Thursday, November 15, 2012

David Kerr Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough: A Portrait of the Life of the Old Scottish Farmtouns

David Kerr Cameron was the son of a Scottish horseman, a labourer who travelled from farm to farm, working as needed. David himself became a journalist in his twenties and in his fifties produced this book. It documents a now almost forgotten part of Scottish history, the Farmtoun, which formed the basis for the agriculture of the north-east part of Scotland.

The Farmtoun was a near unique arrangement. It is essentially a collection of large farms, making up a small town in its own right. The farmtouns were centred on a house, with a bothy for the single men who made up the workforce. Usually ten, or twenty labourers would live in the bothy, each employed for six or twelve months at a time. They'd be horsemen or ploughmen, or youngsters learning to the trades. The life was hard, and unlike some who write about agricultural life in the past, Cameron does not pretend this was some rural idyll. It was;

"a lifetime of the starker side of farmtoun existence: the poor food, the continuous mud, the constant rheumy pains that came finally from wearing clothes that were damp almost from one year's end to the next; ... the squalor of bothy life and the hardships of domestic service.... Men were mangled by machinery improperly guarded, gored by bulls inadequately tethered; children drowned unseen in mill dams."

The farms themselves were in close knit communities. There was co-operation, but no sharing of crops. Co-operation was needed because of the poverty, few had enough animals or equipment to go it alone. As Cameron writes, "it was common for a joint tenant of a farmtoun to own no more than the half-share of an ox - and eight were needed to pull the plough. The run-rigs were worked by the folk of the community themselves... the farmtoun clusters were co-operatives only in the labour sense; there was no sharing of crops."

Of course the community wouldn't let one of their own starve, but this was agriculture that was frequently close to the wind. The work was tough and some farmtouns didn't survive. Their names often point to the difficulties and failures; Scrapehard, Weariefauld, Stoneyvale and Clayhill.

Working arrangements were also hard. Men were fined for leaving in the evenings without permission, or for other misdemeanours. As one ballad of the time has it;

"The order was to bed at nine,
And never leave the town,
And for every time we left it,
We'd be fined half a crown"

Of course the men did,

"We never heeded Adam
But aye we took the pass,
Sometimes to buy tobacco,
Sometimes to see the lass."

Pay was low and the work long and hard and the author points out that "many of today's farming dynasties were shamefully founded on the wealth that came from squeezing such men into penury."

At the heart of this book are the bothy ballads. Collected as the farmtouns were beginning to fade from agriculture if not from memory. Cameron uses them to great effect, using them to tell the stories of famous ploughmen, the dull, monotonous diet and the love affairs. While concentrating on the farming, Cameron also tells the stories of the women and girls who worked the farms. Getting up before the men to heat water and light a fire, their work was as dull and hard as the men's. It also involved long hours,

"For her seventeen-hour day, the pay was pitifully small a.... Mary Melvin going home to Mains of Corsindae in 1876 got £6 15s (£6.75) for the half-year while Maggie Thom that same year and in the same region, got over £2 less."

 Cameron discusses the affairs and flings that led to many illegitimate children and the way that the church tried to crack down on such behaviour. But in the isolated farmtoun, young men and women made their own rules.

This is a difficult book to read, not least because of the dialect. But Cameron writes assuming his reader has some knowledge of agriculture. He gives a detailed explanation of the importance of the introduction of the 'swing plough' for instance, without explaining what it is. But minor points like this do not really detract from an important work of social history. The poetry, songs and ballads bring to life a forgotten time, one that even as the author wrote was beginning to slip into semi-nostalgic memory, though the pain remained too:

"Have you forgotten it? The dream I mean-
That dream you buried in the ground
Like an early lamb, many winters since?
What else could keep you, knowing all
The odds, but refusing to acknowledge them,
Thinking that victory was in sight?"

The author of this song might have been thinking of a farmtoun driven destitute by the cheap imported grain that came from the US, that helped break Scottish farmtoun agriculture, or perhaps someone driven into the town by old age and unemployment. But there was pride too, pride in work and a job well done, and family and friends and the community.

"Success the ploughmen's wages crown;
Let ploughmen's wages ne'er come down,
And plenty in Scotland aye abound,
By labour of the ploughmen.
For the very King that wears the crown,
The brethren o' the sacred gown,
The Dukes and the Lords of high renown,
Depend upon the ploughmen."

For some, like the women who milked the cows before sunrise, the introduction of machinery was met with a prayer of thanks. For others it meant unemployment or the destruction of old skills. But the rise and fall of the farmtouns is the story of a brief period when Scottish agriculture was transformed. It is also the agriculture that shapes much of the landscape we see today in the north-east of Scotland and its a history that rest of the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of men and women. David Kerr Cameron's book is a fitting tribute to their lives.

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