Agricultural Improvement at Westerkirk Library

Westerkirk in a detail from John Ainslie, The environs of Edinburgh, Haddington, Dunse, Kelso, Jedburgh, Hawick, Selkirk, Peebles, Langholm and Annan (1812). Courtesy of National Library of Scotland.

One of the fascinating things about working on the records of Westerkirk Parish Library has been watching the way its borrowing records reflect a gradual transition from a miners’ library in the 1790s, to a rural subscription library by the 1810s. This long-term shift is suggested by descriptions of Westerkirk parish and its library in what are often referred to as the “Old” and “New” Statistical Accounts of Scotland, published 1791-99 and 1834-45 respectively. The entry for the “Old” Statistical Account was written by the minister of Westerkirk parish, Reverend William Little, who incidentally donated two volumes of Horne on the Psalms at the library’s inception in 1793. Little records that  ‘The miners are at work only 6 hours a-day; and to encourage them to read, a present was, some months ago, made them in books, by the company, to the value of 15l.; and these, with others, which the workmen have since been able to purchase, amount at present to 120 volumes.’[1]

For Little, the newly founded library was very much for the use of the Jamestown mine and its workers, rather than the parish in general. The entry for Westerkirk in the “New” Statistical Account, on the other hand, suggests the library’s impact on its wider rural environs, noting that,  ‘the lower classes are sober and intelligent. The generality of them are fond of reading; and, as they have an ample supply of books, the shepherds in particular have acquired a degree of knowledge and information beyond what might have been expected from their situation in life’.[2]

Some of the agricultural titles in Westerkirk’s Catalogue. Courtesy of the Trustees of Westerkirk Parish Library.

The question of what shepherds were reading­ (and what people thought they should be reading) fascinates me, as it seems to combine some of the key concerns around social class and the uses of literacy in Scotland during our period. These tended to fall under the broad but sometimes contentious category of improvement, which linked material progress with the spread of knowledge and civility through the social ranks. There’s a substantial body of scholarship on this topic, much of it emphasising the links between literature, reading, and agricultural improvement in particular, and Westerkirk is certainly part of this picture.

I found myself thinking about agricultural reading at Westerkirk recently, after coming across a borrowing of George Bell’s 1802 A Treatise on the Cow-Pox by one William Mcallister. Bell’s Treatise had clearly lain unborrowed for several years before its single recorded outing in January 1819, so Mcallister may have been responding to an outbreak of the pox in his herd. But devoting time to increasing one’s knowledge of agricultural practices through reading was seen as part of a farmer’s duty in this period, so Mcallister’s borrowing may reflect a more general interest in the business of improvement. Tenant farmers appear frequently in Westerkirk’s records, sometimes identifiable by the names of farms that appear alongside their borrowings, and which change over the years with the commencement and ending of tenancies.

Henry Home, Lord Kames, 1696-1782. Scottish judge and author, by David Martin, oil on canvas, 1794. PG 822 National Galleries of Scotland.

Alongside these borrowers, there are also a smattering of agricultural texts, the most well-known being The Gentleman Farmer (1776) by Henry Home, Lord Kames. In that work, Kames attributes to farming ‘the signal pre-eminence, of combining deep philosophy with useful practise’, nicely demonstrating the way that agriculture was seen in this period to combine the intellectual and material dimensions of improvement.[3] There is also a noticeable cluster in the catalogue of about eighteen agricultural works that begin to appear in borrowing records from 1816 onwards. These include Adam Dickson’s Husbandry of the Ancients, but the selection is dominated by the work of Arthur Young and William Marshall. Young was one of the better-known agricultural reformers and writers of the eighteenth-century, though that aspect of his career was later overshadowed by his fervent anti-revolutionary stance, acquired during his travels in France in the early 1790s and expressed in a pamphlet of 1793, The Example of France a Warning to Britain. This run of agricultural titles occupies a span of adjacent item numbers in Westerkirk’s catalogue, suggesting that they were acquired at the same point in the 1810s, even though they were almost all published in the 1770s and 80s. This has led me to wonder whether these works by Young and others were donated from the pre-existing collection a member or benefactor, rather than being commissioned by Westerkirk’s subscribers.

Arthur Young by John Russell, pastel, 1794 NPG 6253 National Portrait Gallery, London

Perhaps surprisingly given the apparent prevalence of tenant farmers in Westerkirk’s membership, works of agricultural improvement never come close to rivalling the popularity of novels, histories, and sermons in the borrowing records. Moreover, it would be wrong to assume that when such works were borrowed, they were borrowed exclusively by farmers — Kames’s Gentleman Farmer, for example, was taken-out by a Miss Murray in November 1814.

A useful parallel here is provided by another library included in the Books and Borrowing Project: Selkirk Subscription Library. Like Westerkirk, Selkirk thrived during a period when reading, writing, and agricultural experimentation were linked by ideas of improvement, and its membership included many farmers. However, research by Mark Towsey has painted a more complex and nuanced picture of the relationship between agricultural improvement and libraries like Selkirk and Westerkirk. Towsey finds that for the period 1799-1814, agricultural works account for only two percent of borrowings at Selkirk, but he emphasises the broader place of the library and its members within a collaborative network of agricultural practice, debate, and writing.[4] For Towsey, ‘the Selkirk Subscription Library serves to remind us that multiple cultures of improvement could be in play at the same time at such institutions’.[5] Leisured reading, a knowledge of history, moral instruction, and sociability were all sources of improvement offered by library membership, and may have been seen by borrowers as every bit as useful as the latest agricultural treatise.

[1] Sir John Sinclair, ed., The Statistical Account of Scotland, Westerkirk, Dumfries, Vol. 11 (Edinburgh: 1794), p. 527.

[2] J. Gordon, ed., The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Westerkirk, Dumfries, Vol. 4 (Edinburgh: 1845), p. 433.

[3] Henry Home, Lord Kames, The Gentleman Farmer, Being an attempt to improve agriculture, by subjecting I tot the test of rational principles (Edinburgh: 1776), v.

[4] Mark Towsey, ‘Store their Minds with Much Valuable Knowledge’: Agricultural Improvement at the Selkirk Subscription Library, 1799-1814. Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 38 (2015), pp.569– 584, 571, Table 1.

[5] Ibid, 580-81.