John relinquished the haberdashery and drapery trade to fill his late brother's shoes, devoting his time, finances and efforts to the newspaper. Within a few years he acquired the shares held by others, and became sole proprietor of the ‘Scotsman.’ Under his direction, on 30 June 1855, the paper first appeared as a penny daily.
However, it is John's early life which is of significance to those interested in Largo's past. John had been born in Kirkcaldy on 3 February 1778 but within a year or two the family had moved to Lundin Mill in connection with father James's occupation as a flax dresser. At the age of nine, John (pictured above) was sent to service on a small farm further north in Largo Parish. He appears to have been there for at least eight years, as by the age of 17, it is recorded that his pay there was £1 per annum in addition to his keep. Later in life he wrote extensively about his years on the land. His recollections provide a valuable insight to the life of an agricultural worker in Largo in the 1790s. What follows are excepts from a piece he published in The Scotsman of 8 April 1857, entitled "Scotch Farming and Farm Living Sixty-Five Years Ago" - some reminiscences of the life of men and beasts on a small farm in Fifeshire in the end of the last century.
The reminiscences relate to the small farm to which "at the age of nine years, I was sent for service". The farm was approximately 80 to 100 acres and "nearly entirely arable, in the neighbourhood of Largo, and within a mile and a half of the coast. The farm establishment consisted of the farmer, his wife, a lad about seventeen, a maid and a boy – to wit, myself.” The farm is unnamed but the 1775 Ainslie map above shows rural Largo Parish at the time. Ritchie continued:
“All worked and eat together, and all slept in the farmhouse which consisted of but one room and a kitchen. The stock consisted of three farm horses, four milk cows, six young cattle and a pig. My work was in summer to rise at five in the morning, take the cattle to field, bring them home again about eleven – when they remained for about three hours, during which time I had to clean the byre; then again to field, where we (that is, I and the cows) remained till eight o’clock, when I had to furnish my charge with supper and bedding.”
In terms of food, Ritchie informs us that:
"This was humble and varied little throughout the year. Generally everyone partook of food together and from the same dish. Breakfast was oatmeal porridge. Eggs were produced but only for selling and never consumed on the premises! Dinner was always barley broth with plenty of cabbage or green kail, sometimes a little pork or a salt herring being added….beef or mutton never being seen in the house.”
“We had bread in abundance; a healthy and substantial mixed bread of oat, pease and barley meal, baked in the house, flour bread from the baker’s never being thought of. At night we had again porridge, or in winter, potatoes and milk. On Sundays the master and mistress indulged themselves in a cup of tea. We were true teetotallers – I never saw or heard of spirits, wine or even beer in the house. We made our own candles but were more indebted in the dark nights to the splint coal.”
This description tallies with the records in the 1792 Old Statistical Account of Scotland where the extract below from Largo Parish also describes typical meals.
The seasonality of life was also chronicled by John. At harvest time, he explained “I might assist in “leading-in” the corn – building it on the cart and forking it from the cart to the stack – and taking up and carting home the potatoes." Meanwhile "the master took the heavy part of the outdoor work – ploughing, sowing, &c – the lad assisting in driving out manure and the like; in winter the lad was mainly employed in thrashing, while in summer he was much employed in pulling thistles from the fields in crop, which were used as food for the horses.” Crops consisted of oats, barley, potatoes, turnip and red clover. "Throughout the year the mistress and the maid were occupied in milking the cows, churning, making cheese, &c; hoeing and other outdoor work in summer; in harvest in shearing; in winter mainly in spinning, all the clothes of the family, woollen and linen, being spun by them. There was then no spinning of fine yarns by machinery."
The meagerness of personal possessions was also conveyed by Ritchie:
"My master’s best coat served him for the whole of his nineteen year’s lease of the farm. The winter evening’s were spent in the kitchen, mainly by the light of the fire, helped by parrot coal….While the women span, the master knitted stockings, the man-servant mended his shoes or stockings or any other like work, while I usually read aloud for the general benefit. Our stock of literature was scanty, consisting, besides the Bible, of some old sermons, a copy of Boston’s Fourfold State, Hervey’s 'Meditations among the Tombs'* and an ample stock of old stories and ballads – the latter being the joint property of the maid-servant and myself.”
“We had family worship every evening, the hour of which, as well as that of bedtime, was a little uncertain, owing to there being no watch or clock in the house. In the winter nights we could only judge the passing of time by the quantity of yarn spun by the mistress of maid, or by the length added to the stocking which the master was employed in making – which was rather an unreliable standard as he sometimes took a nap. When the weather permitted we regulated ourselves by the progress the “seven stars” made over the pent stack. For summer, I constructed a sun-dial by a rather unscientific process. Getting a loan of a tailor’s watch, I drew a line across a large whinstone by the shadow of the sun every hour from seven in the morning to eight at night, which answered the purpose remarkably well.”
*James Hervey (1714-58) was a writer of devotional texts. His popular 'Meditations Among the Tombs' was published in 1746 and it was often reprinted. The subject of the book is death, and the author dwells particularly on the grief caused by early death, and on the eventual re-uniting of the parted in heaven. Below is an illustration from this book.
After several year working on the farm at Largo, John Ritchie returned to the place of his birth, Kirkcaldy, to become a handloom weaver. This led to his eventual move to Edinburgh around 1800 to set up as a draper and haberdasher. By the time that The Scotsman newspaper was established in 1817, he had a flourishing business. John Ritchie (shown below as a young man) spent 53 years at the newspaper. He lost his wife in 1831 (the same year that he lost his brother) and never remarried. He entered the town council of Edinburgh in 1844, and was a magistrate of the city from 1845 to 1847. In 1849–50 he was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. He was one of the founders of the United Industrial School. He died on 21 December 1870, at the age of 92.
His obituary in the 22 December Scotsman stated that he maintained associations with Largo Parish throughout his life "to the benefit of the poor of the place to the end of his life, long after all other links of connection had been snapped". He certainly bequeathed to us a graphic pen-picture of conditions on a small Largo farm over two hundred years ago - in doing so demonstrating that he had great powers of observation from an early age.