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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, August 03, 2018

Castle Douglas and the Age of Reason

Before Castle Douglas - Roy's Survey 1755 

Introduction/ Summary
I recently spent four hours taking groups of people for a walk around my home town while talking about its history and place in the landscape. The walk was part of Castle Douglas Civic Week which celebrates the foundation of the town in 1792. However, a practical expression of the Scottish Enlightenment, involving constructing a canal in 1765 and improving agriculture in the surrounding area, had already created a thriving settlement here before 1792.

Both the actually existing Galloway Glens project and the proposedGalloway National Park emphasise the importance of 'sustainability'. The Galloway Glens will support 'the sustainability of communities' from Carsphairn to Kirkcudbright in the area it covers. The Galloway National Park will “promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities.”

Unfortunately, 'sustainable' is an overused word but I argue in this post that it can be applied to the theories of rational improvement developed by Adam Smith and others during the Scottish Enlightenment. Applied to the area around Castle Douglas, the result was the sustainable growth of the local economy, reflected in the creation and enduring prosperity of Castle Douglas itself.

Then, as the Age of Reason gave way to the Age of Industry, the slow but sustainable development of rural regions like Galloway was displaced by the apparently limitless growth of urban and industrial regions. It is only now, as the irrational belief in growth without limits is beginning to end, that sustainability has re-emerged as the rational alternative.

But even now, it takes an effort of imagination to see that what appears as a natural landscape (when contrasted with urban/industrial landscapes) is a cultural landscape. That it is a landscape shaped and transformed by the Age of Reason. A landscape which should be recognised and valued as an expression of the Scottish Enlightenment alongside Edinburgh's New Town.

The Origins of Castle Douglas

While there are some very old towns locally- like Whithorn which is 1500 years old and Kirkcudbright which is about 1000 years old- Castle Douglas only dates back to 1792.

There were people living in the area 2000 years ago and there is a castle nearby which was built in 1369, but until 1765 there wasn't even a village here. All there was was an inn, a blacksmith and a few farm workers (cottars) cottages nearby.

By 1785, there was an industrial village spread out along the Military Road. It housed workers extracting marl from around and under Carlingwark loch. The marl was a silty clay, formed by the accumulation over thousands of years of fresh water snail shells and fish bones. Local soils are acidic. Spread on fields, the calcium carbonate from the shells and bones neutralised the acid in the soil, allowing better crops of oats, barley and even wheat to be grown.

A side effect of the Military Road was that it could be used by carts carrying marl to farms to the east and west of the loch. However, the road leading north towards Ayrshire was not improved. To overcome the problem, a mile long canal was dug from the river Dee towards Carlingwark Loch in 1765. This gave access to a 14 mile long inland waterway up the Dee and Ken rivers along which 20 ton (later 40 ton) barges could carry marl upstream and bring timber and oak bark (for tanning) back downstream.

Canal blue, Military Road red

From accounts of travellers and other interested observers, even before Castle Douglas was founded in 1792, the lower Dee valley/ central Stewartry of Kirkcudbright area was already prospering.

Advancing across the ridge which divides the Dee from the Urr, I found myself in a tract of country that presented every mark of rapid improvement. The fields are divided by stone-walls of suitable height and strength. The farm-houses are decently built, and have their roofs commonly covered with slate. New farm-houses are rising here and there, in the style almost of handsome villas. [Robert Heron, 'Observations made in a journey through the western counties of Scotland in the autumn of 1792'.]

In the summer of 1800 Richard Hodgkinson from Lancashire visited Galloway to meet his wife's family- the Cannons- who lived near New Galloway. He noted that the area around the new town of Castle Douglas was 'the richest and by far the most improved part of the country' contrasting it with (apart from the area immediately around New Galloway) with the 'mountainous, barren, craggy, rough and rocky' upland parishes of the district.

From the Old Statistical Account of Kells and other upland parishes which were written in the 1790s, we know that attempts improve upland farms were made. However, the combination of the cost of transporting marl and then lime to the upland farms combined with the poorer quality of the upland soils defeated improvers like the Newalls of Barskeoch. Instead, the upland farms were turned into sheep farms. Until the Forestry Commission began extensive planting in the 1960s, for about 150 years forty sheep farms occupied 200 square miles of the Galloway uplands.

What makes this period of regional history of national and international importance is that key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment- Adam Smith and Henry Home (lord Kames) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Home,_Lord_Kames
were directly involved in the agricultural and economic revolution which transformed the landscape and economy of Galloway and Dumfriesshire.

Then, even before the Enlightened Improvers had finished their work, the theory and practice of the Age of Reason was superseded by a world changing revolution. This industrial revolution used a fossil fuel- coal- as source of apparently limitless energy. The first industrial city was Manchester where a group of young men from Galloway pioneered the key technological shift from water to steam power in huge cotton mills.

An unintended consequence of their success was to make the existing theory and practice of economic development obsolete.

For eighteenth century political economists, agriculture was the foundation of a nation's wealth. The most effective way to increase a nation's wealth was to invest in the improvement of agriculture. However there was a limit to this growth. Poorer quality soils, like those found in upland areas, had limited capacity for improvement. Therefore growth through the expansion of agriculture would eventually tail off.

Both productive and unproductive labourers, and those who do not labour at all, are all equally maintained by the annual produce of the land and labour of the country. This produce, how great soever, can never be infinite, but must have certain limits. [Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations]

The land around what was to become Castle Douglas was of medium rather than high quality. It had been cultivated as arable land in the middle ages for the lords of Galloway and (Crossmichael parish) the Church. Although later broken up into many small estates, by 1760 the same methods of farming the land had been used for 600 years. It was therefore ripe for improvement.

In Kirkbean parish, the good quality soils of Arbigland had been improved by William Craik (1703-1798) since the 1730s. He was a close friend of Henry Home, lord Kames (1696-1782) who was a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Through his friendship with Craik, Kames was familiar with the practice as well as the theory of Enlightened improvement. His son-in-law was Stewartry landowner Patrick Heron IV (1736-1803).

In 1763, Kames drew up a plan for the improvement of Ingleston farm near Dumfries. To improve the 144 acres of Ingleston Hill, 90 horses and 24 workers laboured for 32 days to carry and spread 48 346 bags of shell-marl. The hill was then ploughed, first with a team of 6 oxen led by 3 men followed by a team of 4 horses.

Ingleston, Kirkpatrick Irongray

The shell-marl used on Ingleston Hill had to be carried a mile and half from a large pond. The sheer effort required to follow Kames' plan shows that without the Carlingwark canal and the Military road it would have been difficult if not impossible carry marl far enough from Carlingwark loch to improve more than a few farms in the vicinity.

However, as Adam Smith pointed out there were 'certain limits' to increasing the annual produce of the land. Initial applications of marl neutralised acid soils and increased crop yields, but adding more marl did not keep increasing the crops.

S curve

This S curve has a wider application. In the eighteenth century it was believed that it would apply to the Age of Improvement itself. A period of rapid growth would end and a 'stationary state' of little or no growth would then prevail. One of the reasons for this acceptance that there were limits to growth can be illustrated by a local example.

Hannaston was one of the farms on the Barskeoch estate in Kells parish owned by the Newall family. In 1760, John McConnel rented Hannaston for £33/ year for 19 years. Then, according to the Old Statistical Account for Kells, around 1770, William Newall began improving his lands, probably with marl from Carlingwark Loch. To recoup the costs of improvement, in 1779 when the lease was renewed John McConnel had to pay £52/ year. Unable to afford the higher rent, he gave up the tenancy in 1782.

Hannaston and Barskeoch estate are on the edge of the Rhinns of Kells. Hannaston farm house is at 500 ft and its lands lie between the 400 ft and 600 ft contours.

Hannaston is therefore right on the edge of the area of land which had the potential to be improved in the late eighteenth century. William Newall and his son John were unable to profit from the improvements they had carried out and sold Barskeoch, including Hannaston, to William Forbes in 1787. Forbes was very wealthy, having made his fortune by putting copper bottoms on ships belonging to the East India Company.

The limits of improvement were reached at about 500 feet. The lands beyond that limit were given over to sheep farming in the nineteenth century which in turn was replaced by forestry plantations in the later twentieth century.

John McConnel's son left Hannaston in 1781 to become an apprentice to William Cannon in Lancashire. Cannon was McConnel's uncle who had become a textile machine maker near Manchester. John Kennedy from neighbouring Knocknalling farm and Adam and George Murray from New Galloway were also apprenticed to Cannon. In the 1790s their skills allowed them to set up shop in Manchester where they progressed from making cotton spinning machinery to owing cotton spinning factories. By 1815 the factories of Kennedy and McConnell and A and G Murray were the largest in Manchester, each employing 1500 workers.

Kennedy & McConnell, A & G Murray mills, 1820

They succeeded where most other failed because their familiarity with cotton spinning machinery enabled them to overcome the technical problems of harnessing steam power to cotton spinning. Until then, and indeed for many years later, water power had been used as the energy source for cotton spinning.

This had the disadvantage of pushing the industry out into rural locations with good supplies of water- but few people. Industrial villages, like New Lanark, had to be built to overcome this disadvantage. Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway grew rapidly after water powered cotton mills were built there in 1788. The mills in Gatehouse were supplied with water from Loch Whinyeon 3 miles away via a tunnel and a system of artificial streams.

Water-powered cotton mill, Gatehouse of Fleet

Once the water supply system and water wheels were in place, it was difficult to alter water powered cotton mills, for example by increasing the power generated. The power of a steam engine could be much more easily increased and extra supplies of coal, since it was already used as a domestic fuel, were easier to obtain. Manchester had been supplied with coal by canal since 1765.

Manchester was already an important warehousing and distribution centre for Lancashire's traditional textile industry which had been growing in size and importance since the seventeenth century. As an existing population centre this gave the new cotton factories in Manchester the advantage of a ready supply of workers. This in turn encouraged more people to move to the town. This growth then stimulated technological developments like the Manchester to Liverpool railway which opened in 1830. John Kennedy from Knocknalling played a key part in the development of the railway.

Manchester population figures.
1773 24 386
1801 70 409
1821 108 016
1841 242 983
1851 303 382
1931 766 311 maximum population
2011 503 127

In 1755, the population of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright was roughly equivalent to that of Manchester. But although it grew over the next 50 years, this was only at fraction of the pace of Manchester's growth.

Stewartry population figures.
1755 21 205
1801 29 211
1821 38 903
1841 41 119
1851 43 121 maximum population
1931 30 341
2011 24 000 (smaller area)

A Stationary State?

The gradual rise in the population of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright between 1755 and 1851 followed by a gradual fall is closer to the eighteenth century S curve model of economic growth through agricultural improvement than that of industrial Manchester.

I now have a difficult argument to make, given that it is the Manchester model which the global economy has followed since the early nineteenth century.

The eighteenth century is also known as the age of reason or enlightenment.
It was followed by the age of industrial capitalism, but was that age, which we still live in, a logical progression from the age of reason? Was the rise of industrial capitalism anticipated by, for example, Adam Smith?

I suggest, based on the evidence in the ground here in Galloway, that it was not. Here, the theory of growth through improvement was put into practice. As predicted, it was successful where medium quality land could be improved but reached its limits at the boundary with poor quality land.
The result was an S curve of growth with a stationary state as the end result.

From a modern scientific perspective, the eighteenth century model of growth involved using improved farming methods to maximise the solar energy which could be harvested annually from plant photosynthesis. Once this maximum had been reached, the opportunities for further growth were limited.

What Adam Smith and his contemporaries were not able to take into account were the huge reserves of 'wealth' which lay beneath many (but not all) nations in the form of coal and oil. These were the concentrated accumulation of millions of years of plant photosynthesis. One miner could harvest as much solar energy in day as a farmer could in a year.

Early 19th century coal mine, north-east England

The eighteenth century economy was hedged around with limits and restrictions. These followed from reliance on renewable sources of energy- wind and water, human and animal labour. The shift to coal as an energy source removed these 'natural' limits on growth, leading to a chain-reaction as more and more countries became part of a global carbon economy.

UK coal production figures
1700 3 million tonnes
1750 5 million tonnes
1800 10 million tonnes
1850 50 million tonnes
1900 250 million tonnes
1913 290 million tonnes
1952 230 million tonnes

Current global coal production is 8 000 million tonnes.

The Landscape of Reason

From 1760 to 1800, Enlightened improvers transformed the landscape of lowland Scotland. In many areas, nineteenth and twentieth century urban and industrial developments have obscured this landscape. Lacking coal and with only one significant pre-existing town (Kirkcudbright), the central Stewartry area has preserved its eighteenth century farmed landscape along with the new towns of Gatehouse, Castle Douglas and Dalbeattie. Dalbeattie's growth was linked its granite quarries and Gatehouse to its water-powered cotton mills.

Castle Douglas was the new town most closely connected to age of Enlightened agricultural improvement, with its origins in the use of marl by improving landowners. The wealth generated by the shift from subsistence to surplus farming enabled the village of Carlingwark to become the town of Castle Douglas.

Yet even as rational grid of the new town's street patterns was being mapped in 1795, John Kennedy and James McConnel with Adam and George Murray were laying the foundations of their steam powered cotton mills in Manchester. The future now lay with the chaotic and explosive coal fuelled growth of towns like Manchester rather than the slow but sustainable growth of towns like Castle Douglas.

Manchester 1843 by William Wyld

It is raining tonight as I write, the first rain after three months of drought and heat. The first post I wrote for greengalloway 15 years ago was about the long hot summer of 1976. But the hot summer of 1976 was a local rather than global event. The summer of 2018 has been exceptionally hot across the northern hemisphere.

It is becoming more and more difficult to deny the reality of climate change. The climate change we are experiencing has its origins in the shift from renewable energy sources to coal. It was the same shift which saw the focus of modernity change from agricultural improvement to industrial revolution. Adam Smith and Henry Home had got it wrong and the future was to be made in factories not on farms. While the growth of rural regions still tended towards a 'stationary state', the potential for industrial growth seemed unlimited.

Now, as the consequences of 'unlimited growth' are becoming starkly revealed, the need to find alternatives to a global economic system based on burning coal and oil is urgent. The technologies of solar, wind and hydro electric power are important in this process. Understanding the history of how we came to rely on coal and oil is also important. Was the change inevitable?

Today the Castle Douglas area is a quiet rural backwater, long since overtaken by the industrial revolution. But embedded in the town and its surroundings is the rationality of the Scottish Enlightenment, a rationality based on what we now call sustainable development.

From the perspective of the Scottish Enlightenment and from a post climate change perspective, the intervening period was irrational, based on faith in limitless growth. As the pressure of events forces the world to adopt a sustainable rationality, then, as it was in the Age of Reason, the importance of the Castle Douglas area will be recognised again.

Castle Douglas 1795 overlay on present landscape


Blogger Peter Dreghorn said...

I find your research and writings eloquent, exciting, factual and holistically considered. Keep it coming and come and do Moffat and Upper Annandale

8:44 am  

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