The first national agricultural survey in the world was undertaken by the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement between 1793 and 1817. It examined the agricultural state and the obstacles to its improvement in each county throughout Britain, as a means of promoting the internal improvement of the country. The project was an ambitious and challenging undertaking. As Sir John Sinclair, the founder of the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement, and its first President, noted in his address to the Board on 29 July 1794, ‘such a plan had never been formerly attempted in any country; and many doubts were entertained whether it would be possible to effect it even in Great Britain, in any reasonable space of time’.

The survey was published in a series of published reports, each with the title General view of the agriculture of x: drawn up for the consideration of the Board of Agriculture, with ‘x’ being the name of a specific county. The reports were published in two series: ‘the original reports’, comprising some 91 surveys, were published between 1793 and 1795; the second series, or the ‘revised’ or ‘corrected’ reports, some 85 surveys, were published between 1795 and 1817.

‘Sir John Sinclair (1754–1835), 1st Baronet of Ulbster’ by Henry Raeburn (1794-1799) photo credit: National Galleries of Scotland

There are significant differences between the two series: the first was printed as draft reports to which readers could add manuscript comments, so that ‘no important fact, or even useful idea, would escape notice’. That role was reflected in their appearance, as quartos with wide margins around the text.  They were printed rather than being published. Each survey report generally had less than 100 pages. The second series of survey reports were updated or revised reports, though in many cases they had little resemblance to the ‘original’ ones, with most of them also being compiled by different surveyors who collected their own evidence for them. They were much more extensive, with many extending to a few hundred pages; some even had two volumes and one even had three. They were published as octavos, the most popular form for the production of books intended for popular sale and for scholarly purposes, and were also widely distributed by booksellers.

The two series of survey reports presented information in a systematic manner. The ‘original’ ones related to 35 points. These included subjects such as soil and climate, land ownership, occupation of land, land use, ploughs, carts and other implements, the rotation of crops, the use of oxen and horses, the impact of enclosure on population, the draining of land, the price of provisions, the state of roads, the nature of leases, practices in the district applicable to other districts, the spirit of improvement and its excitement, improvements to be undertaken in livestock or husbandry, and obstacles to improvement. While not all the survey reports included all these headings, many did. The ‘corrected’ surveys made more extensive use of the systematic collection of information. According to Sinclair, they were drawn up according to one uniform model’ which would enable the reader ‘to find out at once, where any point was treated of, to which he may direct his attention’. Initially the model had seventeen chapters with numerous subdivisions, a conclusion and appendixes, but it was revised in 1806 to include further subdivisions that would enable the surveyors to ‘inquire into new or peculiar practices’. The chapter headings were: preliminary observations, geographical state and circumstances, the state of property, buildings, mode of occupation, implements, inclosing, arable land, grass, gardens and orchards, woods and plantations, wastes, improvements, livestock, rural economy, political economy, as connected with or affecting agriculture, obstacles to improvement, miscellaneous observations and conclusion. They included all the headings that Sinclair thought were ‘necessary to notice in an Agricultural Survey’. Some were not one ones that we would readily associate with an agricultural survey.

“The reports discuss far more than agriculture, reaching into many areas of social history and the history of technology. …More broadly, since the reports are in part polemics in favour of ‘improvement’, they can be used to understand the rhetoric which was deployed.” John Burnett, Principal Curator of Modern Scotland, National Museums Scotland

According to Sinclair, the surveys were undertaken by ‘some very intelligent surveyors, or persons skilled in Husbandry’. They had a wide range of backgrounds, such as leading agricultural writers such as Arthur Young, William Marshall, Dr Coventry (holder of the first Chair of agriculture at the University of Edinburgh), as well as less well-known ones, including William Aiton, and landowners, land agents and farmers. Others were members of the professions. Ministers were authors for surveys in Scotland.

,A Farmer with a Horse and Cart, by Benjamin Marshall (1809) photo credit: National Trust Images/Christopher Hurst


The surveys were part of wider work initiated, supervised and undertaken by Sinclair that formed one great work, ‘the pyramid of agricultural enquiries’: an examination of ‘the existing agricultural state of England and Scotland respectively, and the means by which each might be improved’. The pyramid had four levels, each focusing on a particular geographical area of Scotland – the parish, the county and the nation as a whole – that were brought together in an increasingly narrower compass. At the bottom was the 938 parish accounts in the Statistical Account of Scotland, published in 21 volumes between 1791 and 1799. Next were the county surveys, followed by The General Report of the Agricultural State, and Political Circumstances of Scotland, published in 5 volumes in 1814. At the top of the pyramid was The Code of Agriculture, published in one volume in 1817, which combined all the enquiries into one code ‘for the purpose of rendering, a general knowledge of the principles of husbandry, more easily accessible’.

Sinclair’s visionary project of the county surveys, though ambitious, demanding and time-consuming, has left us with a valuable record of social, material and economic conditions in each county of Britain at a time of significant change and transformation. It is an important milestone in the surveying and reporting of Britain from the late eighteenth century, and one that deserves to be better known.


– Dr Heather Holmes, Livingston