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Further information

1700-1900 Scottish Association of Family History Societies

Images of modern and heritage crops grown in and around the Living Field garden were used to illustrate a talk at the 23rd Annual Conference of the Scottish Association of Family History Societies, attended by around 100 delegates at the D'Arcy Thompson Lecture Hall at the University of Dundee on 21 April 2012.


Photographs of some of the crops - (top left, clockwise) swede or neeps Brassica napus, black oat Avena strigosa, whin Ulex europaeus, used for animal feed when suitably pulped, and bere Hordeum vulgare (all Living Field collection).



The talk began with a broad view of the crops grown in Scotland since agriculture began, then concentrated on the period of interest to many family historians, 1700-1900.

The period was marked by continuous agricultural innovation through factors such as liming to reduce acidity of the soil, machines to cultivate soil and sow seed, rotations to replenish nutrients and root crops to provide food and fodder over winter and spring.

Despite improvements, external events, such as volcanic eruptions, and internal inequalities and strife, exposed the weakness of agriculture and food supply chains to provide for all the people. The period saw famine and deprivation alongside some of the greatest revolutions in industry.   

But were famines inevitable - is it too cold and wet for agriculture here? Not at all. The climate of the north-east Atlantic seaboard is highly variable and might not seem on first experience to be good for crops. But it is not so cold as central Europe in winter and not so hot and dry as in the Mediterranean region in summer.

Scotland lies on the divide between grass and crops - grass to the north and west, crops to the south and east. It is not a rigid divide but moves with the years and with altitude. Where crops can be grown, the long cool summers allow them to build up large quantities of plant matter. The yields of the main crops in East Scotland are as high as anywhere in the UK.

The potential for high yield was not fully realised here until after 1900, however, when the Haber Bosch process led to cheap nitrogen fertiliser, plant genetics to high yielding crop varieties and the internal combustion engine to powerful tractors that replaced the horse and ox.

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Photographs (top left clockwise) of black oat Avena strigosa, bere Hordeum vulgare, oat Avena sativa and bread wheat Triticum aestivum (all Living Field collection). Where technology, soil and weather allow, farming and society will try to move from black oat to wheat.


Background notes


The world's major crops had been domesticated by around 10,000 years ago in warmer regions when much of northern Europe was still under ice. The retreat of the ice allowed the first agricultural settlers to grow barley and wheat here over 5000 years ago. Agriculture expanded during the subsequent Bronze and Iron ages, so that most of the species of crop we know today had become established 2000 years ago.

Among later arrivals was the potato from Central America, and although it appears in the UK in the late 1500s, it only became a general agricultural crop in the early 1700s (e.g. at Kilsyth in 1728).

The growing of crops was coupled throughout this period to the tending of livestock. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are the main drivers of yield. Crops need the nutrients in the soil where they are growing. The farm animals ingest nutrients over a wide range and deposit them near or in cropped fields. The animals in turn rely on grain and roots from the fields to sustain them over the winter and spring.

Crop yield relied on animal dung, both home grown and imported, until the Haber Bosch process for the industrial manufacture of nitrogen fertiliser allowed the separation of crops from animal husbandry after 1900.

The crops

The typical crops grown in each parish are recorded in the Old (1791-99) and New (1834-45) Statistical Accounts and later in the Ordnance Gazetteer OF 1882 (see references).  

The main categories are cereals (wheat, barley), legumes (peas, beans), potato, brassicas (kale, turnip, swede), fibres (flax) and oils (rapeseed) together with occasional medicinals and dyes.

Cereals: barley (bere and modern varieties of Hordeum vulgare), oat Avena sativa and black oat Avena strigosa; and sometimes wheat Triticum aestivum

Legumes that fix nitrogen from the air (though the process was not scientifically identified until near the end of the period): peas and beans; pasture forages such as clovers, vetches and lucerne; wild fodders, such as whin Ulex europaeus, high in protein and crushed to the point where it was palatable. 

Cabbages (brassicas): kales, cabbages, turnip in both root and oilseed forms, swede (the oilseed rape that is common today is the 'seed' version of the the swede and the same species).

Fibres: flax and some hemp and nettle: flax for linen flourished until industrialists turned to raw, imported jute and cotton (e.g. Stanley Mills was built for imported cotton in 1786); other fibres imported include sisal, coir, hemp, manila, silk. Flax is the only crop that was grown widely in the period but is not grown now. 

The improvements

Land was improved and yield raised and made more stable by a range of innovations that may seem to us today to be commonplace and obvious. Improvements include - liming to reduce acidity of the soil; removal of big stones; draining wet land; complex machines to till, sow and harvest; periods of leys with grass and soil-enriching legumes; root crops, such as turnips and swedes that offered animal and human food in late winter and spring; power from the industrial revolution to thresh and grind.  

Improvements in agricultural practice after 1700 relied on periods of fallow in which grass and legumes fixed carbon and nitrogen in the soil. For example, periods of four years cropping were followed by an equivalent period of fallow and grazing, as in the following extract.

From the Statistical Account for Dunnichen in Angus, 1791-99 (verbatim). "There are several different systems of cropping the ground.  The rotation of the best land is oats, flax or fallow for wheat with. dung, barley, and sown down with grass seeds, grass for the three or four following years.  A second rotation is, two crops of oats, a crop of barley, a green crop, a crop of oats or barley, with dung, and sown down with grass-seeds, hay cut one year, and the grass pastured three or four."

The improvements were often localised, not taken up or not affordable by all farming communities. They did not raise agriculture to provide for all the people, and did not prevent famine in the face of volcanic eruptions and pestilence. 

Landrace to certified variety 

The need to improve the quality of seed or transplantings was recognised throughout the period. Over time, there was a move from landraces to certified crop varieties.

Landraces are maintained by seed saved from one year to the next; they are locally adaptable but variable. While many farmers still save a portion of seed for next year's crop,  true landraces are now rare. Bere from the Northern and Western Isles is probably one. Black oat is still grown occasionally. Rye is very rare. 

The huge collection of useful plants and crop varieties compiled by the seedsmen Peter Lawson and Son in 1852 reveals a widespread desire to import, test and innovate, not just by seed bulkers, importers and distributors, but by many farmers who sought to improve and refine the seed stocks from their own crops and adapted to their own conditions. The long lists of, say, oat and barley, seem to include a very wide range of imported types, specified landraces and certified varieties. Many of the local and exotic plants they recorded have been forgotten or lost.

Modern crop varieties are maintained by seed grown specially to preserve a set of qualities or traits. They are more uniform and predictable than landraces and are subject to quality control. Varieties today are produced centrally, sometimes overseas, and distributed by seed merchants.

After 1900

While food security was never assured in many areas between 1700 and 1900, the global technological revolutions after 1900, particularly in the provision of industrially manufactured nitrogen fertiliser, in the genetic improvement of crops and the use of tractors powered by internal combustion, allowed the greatest rise in yield, probably since agriculture began.

But did Scotland become self-sufficient in food. No! Rather it turned to become an exporting economy, while importing much of its food from other countries.

Within a hundred years, the uncertainty and famine of the 1800s had ended, but by the 1990s, the intensification of agriculture had led to a degradation of soil and a breakdown of  life-supporting, ecological processes.

Title of talk: Squire G R. Crops 1700-1900. Annual Conference of the Scottish Association of Family History Societies, held at the University of Dundee on 26 April 2012.

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Sources and references

Web resources

Statistical Account of Scotland: First (Old) 1791-1799; Second (New) 1834-45. Available through this Edina link. 

Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland 1882 and 1885. Six volumes by Groome F H (ed). Published T C Jack, Edinburgh. (Available through several web sites, e.g. http:// ;


Fenton A, Veitch K (eds). 2011. Farming and the Land. In the series Scottish Life and Society: a compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Publishers: John Donald / The European Ethnological Research Centre, 1172 pages. (For a general introdution, see the chapter by Sprott G, pages 3-59; and for more detail on the period in question, see Crops and livestock in the improvement era by Hay R , 244-266.)

Peter Lawson and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Privately printed, Edinburgh, UK.

Smout TC. 2000. Nature Contested: environmental history in Scotland and Northern England since 1600. Edinburgh University Press.