The geography of the Borders area has heavily influenced the ability of the surrounding countryside to support populations of varying size. Villages, many founded more than 1,000 years ago, are characteristic of the primarily arable farming areas of the Merse, Teviotdale and the lower Tweed, whereas the population of the upland grazing areas is distributed among isolated farms and dispersed hamlets or touns.
In the 12th century King David I incorporated these communities into his machinery of government by the creation of ecclesiastical parishes to serve their spiritual needs and by the allocation of civil manors to Norman landlords from estates that he held in England. The Border shires he governed through the county towns, which he established as Royal Burghs. These settlements, such as Jedburgh and Peebles, had trading privileges and town councils. He sponsored the establishment of monasteries with self-sustaining estates and these developed farming on an unprecedented scale, with particular emphasis on wool production for the continental market.
Although monasteries played a key role in agricultural developments of the Later Middle Ages, the Border abbeys suffered particularly badly in the Wars of Independence and the centuries of unrest and open warfare that followed (see Christian Heritage in the Borders and Warfare and Fortifications in the Borders). Trade diminished too, following the loss of Berwick to England in 1482 and the decline and abandonment of Old Roxburgh (Kelso) in the 16th century. By the 1560s the Borders had lost its two most important centres for the import and export of goods as well as its most powerful farming interests – the Border abbeys – which closed as a consequence of the Reformation.
Although these events were an obstacle to the development of trade and agriculture, other processes helped to prepare the ground for future economic improvements. The Renaissance brought printing to Scotland and made classical texts, hitherto preserved as manuscripts in monastic libraries, available to a wider audience. Writings such as Cato’s de Agricultura generated interest in the science of farming among a growing middle class with capital to invest in agricultural experiments.