Galloway in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

Extracts from William Mackenzie " The History of Galloway from the earliest period to the present time." (1841).

Mackenzie`s History is a very thorough review of Galloway  ( the county of Wigtonshire and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright) from pre Roman times through to the early nineteenth century.  During the Reformation (ca 1525-1690) the region was home to many old  Catholic families  of Irish origin, who resisted conversion to Protestantism and as a result were driven out of the area, back to Ireland. The trials and tribulations during the reigns of  James VI/I, Charles I, Cromwell, Charles II and James VII; their imposition of episcopacy on the nascent Presbyterian Church; and the stubborn resistance of the Covenanters - who were mainly in the south west, left its mark on a countryside that had a long history of independence from the rest of Scotland. 

Life was extremely hard for the common man and woman in a feudal society where it was all they could do to scrape an existence. The following extracts from Mackenzie illustrate the desperate state of the people.

The general situation.

" For some time previous to the end of the seventeenth century, and the beginning of the eighteenth , the internal condition of Galloway was miserable in the extreme. Alternately the persecuted and persecutors, the oppressed and the the oppressors, banished from their breasts all the charities and sympathies of humanity; and in their stead, fostered some of the most noxious and hideous passions that poison and deform society. Attachment to certain forms of worship too often extinguished Christian feeling; and though men possessed religion; yet, it is to be lamented, that in many instances it was a kind of spurious religion, which exhibited itself in robes of blood, or in the unseemly garb of a sanctimonious intolerance; it was religion without benevolence, - the essence of Christianity; it was religion, but destitute of its soul- its vivifying principle; it was religion without morality. 

The feverish insecurity, the prying jealousy, and the deadly antipathies which prevailed, produced upon society, the most dismal and benumbing effects, and civilization retrograded with rapid strides. Political and ecclesiastical dissensions entirely engrossed the mental energies of the nation, and every  sober measure, no matter how admirably calculated to promote either general or particular advantage, was slightingly overlooked, amidst the excitement of party rancour or personal animosity. How, indeed, could the people improve their circumstances or ameliorate their condition at such a period of dubiety and dismay. "

The impact on day to day existence.

" Existence itself was held by so slender a tenure, that men became prodigal of life, and regardless of death. The world was not their friend, nor were the world's laws, and hence, they entertained no extravagant attachment to evanescent wealth. The gibbet and the dungeon in this state of anarchy and oppression lost their terrors, especially when the the sufferers conceived a crown of martyrdom might be obtained. "

The poor homes.

"Their houses in general were miserable hovels, built of stone and turf; or stone with mud or clay, used as mortar; they were poorly covered with straw and turf, and when it rained, the water penetrated through the insufficient and sooty covering, dyeing everything upon which it fell, a dingy colour. The houses generally had two openings, one on each side, as substitute for windows. On whatever part of the house the wind blew , the hole in that quarter was kept shut with straw, fern, or tattered pieces of old garments. These windows, at an early age, served likewise the purpose of chimneys, and allowed the dense smoke, with which the habitation was always filled, partially to escape: a hole remained in the roof for the same purpose. The inhabitants kept their cows, in winter, tied to stakes in the end of their dwelling houses; and all entered at the same door; there being often no partition between the various inmates of a cottage." 

The furnishings or `plenishings`.

The furniture of this period was of the rudest and meanest kind: many families had no bedsteads, or standing beds, but slept covered with coarse blankets on straw or heath laid upon the floor. They seldom had even a single chair in their dwellings, but used stools or stones for seats. Their dishes were made of wood; and, at meals, they all ate out of one dish, which being seldom washed, soon became thickly coated with the remains of former viands. Each person had a short hafted spoon, made of horn, which, after being used, he put into his pocket, or hung by his side; this spoon was called a  munn. They had neither knives nor forks, but used their fingers as substitutes."

Their diet.

The food of the common people consisted of the meanest and coarsest materials, besides being dirty and ill cooked. Those lived comfortably who could obtain a sufficient supply of  " brose, porridge, and sowens ", perhaps made of meagre grain, dried in pots, and ground with querns, with greens, or kail, occasionally boiled in salt and water. They seldom or never tasted animal food except carcasses of such beasts as died from starvation or disease; it was a rare thing to slaughter even an old ewe for winter provision. The common people had yet acquired no luxuries except tobacco, though the higher classes possessed a few. The chief drink (sometimes called `whig`) among the hill men was made from the clear liquid left after separating the curds and whey when cheesemaking. This was stored in a barrel and allowed to ferment. It produced a sour, sharp tasting liquid which was watered down for drinking.  It was kept in barrels, sometimes for a whole year. Another local drink was a kind of ale manufactured from heather. Tea, at this time, was perhaps not altogether unknown in Galloway; but being sold at thirty shillings a pound, it was far beyond the reach of the generality of the inhabitants.

Their dress.

The dress of the inhabitants remained peculiarly homely and ungraceful. The men wore kelt, or waulked plaiding coats, made of a mixture of black and white wool, in its natural state, which gave the cloth a mottled appearance. Their hose were formed of white plaiding sewed together; and they wore rude single soled shoes. Both shoemakers and tailors travelled from house to house , in search of employment, carrying with them the implements of their art. Their bonnets, or woollen caps, which they procured from Kilmarnock, were black or blue; for none had hats except the lairds, or landed proprietors. In church they took off their bonnets during the time of prayer and praise only, and when the minister was pronouncing the blessing. In general, neither men nor women wore shoes in summer, nor, indeed, at any time except during the period of frost or snow.; and their children got none until they could go to church. Shirts they scarcely knew , and those used were made of coarse woollens, and seldom washed; a long period elapsed before linen shirts came into general use. "

"The women dressed awkwardly, in coarse plaiding, or drugget gowns, formed in the most uncouth manner. Farmer`s wives displayed toys of coarse linen when they went from home: in their own houses, the head dress was a toy of plaiding. When young girls went to church, fairs, or markets, they wore linen mutches, or caps, with a few plaits above their foreheads: at home they went bare headed, and had their hair snooded back on the crown of their heads with a string, used like a garter."


"The agricultural operations of the district were uncommonly awkward, and the whole rural proceedings stupid and inefficient. Farmers often yoked both oxen and horses in the same plough, perhaps four of the former and two of the latter. When no oxen were used, they placed four horses a breast; and one person was always required to hold the plough, and another to drive the cattle. The clumsy ponderous instruments then in use, exhausted the half starved animals in dragging it, besides performing its works in a very imperfect manner; for a man had to assist with a fork in regulating the depth of the furrow. The furrow sides, were not parallel, nor were the ridges of equal size. The harrows were ill constructed and light, and instead of iron, contained wooden teeth, which had been hardened near the fire, or in the smoke. At this time there was not a cart to be seen; manure being carried out to the fields on cars, or in creels fastened together and suspended over a horses back. The women also carried out manure on their backs in creels of a smaller size. These creels were filled by the men, and afterwards placed on the shoulders of the women. This state of things resembled the condition of savage society, where all the ordinary drudgery of life is performed by females. Corn and hay were conveyed home in trusses on horse`s backs, and peat in sacks, or creels. Heather was often cut on the hills for firing, and carried away to a considerable distance."

In spring,' horses and oxen became so lean and therefore weak from want of sufficient food, that they often fell down down in the draught. Soon after the beginning of the eighteenth century, a considerable extent of land was cultivated, but it yielded poor returns for the labour bestowed upon it. The soil had become completely exhausted, four or five or crops being often taken in successive seasons, without applying any manure to recruit its energies or nourish vegetation. In dry seasons the corn was so short that it could scarcely be cut or collected in harvest. 'The farmers sowed nothing but poor gray oats, which yielded little meal, and that of a dark colour: their wretched land, however, would bear no other kind of grain. Galloway did not now produce as much food as served its inhabitants; and, in unfavourable seasons, they were reduced almost to a state of absolute starvation. They were frequently compelled to gather the leaves of herbs, and boil them with a handful of meal; to appease their hunger, or save their lives. No wheat now grew in the district; and, indeed, it was considered that the the land would not produce it. Nothing but gray corn was to be seen, except perhaps a little bear, or big, with some white oats, in gentlemen's crofts and in some small portions of land, called infields, or Bear-Feys, which were constantly in crop, and received all the manure of the farm.

The price of cattle continued very low, for they were generally in a miserable condition. Spring often found them reduced to such a state of debility, that, when they lay down, they could not rise without assistance; and they frequently fell into mosses or bogs, and quagmires, from which they could not extricate themselves. Neighbours had to be called, therefore, to assist each other in dragging their cows and horses out of marshes or moss holes; and, before the poor animals were observed ,they often perished. 

The skins of fallen cattle were cut up into strips and used as cords for agricultural purposes, or tanned with heather and willow bark, and manufactured into a kind of imperfect leather for domestic uses. During the summer months, or while the corn was upon the ground, cattle required to be constantly tended day and night,. The inhabitants, had turf folds into which" they put them during the heat of the day, and also at night, to prevent them from destroying the corn. One or two persons watched the fold, .sometimes sleeping in the open air, wrapt in blankets, and sometimes under stakes placed like the roof of a house, and covered with turf, to protect them from the rain, Both men and women, from the hardy manner in which their parents had reared them, were more robust and vigorous than at present; and not subject to many diseases which now prevail; though the average duration of human life was then much shorter.

Farms had no march fences, and a single one was generally let in run rigg among a number of tenants, The division of the produce, in proportion to each person's share, occasioned, in many cases, violent quarrels and lasting animosities.

Saddles and bridles had not yet come into common use, People rode to church or market on brechams, or pillions, while they placed halters, commonly made of hair, on the horses' heads. Shoes they put only on the fore feet, so that horses were but half shod."


" Education , at this epoch, was at a very low ebb. Few of the common people could read even the Bible; but the precentor in each congregation read the scriptures in the church before the minister appeared. The lower classes were strongly tainted with superstition, the offspring of ignorance; they firmly believed in ghosts, fairies and witches; the ghosts often appearing to them in the night. To preserve themselves and their cattle from the malevolent operations of witches and evil spirits, they used absurd charms and incantations.

They frequently saw the devil and wrestled with him, particularly during devotional exercises or religious meditation. To preserve their cattle from the baneful effects of witchcraft, they fixed pieces of mountain ash above their stakes, or even tied some of it in the bushy part of cows' tails. They also believed in benevolent spirits, known by the appellation of brownies, that wandered about in the night, and performed various parts of the domestic labours of credulous inhabitants. These superstitious opinions had a considerable effect in influencing their conduct and moulding their character. The people of Galloway had now no candles to afford them proper light during the long nights of winter; and, consequently, they were apt to be misled by illusive appearances, or to consider the phantoms of their own creation, as realities: during family worship only a ruffy was lighted. "


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