Tag Archives: agriculture


What a name! A practical guide to ‘grass’ seed mixtures and other fodder crops in various editions in the 1800s by the Lawsons, Edinburgh seed merchants. Examples of complex grass mixtures, where ‘grass’ included legumes and other broadleaf species. Legumes typically 25% by weight of seed. Sometimes sown with a corn, such as barley, to protect the grass in the first year. Guidance on fodder crops such as sainfoin and whin (gorse). High sown diversity, now mostly gone, but recorded. Latest in the Living Field’s series on crop diversification.

The Living Field’s exploration of crop diversification or re-diversification – growing more things and more different things on the same piece of land – found that some complex species mixtures used in the 1800s and early 1900s had reformed in the Garden’s meadow and surrounding grass [1]. Some species were sown but others just moved in, presumably enticed by the low-nutrient status of the soil and some friendly neighbours.

A century or more ago, grass seed mixtures were varied to suit the intended use. So, for example, those for one crop of hay had fewer species than others for permanent pasture. Yet what is clear from Agrostographia [2] and later works [3] is that quality ‘grass’ seed in the 1700s and 1800s consisted of complex mixtures of grass, legumes and other broadleaf (dicot) plants. On many farms, the forage legumes probably contributed more of the overall nitrogen input by biological fixation than crops such as beans and peas. The legumes also had a higher and different protein content to that of the grass species.

Plants from the Agrostographia: panicles of cock’s-foot and timothy, sainfoin with flower stem inset, whin with flower inset and red clover with some white clover and grasses.

Given present interest in re-diversification, we here explore this practical guide and definitive study of complex ‘grass’ seed mixtures and other fodder crops.

The Lawsons’ Agrostographia

The 1800s was a time of great invention and experimentation. The Improvements of the 1700s had shifted agriculture to a higher trajectory, but there was still a need to improve the ‘grass’ that cows and sheep grazed and were fed. The process of nitrogen fixation by legumes was not scientifically understood, but the experimenters knew that legumes like clovers enriched the soil and gave better yields of livestock when they were present as part of the ‘grass’.

Among the foremost experimenters of the time, from the early 1800s, were the Lawsons, a seed company based in Edinburgh. In addition to their major efforts in trialling and documenting all the arable and horticultural plants that were and could be grown in Scotland [4], they were active in experimenting on ‘grass’ seed mixtures for different purposes.

Two plates from an online copy of Agrostographia, the left showing Agrostis stolonifera and the right Lolium perenne.

They worked on trials first in the early 1800s, published their recommendations in 1833, refined them in their 1836 Agriculturalist’s Manual [4], and continued to update them in editions of the treatise named Agrostographia [2], the 6th edition of 1877 being used here. The treatise contains an introduction to grass mixtures, then tables which advise the species and weights of seed that should be sown for different purposes, such as long-term grazing, pasture under orchard trees, conversion of wet land and stabilising soil against coastal erosion.

The refinement and complexity of these seed mixtures was a way forward – a way out of the stagnation of unimproved grazing land.

Complexity for purpose

Where the aim was for one to three years hay or pasture, Agrostographia recommends mixtures of 6 – 9 species of grasses and legume, usually those able to form cover quickly. Mixtures for permanent pasture were more complex, selected from 16 types of grass and 7 types of legume (Fig. 1), where ‘types’ were mostly different species but occasionally different varieties of a species. The mixtures were varied slightly to suit three grades of heaviness of the soil and depending on whether the grass seed mixture was sown along with a corn crop, such as barley in spring, to ‘nurse’ the grass mix until it established. The corn was then usually cut along with the grass for a first hay.

Fig. 1 Composition of grass seed derived from 16 grass and 7 legume types (mostly different species) for permanent pasture, the % seed weight in the top two boxes for medium soils with a ‘nurse’ corn crop sown at the same time. Variations below show the grass/legume/dicot (G/L/D) proportions after additional seed was included for specific purposes. From Table III for permanent pasture mix No. 2 in Agrostographia 1877.

Legumes typically made up 20-25% of the standard seed weight in permanent pasture mixes. The proportion of legumes rose to more than 30% both in grass intended for one to three years duration and for permanent pasture in some conditions such as dry calcareous soil, where sainfoin was recommended along with standard legumes (Fig. 1).

The mixes present a marked contrast with most grass fields today, which contain no legumes or at best a sprinkling of white clover.

Species and varieties

Across their various mixtures, the Lawsons tested and gathered seed for about 50 species of grasses, legumes and other dicot plants. They treated each one like a separate crop, whose traits were identified, and which should contribute specific properties to a mix. The mixes achieved a spread of flowering and maturity times and a balance of architecture and feeding quality in the sward [3].

The most abundant grass species in pasture mixes were perennial and italian ryegrass, but others included cock’s-foot, timothy, foxtail and several species each of fescues and meadow grasses. The most abundant legumes were white clover and red clover, the latter often in its perennial form, while others included bird’s-foot trefoils, medics and occasionally sainfoin.

The annular diagram (Fig. 2) shows for a specific mix the proportion of each species or variety in the outer circle in the order given in the manual. Colours and shades of grass from blue to green and legumes from red to pink are to help differentiate the types. The lesser species were each present at between 2% and 6% of the total weight.

Fig. 2 Proportions of species or varieties of grass (blue, green) and legumes (red, pink) in a seed mixture for permanent grass on medium soils assuming sown with a corn crop. From Table III for permanent pasture mix No. 2 in Agrostographia 1877 .

Judging by the many editions and reprints, the Lawsons’ Agrostographia must have influenced many progressive farmers in their attempts to improve hay and grazing. Its contribution was recognised by agriculturalists like Preston, writing in 1887 [5].

‘Artificial’ grasses

The authors distinguish members of the grass family by grouping all legumes and other broadleaf or dicot plants as ‘artificial’ grasses. Among these artificials were typical forage legumes such as lucerne, sainfoin and various tares (e.g. Vicia sativa), which were sometimes grown as a single-species crop, and also plantains, burnets, and yarrow.

Sainfoin and lucerne were at that time commonly grown in the south of Britain, much less in the north. The authors state that the climate of Scotland is too cold for lucerne but sainfoin can be grown in ‘dry’ soils with help in the first year from a nurse corn.

Whin or gorse was another nitrogen-fixing legume recommended as a crop to be cut and pulped for cattle or eaten directly by sheep in the first year or two of growth. Today large areas of rough grazing land are covered by whin, which appears to be rarely eaten by livestock, but Agrostographia recommends growing it from seed in a field as a fodder crop.

How diverse and native were Agrostographia’s mixes

Scotland and indeed much of the UK got all its major crops from other parts of the world. The main cereals came from east of the Mediterranean, potato from across the Atlantic and forest plantation trees, such as sitka spruce, from north America. Even many of our weeds were imported or found their way here.

The position is more complicated for grassland. Traditional, species-rich hay meadows are very rare, around 3% now remaining of those present in Britain before the post-war phase of agricultural expansion. The latest issue of Plant Life magazine points to the botanical richness of the Muker meadows in Yorkshire, for example [6].

Where then do Agrostographia‘s seed mixtures lie on a scale of diversity between such traditional hay meadows and today’s fertilised ryegrass? The combination of more than 20 species takes them far ahead in terms of botanical diversity than nearly all commercial grass fields today. That botanical diversity would have stimulated microbial and invertebrate diversity and hence food for birds and mammals.

They are however less diverse than ancient hay meadows. The mixtures were intended as a crop, a means to increase production measured in the the growth in weight of sheep and cattle per unit area of land. It was before mineral fertiliser was widely used; hence the essential presence of legumes. The capacity of ryegrass for high yield was appreciated. It’s as if the move to ryegrass species, including imported forms, began at this time, well before they came to dominate managed grazing land after the 1950s when mineral fertiliser was routinely applied.

Moreover, Agrostographia’s seed mixes did not consist of just native or local species and varieties. More productive forms of local species were imported and trialled. In describing red clover Trifolium pratense, the authors refer to a common type named English Red Clover, but are aware of a range of other forms named German, Dutch, Flemish, French, American and Normandy. Which of these were use in the various seed mixtures is unclear. Similarly, some improved types of the major grasses were imported from north America.

Agrostographia’s seed mixes are perhaps best viewed as a crop, but one bringing very high in-field biodiversity compared to almost anything else grown at that time. Whether their permanent pasture mixes evolved to greater or lesser diversity over the decades up to the 1930s is unknown.

Lessons for re-diversification

The seed mixes recommended in Agrostographia [2] and related works [3] from the 1800s and early 1900s are a lesson on what can be done to achieve higher production by combining plants having different functional properties. Compared to today’s low-diversity grass they would emit negligible greenhouse gas emissions, conserve and build soil, and support a rich and active food web.

They could be guides or templates for re-diversification. The mixes could be adapted for different soils and were clearly successful, being used for a large part of the 1800s and later [5]. Several questions remain about them. They probably consisted of improved and native forms. It would be difficult to tell, for example, without detailed genetic analysis, which of the species and varieties presently occupying managed grass were native. And it is not known whether any of permanent pasture sown in the 1800s remains today – there have been no surveys, and it is even unclear how many fields of permanent grass today contain even one legume. Managed grass is perhaps the most under-surveyed form of agricultural vegetation in Scotland.

The single most valuable lesson from these pioneering works on grassland [2, 3] is that the soils and climate of the country can support complex grass seed mixtures. There is nothing to prevent their revival. Things have changed in the past century but not enough to invalidate their mixtures as starters for trials and experimentation.

Crucial to their adoption in the present time is how they are to be assessed. Rather than being judged on just one output – mass of livestock per unit area – grassland should be judged on a range of other vital criteria including GHG emissions, soil building and support of the food web. If that were the case then complex grass-legume mixtures would win.

Sources, links

[1] For previous Living Field posts on diversification of crops and grass: Diverse grass mixtures in the Living Field meadow and Crop diversification; on a related site, see Grass mix diversity a century past.

[2] Agrostographia; a treatise on the cultivated grasses and other herbage and forage plants. Authors: The Lawson Seed and Nursery Company. Successors to Peter Lawson and Son. Date: 1877 (6th Edition, by David Syme, Manager). Publisher: William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London. Online through sources such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library. [Agrostographia as a title is of much older origin, being that of a major compendium on grasses written in Latin, by or edited by, Johannes Scheuchzer (1684-1738), published 1719, edition of 1775 viewed. Did the Lawsons borrow the name ?]

[3] Other examples of seed mixtures used in the 1800s and early 1900s are given books and manuals by authors H Stephens (1841), RH Elliott (1898, 1908), and WM Findlay 1925. Full details and links on the curvedflatlands site at Grass mix diversity a century past.

[4] Peter Lawson and Son’s main other works are the Agriculturist’s Manual (1836) and the more comprehensive Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland (1852), available online for download, details and links on this site at Bere in Lawson’s synopsis.

[5] Preston, Samuel P. 1887. Pasture grasses and forage plants, and their seeds, weeds and parasites. Publisher: TC Jack, Ludgate Hill, London. Available online for download.

[6] McCarthy, M. 2020. Fields of gold. Plant Life 86, 28-29 (Spring 2020) – on the Muker meadows in Yorkshire.

Great quantities of aquavitae II

The store-house of Foulis; more from the Andrew Wight on his journey north of the Cromarty Firth in 1781; improvement and innovation in 1700s farming; feeding oxen and horse; ‘a man of enterprising and comprehensive genius’; bere and barley.

In ‘Great quantities of aquavitae‘, the farmer-traveller Andrew Wight commented in 1781 on the denizens of Ferintosh, on the Black Isle,  who “utterly neglecting their land, which is in a worse state than for many miles around” preferred to spend their time distilling bere (barley) malt than tending soil and growing crops.

Among places supplying grain to the Ferintosh whisky trade in the 1780s was (he reported) the farmland of Foulis (also spelled Fowlis), on the opposite, northern, side of the Cromarty Firth. Mr Wight rode his horse the long way round, but now Foulis is only a few minutes drive from Ferintosh over the bridge.


The Store-House of Foulis

Andrew Wight did not write about the girnal or store-house at Foulis Ferry Point. It was built 1740, that is 40 years before he passed by on his journey north from Inverness  (and that’s about 275 years before now). It was built to store grain before it was shipped off to market or paid to people in kind for work or favours.

The grain was grown by the estate or paid as rent by the tenants of the estate. They would grow grain on a farm or allotment and pay some to the landowner. Beaton (1986) reports accounts that the total barley received at the Store-House of Foulis in 1784 came to to 169 bolls two firlots. Example of payments ranged from 98 bolls one firlot from the tenant of Mains of Foulis to two bolls from a slater.

The Store-House of Foulis (map reference NH 599636) today has been well restored, with its fine slate roof and well harled walls (images above). Though sometimes called Foulis Ferry Point, the ferry ceased to operate in the 1930s. New buildings have grown around the site housing a visitor centre, restaurant and shops.

There area is rich in these store-houses or girnals as they were called, along the Cromarty Firth and up to Portmahomak. Beaton (1986) gives a map of locations.

Andrew Wight’s comments on the area

Mr Wight (IV.I p 241 onwards) writes about the crops, the farm animals, the owners, the improvers, the tenants and the peasants. Here are some excerpts from his journey along the north side of the Cromarty Firth from Fowlis eastward.

Of Fowlis (Page 233), he regales against the old practices – “having a baulk between every ridge, upon which were heaped the stones removed from the ridges; the soil was taken off every third ridge, in order to ameliorate the two adjacent ridges; and the crops alternately oats and bere; and to this bad practice was added the worst ploughing that can be conceived.” But after the land was improved by the then owner, he reports (page 235) a wheat yield of ten bolls per acre.

And on the same estate, Robert Hall, the farm manager of Fowlis  ‘introduced a crop, rare in Scotland and an absolute novelty in the north, which is carrot. (..) The farm-horses are fed on carrots instead of corn; and they are always in good condition.”

I rejoice to see six yoke of oxen

At Novar he remarks on the poor inherent quality of the soil, which is more than compensated by the desire of the estate to effect improvement to a degree that today would be thought of as ecological engineering.

He notes “Oxen only are employed both in cart and plough. I rejoiced to see six yoke of oxen in six carts, pulling along great loads of stones, perfectly tractable and obedient to the driver. They are all in fine order, and full of spirit. They begin labour at five in the morning, and continue till nine. They are then put upon good pasture, or fed with cut clover, till two; when a bell is wrung, and all are ready in an instant for labouring till six in the afternoon.’

At Invergordon, he comments on seven crops: “wheat on this strong land was very good; barley after turnip excellent; beans and peas are never neglected in the rotation; oats in their turn make a fine crop; the old pasture grass excels.”


Agriculture, manufactures and commerce, the pillars that support the nation

Several pages are devoted to the contribution of George Ross of Cromarty, MP a man of “enterprising and comprehensive genius”.  He started a hemp manufacturing company employing many people and exporting coarse cloth to London and then a brewery for  strong ale and porter, much of it “exported to Inverness and other places by sea-carriage”.

On Ross’s  agriculture: “it is wonderful to see barren heath converted into fertile cornfields; clover and other grasses rising luxuriantly, where formerly not a blade of grass was to be seen; horse-hoed turnip, and potatoes, growing on land lately a bog; ….. hay, not known here formerly, is now the ordinary food of horses and cows”. He also cures and exports pork:  “… he carried me to a very large inclosure of red clover, where there were 200 hogs of the great Hampshire kind feeding luxuriously.”

Ross works on a plan for improving the harbour and entertains “sanguine hopes that government will one day establish a dry dock near the harbour for repairing ships of war in their northern expeditions.”

Ed: Writing in 1810 after Ross’s death, Mackenzie (1810) states that the hemp trade was “now in a flourishing state. From (the year beginning) 5 January 1807, there were imported 185 tons of hemp; and about 10,000 piece of bagging were sent to London”.  Ross was not so far off in his hopes for ship repair – Mackenzie refers to a ship being built there in 1810, and today there are deep anchorage and rig maintenance.

Eight fields, eight crops in sequence

Later on page 257, Wight comments on Mr Forsyth of Cromarty who manages a small farm divided into eight fields, and cropped as follows: “First potatoes, horse and hand hoed, with dung; second, barley; third, clover; fourth, wheat; fifth, peas; sixth, oats or barley, with grass seeds; seventh, hay; eighth pasture. … in this way ‘kept in excellent order, with the advantage of dung from the village”.

Throughout his journeys,  Andrew Wight speaks his mind, always ready to praise good farming and condemn poor practice. (You can sense these journeys are more than a job.) And while he accepts the social divides of the time – he was commissioned by the wealthy – notably between the landed gentry and their peasants,  he condemns those of the former who ignore, ill treat or exploit and praises those who support and encourage the people to improve their lot by agriculture, manufactures and commerce.

Other points to note are that legume crops (fixing nitrogen from the air) were common in crop rotations  and that bere and barley are both mentioned but no clear distinction is made between them (see link to the Bere line below).


Beaton, E. (1986) Late seventeenth and eighteenth century estate girnals in Easter-Ross and South-east Sutherland’, In: Baldwin, J R, Firthlands of Ross and Sutherland. Edinburgh, pages 133-152. Available online: http://ssns.org.uk/resources/Documents/Books/Ross_1986/09_Beaton_Ross_1986_pp_133-152.pdf

Mackenzie, G S. 1810. General view of agriculture of the counties of Ross and Cromarty. London: Phillips.

Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Exracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol IV part I. (See Great Quantities of aquavitae for further reference and web links).

More on the Foulis girnal

Canmore web site. Foulis Ferry, Granary.  https://canmore.org.uk/site/12905/foulis-ferry-granary Notes on history with references.

Am Baile web site: Foulis Ferry http://www.ambaile.org.uk/detail/en/20423/1/EN20423-foulis-ferry-near-evanton.htm


Those in the upper set were taken of the Foulis Store-house and its surrounds on a visit in August 2016.

There were no ‘yoke of oxen’ around Foulis and Novar in 2016,  so the Living Field acknowledges with thanks use of photographs from Burma (Myanmar) by gk-images, taken February 2014 (permission granted by the handler to take the photographs). The quotes below the images come from Wight’s text of 1784, and apply well to this magnificent animal).

Links to posts on this site

More from Andrew Wight on his travels in this region: Great quantities of Aquavitae and Great quantities of Aquavitae II.

The distinction between barley and bere: The bere line – rhymes with hairline and Landrace 1 – bere.

Maps of potato. legumes and vegetables in the region in the twenty-tens (and the relevance of this land over the last 2000 years?): Can we grow more vegetables?

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Food production from the first crops to the present day

Sponsored by Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society and the Dunkeld and Birnam Community Growing Group (The Field) at Birnam Arts, 23 November 2015, 7.30

A survey of crops and croplands – from domestication 10,000 years ago, through the arrival here of settled agriculture in the late stone age; through the developments of bronze and iron to the ill years of the 1600s; through the major improvements in the 1700s that gave hope; through the technology of the 1900s that eventually removed the threat of famine; to the subsequent choice between sustainability and exploitation, and society choosing the latter; to the present state of soil degradation and reliance on imports for food security; and to a sustainable future, perhaps … with some tales along the way of life and farming when horse was the quickest way along the A9.

More …

Settled agriculture is a recent experiment in human history. Domestication of crops from wild plants, as recently as 10,000 years ago, produced the wheat, barley, maize and rice that we know and eat today. Maize and potato were domesticated in the Americas and could not cross the Atlantic at that time and rice was too far away in Asia, but wheat, barley and oat came by land and sea across Europe to the north Atlantic seaboard where around 5000 years ago, they found a welcoming soil and a mild climate.

The grain crops enabled a settled society. In good years, there was food to last the winter, giving time to think and make things. Stability allowed people to learn the skill and enterprise to trade in the new technologies of bronze and iron that came across Europe centuries later. Waves of migration, Celts and Romans included, caused no great change to the basic type of grain and stock-farming of the region. A neolithic farmer, teleported here for the day, would recognise our crops and farm animals (except neeps and tatties which weren’t here in their day).

Yet time, ignorance and oppression took their toll: centuries of misuse, the principles of soil fertility unappreciated or ignored. Soils exhausted and yields dropping to subsistence levels. Agriculture unable to cope with the run of poor weather in the late 1600s? Starvation and famine.

Then came the age of improvement after 1700 – lime, fertiliser, turnips and other tuber crops, the levelling of the rigs, removal of stones, drainage, new machines for cultivation, sowing and harvest, the global search for guano, the coordinated management of crop and stock – benefits that allowed outputs to rise in the 1700s, but not yet to the point where famine was memory. That came later. It was not until the technological developments of the 1900s – industrially made and mined fertiliser, pesticides and advanced genetic types – that the threat of hunger was finally dispelled from north-west Europe.

But these same technologies opened the way for excess and instability. They encouraged the breaking of two established links that had held cropped agriculture since it began here.

The first was that grain and other crops no longer relied on grazing land or grass crops for manure. Grain could be grown more frequently, on more area and with more inputs – eventually encouraging a phase of intensification after 1950 that increased yield but in many places to the detriment of soil and the wider environment, and now with a diminishing return from inputs.

The second was that local production became separated from local consumption. The increasing wealth and global trade of the 1900s – the legacy of the industrial revolution – meant that people no longer relied for their subsistence on what was grown in local fields. This second decoupling became so great that by the 1990s, all cereal carbohydrate eaten in Scotland, except oat, was grown elsewhere and imported.

There are some big questions therefore. Will intensification continue to degrade soils and even start to drive down output? And is our food supply now too vulnerable to external influence – disruption by global terrorism, variation in world cereal harvests, future phosphate wars and volcanic eruption?

So what of the future! Yields are still high. Agriculture is diverse and diversifying in its margins. But threats to soil and food security will increase and need to be tackled. Technology alone will not solve the problems.

Geoff Squire

James Hutton Institute, Dundee UK

The speaker illustrated his talk with some ancient cereals and a bag of grain, all grown in the Living Field garden.

The quotations from Andrew Wight’s journals from his travels by horse are now available free online:

Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Extracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol I, Vol II, Vol III Part I, Vol III Part II, Vol IV part II, Volume IV Part II. All available online via Google Books.

His notes on bere, oat and flax in the region of Dunkeld and Birnam will appear in a later article on this web site. Any further enquiries: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

The Tay at Dunkeld looking East, March 2015 (squire / living field)
The Tay at Dunkeld looking East, March 2015 (squire / living field)