Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dickson, Adam

DICKSON, ADAM (1721–1776), writer on agriculture, son of the Rev. Andrew Dickson, minister of Aberlady, East Lothian, was born in 1721 at Aberlady, and studied at Edinburgh University, where he took the degree of M.A. From boyhood he had been destined by his father for the ministry, and was in due time appointed minister of Dunse in Berwickshire in 1750, after a long lawsuit on the subject of the presentation. He soon lived down the opposition of a party which this raised in his parish. After residing twenty years at Dunse, he was transferred in 1769 to Whittinghame in East Lothian, and died there seven years after in consequence of a fall from his horse on returning from Innerwick. He married, 3 April 1742, Anne Haldane. One of his two daughters gave a short biography of her father to the editor to be prefixed to his chief work, ‘The Husbandry of the Ancients.’ He had also a son, William. Dickson was a man of quick apprehension and sound judgment. He died universally regretted, not merely as a clergyman and scholar, but still more on account of his benevolence and good works, and his readiness in counsel. He passed his life between his cherished country employments on a large farm of his father's, where he lost no opportunity of gathering experience from the conversation of the neighbouring farmers, and the duties of his holy office. Having early shown a great taste for agriculture, he watched its processes carefully, and made rapid progress in it, as he always connected practice with theory. On moving to Dunse he found more real improvements in the art, and also more difficulties to be surmounted than had been the case in East Lothian. Observing that English works on agriculture were ill adapted to the soil and climate of Scotland, and consisted of theories rather than facts supported by experience, he determined to compose a ‘Treatise on Agriculture’ on a new plan. The first volume of this appeared in 1762, and was followed by a second in 1770. This treatise is practical and excellently adapted to the farming of Scotland, its first four books treating of soils, tillage, and manures in general, the other four of schemes of managing farms, usual in Scotland at that time, and suggestions for their improvement. Dickson's next publication was an ‘Essay on Manures’ (1772), among a collection termed ‘Georgical Essays.’ His views are quite in accordance with modern practice. It was directed against a Mr. Tull, who held that careful ploughing alone provided sufficient fertilisation for the soil, and is almost a reproduction, word for word, of a section in Dickson's ‘Treatise.’ He also wrote ‘Small Farms Destructive to the Country in its present Situation,’ Edinburgh, 1764.

Twelve years after his death (1788) the work by which Dickson is best known was printed with a dedication to the Duke of Buccleuch. ‘The Husbandry of the Ancients’ was composed late in life, and cost the author much labour. He collects the agricultural processes of the ancients under their proper heads, and compares them with modern practice, in which his experience renders him a safe guide. The first volume contains accounts of the Roman villa, crops, manures, and ploughs; the second treats of the different ancient crops and the times of sowing. He translates freely from the ‘Scriptores Rei Rusticæ,’ and subjoins the original passages; but if his practical knowledge enabled him to clear up difficulties which had been passed by in former commentators, his scholarship, according to Professor Ramsay (Dict. of Greek and Roman Antiquities, ‘Agricultura’), was so imperfect that in many instances he failed to interpret correctly the originals. The book was translated into French by M. Pâris (Paris, 1802).

[An account of the author, probably the one written by his daughter, is prefixed to the Husbandry of the Ancients, which forms the substance of the notices of him in Didot, Nouvelle Biographie Générale and the Biographie Universelle; Dickson's own works; Scott's Fasti Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ; Presbytery Register and Aberlady Session Register; Whittinghame Minutes of Session.]

M. G. W.