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The role of social networks in agricultural innovation : the Sutherland reclamations and the Fowler steam plough, c.1855-c.1885

Tindley, Annie and Wodehouse, Andrew (2014) The role of social networks in agricultural innovation : the Sutherland reclamations and the Fowler steam plough, c.1855-c.1885. Rural History, 25 (2). pp. 203-222. ISSN 0956-7933

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The nineteenth century saw an explosion in creativity and innovation, often applied to and motivated by an urge to improve, refine and make more efficient industrial and agricultural processes. There were many innovations in the field of agriculture, supported by the sponsorship of societies and associations and, in the 1850s and 1860s, by strong investment under High Farming. This article examines one of these innovations, the steam plough, with reference to its application in the Scottish Highlands in the 1870s and 1880s. In particular, it illuminates the social networks which lay behind the development and utilisation of the steam plough in the rural Highland context, delineating how aristocratic, religious and local networks combined to have a major impact on rural society in Scotland and beyond. It will examine how these networks interacted to promote the contemporary culture for agricultural and rural innovation through the development of the Fowler’s steam plough.What makes this example of particular interest is the fact that agriculturally and financially, the Sutherland land reclamations were an unconditional failure. The environment was too challenging for the technology and despite vast financial resources, the landowner, the third Duke of Sutherland, was, after fifteen years, finally convinced by his advisors that further efforts were futile and irresponsible. This article will interrogate why, despite its essential unfeasibility, the project was pursued, and will argue that the momentum created by the dynamic between the three networks involved propelled it forward despite growing evidence of failure. This article therefore uses an inductive approach by examining a particular example of agricultural design innovation and analysing the pertinent social issues in what would have been termed by contemporaries ‘entrepreneurial spirit’.