James Leggat Diaries

James Leggat Diaries

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Farm life in Mearns in the 1850s through the eyes of a young boy...



James Leggat, born 9th November 1843 in Barony Glasgow, spent part of his childhood at Malletsheugh Farm in Mearns, living with James and Margaret Allison, his maternal grandparents. In later life, he recorded his memories of this time in diaries and his descendant, another James Leggat, has used these to give a picture of life on a Mearns Farm in the 1850’s.


Extract from 1841 census
Extract from 1841 census

The Allison family

James Allison, the diary writer’s grandfather, was born on 9th June 1782 and died on 9th January 1865, aged 83 years. His wife Margaret Ritchie (daughter of the farmer of Langton Farm) had died on 29th October 1857, aged 66. They had eight children - Robert, Jean, Agnes, Margaret, James, William, Janet and Elizabeth. Life at Malletsheugh must have been healthy then as, unusually for the nineteenth century, all eight survived to adulthood and two of them (William and Janet) each lived to the then astonishing age of 91.

James, the diary writer, was the second son of William Leggat and Margaret Allison. Margaret, daughter of James Allison and Margaret Ritchie had been brought up on Malletsheugh Farm in Mearns and married William on 3rd October 1841 in Mearns.


Wrong spelling of surname in 1851 census
Wrong spelling of surname in 1851 census

Margaret and William had five children, James born 1843, Margaret born 1846 and three sons named William (not unusual then as it was thought important to continue family names) born 1841, 1849 and 1851. All three sons named William died in infancy and are buried in the Southern Necropolis in Glasgow with their mother Margaret, who died in 1851. At this time William ran a business in Glasgow as a Victualler.

After the death of his wife, the widowed William became  restless and in 1853, he  sailed from Liverpool on the S.S. Catherine, bound for the Australian goldfields around Ararat. In the event, this venture was a financial failure, though he did live to tell the tale, returning to Scotland some ten years later. For those ten years, his two surviving children lived with their maternal grandparents at Malletsheugh Farm. During this time their lives centred on the farm, on their schooling at Mearns School, and on the life of Mearns Parish Church.

A number of years later James Leggat recorded his memories of this period. All of the information which follows is based on these notebooks. With very few exceptions (which are specified) all of what follows refers to Newton Mearns and to Malletsheugh.



In May 1853 when James and his sister went to live at Malletsheugh, the work of the farm started at sunrise and the main products were milk and butter. Their grandfather was then a stout, fresh old man of seventy-one. He was still able to work about the house, and especially to look after the cows.


Milk CartThe main products from the farm were milk and butter. The milk was all churned at the farm, and taken to town as butter and as sour (or butter) milk. For a year or two after James and his sister went to live at Malletsheugh, Grandfather James still took the milk cart daily to Pollokshaws to sell the sour milk and butter.

This was sold retail on the street for cash. Each cart usually realised a little over £2 and consisted of about 22 to 26 lbs of fresh butter and about 160 pints of butter-milk. The highest price butter realised during that period was 1/6 per lb, and the lowest 1/- per lb.


1856 Ordnance Survey Map of Malletsheugh
1856 Ordnance Survey Map of Malletsheugh

The Allisons were a hard-working and frugal family, but by no means poor. Malletsheugh was a substantial property, which they owned as well as farmed, and they also owned several properties in Mearns village, the rentals from which supported several family members.

When the Glasgow to Kilmarnock road was built through part of his land in the 1830’s, James Allison built the Malletsheugh Inn and several adjoining houses with the compensation which he received.


Malletsheugh Inn
Malletsheugh Inn

When James died, the property was divided. The farm and other property in Mearns went to Robert, the eldest son. William, the second surviving son received the Inn and its adjoining houses. When Robert died 23 years later the “other property” in Mearns provided rents of £134 per annum.

 This was a substantial sum then and maintained two of the younger sons, provided a small legacy for two of the daughters, and an annuity of £30 for his widow. All of this prosperity was based on the farm and on hard work by all.


Religious Observance

James Allison was a strict Sabbatarian. Cleaning the stable and byre - not to mention shaving - were done on Saturday evenings, and then left until Monday. Family worship for family and servants was held regularly. This consisted of singing sixteen lines of a psalm or paraphrase, reading a chapter of the Bible, occasionally with comment, and prayer - during which all knelt on the floor.

It appears that the custom was to read chapter after chapter of the Bible one after the other - Old and New Testaments - regardless of appropriateness to season or events. The psalms and paraphrases were proceeded through in the same manner - and then started again. Family worship at Malletsheugh, as conducted by James Allison, is described as dignified and sometimes moving. In some of the neighbouring farms, however, and particularly in non-musical families, it seems that difficulties could arise!

James recorded his memories of the very impressive service that was held at Malletsheugh a few minutes after his grandmother's death, on Halloween evening in 1858. He wrote: 




"Grandfather, then an old man of 76, had just witnessed this sad event, and in doing so had bid a last farewell to her who had shared in his joys and sorrows for the long period of forty-seven years. Before the few neighbours and friends who were in the house took their departure he asked that all might unite their prayers with his while they engaged in the usual service of family worship. Grandfather - though the chief mourner - seemed less discomposed than most of those present and went through the service much in his usual manner, except that under the circumstances the whole seemed more impressive than usual. Especially this was the case in the concluding prayer which was so feelingly uttered - so devout, so hopeful and so trusting, that all seemed to rise from their knees in a much more tranquil frame of  mind than they had known for some hours before.”


Mearns Parish Church with watch posts at gate
Mearns Parish Church with watch posts at gate

James Allison, the “Head of the House” attended Mearns Parish Church every Sunday, and also specified which family members and servants were to attend. No-one was allowed to be absent on two consecutive weeks. Everybody, except gentry, had a special suit of clothes for Church which were worn only for that purpose and so lasted a long time.

One James Reid, a cattle dealer of Malletsheugh is recorded as making a wedding suit last for 17 years, replacing only the boots. The suit was in full dress style, so never out of fashion, and it seems that James Reid was completely unconcerned that the low-crowned, broad-brimmed hat was sometimes in fashion, and often was not.




Grave Matters

Mearns Parish ChurchMearns Parish Church saw its share of the need for grave-watching. The stealing of the recently buried was still the only way in which otherwise respectable surgeons in Glasgow could obtain subjects for anatomical research. Medical students and others who were simply after the money were inclined to seek to fill the need.

Session houses built just inside the gate, away from the church, were often intended to double as watch posts. A fire would be available and the custom was for two family members (or two people hired for a shilling a night) to watch for forty nights.

It was the custom to go with a lantern to check the grave every half hour. Two or three bodies are reported to have been known to have been lifted from Mearns churchyard, though the custom of watching was carried on longer than it was really necessary.


A mortsafe - one way of protecting a corpse
A mortsafe - one way of protecting a corpse

During this period, when it was no longer probably strictly necessary, James Leggat kept watch with his Uncle Robert Allison in Mearns churchyard after the death of his Uncle James Allison in 1853. James Leggat was then ten years old and he describes watching a cartload of coals and straw arrive at the churchyard, The coals were for the fire, and straw for a Mearns specialty - inter-layering in the grave, intended to “impede the operations” of anyone trying to gain access.

On a later night of this watch, young James not being present, his Uncle Robert was obliged to sit all night on his brother’s gravestone as his companion for that night had spent the day at Mearns cattle show and was drunk. The culprit was discovered slumbering peacefully in the Session house in the morning. As a result his behaviour was described as “frivolous and annoying”.

In his diary, James expands on this subject by referring to an incident at Mearns when a watcher fired a warning shot (they were often armed) which caused his gun to explode. He also refers to some wider anecdotes. It appears that in Govan two watchers surprised two doctors digging up a recently deceased patient, wishful of discovering the nature of the unusual cause of death. One of the doctors was shot and killed by the deceased’s brother. A comment in his diary well illustrates how times change, “To save annoying clamour and legal enquiry, the doctor’s death was registered and spoken of as one of apoplexy. The doctor left a family, one of whom is a minister who occupies a deservedly prominent position in the Church of Scotland”.

A little later in life, when working on a milk-round, James writes that he gave some assistance to one Thomas Archibald of Tollcross in Glasgow. This individual lived to over 80, raging against all his neighbours and saying he would “trust auld Nick further than any of them”. In his youth he had apparently been a grave-robber at Tollcross cemetery, working for surgeons in Glasgow. He was full of stories of corpses being taken into the city propped up on carts, disguised as soldiers, or as workmen, or as ladies in travelling cloaks.


Wedding Customs

Country weddings at Mearns make a more cheerful subject. These were usually held in a farmhouse, with the subsequent meal and dancing in a decorated barn. The meals were not for vegetarians. At the diarist’s own later wedding to Jane Carswell at Duncarnock, in 1881, the first course was roast beef and potatoes, followed by stewed meat and pie, followed by cold tongue and fowl - and then dessert of cornflower, rice, rhubarb and calf-foot jelly.                                                                                     

Braes around Duncarnock
Braes around Duncarnock

In the 1850’s the old Mearns custom of “running the braes” started to fall into disuse. This consisted of a race by the young men present from the bride’s father’s house to the young couple’s new home. Later this custom was replaced by gig races. These allowed wider participation, and the occasional mishap or collision seems to have been cheerfully accepted. One wonders what these sturdy folk would make of the world of health and safety! The last recorded example of running the braes took place at the wedding of one Henry Watson, for over 20 years precentor at Mearns Parish Church, to Mary Blue in 1859.


The young Henry Watson was apparently assistant to William Leggat in the Victualler’s shop he ran in Eglinton Street in Glasgow, prior to his departure to Australia, During the Glasgow “bread riots” in 1848, William barricaded and physically defended his shop against looters.

When a particularly determined looter broke the door, it seems that Henry Watson took off and did not stop running until he reached his mother’s house in Eaglesham - some eight miles away. This was quite an athletic feat - but the bread riot incidents, other than this link, are outwith the scope of these notes.

Wedding presents were given, then as now. One curiosity at the later Duncarnock wedding came from the Misses Hutchison of Netherton, in the form of a footstool which could be opened when required to form a spittoon.



Education at Mearns School is very highly rated in these memories. After a poor experience of tedious rote-learning in Glasgow, James was impressed by the rigour and breadth of the education provided under schoolmaster James Hunter.



The curriculum - at least for some - apparently included Latin and mathematics. Other memories included the “caste” system among the children - the farmers’ children keeping away from the “village” ones, the fact that the main holiday was in September due to the harvest, and the frequency of absences due to outbreaks of such complaints as ringworm.

Education was taken seriously, but this was a rural community and so great importance was also accorded to events such as the annual cattle show and also local ploughing competitions. These, together with Church events, tended to mark the different stages of the year.


A Snapshot of a Boy’s Life

Differences in attitude to those which prevail 150 years later- particularly towards risk and possible injury - are very marked in these Mearns memories. James and Margaret Allison were responsible, sober, serious-minded people. Their grandson James Leggat, who seems to have been a particularly serious individual, took his responsibilities very much to heart and did his share of work on the farm. Yet in his memories of a country Mearns childhood in the 1850’s he talks routinely and quite uncritically of a whole series of incidents which were clearly regarded as just “part of growing up”, but which would cause consternation to the writer of any modern risk assessment. These ranged from causing an explosion while trying to fire gun powder from an old hollow key, to accidents during cart races, to being caught in collapsing hay stacks. However, the only occasion on which James Allison seems to have been at all put out by his grandson’s activities was when he was found trying to “tickle” trout on the Sabbath.


“Care in the Community” in the 1850’s

Society in Mearns in the mid-nineteenth century seems to have been hard-working, largely honest, devout and reasonably prosperous. There were, of course, some less fortunate individuals around, but these seem to have been regarded as the direct and personal communal responsibility of the community in a way that would be unheard-of in more recent times. John Craig was an itinerant seller of sweetmeats from Neilston. He managed to arrive at Malletsheugh at dinnertime on Tuesdays, and was always fed. He sold sweets, combs and other items and was an accepted and well-liked member of the community.

Less popular was an old woman who would simply walk into the kitchen uninvited and sit by the fire. She came as a passenger in a cart, and required to be carried to the next farm - becoming very offensive if kept waiting. Yet even she was tolerated and fed. In common with other farms, Malletsheugh kept a permanent “beggar’s bed” in the barn - though latterly it was made up with straw after numerous sheets had disappeared. Beggars and tramps were always fed and given a bed.  Only one caller was not made welcome - and only after being caught out in a series of lies designed to create sympathy. This individual also claimed to have been a stone mason, and to have put the weather-cock on the parish church steeple, but no-one knew if this was true or not.

Mary Mugdock was born Mary Sinclair, in the Highlands. She became a servant at Mugdock Farm (later assimilated into Pilmuir Farm) and took its name. She ended up, after her employer’s death, in a cottage at Malletsheugh. This cottage, near the miller’s dam, was always spotless and welcoming, and even when old she could match any at farm work. Several of the family from Malletsheugh carried her remains to Mearns churchyard for burial.

This was a community of robust, strong-minded individualists, who worked hard and looked after their own. Their outlook was no doubt narrow by modern standards - few had experience of life beyond their own community. Yet they had their standards, and they attempted to keep to them, while being perhaps surprisingly tolerant and protective towards those in their community who fell on difficult times. Later, when James Leggat was building a successful business as a provisions merchant in Glasgow, he looked back on his ten years in Mearns without sentimentality, but with real affection and great respect.



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