Jul 272015

Some of the significance and much of the character of Sir John Sinclair’s ‘great pyramid’ comes from the many authors involved in reporting and writing up the surveys.  In the case of the  Statistical Accounts of Scotland, Sinclair drafted in local ministers to describe their parishes. Knowing their parishioners intimately, these men of the cloth were able to answer detailed questions about the place and the people, and frequently gave their individual opinions and perspectives on local tales, customs and morals.

The authors of the County Surveys, in contrast, were not of one profession or social position. The surveys were commissioned  from a wide range of  ‘intelligent gentlemen’, including university professors, farmers, landowners, clerics, professional writers, and political activists. Moreover,  it was planned that “every farmer and gentleman in the district” would have the opportunity to read and remark on the first series, which would be revised to incorporate all their insights before final publications in the second series. It was, in other words, to be a collective undertaking by many hands, designed to provide the board with “a greater variety of information and a greater mass of instructive observations from a greater number of intelligent men for their consideration and guidance.”* The incentive for such men to give up their time and energy was not financial, indeed several of the surveyors worked for free and most claimed only their expenses. Rather, they worked in the name of the public good and in the belief that their undertaking would be of significant value to their nation and its people.


Arthur Young, 1741-1820

While the stories of many of these contributors are lost to history, a few  were historically notable individuals. The Reverend Dr. Walker, for example, who surveyed the Hebrides was Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh. A distinguished scientist with interests in botany, mineralogy and geology, and a pioneer in the study and teaching of agriculture, he had conducted exploratory tours of the Western Isles on behalf of the Board of Annexed Estates in the 1760s and 70s: a more suitable candidate for surveying these counties for the Board of Agriculture would be hard to imagine.  Where Walker was a pillar of the establishment, Charles Vancouver was a more colourful figure. Like his older brother the explorer George Vancouver (who famously charted the Pacific Coast of North America in the  early 1790s, and after whom the Canadian city Vancouver is named), Charles was a traveller and frontiersman in the American colonies. Of Dutch origin, and originally a farmer, he had spent decades working the land and writing about ‘natural philosophy’ in newly-settled Kentucky, before returning to the UK in the early 1790s. He would later work in the Netherlands, before returning to the Americas, using his ‘practical expertise’ in cultivation and farming to support himself.  Vancouver’s friend and secretary to the Board, Arthur Young, was also an author and completed the survey for Suffolk. Young began his career in a mercantile house, but was more interested in travel, literature and politics than commerce. The author of four novels, pamphlets, magazines, and a number of travelogues, he was also interested in experimental agriculture and in the rights of agricultural workers. Although his experiments did not produce revolutionary results, as an astute as a social and political observer “he remains the greatest of English writers on agriculture.” (Higgs, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Vol. 63 p.362 )

In the combined wisdom of such fascinating, experienced and erudite writers, supported by the numerous contributors whose names are lost to posterity, the county surveys offer us insights not just into the agriculture of the time but also into the intellectual milieu and social conditions of Romantic Britain.

*all quotations in this paragraph are from Appendix G of Sinclair’s  1797 Communications to the Board of Agriculture, on Subjects Relative to the Husbandry and Internal Improvement of the Country, Volume 1. p. xlviii-xlix.


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