Land improvements in Breadalbane

  • Overview
  • Land Improvement Act
  • 4th Earl's letter to Thomas Telford
  • Instructions for Ground Officers 1829

In the second half of the 18th century many things made it inevitable that farming in Scotland would change and modernise.They included a move away from payment in kind to a cash based economy, landowners no longer needing lots of men for private armies, enclosure taking place in England and the Land Improvement Act in Scotland. Where once the produce generated on an estate was mostly consumed therein it was becoming increasingly necessary to feed the rapidly expanding cities of the industrial revolution.

In 1769 the Third Earl appointed John McArthur to survey the south side of Loch Tay and Farquharson the north side. These detailed surveys were completed in 10 months and give us an insight into farming on Lochytayside. Not only were plans drawn but soil qualities, livestock and names of tenants were all recorded. These formed the basis for planning the improvements begun around that time and continued by the Fourth Earl.

Farms were amalgamated, land drained and cleared of rock and fields fenced and fertilised. Animals were separated from crops rather than having to be removed to shielings in the growing season. With longer leases and financial support from the landlord it became worthwhile for a tenant to look after and improve his farm. Bridges and proper buildings were erected and tradesmen were grouped in planned villages.

The 4th Earl was particularly passionate about improving his estate and, despite a rising population, was very keen to discourage emigration. After his death, the 2nd Marquis and his factor james Wyllie adopted much more draconian policies which resulted in a large proportion of the estate's population leaving in what became known as the 'Breadalbane Clearances'.

Act. Geo. Ill, C. 51., for encouraging the improvement of lands, tenements, and hereditaments in Scotland held under settlements of strict entail, (A. D. 1770.)

Historically it was possible for a landowner to decree that his land passed down a specific pre-ordained line of descendants.  The result being that others who would otherwise inherit from his death might miss out.  This concept of entail was set out in the Entail Act of 1685 which set considerable limitations on what an heir could do within a life interest in an estate (eg limiting tenancies to one year).  This prevented subsequent owners of the land from carrying out the 'improvements' that were fashionable at the time.

The Entail Improvement Act 1770 Act sought to incentivise adding value to the property while a person is the owner of such land, while trying to ensure that person's estate was not burdened with unmanageable debt.  For example many estates were scattered and needed their boundaries to be rationalised. The act allowed these estates to sell and exchange land.

The legalese of the 1770 act is not easy for non-lawyers to comprehend so my daughter, Imogen, has used her legal expertise to convert the text into plain English:

1. Introduction

Historically it was possible to create a legal freehold interest in land by way of fee simple, estate tail and a life estate. It was not however possible to create an estate tail in leaseholds, as a term of years not being an estate of inheritance could not be entailed.

An entailed interest was capable of passing only to lineal descendants in general or a restricted class of descendants such as male heirs, as specified in the instrument of creation.

This could create an issue for future generations where there was a limit on the heir's discretion to dispose of land and grant long leases, which might obstruct the cultivation of land. This act was implemented to supplement the Entail Act 1685 and to "prevent a mischief and inconveniency so hurtful to the publick".

2. Section 1 – Section 3

2.1 This clause states that it shall be lawful for any owner of an entailed estate to grant a lease of:

2.1.1 up to 14 years to one person; or
2.1.2 to two named people and the life of a person who survives them; or
2.1.3 for any number of years not exceeding 31 years.

2.2 Any lease granted for 2 lives shall contain an obligation on the tenants to fence the land within 30 years and to have fenced 2/3rds of the land in 20 years, and 1/3rd within 10 years if the lease continues for such periods of time, and every lease for a period of more than 19 years shall oblige the tenant to fence the land within the lease period and 2/3rds within 2/3rds of the term and 1/3 within 1/3 of the term.

2.3 Any lease granted for 2 lives or more than 19 years shall contain a clause obliging the tenant to keep fences made in good repair and that no enclosures made shall be for more than 40 acres in one field unless the land is not capable of being cultivated.

3. Section 4 – Section 7

3.1 Building leases may be granted on entailed estates for a period of up to 99 years.

3.2 Building leases are limited to 5 acres to one person and such lease will be void if one dwelling house of at least a value of £10 is not built within 10 years on each half acre of land leased and such houses are not kept in good repair.

3.3 A building lease may not be granted in respect of the manor house and adjacent office, gardens and orchards within 300 yards of the manor house, which have usually been in the natural possession of the proprietor, or have not usually been let for longer than 7 years when the heir in possession was of lawful age.

4. Section 7

A lease may not be granted for less than the rent payable under the last lease and a lease may not be granted until the prior lease has come to an end.

5. Section 8

If a person who is in possession of an entailed estate has greater powers of leasing than set out in the act then the act will not restrict such powers.

6. Section 9 - Section 26

6.1 Any owner of an entailed estate can re-coup ¾ of money expended in improving the estate from their heirs, provided such amount does not exceed 4 years net rental income for the estate.

6.2 Where a proprietor is intending to make such improvements they must give notice in writing to their heir at least 3 months before starting work and where the heir is not resident in Great Britain, such notice must be given to their nearest male relation. Such notice must then be lodged with the sheriff.

6.3 Thereafter the proprietor shall annually lodge an account of monies spent on such improvements within 4 months of the end of each year.

6.4 The total claim against the estate in respect of improvements at any one time is limited to 4 years of net rent. The sheriff shall keep a record of monies spent on improvements which shall be available for public inspection.

6.5 From the date which is one year from the death of the person who expended the money on improvements, the executors may require payment of the amounts due under this act with interest and if the money is not paid within 3 months can claim against the estate in preference to other creditors.

6.6 An heir in possession may be discharged from being sued where he pays the debt by paying 1/3 of net rental income from the estate.

6.7 Any such claim for payment must be made within 2 years of the death of the person who made the improvements and action must be taken within 6 months of that 2 year time period where payment is not made (which may include recovering 1/3 of net rents) otherwise they cease to be creditors.

6.8 Where a successor has paid for improvements made by a predecessor and not been indemnified through rents received on the estate they have inherited, their estate can recover from heirs by making a claim on 1/3 of the rents going forward until repaid.

6.9 Money paid out in respect of improvements is not as a ground for debt in adjudging estates. 6.10 Where the estate is left to next of kin, such next of kin cannot make a claim against the estate for improvements made by their predecessor.

7. Section 27 - Section 31

7.1 As it is beneficial to encourage the building and maintaining of the main house on an estate (and because they sometimes burn down) a person who lays out money to build or renovate the mansion house or offices shall be a creditor to the next succeeding heir for 3/4 of the money expended subject to a limit of the value of 2 years net rent from the estate.

7.2 Notice of amounts expended must be given to the heir to the estate and recorded with the sheriff.

7.3 The same rules for recovery of monies apply to monies expended to build or maintain the main residence as for making improvements to increase value (as referenced in 6 above).

8. Section 32 – Section 33

8.1 Where the inclosing of land in Scotland may be hindered by the fact that heirs of entail cannot exchange small parcels of land, it shall be lawful to exchange small parcels of land for the convenience and advantage of the estate.

8.2 Any such exchange is limited to areas of not more than 30 acres of arable land or 100 acres of land not capable of being cultivated and equivalent land must be substituted.

8.3 In order to ascertain the value of the land being exchanged, a landowner must apply to the sheriff and the sheriff will appoint 2 skilled persons to inspect and adjust the value of the land which it is proposed will be exchanged. If the 2 skilled persons report under oath that the value of the two pieces of land to be exchanged is equivalent, the exchange can be made and must be recorded with the sheriff within 3 months of being made.

9. Section 34

The act shall apply to all land whether the rules of succession were set pre or post the 1685 act.


See also


In 1803 Thomas Telford and Alexander Mundell wrote to Breadalbane, via John Campbell. Telford asked for information on the country of 'Braidalbane'. He wished an account of the population of the district, the space it occupies, proportion under sheep, black cattle and cultivation, how the black cattle are managed in the winter, the crops, how long the district has been under the same sort of management, and if there is any disposition to emigrate from it. He needed this information for his report respecting Scotland.

The reply throws a very clear light on what the 4th Earl felt he had achieved.

Letter from the Earl of Breadalbane to Mr Campbell WS of 11 February, 1803

I am extremely happy to find by your letter inclosing Messrs Telford's and Mundell's, that government seriously intend to promote industry and improvements in the Highlands of Scotland.

I have long turned my thoughts to this subject, but the more I have considered it the more I am convinced that without the aid of government, improvements in these districts cannot be carried out, on a general system or to any great extent.

The rich proprietor may it is true do something to stimulate the industry of the people, but the estates of the smaller proprietors, & the largest proportion of the Highlands of Scotland, must remain in their present backward state and be subject every now and then to considerable emigrations, unless the patriotic patronage and interference of the government of the country is extended to them.

For some years past I have been much occupied in promoting improvements & industry on my own estate and it gives me satisfaction to have it in my power to say that the measures which have been adopted have been attended with the success beyond my most sanguine expectations.

Former management

Any person at all conversant in rural economy must acknowledge that none can be worse than the management of the smaller Highland tenants – the above system of management was pursued by the small tenants on Loch Tayside some years ago and is still followed in almost all the other districts of the Highlands without exception. For years I viewed with regret the erroneous mode in which they proceeded, the difficulty lay in how to correct it – the great population, the small size of the farms and the prejudice of the people all seem to combine as insurmountable bars to any innovation. By enlarging the farms I might have increased my revenue very considerably but the immediate consequence would have been an emigration to a great extent. My object however was to retain the people and at the same time to make them instrumental in the improvement of the country – how it was accomplished follows.

The farms were formerly possessed promiscuously & partly run-rig kept in a constant state of arration and done in a very slovenly manner.


I began my improvements with the help of an intelligent land surveyor who first made a new arrangement of the farms by dividing the arable part of them, and what was within the head Dyke, into small lots by which means each tenant was to reap the fruit of his own industry and exertions. Moderate rents were put on these lots, leases of a reasonable length were given them, in which a proper mode of cultivation applicable to their small lots was directed.

The above measures and principally premiums which were distributed amongst them to a considerable amount in proportion to the improvements they made, excited their industry to the utmost, and converted the people from habits of idleness, to those of industry, the uncultivated spots they have already cleared (though the change only took place five or six years ago) is astonishing, carrying on at the same time the triple operation of cleaning, draining and inclosing.

The valuation of the work for which they have received premiums amounts to £9000 and I do not doubt but they will double that work before the end of the lease, about the third of the above sum has been found them in premiums.

 I have also collected all the tradesman manufacturers etc into villages built for the purpose, and gave them a certain proportion of the land for their subsistence,-  enough at least to raise a little crop & keep a cow through winter and summer.

I have besides detached farms in proper situations for numerous race of crofters answering to the description in England of cottagers with a cow's grass, keep for it winter summer and some crops  -formerly these crofters were a burden on the tenants. In short it is wonderful the effect the above system has produced on the industry of the people, which will be more particularly mentioned in a report I shall send you in a few days on the subject.

The population of the district of Breadalbane on the sides of Loch Tay is very great, perhaps not to be equalled, considering its extent to any country district in Great Britain. But this uncommon population is rather a disadvantage as by reducing the number of people and enlarging the farms a great increase of rent would follow, but as already mentioned the immediate consequence of such a measure would be emigration, which has hitherto scarcely taken place from this quarter, the population is however so rapidly on the increase & the country already swarming with inhabitants, it is feared that it will now and then partially happen unless something is done to find work and subsistence for the supernumerary population. This naturally leads me to consider what the government may have in view for the improvement of the Highlands of Scotland and if I may venture an opinion on the subject I would seriously recommend premiums not only for the cultivation of land but also for manufactures, provided the proprietors would be at one third or one half the expense, the making of roads also, being the first of all improvements.

On this subject I must digress a little and mention the roads to Loch Lomond from Strathfillan, but I believe the best plan will be to enclose a copy of the Memorial that was sent some years ago to the late Sir Charles Preston then superintendent of the military roads. I hope government will agree to make this line of road at their own expense, as it is a part of the old military line, besides I have already contributed some thousand pounds to the roads and bridges of Loch Tayside, which are important thoroughfares though not military.

I have hastily thrown together these cursory remarks for the immediate information of Mr Telford,&  I shall be happy to see him when I go to London to give him every other information in my power. A more particular report of my operations here, with an account of their success will be forwarded to you in a few posts, from Mr Kennedy the factor for the use of Mr Telford.

The patriotic intentions of the present administration in forwarding the internal improvement of Great Britain and that hitherto neglected part of it the Highlands of Scotland, I trust will be crowned with complete success, & equally tend to its riches, & revenue in time of peace, as to its power of protection in time of war.

I hope some board will be established for this purpose, if my feeble efforts were thought useful nothing would be more agreeable to me then being employed in promoting measures of such extensive and general utility.

What a field for improvement is opened for the patriotic minister. The fisheries, the agriculture, and the manufactures of the Highlands of Scotland.

I think I could venture to pledge myself that any sum advanced by government injudicious premiums would be soon repaid into the Exchequer by the increased revenue and prosperity brought about by the improvements.

 I am
(Signed) Breadalbane

P.S. I forgot to mention that the hill pasture and moors are continued and left in common to the low arable lots and farms under certain regulations and restrictions with regard to the stocking etc, to answer as summer pasture for the sheep and young cattle. As it appears the joint production of corn, cattle and sheep are most likely to give permanency and certainty to the prosperity of the country and preserve its population, the proportion of each being regulated by local circumstances.

I considerable quantity of flax of an excellent quality is raised in this district, the soil being particularly congenial to its production.

There are also manufactures of coarse woollen cloth and linen which might be carried to great extent was some public aid offered to them and would give ample employment to the supernumerary population.

I am almost tempted to give some general remarks on the internal policy of the Highlands and the propriety of having a distinct regulation with regard to revenue to correspond with its customs, and local circumstances, but this would be entering into too wide a field.

An idea has also occurred to me, that if government were prevailed on to grant premiums it might combine two purposes viz. a civil and military one, for instance in the districts where premiums are given. They might come under an engagement to furnish a certain quota of men to serve in the army in case of war, and on the Highland sea coast seamen might be substituted for such requisition.

The following  instructions were written by Mr Robert MacGillewie, Bolfracks and sent to all the ground officers in response to Lord Breadalbane's remarks on the neglected state of farms,  rotation and proper cultivation. A copy was sent to Mr McLagan dated 8th June 1829 with a letter appended reiterating the key points and exhorting him to 'see that the ground officers themselves set a good example in their respective districts and that they are zealous in the discharge of their duty generally and particularly in seeing these orders carried into effect otherwise report the same to his Lordship'. MacGillewie understood that McLagan, as surveyor, had other duties but expected him to spend half his time ensuring that this work was carried out. He suggested that he began in Aberfeldy. (NRS: GD112/12/1/3/6)

Instructions for Ground Officers

Lord Breadalbane has at different times complained that due attention has not been paid by the tenants to the conditions of let under which they occupied their farms. In particular that the fences were not properly completed or the improvable ground in the different lots cleared and brought into tillage in terms of the obligations contained in the two last leases of Loch Tayside. He is now quite determined that such as wish to continue tenants on his property must comply with these conditions. I have to call your attention to the following clauses in the conditions of let of Ardtalnaig and Ardeonaig which his lordship intends to be the rule over his whole property:

"And whereas although by the last two leases of said district the tenants and others occupiers were strictly bound to enclose their respective possessions, and under a particular stipulation within five years from their entry to drain, clear and bring into tillage in a husbandman-like manner the whole improvable ground in their respective possessions under certain penalties contained in the leases, yet the same has never been completed and it is hereby provided and agreed upon that the obligations they are anent contained in last lease shall still continue in force, and the tenants are hereby bound to repair and complete their fences, within six months after date hereof, failing of which power is reserved to the Proprietor to complete the same and the tenants are hereby bound to pay the expense on them and further the tenants and other occupiers are hereby bound to clear and bring into tillage the whole improvable grounds on their respective possessions as the same shall be pointed out by the surveyor or any other person named by the proprietor and that in proportion of one fourth part every year they are allowed to continue, until the whole is cleared and brought into tillage, failing of which they are hereby bound to pay the rate of four pounds sterling per acre for what is left uncleared and that of additional rent and not as penalty, and in the event of their removal before the ground is so cleared, they are hereby bound to pay the expense of clearing the same at the valuation of the Birleymen of the district along with the deficiency of the houses and fences. "

With reference to the above Mr McLagan, surveyor will soon commence a minute survey of the different lots and point out such fences as should be built and such land as should be improved. Unless the tenants immediately commence their dykes and leave a fourth part of what he points out properly cleared and improved, before the first day of March next, the additional rent will be uplifted and those neglecting this order immediately removed off the estate.
In order to put an end to the complaints of oversouming, it is now fixed and agreed upon that the tenants of each district having a common hill shall meet yearly, at or as soon after Whitsunday and name any two of their own number who along with the ground officer shall have the sole charge of examining the souming, of attending the different fanks, and counting the number kept by each tenant, and they will be required to report,  on both if necessary, the number so kept by each to Lord Breadalbane or his factor. In the event of any tenant by himself or his family, or servants being found to have concealed or in any way removed their sheep from the ground, to prevent the exact number  being ascertained it is now fixed and determined that the tenant or tenants so offending shall on conviction before the Baron Bailie be in all time coming debarred from sending sheep to the hill, and his souming will be given to the person who gives such information as may lead to his conviction of the offence. Or in Lord Breadalbane's  option he will be allowed to half the penalty incurred by the party so offending.
Good tup and bulls must be kept in the different districts under the same regulations as formerly and subject to the approbation of any person or persons his lordship may name.
It is an important part of your duty to see that the tenants strictly attend to these and the other conditions of let and that under the surveyor's directions you point out to them the proper way of making their farms into regular divisions for the rotation and see that they plough and clean their ground in a proper manner, a piece of husbandry in which the Loch Tayside tenants are shamefully deficient, as scarcely a well ploughed or well cleared ridge is to be seen along the road side. His Lordship therefore expect that you will be zealous in attending to these instructions and in order to put the tenants on their guard you are hereby directed to call them together without loss of time, and read the whole to them and assure them that such as despise or neglect them may at once be prepared for removal from the country
Ordered and approved by:
(Signed) Breadalbane
Taymouth May 26th 1829