A Little Bit of Carrick History, Part Four: Life in an Eighteenth Century Manse



The Glebe

Moving on many years, for my final part of this gallop through the older history of the parish - there is a surviving notebook which describes life in the manse of Kirkmichael about 1720, when Mr James Laurie was ordained minister, and Kirkmichael had a population of 700 souls, scattered throughout the parish in a number of clachans. The village as we know it today was not yet in existence. 

In 1904, the Scottish Historical Review included a fascinating fourteen page summary of this notebook, later published by the Edinburgh University Press, and if you're interested, you can access it on the JSTOR site which gives access to academic articles. You'll need to create an account as an independent researcher, but they have made access easier during Covid. Look for Life in a Country Manse, about 1720 for a vivid and fascinating overview of life in and around Kirkmichael 300 years ago. 

This was well before the present kirk was built in 1787, although the lych gate, still in existence, dates to 1702. Once again, we can conclude that the parish had grown during the intervening period, with episodes of Covenanter activity disturbing the peace of the people. 

Life in the Manse
At the time when James Laurie was keeping his meticulous household accounts, the manse itself was by no means the grander building of later times, but was instead a smallish thatched house with a kailyard in front, half glazed narrow windows, thick walls, and four rooms divided by wooden partitions. It probably stood where the old manse of Gemilston stands now, although we can’t be sure. 

There was no 'village' as such. Kirkmichael was a remote parish, 'through which ran tracks over the moors to Maybole and Ayr.' Even the mansions of the lairds were 'homely and unpretentious' although we are told that Kirkmichael House was exceptional in being 'as desirable a dwelling in all the country, having good gardens and orchards, the first in Carrick planted with peaches and apricocks

From 1711 – 1732 James Laurie noted down memoranda of his income, his expenses and the details of his daily life, and these give us a fascinating picture of what that life was like. In the Manse, lived the minister, his wife Ann, and their children, four boys and three girls, as well as the minister’s sister, Betty. There were, besides, three women servants, a serving man and a herd lassie who slept over the byre. 

Money Problems
The minister was funded by the local people, lairds and farmers, but sometimes his stipend was hard to come by. It seems to have been very difficult for him to get his parishioners, even the reasonably solvent ones, to pay to keep the manse in a good state of repair. A lot of bartering went on, with the stipend sometimes being paid in meal and other necessities rather than money. Sometimes even that was hard to come by and he would wait three years for his payment. Often the lairds would give the minister 'precepts' or orders on their tenants, in lieu of actual cash, so the poor tenant farmers would have to give some of their own harvest to the minister, in the shape of malt, meal, barley, grey oats, white oats and something called 'horse corn' which would arrive in sacks or creels, on horseback, and have to be stored away by the minister for future use.

We should note here that the payments were, for most of the 18th century, still in Scots pounds and shillings, which had been considerably devalued, had been replaced by sterling after 1707, but which continued to be used, so the sums mentioned are smaller than you might suppose.

The manse is often in a poor state of repair and the 'heritors' who are supposed to attend to such things, resist spending money on its upkeep so that the minister himself must foot the bill from his stipend:  'Paid William Simson 4 shillings and sixpence for the window in my room, twelve foot of glass and mending ane old window.'  

Clothes and footwear
Woollen fabric such as 'grey plaiding' is made by local weavers, and is used for the minister's and his son's clothes, although he has a fine 'coat of blue broadcloth for solemn occasions' such as when he travels to Edinburgh to the General Assembly. In winter, the women of the house, including Ann and Betty, are engaged in spinning yarn, which they then weave into cloth for their own purposes, as most people did back then. However, Ann - as befits the minister's wife - has a gown of 'Musselburgh stuff' (this seems to have been fine quality woven wool) made by a local tailor for ordinary wear. The women also sell some of their work to the weaver who comes looking for customers' work to sell on. Ann and Betty are happy to sell Lady Killhenzie 'cloath napery' for 14 shillings. The minister has a flock of sheep to supply his own wool, and grows flax on the glebe so that the family can make their own linen. 

There are tailors in some of the clachans, with an interesting reference to a tailor from Straiton making a 'sackcloth' gown for one unfortunate Janet Kennedy. Adulterers and 'adulteresses' were supposed to appear in church in sackcloth robes, but even at this time, the practice is falling out of favour, and by the time of Robert Burns and his transgressions with Jean Armour some sixty years later, there is hardly a tailor to be found willing or able to make such a thing, nor a minister insisting on it. 'Daddie' Auld certainly doesn't. Mr Laurie, however, does seem to have approved of it and there is some mention of culprits 'not appearing in the kirk without sackcloth'. 

A travelling shoemaker, probably from Maybole, makes shoes for the family, in preparation for which, Mr Laurie gets in leather, hemp and rosin, the tanned leather often coming from his own beasts. The shoes tended to be for best, and for wearing to the kirk and for travelling, rather than for everyday use, although Ann has comfortable 'cloath slippers' made for herself. In August 1716, 'James Niven and his servant 'wrought nine days' making shoes for the family, for which he was paid board and lodging, plus 'six and a quarter pence sterling and seven pence for timber heels.' 

Household goods
The entries on other household goods are particularly fascinating. In Maybole, the minister buys hens and eggs too, as well as cheese, sugar, tobacco, coals, thread, soap and gunpowder. He spends money on 'plaiding' and on the wigmaker to mend his wig, a wig being an absolutely indispensable item for men of importance at the time, even quite young men, as he was. He spends a good deal on 'sugar candie' but some of this is to ameliorate the taste of the nasty medicines of the time, as we can see from its inclusion in various recipes, among which we find baked ground mother of pearl mixed with powdered slaters (i.e. woodlice) Those medicines involving the contents of the herb garden, however, seem more palatable and more efficacious, witness the use of horehound and coltsfoot for a cough, something still found in herbal cough mixtures today. 

Tea drinking is only just becoming fashionable and Mr Laurie buys 'lime' (meaning loam or earthenware) to drink it from. A pound of 'Bohea' or black China tea costs a massive 24 shillings. But they are a la mode  at the manse and must have indulged in the habit from time to time. 

In Edinburgh he buys not just useful vegetable seed for the manse kitchen garden, such as 'colliflower' lettuce, carrots and parsnips, but seeds for his flower borders: ‘africa marigold, sunflower, jelly flower, luppyns, double holly oaks, bella donna’ and others. I love the fact that even then, they had a flower garden, but we should remember that these also had medicinal purposes. He buys in wine for household use. Ale is brewed at home, but we sometimes find small sums for 'ale' in the accounts which represents coins given to tradesmen who come to the door with deliveries. 

Other small sums are given out to the wandering poor, of which there are very many, not least Scottish sailors who have been captured by pirates, sold into slavery, escaped and finally arrived home in a penniless and broken down state. 'To a poor man taken a slave in Algiers' or 'To a slave from Algiers, dumb'.

Balancing the books is always difficult, and with no enclosed land and few improvements, overwintering of beasts, even for the minister, is very hard and there are losses, although nothing is wasted and hides will be tanned for leather. It is obvious that without a bartering system it would have been impossible to survive. Mr Laurie is even forced to borrow from his canny sister Betty on one occasion, who charges him interest on the transaction. She needs cash for pins, needles and knitting thread.

Books and learning
Learning is a wonderful thing and he has managed to acquire a great many books - perhaps some from his minister father - which he lends to his friends, including the sons of local lairds, as well as ministers from neighbouring parishes. Human nature being what it is, the books sometimes go missing and he writes 'I do not know who has this' rather plaintively. (I have much the same problem!) His children go to the village school, and perhaps then to Maybole, Ayr and Glasgow for their further education. One of his sons, George, becomes a minister in turn and as minister of Loudon has a large part to play in encouraging Robert Burns. 

It's apparent from all this that most of the houses in what now constitutes the old parts of the village were not built till much later in the eighteenth century, well after James Laurie was buying his flower seeds in Edinburgh. When we had occasion to take down a bit of wall to build an extension, some years ago, we found the stones of a much older house, including a lintel, used as infill in the wall. Where from? Presumably from one of those much older cottages in the vicinity of the manse, or closer to Kirkmichael House or even further afield. 

There certainly used to be more cottages along the road towards Crosshill, towards the farm of Merkland. Older people here remembered the ruins. There was also the ‘Waukmill’ along there, where the cottage-woven fabric was taken to be stretched. There is little left of it now except for a shell of stones, down by the river at Merkland Farm. Incidentally, it is possible to trace some of the history of the parish through its mills of various kinds, many of them along the banks of the Dyrock burn or the River Girvan. 

There is a great deal more to the story of this village, including the Covenanters, (I think somebody else can tackle that complicated period!) and - in the 19th century - the brief rise of Ayrshire whitework, of which I have my own small collection. I'll write more about this needlework in due course. 

One final suggestion - if you find Mr Laurie's account interesting, you could do worse than seek out a book called The Annals of the Parish by John Galt. It is still in print in various forms, it is ostensibly a novel, published in 1821 but it's told in the voice of an 18th Century minister who sounds a lot like Mr Laurie. It is entertaining, informative - and in places, extremely funny. Reading it, you realise how little village life has changed in the intervening period. 


In the kirkyard



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