third only in crop, and under proper improvements has been preferred.

    Intelligent farmers, who are strangers to the dairy husbandry of Ayrshire, and who have been trained up to grain husbandry, seem to have contracted an opinion rather unfavourable to the Ayrshire husbandry;  and some of them seem unwilling to be undeceived in that respect.   That there is some of the soil in the better parts of Ayrshire, that is well adapted to the most liberal rotation courses, is abundantly obvious.  And generally any respect to the very best management  on the eastern side of the island.  But even on these lands, some part of a dairy stock is preferred by many of the most intelligent farmers;  both because they are satisfied, from experience, that land when in pasture cannot be so profitably occupied any other way as with a dairy stock;  and because they also find, that the rotations which admit of the lands being in pasture for a few years occasionally, are by far the best.

   Another thing regarding these estates, which will sound ill in the ears of some respectable farmers, is, the small farms of from 40 to 150 acres.  I shall not at present give offence to any one, by going largely into that hackneyed controversy, the proper size of farms.  It is enough in the present instance to say that in the western districts, where that mode of occupancy prevails, a greater rent is paid by these small tenants, than is paid for land of equal quality by those who occupy the largest farm, either in the west of east side of Scotland.  The great body of people are more independent and happy, as industrious, and bring more produce to market, than large farmers.  It would have but ill accorded with the enlightened policy of the Countess of Loudoun and Moira, to have turned the industrious tenants on her estates into the condition of binds, and to have raised twenty or thirty great farmers over them.

    But though the mode of occupancy has not been changed, it does not follow that the tenants are to trudge on in their beaten paths, without the least alteration.   On the contrary, the most interesting improvements which circumstances would admit, on a moderate and economical plan, have been devised, and are in a train of operation.

    The houses, many of which were in a homely, some of them in rather a wretched state, have been rebuilt, or undergone complete repairs;  and most of them are rendered adequate to the size of the farm, and mode of life of the tenants;  and on some of the principal farms, the houses have been fitted up on liberal plans.  In general, the tenants have been allowed their own plans;  but the factor has taken care that they are proper, and overruled such as were otherwise.  He has taken care that the midden-dubs be banished from the farm-steads, and that the roads, farm-courts, and every thing round the houses, be dressed up in proper style.  And he enters so much into the spirit of improvement in the domestic economy of the tenants, that he has offered annual premiums to those that have their farm-stead in best order;  while he censurers and reprobates those that are slovenly.  Many miles of new roads to lime-works, and for communication, have been opened, and are now made, or making.  Draining has been enforced, and assistance given to the tenant when the operation were difficult or expensive, and many braes and belts have been planted with trees, and many more intended to be planted.

    Where the fences were bad or ill constructed, the old ones were cut over, cleaned, and dressed in the most improved methods;  or new fences were drown,  and the tenants taken bound to weed and dress them up, thin at the top, like a wedge or horse's mane.  And, that these obligations may not stand, as they often do,  a dead letter, in the leases, he surveys them often himself causes others to look after them, and gives premiums every year to those that have their fences in the best order.

    The ridges were mostly crooked, too broad, and rather high; to remedy which he has taken the tenants bound to level, fallow, and straight the whole lands, in the course of the present leases.  But, to render these expensive operations as easy as possible, they are only bound to level, fallow, and straight one-twelfth part of the farm every year, till the whole shall be completed.  They are bount to apply a stipulated quantity of lime and dung to that which is fallowed, and to sow it down into grass after one white crop.  And though no exact course of cropping is fixed during the lease, yet the tenant are taken bound never to have more than one third part in crop at any time;  and proper regulations are introduced, to prevent them from running out any part of their possessions towards the end of the lease.

   On the verges of the moors, some farms of waste land are laid off, houses built, and regulations adopted for the reclaiming of a certain portion annually, conform to the size of the possession.

   As the dairy is one of the chief sources of the farmer's gains, and as among people who have been hitherto rather slovenly in their domestic economy, there must still be much room for improvement in dairy husbandry;  Mr Hamilton, to excite emulation in that branch, gives an annual premium for the best managed dairy, and inferior premiums to some of those of the second rate.

   Having been one of those who adjudged these premiums for the present year, I had an opportunity of seeing the efforts that had been made on almost every farm, to dress up the houses on the outside, and clean them within, and also to have the diary houses and every thing regarding that branch, in the very best order.

    Cleanliness, being above all things the life and soul of dairy husbandry, the factor, the other judges, and myself were at the utmost pains to discover and point out, at every house, any thing we could perceive to be slovenly or out of order, and to direct the people to every improvement we could suggest, or that we had seen in the course of our survey.  I never in my life spent a week more agreeably, and I may add more usefully than on the survey;  teaching the tenants what we knew, and learning what they could show us.  Dairy husbandry has the best effects in improving the domestic habits of the people.  The least deviation from cleanliness is injurious to the dairy produce, and greatly diminishes its value.  To render it marketable, and secure the highest prices, the most rigid attention must be paid to keeping every thing clean;  and, if once they accustom themselves to cleanliness in that, it will soon be attended to in cookery, and other departments of domestic economy.

    Premium have also been given, for many years past, at ploughing matches, and for the best cows, bulls, horses &c. on the estates;  and they have had the very best effects in diffusing knowledge and exciting emulation among the tenants.

    It is truly agreeable to see these rational and well conducted improvements going forward;  and delightful to contemplate their progress and final results.  Snug and comfortable farm steadings, rising over the ruins of the “auld clay biggings” which preceded them- good roads, and clean dry farm-courts, where dirty dubs and stinking gutters formerly abounded-wet land drained – every possession surrounded and subdivided by the best of thorn hedges, and sheltered by plantations – the whole land that is arable, or capable of being rendered so, levelled -rational courses of cropping suited to soil and circumstances adapted-ploughing, drilling, and every operation in husbandry, executed with a degree of neatness and propriety no where excelled- a knowledge of the breeds, and principles of breeding and rearing of every species of live stock diffused-dairy husbandry, the principal branch in the district, improved, to equal, or excel that of England-the produce of the estate in human food far more than tripled- the rent to the noble proprietor greatly increased at the end of the present leases-and, above all, a much greater number of people employed in the wholesome labours of husbandry, and the condition of the tenants, their families, and servants greatly meliorated-are the results to which these rational improvements are well calculated to lead, and which are now in a progressive train of accomplishment.  And as they embrace the improvement of the soil, the ultimate increase of the rent rolls, the ornament of the district, and melioration of the condition of the people, without much advance by the noble proprietor, they cannot fail to be viewed, by every lover of improvement and of mankind, as highly interesting and worth of imitation.  That they may be imitated by every proprietor whose estates are equally well adapted for improvement, is the earnest with of,

                                               Sir. Your. &c.

Strathavon, 24 Oct 1814                         Will Aiton

Many folks depended on the big estates for work.  It was long hours and hard work but that is what they would have grown up to and that was accepted.   It’s thanks to the Farmer’s Magazine and an article published by Will Aiton in 1814, we have an idea what being a tenant farmer on an estate was like.

The article was transcribed from The Farmer’s Magazine, A Periodical Work Vol XV, published by

Archibald Constable & Co. Edinburgh (1814)  and it can be read there in the original print.