James Anderson of Hermiston

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James Anderson circa 1792

James Anderson FRSE FSAScot (1739 – 15 October 1808)[1] was a Scottish agriculturist, journalist and economist. A member of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society, Anderson was a prominent figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He invented the Scotch plough.


Anderson was born at Hermiston, Midlothian and while still young attended lectures on chemistry by William Cullen, at the University of Edinburgh. At the age of 15, after the death of his parents, he took over the working of the family farm.[2]

In 1768 he moved to Aberdeenshire to manage the 1,300 acres (530 ha) farm of Monkshill on land owned by Mr. Udny of Udny under a long lease granted to him for the purpose of demonstating the benefits of improved agriculture.[3]

Economic theorist[edit]

James Anderson, engraving published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of May 1809[4]

In 1777 Anderson published An Enquiry into the Nature of the Corn Laws, in which he anticipated David Ricardo's theory of rent.[2] Some historians believe Anderson was the root source for Marx's critique of capitalist agriculture.

Rent, Anderson argued, was a charge for the use of the more fertile soil. The least fertile soils in cultivation generated an income that simply covered the costs of production, while the more fertile soils received a "certain premium for an exclusive privilege to cultivate them; which will be greater or smaller according to the more or less fertility of the soil. It is this premium which constitutes what we now call rent; a medium by means of which the expence ( [sic]) of cultivating soils of very different degrees of fertility may be reduced to a perfect quality." Anderson argued that improvement of the soil was possible; but also that humans could degrade the soil. He argued also that since where farm land in England was held by capitalists, the farmer would tend to avoid improvements the full return for which would not be received during the lease.

Karl Marx's critique of capitalist agriculture drew upon Anderson's analysis and he insisted that soil fertility was a historical issue, and that fertility could both improve or decline. The irrationality of capitalist agriculture, he argued, was bound up with the whole antagonism of town and country out of which bourgeois society had arisen.[5]


In 1783 he settled in Edinburgh. In 1791 he started a weekly publication called The Bee, which was largely written by himself, and of which 18 volumes were published. In 1797 he began to reside at Isleworth, and from 1799 to 1802 he produced a monthly publication, Recreations in Agriculture, Natural History, Arts and Miscellaneous Literature. He was also the author of many pamphlets on agricultural and economical topics, under numerous aliases, including Agricola, Germanicus, and Timothy Hairbrain. One of his first publications was A Practical Treatise on Chimneys (1776). He was a friend of Jeremy Bentham, and involved in the latter's idea of an ideal prison or Panopticon. Anderson also corresponded with George Washington.


The engineer James Green, responsible for the building of some of the first canalboat lifts, credited their invention to Dr James Anderson.[6]

The Scotch plough or Scots plough (not to be confused with the Scottish hand plough) was a wood and iron, animal draft, primary tillage implement (plough) for use on heavy ground invented in the 19th century by James Anderson.[7][8]


In 1780 Anderson received an LLD (honorary doctorate in law) from the University of Aberdeen. He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1791.[9] He died in West Ham, Essex on 15 October 1808.[1]


In 1768 Anderson married Margaret Seton (d. 1788). Together they had 13 children, one daughter and five sons survived their father; their son, John, was apprenticed to Thomas Bewick.[2] Their daughter, Margaret (1778–1863), married Benjamin Outram.


  1. ^ a b Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783-2002: Biographical Index (PDF). I. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 25 November 2011.
  2. ^ a b c Mitchinson, Rosalind. "Anderson, James (1739–1808)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/475. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ Alexander, William (1892), The Making of Aberdeenshire in Transactions of the Aberdeen Philosphical Society 2, 1892, pp. 102 - 122
  4. ^ "James Anderson". freemasonry.bcy.ca. Retrieved 14 December 2019.
  5. ^ Foster, John Bellamy. (2002) Ecology Against Capitalism, New York: Monthly Review Press
  6. ^ The Canals of Southwest England Charles Hadfield Page 104 ISBN 0-7153-8645-X
  7. ^ "A History of Agriculture in the Developed World". encyclopedia.jrank.org. 2010. Retrieved 19 April 2012.
  8. ^ "Old and New Ploughs". worldburnsclub.com. 2008. Archived from the original on 14 December 2009. Retrieved 19 April 2012.
  9. ^ "James Anderson". American Philosophical Society Member History. American Philosophical Society. Retrieved 16 December 2020.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Anderson, James (Agriculturist)". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.