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Robert Burns lived from 1759 to 1796 and, in that time, he was a farmer as well as a poet. He lived and worked on a number of farms from Mount Oliphant, to Lochlea, to Mossgiel and finally to Ellisland, all of which are to be found in Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire.


He first thought of a number of his works as situations arose when he was ploughing his fields. Two examples are "To a Mouse", when he nearly killed it with his plough and, "To a Mountain Daisy", which he had just ploughed under.


This was a period of great change on the land throughout Lowland Scotland (the Highlands did not change at the same pace). The whole system of farming the land, and land tenure, was altered completely.

This period of change has been given a number of titles including:-
All three titles are correct since there was a revolution in the way the land was farmed, the land was improved, and the open field system was replaced by fields enclosed by hedgerows or dykes.
Before we look at the changes (Improvements) which took place we must first find out what the land was"like beforehand.


Throughout Scotland the land was farmed by a method known as the run-rig system. There were no large farms as we know them today, instead the land was divided into numerous, narrow strips of land. These strips consisted of ridges of cultivated land ? the rigs ? separated from one another by quite deep ditches. These rigs were, on average, 30 feet broad. The hollows acted as shallow drains for the rainwater, but most of them were covered in reeds, broom and marsh plants.
The farmers rented the land from the local landowner and usually paid him in kind. They lived in small clusters of houses and, each day, went forth to farm their rigs and tend to their animals. Most of them rented a number of rigs, but it was unusual for a farmer to have two or more rigs alongside each other. These strips were curved into a sort of S shape because of the need for turning space for the teams of oxen pulling the heavy, wooden, "Old Scots Plough". The best land (known as the Infield) was always kept under crop. It was never rested and, on most rigs, the same crop was grown year after year.


Steep Slopes


One Farmer's ' Field

Some of the poorer township land (Outfield) was either cropped once in a while or left as pasture.
Nearly every farmer kept a few animals and grazed them on the common grazing land, which was shared by all the villagers.
Not all the land was arranged in rigs. The people were not able to drain the land so there was a great deal of marshland. In fact, the flat land with the deepest and richest soil, close to the river banks, was flooded nearly every year and couldn't be used for farming. These marshlands were home to numerous insects, including the mosquito, which spread diseases amongst the country folk. But they were also home to wild fowl which were much sought after as a source of fresh meat. They also provided the villagers with peat for their fires, sods for roofs, reeds and broom to thatch their roofs. In brief, the landscape would be a completely alien one to anyone from our time. At this time Scotland also gained a reputation of being the home of many inventors and their inventions.

Eventually, the ever increasing population forced many people to emigrate or seek work in the towns. Others just wanted to try their luck elsewhere. In the Highlands and Islands the story was different. Much of the land was too poor to improve so the landowners had to think of something else, and in many cases this was the introduction of large sheep farms.

(Try to find out what is meant by the term

Earl of Eglinton in Ayrshire
John Cockburn of Ormiston, in East Lothian
Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk, in Aberdeenshire
John, Earl of Stair on his lands in West Lothian and Wigtownshire Craik of Arbigland who introduced the new methods to Galloway Henrietta Mordaunt, in Morayshire
Mr Callander of Craigforth, for changes around Stirling Brigadier?General Dirom, in Dumfriesshire.


The Improvements first started in the 1700's have continued to take place and, in the last 50 years, the arrival of the internal combustion engine has seen the replacement of the horse by the tractor. The introduction of very large combine harvesters has resulted in many farmers cutting down hedgerows to make fewer, but larger fields.


Approximate Number of Horses working on farms in ayrshire

The land is once more undergoing change, but whether this could be called an improvement remains to be seen. The efforts spent on making these improvements was enormous and took many generations. The map overleaf shows the same area as the map in the old farming section, but this time a number of rigs have been changed to the new system and part of the marshland has been drained. In the end, more land was farmed than ever before, the farms were larger and the yields increased. Farmers were now able to grow more than they needed so they were able to sell their produce. All the coming and going of fertiliser and harvested crops meant that the road system had to be improved



Steep Slope

Boundary between the new farms

New Fields

New fields being laid out

dramatically. Before the Improvements there were very few roads, only poor tracks. Many people were employed to build and maintain new roads. As the demand for roads increased quite a few Scots made their fame and fortune from this, two notable examples being Thomas Telford and John MacAdam. The increased interest in the land also resulted in a rush of new inventions to help the farmer, e.g. lighter ploughs, reapers and threshers.
The lighter plough caused another change - the oxen were replaced by sturdy horses. Horses were a bonus as they were easier to handle and could do the work a lot faster than the oxen ever could.


The majority of the old villages 'ferm touns' (or farming townships) were demolished. Most of the people no longer worked their own plot of land. They were displaced by the landowner, who decided who would become the new tenant farmers. However, at the beginning, most of the displaced people did not leave the land. Instead, they became farm labourers or farm servants. Others became tradesmen as the demand for all sorts of things increased, e.g. weavers, stone masons, wheelwrights, millwrights, slaters, saddlers and farriers.