The Elements of Agriculture

James Hutton wrote his treatise on agriculture probably over some 40 years. It was incomplete at his death in 1797 and never published. It is hand-written in two volumes of some 1,100 pages and held in the National Library of Scotland.

“I do not write in expectation of my book being popular I write for my pleasure on what has been in a manner the story of my life”. He found writing his treatise “so complicated” and “difficult to treat in a systematic manner”, but he “endeavored to give the principle with the practice” of agriculture. Similar to his other texts it is difficult to read.

The first volume deals with the generalities of farming at the time and the cultivation of cereals. In it he refers to agriculture as

“This valuable art”

and that

“Philosophers of husbandmen and husbandmen of philosophers by which a nation is to made both powerful and happy”.

He was inspired by Jethro Tull as a youngster and he sought to “captivate the ignorant” on agriculture and methods of good husbandry. He went to Norfolk to “meet the most enlightened men in that profession”

With reference to improvements at Slighhouses, he writes

“Having first enclosed, drained and improved my farm, I wrote to my friends in Norfolk to send me a ploughman, they wrote that if I was resolved to have a ploughman from that country I must come for myself to fetch him for they could not persuade any man whom they should recommend to go to a country which was considered as banishment. I therefore went again to Norfolk”

where he remained for 12 months near Great Yarmouth. He also stayed in Suffolk where

“plowmanship is found in the greatest state of perfection, more I believe than in any part of the world”.

James Hutton brought a ploughman back to Berwickshire. Once installed he wanted the ploughman to train youngsters, but the ploughman apparently was not either

“willing or fit”.

The ploughman remained several years, but he neither

“could manage the business of my farm nor the (land) management”.

“I gave up farming”,

he writes,

“just at the period when the land was brought to such a state, as it might have been cultivated with pleasure and to good purpose”.

It is difficult to ascertain from this whether he felt that his job was done or he gave-up with disappointment.

He believed that

“Man is not born with agriculture any more than in any other art”.


“Now as man is by nature calculated to feed upon the produce of the earth, this is an art the most necessary to the species and the most interesting to nations”.

He goes on to say,

“Agriculture is an art by which man at his pleasure makes the earth yield those vegetable products for which he has occasion”;

and that

“Agriculture is the effect of ingenuity and experience”.

He acknowledges that

“It is necessary to collect the knowledge of individuals and experience of mankind”.

Profoundly he states

“Science is founded upon the seeing of truth”.

He observed that decomposition and rocks make soil and that plants adapt to soil.“The harvest of the husbandmen depends on soil, climate, weed and labour”. He considered soils, temperature, climate making comparisons with different countries. He compliments agriculture in China and refers to France as “…one of the finest countries in Europe”.

He refers to

“England at 7 million inhabitants has 6 acres for every mouth”.

In Scotland he laments the lack of skill in the growing of oats

“ much oats as seldom ripens because of the lack of skill”

He records undertaking a number of experiments on the control of pests and diseases including the use of urine and brine to control smut in wheat. He deliberates on the importance of labour to the economy and the use of improved machinery (the plough, the roller, the hoe).

In it he describes “Intelligence – a spark of the divinity”

He says among the instruments that are employed in civilised society for improved nations the plough is certainly the most eminent. He makes observation on the soils in woods, the soil seems rested and in a fertile state.

Volume Two deals with animal reproduction and the art of breeding.

In it he discusses the making of butter and cheese and refers to Parmesan and that it should be made in Scotland. He refers to a cheese called Rasa which is blue and mouldy.

He doesn’t think hedgerows do crops any good and he refers to hedge planting as an expensive operation occupying too much ground. He does acknowledge that apart from shelter, and beautifying Scotland, hedgerows diminish the violence of the wind where trees require the mutual protection of each other. Enclosures he felt, should be by ditches and hurdles because pasture is important for fertile ground. He refers to Berwickshire as a country destitute of wood and the making of fencable enclosures will be of great benefit to land for the making of farmhouses. He is evidently very frugal.

The swede, the introduction of which is often attributed to James Hutton, was actually introduced after James Hutton stopped farming. He refers to it as being called the bage.

He ends his treatise with the discussion of the potato.

“How many parts of Scotland might be made the most precious orchards with the culture of the potato”.