Scotland in the 18th century

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  • A roof of a thatched house
    A roof of a thatched house
  • The Blackhouse Museum on Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides
    The Blackhouse Museum on Isle of Lewis

In the 18th century, the majority of people in Scotland lived in the countryside of the Highlands and made their living from farming. Owning land was the main form of wealth, hence political power and influence was held in the hands of rich landowners. The 18th century is also often described as Scotland's 'Golden Age'. Read on to find out why.

Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore

Visit the collections of the Highland Folk Museum to get an insight into the social and rural life of the Scottish Highlands. With several thousand items on display, the Museum's collection of buildings and building parts are stored, displayed and interpreted at Newtonmore, while the core collections, are stored and managed at Kingussie.

See examples of mechanised farming, aspects of Highland traditional architecture, including a croft house, smoke house, school, church and post office, clockmaker's workshop and joiner's shop, and a domestic collection covering everything from cooking through to heating, lighting, laundry and furniture.

Most of the traditional trades such as mason, joiner, shoemaker, wheelwright and smith are also covered, along with a smaller collections focusing on shops and markets and traditional industries such as textiles, forestry, whisky making and fishing.

You can also take a look at Highland flat textiles including tartan pieces, traditional hand-woven blankets and important examples of locally produced linen.


At the beginning of the 1700s, it was estimated that the population of Scotland was about 1 million, and grew rapidly throughout the 18th century.


The poor

Houses were built entirely from local materials: a stone foundation, timber framing, walls of turf or wattle and daub panelling, and a roof made of turf topped with a thatch made of heather, broom or reeds.

Inside, cobbled sections were divided out where animals were kept, while the entire family lived in a single large room, usually with no windows or chimney. A central peat fire provided warmth and heat for cooking and, if a household could afford it at all, an oil-burning rush lamp would light the room.

Craftsman and labourers lived in two to three rooms, often with box-beds and heather mattresses, while the poorest families usually occupied a single room.

Clan chiefs

Scotland's land-owning clan chiefs and lairs lived in castles such as Urquhart, Huntly, Kisimul on Barra, Edzell, Kilchurn and Leod. These old-fashioned buildings, however, were being abandoned before 1745 for more spacious, impressive accommodation such as the likes of Duff House, Culloden House (by the Forbeses of Culloden), and Inveraray Castle in Argyll, a seat of Clan Campbell, set in large estate grounds, often with gardens and glass houses.

The rich

The affluent society built great country houses, with imposing garden grounds. Robert Adam was the leading architect of the 18th century, renowned for creating a style called Neoclassical, characterised by broad and arresting spaces. The grand clifftop Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, Mallerstain House & Gardens in Berwickshire, Robert Adam's masterpiece and one of Scotland's finest stately homes, the stunning Hopetoun House to the west of Edinburgh, and the exquisite Charlotte Square, home to the Georgian House, in Edinburgh's New Town, are all examples.

The wealthy owned comfortable, beautifully upholstered furniture, often veneered or inlaid, the poor, however, had none of these things – their furniture was simple and plain.


Halls of the great men of the realm were packed with venison, boar, various fowl and songbirds, and expensive spices including cloves and cinnamon. In spite of the improvements in farming, food remained rather plain and monotonous for ordinary people, consisting of mainly bread, oat bannock, porridge, meal soups and potato. Meat was an expensive commodity and consumed rarely. Farmers grew crops at subsistence level, and raised black cattle, making butter or 'crowdie', a type of creamy cheese from their milk.


Due to the mobile nature of Scottish society in the past, food was required not to spoil quickly. Commonly, men would carry a small bag of oatmeal that could be quickly transformed into a basic porridge or oatcake, and it's believed that Scotland's national dish haggis originated in the same way.


Tartan and plain cloth were woven locally. Belted plaids or féiladh-mor were classic clothing of Scottish Highlanders. Traditionally made of one piece of a thick, wool cloth which is known as 'breacan', they were usually about 5ft wide and could be up to 21ft long. Adorned in tartan design, the cloth could be gathered at the waist to form a kilt, leaving the remainder to be swung over the shoulder to form a warm wrap.


Visit the Tartan Weaving Mill in Edinburgh to see how a kilt is made.


The 18th century was the Age of Improvement, with the agricultural revolution gradually transforming Scotland's farming industry. A seed drill and horse-drawn machinery to hoe the land was invented, and the introduction of liming the outfield enriched the soil, improving grazing.


Singing, storytelling and dancing were common forms of entertainment, especially when fuelled by whisky, Scotland's national drink.


Traditional games such as chess, drafts and board games remained popular amongst the well-off, including card games and gambling. Horse racing, which was carried on for centuries, became a professional sport, and country sports including gaming and fishing were widely enjoyed.


Cruel sports like cock-fighting was another favourite past-time, while public executions also drew large crowds.


A croft is a small farm, peculiar to the Highlands and islands of Scotland. These small holdings were a unique form of rural settlement, and came into being following the Highland Clearances, where coastal strips and marginal lands were used to re-settle Highlanders pushed out of their traditional lands, before the clan system was proscribed after the 1745 Jacobite Rising.


Delve into the past by exploring Arnol Blackhouse on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, for a unique insight into the crofting life.

Wade's roads

Between 1726 and 1740, around 250 miles of roads and about 40 bridges were constructed by Wade's men, including four major routes between the forts:

  • Fort William to Inverness up the Great Glen
  • Dunkeld to Inverness
  • Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus down the east shore of Loch Ness
  • Crief to Dalnacardoch via Aberfeldy

Highland Clearance

In the late 18th century, Highland estates shifted from arable and mixed farming to more profitable sheep-farming. This resulted in a surplus of tenants being cleared off the estate.


While most clearances were brutal, the Highland clearance was the most traumatic, with Gaelic culture and clan society devastated, driving people from the land their families had called home for centuries.


Planned towns like Inveraray, Kingussie, Granton-on-Spey and Ullapool, among others, sprung up and took some of the cleared population, however the vast majority emigrated to cities and overseas.

Emigration and transportation

Partly as a result of the Clearances, emigration became a massive movement, with whole villages, families and clan communities decanted to North America, Nova Scotia in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Emigrant ships would pick up directly from Highland ports and anchorages, which in many cases was an easier option than re-settling whole Gaelic-speaking communities in Edinburgh or Glasgow, which was seen as impractical and undesirable.