Farming in the Scottish Highlands of the Middle-ages

Farming in the Scottish Highlands of the Middle-ages

As the climate deteriorated during the early middle-ages, the land in Scotland became increasingly unproductive. To be self-sufficient, most farms had to supplement their production by hunting and gathering, although they still produced grains, dairy-products and meat. During this time, the land was mostly farmed from single homesteads, or sometimes a small community of three or four of them. The cattle was the most important domesticated animal, and due to the prevailing climate barley and oats were grown rather than corn.

Between 1150 and 1300 the climate improved and the summers became warmer and drier and the winters less severe. This change made the land more productive again, especially in the Highlands, where the severity of the cold winters had made farming almost impossible. Although arable farming grew significantly, it was still more common in the low-lying areas of Scotland than in the Highlands.

It is likely that from the 12th century, with the rise of feudalism, a system of infield and outfield agriculture was introduced. This is a variation of open-field farming, which was used across Europe at this time. The use of this system would continue until the 18th century. The main crops were barley and oats, with the barley usually grown in the more extensive outfield. Occasionally wheat, rye and legumes were also grown.

By the late medieval period, farming in the Scottish Highlands was mostly based around the Highland baile, a settlement of a handful of families, who jointly farmed the surrounding land. The land was allocated in so-called run rigs to tenant farmers, which were called husbandmen. Run rigs were of suitable size for two or three plough teams. They usually ran downhill, so that they included both dry land at the top of the hill and wet land at the bottom. Plowing was usually done with a heavy wooden plough with an iron coulter, which was pulled by oxen. These were more effective and cheaper to feed than horses.

A greater variety of crops was now grown, including kale, flax and hemp. Cattle were still raised for meat, but sheep and goats became the main sources for milk. In the 13th century the rural economy seems to have boomed, even still immediately after the Black Death. But by 1360 there was a drop in the economy, which the Highlands only slowly recovered from in the 15th century.