Off Canvas

Mary Young with Abernyte Heritage Group, Abernyte. The Quiet Revolution (Perth and Kinross Libraries and Lifelong Learning, 2008. Pp. viii + 205. Illustrated. ISBN 978-0-905452-55-5, £12).
Abernyte sits in the Carse of Gowrie, between Dundee and Perth. It was, in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, a busy and populous agricultural community, with a rich social and cultural life built on the efforts and achievements of the people who worked the land, raising crops and livestock. It was a highly localised community, in the sense of people living closely together, prospering in good times and helping each other through bad times. But, like other rural communities in Scotland and perhaps other parts of Europe too in these centuries, the economic and social welfare of its residents was profoundly affected by national and international forces that shaped quantitative and qualitative demands for agricultural produce and agricultural labour, including global trade depressions, wars and technological and transport innovation.
The interplay of these local, national and international forces is an underlying theme of this very fine book, elegantly written by Mary Young of the University of Dundee, with the assistance of the Abernyte Heritage Group, formed in 1988 by residents determined to preserve memory of people, customs, habits and traditions that were fading with time and the adoption of different modes of working and living. The Group undertook a series of interviews of older Abernyte residents, mainly in 1999 and 2000. Young uses 23 of these here, encompassing a variety of occupational and social backgrounds, along with a wide range of documentary evidence – including parish council records, population and agricultural census returns, valuation rolls, maps, recreation and sports club records and scrapbooks – to reconstruct the community in its inter-linked working, social, educational and recreational aspects in the first half of the twentieth century. The introduction sets out patterns of landownership, population levels and age ranges; there are subsequent chapters on work, looking at the tradesmen as well as the farmers and farm labourerers they serviced, play, school, poverty and ill-health, church life and an assessment of the major changes issued by the Second World War, most notably the mechanisation of agriculture.
The tensions and difficulties of the community are rendered in these chapters. The Kinnairds, who owned large stretches of Abernyte for most of this period, were largely responsible landlords by the standards of the time. Improvements were made to the estates, including the establishment of an electricity-generating plant, and there were frequent philanthropic gestures and initiatives. Yet accommodation for agricultural labourers and their families was often inadequate and squalid, with avoidable infectious diseases resulting, and working the land was hard in the best of times and demanding beyond our twenty-first century comprehension in the worst of times. This is a good book, its details illuminating the human dimensions of the national and international forces that we spend much time thinking about in economic and social history without always reflecting on their locally-specified implications. The book is also very effectively illustrated, the many photographs and maps furnishing a very real sense of place, enabling readers in all parts to ‘visit’ through these pages a wonderful part of the world.
Jim Phillips
Department of Economic and Social History
University of Glasgow