Improvements Deferred
: An historical-archaeological study of transitional farms in the Grampian Highlands of Scotland, during the Agricultural Improvements of the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • Stephen Worth

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by UHI)


The period 1750 -1840 saw a transformation in British society which encompassed an expansion of population, urbanisation, and industrialisation. Enlightened philosophies of progress and order were adopted by Scotland’s academic and landowning elites. These philosophies propelled the craze for agricultural improvement, usually regarded as a top-down revolution.
Agricultural improvements transformed rural landscapes. Traditional agricultural methods and vernacular buildings were swept away. New agricultural practices were introduced within redesigned landscapes leased under rigorous conditions of tenure. A great rebuilding replaced organic township buildings with a new Georgian-style, stone-built rural vernacular. This transformation was intended to improve social conditions, maximise productivity through individual enterprise and increase rentals. Improvements were considered to have been achieved through a near-instantaneous replacement of cooperative townships by single-tenant enclosed farms, effected by enforced clearances and depopulation for the creation of sheepwalks. Across Grampian the archaeological remains of numerous small farms seem to testify to this changeover. However, most of these deserted farms were not simply cleared townships, but have evidence of pre-improvement structures, improved architecture as well as transitional buildings that show only the lightest touches of improvement architecture. These transitional farmsteads are the principle focus of this thesis.
This thesis explores this evolution across Grampian. Research shows that changes took place slowly over several generations in a protracted process of transition. Local environmental, social, and economic factors influenced the pace of change. Neither was it the sole preserve of the landowning elite or richer tenants to instigate improvements; ordinary tenants were quick to seize the opportunities promised. Landowners and tenants variously pushed or deferred the agenda of improvements.
Using an Historic-Archaeological framework this thesis set out to investigate these deserted farms, through the biographies of three representative small farms. Spanning the years 1700 to 1870, the histories of these three case-study settlements reveal a hitherto unrecognised class of transitional farms, characterised by improved buildings and a sustainable agricultural regime. The transitional farm represents a distinct phenomenon and a key episode in a pattern of gradual progress towards improvement in Grampian during the period 1750 - 1870.
Date of Award21 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
SupervisorIain James McPherson Robertson (Supervisor) & Scott Timpany (Supervisor)

Cite this