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.


Jun 092015

In a recent post  (‘Who Read the County Surveys?’) I wrote about the insights that book reviews can give into historical reception and reading practices. Another interesting way of exploring reception is through researching the price of a book: for the amount that booksellers charge can give clues not just to the perceived value of the text but also the levels of disposable income available to the target markets.

The prices of the County Surveys varied, usually between 7 and 12 shillings, when they were sold on boards (this was common at the time, purchasers would then arrange for binding according to their own tastes and budgets). Using the great calculators provided on the brilliant Measuring Worth website we can see how much this equates to in today’s money (2013 is the most recent data available), as well as how it compares to the average income of the time and the labour costs of the time.

The surveys were published between 1794 and 1817, so let’s use the year 1806 in the middle of the range, as our point of comparison.  Seven shillings in 1806 equates to a real price in 2013 of £24.77. Twelve shillings equates to a real price of £42.46.  On this information, the surveys seem to be priced fairly reasonably, not particularly expensive although one would not call them cheap. This apparent affordability may be deceptive however: for, in order to really benefit from the instructive comparisons between counties that the surveys were intended to reveal, purchasers would have to buy multiple volumes.  Moreover, the real price really only indicates the relative cost of the volume, and must be read against the incomes of the time.

The average male agricultural worker in 1806 earned somewhere between £24 7s and £38 7s* per year. Let’s base our calculations on the lower end of the spectrum. There were 20 shillings to the pound, so £24 7s was 487 shillings per year, or 40.5 shillings per month: so 7 shillings is roughly 17% of the average workers monthly wage.  The contemporary income value of £24 7s is £26,710. This gives a monthly wage of £2225.83. 17 % of this is £378. This changes the picture quite significantly, suggesting the relative value of the book to a worker is much higher than the ‘real price’.  Would you spend £378 on a single book? What kind of person would have the means to do that?

We know that ‘improvement’ was the pursuit of landowners and that—notoriously in the case of the Scottish clearances—changes could be instituted at the expense of smaller tenant farmers. The figure of £378, which is for one volume rather than a set, suggests that the practical knowledge that the set of Surveys represents was only really affordable only to the relatively wealthy, rather than common agricultural labourers who likely could not have afforded the books. It thus raises interesting questions about the politics of Enlightenment improvement. To explore this further, it would be very interesting to research other reading contexts such as borrowing books: were the surveys acquired by libraries of the time (such as Innerpeffray for example), and did their members borrow the volumes?

As Measuring Worth is at pains to point out, establishing value is far from an exact science and involves subjective interpretation and, in the case of historical values, there is obviously some speculation involved. I think these figures are interesting none-the-less, and although they do not lead to reliable conclusions, they do give a bit of a sense of the historical circumstances in which the Surveys were produced and consumed.


*This figure comes from taking the average in 1832 (the closest historical match I’ve found, from this paper by Gregory Clark, University of California, and using the measuring worth calculators to get the comparable wage for 1806.

Apr 292015

1893 map of Shetland, from Cassell’s Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland; Published by Cassell and Company Limited, London.

One of the aims of our current project is to establish the cost and workflow requirements for creating a complete virtual collection of the County Surveys.  Many of the surveys are already available in various online archives but discovering them is not as easy as it could be and quality and accessibility remain quite variable. In the longer term, we hope to aggregate high quality full-text files that we can use for research-led text mining.  In order to establish the projected costs and labour involved in such a project, as part of the pilot we plan to identify one or two rare surveys and digitise them according to current best practices, documenting this process for ourselves and others. Clearly, as funds are limited, it makes sense to focus on volumes that are not already available in digital form and which are rare even in print.

One such candidate is the General view of the Agriculture of the Shetland Islands by John Shirreff which was published in Edinburgh by Constable & Co in 1814. This is a volume, according to one early 19th Century reviewer, which was of a peculiarly special interest to contemporary readers for it describes “a remote part of the British dominions, with which many readers are perhaps as little acquainted as with the Islands in the South Sea; and they exhibit a state of Society very different in several respects from that which prevails in the other provinces of Britain.”  Indeed, comparing Orkney and Shetland to the wilds of the American frontier, he suggests the inhabitants of these northern islands belong to a different, less civilised time and “bring into view a stage in the progress of improvement at which the inhabitants of the South has arrived some centuries ago, and which had been long since passed over by the people of almost every other part of the Island.” (The Farmer’s Magazine 15 (Aug 1814): 343) The exoticism, snobbery and geo-political bias of these remarks seems almost comical today, but they suggest that the contents of Shetland survey may be of particular importance to historians given the apparently substantial differences from more ‘advanced’ mainland practices.  Happily we will all be able to judge for ourselves soon, because a print copy of the Shetland survey is held here in Edinburgh at the Royal Botanic Gardens and they have kindly agreed to allow its digitisation: we’ll post about this process once it gets underway.”

Apr 152015


pot flour

Sir John Sinclair, ‘On Potato Flour’, York Herald (1817)

One of the key motivations behind the commissioning of the County Surveys was the Enlightenment zeal for ‘improvement’, which characterised late 18th Century Britain and drove the agricultural revolution. Until this time, the fundamentals of farming had changed little over the centuries, with many farmers still using the runrig and open field systems that originated in the middle ages. Attempting to modernise and increase productivity, ‘improving’ farmers developed new principles, worked to cultivate greater areas of land and increasingly large and applied new scientific thought and discoveries to their practices. These changes had vast social implications. As the notorious Highland Clearances showed, in some case they were devastating for farming communities and rural life. Yet, as thinkers like Sinclair knew, ‘improvement’ would be key to Britain’s future, enabling the nation to support its growing population in towns and in the colonies as it became a modern industrial state.

His 1817 article ‘On Potato Flour’ gives an insight into Sinclair view. In it, he writes of recent experiments with drying and milling potatoes to create a cost effective flour that could be stored for long sea voyages ‘without being injured by vermin.’ Pointing to the documentation of this process in The General View of the Agriculture of the County of Kent he states that such new approaches must be ‘prosecuted with zeal, until so important an object as that of enabling this country to supply itself with food, from its own resources, is attained.’  Indeed such is the importance of these new methods, he concludes, that they are ‘entitled to the attention and support of the public’.  National debate on such agricultural issues is both warranted and necessary, and in this light, it appears that the intended readership of and interest in the agricultural County Surveys is likely to have been considerably broader than we might now assume.

Mar 162015


'Sunday Afternoon ' (1853) by  Edward Thompson Davis. Collection: Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

‘Sunday Afternoon ‘ (1853) by Edward Thompson Davis. Collection: Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

When you are working with old books, it’s often quite easy to find information about production and distribution: authors, publishers, and printers are often noted within the volume itself, frequently alongside information about the materials used and occasionally the circumstances under which the writing took place. Sometimes booksellers are listed and other clues to circulation can be gleaned from paratexts like  book plates and advertising. It is considerably more difficult to find out about reception: reading is an ephemeral, private process in comparison. Subtle trails can be left—marginalia, for example, or references to the book, usually gathered from quite diverse sources.

Perhaps the most valuable resources for those researching reception are book reviews.  Reviewers are conscious of their role in elucidating the book to those who have not yet read it: as they articulate their understanding and their evaluation, they reveal priorities and assumptions that illuminate contemporary readerships. This is as true of the reviewers of the County Surveys as of any others. In a review of William Aiton’s survey of Bute, for example, published in The Farmer’s Magazine (Vol 18.71 August 1817), the unnamed author explains that for such an important and potentially useful series, the surveys have some serious flaws. He complains of the verbose and repetitive nature of the surveys in a manner that suggests the fault would be widely understood by his readers.  “It seems to have been thought no part of the duty of the Reporters to confine themselves to the circumstances of the particular county on which their labours were to have been employed,” he remarks, and instead they have “wandered at large, often in controversial form, into almost every department of human knowledge” (337) This is of course precisely what makes the surveys so interesting today, but to this contemporary reader it was evidently a frustration. There were other faults too: “to some, the great length of these works, and, to others, the expense of purchasing them, may be serious objections; and the difficulty of consulting them has seldom been lessened by the addition of an index to their contents” (338) With his list of shortcomings, we get a real insight into how contemporary readers wanted to use the surveys (as manuals and reference guides) and how, in practice, they would have engaged with them (borrowing rather than buying, dipping in rather than reading from start to finish).

Reviewers are exceptional readers, however, and this also serves to marks them out from their peers. In some future posts, I’ll try to explore a few other clues that shed some light on who the ‘common readers’ of the County Surveys may have been


Jan 222015

Cover of: The code of agriculture by Sinclair, John Sir

The County Surveys project is closely related to EDINA’s Statistical Accounts of Scotland service, for together the surveys and the accounts form the foundations of Sir John Sinclair’s ambitious ‘pyramid of agricultural enquiries’. The insights and lessons gleaned from these extensive reports were collected in Sinclair’s 1817 book The Code of Agriculture, the pinnacle of his pyramid, which represented the culmination of decades of work with the aim of ‘rendering, a general knowledge of the principles of husbandry, more easily accessible’.

Although they both belong to one larger vision however, there are significant differences between the Statistical Accounts and the County Surveys. Most obviously, they focus on different geographical entities. The Statistical Accounts are concerned with individual parishes and are confined to Scotland, while the Surveys broadened the scope of the enquiries across Britain and Ireland and considered farming practices and land management at the level of county. They therefore provide information about much greater and more diverse areas, enabling comparison across different regions and nations. In this lay their value: the aim of the enquiries was to excite the spirit of ‘improvement’ across the land and, by comparing practices, farmers and landowners could pool their knowledge and share the benefits of others’ experience. Some of the surveys were published with appendixes encouraging such cross-pollination of ideas and methods, for example the General View of the Agriculture of Northampton contained a comparison of ‘the English and Scotch Systems of Husbandry, as Practised in the Counties of Northampton and Perth.’

Another significant difference between the parish accounts and the surveys lay in their authorship. The accounts were written by local ministers: living among the communities they described, they knew intimately the circumstances of their flock but were often less  informed about the other subjects on which they were tasked to report. This led to some far-fetched speculations and assertions, such as the fantastic tale of a (non-existent) loch, reportedly 100 fathoms deep, at the summit of Meallfuarvonie, a hill in Glen Urquhart.  As David McVey puts it,  ‘simple facts of topography and natural history ,[…] sometimes wander into the realms of folklore in the [Old Statistical Accounts] – a warning, perhaps, to approach other information with some caution.’ And, as McVey goes on to point out,

‘sometimes what is omitted is more telling than what is included. In the entry for the Parish of Golspie, scene of some of the most notorious incidents in the Highland Clearances during the early 19th century, the Revd Alexander MacPherson made no mention of the resulting hardship, merely commenting that there had been a decline in the parish’s population occasioned by agricultural improvements. He did, however, indulge in several purple passages of praise for the House of Sutherland, the sole landowners in the parish.’*

These biases, inventions, and idiosyncrasies are part of what makes the accounts such rich resources for historical research.

In contrast, the surveys were commissioned from laymen rather than clergy, sometimes surveyors but often ‘intellectual farmers’ and others who had a professional interest in agriculture. If they are less idiosyncratic, however, their authorship is no less revealing in terms of prevailing attitudes and social and moral codes. Consider, for example,  William Aiton’s impassioned attack on the country ‘sports’ of Ayrshire.  Describing ‘low jockies’, who beat their charges to perform, Aiton writes:

I consider it to be unworthy of the noblemen and gentlemen, who patronise these races, to give their money to such men, and for such purposes. […] The races at country towns are still worse and ought to be prohibited. […] The exhibition is calculated to shock the feelings of humanity. Three or four meagre, jaded, lame, starved animals, are mounted upon, by as many unfeeling blackguards in a state of intoxication, galloped on a rough, hard road, for several miles and cruelly cut and bloodied with whip and spur, for the amusement or sport of the rabble that attend. Such exhibitions are unworthy of an enlightened age, shocking to humanity, and none can be innocent who contribute to, or give them countenance.  (William Aiton, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Ayr  p.577)

Aiton’s remarks are illuminating in several respects, highlighting attitudes towards animals, towards the nobility and the poor. They show that the surveyors brought their own opinions and concerns to their reports, creating thick, rich descriptions that offer valuable insights into rural life in the late 18th century.

The Statistical Accounts and the County Surveys are ‘sister’ enquiries rather than twins. They complement and enrich one another, enabling researchers to compare different perspectives at different scales, and local concerns and practices at slightly different historical moments.  Creating an online collection of the County Surveys, a sustainable service like the Statistical Accounts of Scotland, would be a step towards digitally reconstructing Sir John’s pyramid and would enable researchers to easily read across and between both sets of documents, enabling new insights and readings of both.


* McVey, David. ”The Scottish “Domesday”‘ Practical Family History, Sept 2010, pp. 46-47)