Jan 232019

Guest blog post

It is always wonderful to discover first-hand how people use the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. Two MLitt students of the University of the Highlands and Islands, Helen Barton and Neil Bruce, have carried out research on gender and family in the Highlands using the the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. They have written a blog post, divided into two parts, providing us with the results of their research. Below is part one, covering the themes of health and disease and family structures of children living in the Highlands.


Last year as part of our Masters course, we considered ‘Gender and the Family’ in the Highlands. We were challenged to use the Statistical Accounts to research the experience of childhood. We know very little about children in the region in the pre-Clearance era, and what little we do know is about the offspring of the elite, “the formal education and socialisation of children where it yielded a written record is more easily understood” (S. Nenadic, Lairds and luxury: the Highland gentry in Eighteenth-century Scotland (Edinburgh, 2007), p. 43).

An historian focusing on lost English society, Peter Laslett found the “crowds and crowds of little children … who were a feature of any pre-industrial society” are often missing from the record. Margaret King broadened this point across Europe: “We know less about the course of childhood itself, the socialization of the young, and the lives of the poor, always a black hole” (P. Laslett, The World We Have Lost (London, 1971), pp. 109-110, quoted in H. Cunningham, ‘The Employment and Unemployment of Childhood in England c. 1680-1851’, Past & Present, No. 126 (1990), p. 115; M. L. King, ‘Concepts of Childhood: What We Know and Where We Might Go’, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 60, no. 2 (2007), p. 388).

Sir John Sinclair included three questions relating to children:

  • The parish’s school population
  • Family sizes
  • The number of under-ten-year olds.

With this limited and “unwitting testimony” provided by the authors of the parish reports, the historian can glean an understanding of what children’s lives involved (A. Marwick, The Fundamentals of History, accessed 26th June 2018).

In our research we focused on the Outer Isles, Skye and the Far North, and the themes of

  • Health and Disease
  • Family Structures
  • Work
  • Education

We’ll cover the first two sections in this blog and the other two in part two.

Health and Disease

The reports frequently refer to children (and families) having a high risk of contracting and succumbing to disease. Surviving the first five to eight days was crucial in Lewis, where a “complaint called the five night sickness” “prevails over all the island” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 265, p. 281). The minister in Barvas thought “the nature of this uncommon disease … (was not) … yet fully comprehended by the most skilful upon this island” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 265). In Uig, it was described as epilepsy, where, other than two cases, all contracting it died; one survivor experienced severe fits, remaining “in a debilitated state”. Incomers had initial immunity, but even their new-born could contract it (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 281). Croup “proved very mortal, and swept away many children” (OSA, Vol. XVII, 1796, p. 279).

Smallpox had a “calamitous” effect, during an apparent epidemic, 38 children died within months; parents in Tarbat, Easter Ross, were “deaf” to the “legality and expediency” of inoculation (OSA, Vol. VI, 1793, pp. 428-429). An epidemic in Harris in 1792 “carried off a number of the children”, most “inoculated by their parents, without medical assistance” (OSA, Vol. XX, 1794, p. 385).  In Strath on Skye, and on North Uist, inoculation had “now become so general” that “the poor people, to avoid expenses, inoculate their own children with surprising success” (OSA, Vol. XVI, 1793, p. 224; Vol. XIII, 1794 p. 312). In Tongue, in Sutherland, within five years of inoculations being introduced, smallpox had been virtually eradicated (OSA, Vol. III, 1792, p. 524). Even were a doctor affordable, there were only three surgeons and no physicians listed between Skye, the Small Isles, and the Outer Hebrides, all three in the latter, two of whom were on Lewis (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 250; OSA, Vol XIX, 1797, p. 281; OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 613).

Common “distempers” included colds, coughs, erysipelas (a skin infection) and rheumatism (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 275; OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 308; OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 264). The most comprehensive list of diseases was on Small Isles, including ‘hooping’ cough, measles, catarrh, dropsy of the belly, and pleurisy (OSA, 1796, Vol. XVII, p. 279).

It is more difficult to understand from the reports who cared for children when they were ill, or the role children had caring for others, in a community and society where “constant manual labour produced early arthritis … old age came prematurely, without the possibility of retirement for most” (H. M. Dingwall, ‘Illness, Disease and Pain’, in E. Foyster (ed), History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1600 to 1800 (Edinburgh, 2010), p. 114).  In rural Sweden, Linda Oja found that both parents had roles in caring for sick offspring (L. Oja, ‘Childcare and Gender in Sweden’, Gender History, Vol. 27, no. 1 (2015), p. 86).   Correlating the inter-relationship between diet, health, life expectancy and diseases requires deeper investigation.

Family Structures

The family and work for children of the Highlands and Islands was intertwined. As ordinary daily family life was not the focus of the Accounts’, any details have to be discerned from what they recorded about ‘industry’, wage costs and general passing comments about local living conditions and culture.

Where detailed population statistics were recorded, they demonstrate the average household size. A typical family was nuclear: two adults and four or five children, rising to between seven and 14 in the islands. In many areas, longevity was reported. Women bore children from their early twenties until as late as their fifties, grandmothers were suckling their own grandchildren in the Assynt area (OSA, Vol. XVI, 1795, pp. 207).

Marriage may have had romantic foundations, but for many was an economic partnership where both partners worked to achieve a living, either waged or unwaged. In Lewis, there was a pragmatic approach to widowhood; “grief … is an affliction little known among the lower class of people here; they remarry after ‘a few weeks, and some only a few days” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, pp. 261-2). Consequentially, children gained step-parents. This claim does seem extraordinary and further investigation through other sources would be beneficial. Nonetheless, the economic hardship of widowhood is well illustrated by his blunt statement.

Families were also on the move in large numbers. The Highlands and Islands were not immune to changes in agricultural systems taking place in the Lowlands and elsewhere. Sir John Sinclair himself was an enthusiastic encourager of new scientific methods. He enclosed his own Caithness estate, changing its management, and introducing new breeds of livestock, including large non-native sheep flocks (M. Bangor-Jones, ‘Sheep farming in Sutherland in the eighteenth century’, Agricultural Historical Review, Vol. 50, no. 2 (2002), pp. 181-202). Many people were displaced to new crofts and settlements on the coast.

The population was declining rapidly in Highland straths, but overall was generally-rising. Couples reportedly married younger than had previously been the trend locally. This was often by the age of twenty, apparently lower than the national average of 26/27 years old. In Halkirk, the report comments on ‘prudential considerations [being] sacrificed to the impulse of nature’ as young people no longer had to wait for an agricultural tenancy (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 23):

Before the period above mentioned, people did not enter early into the conjugal state. The impetus of nature was superseded by motives of interest and convenience. But now, vice versa, these prudential considerations are sacrificed to the impulse of nature which is allowed its full scope; and very young people stretch and extend their necks for the matrimonial noose, before they look about them or make any provisions for that state.

More research on the reasons for earlier marriages would be beneficial.

To be continued …


  One Response to “Highland Childhoods in the Old Statistical Accounts – Part 1”

  1. There is a great deal in Gaelic sources that could augment this material and fill in some of the lacuna referred to: not just Gaelic songs, but proverbs and proverbial lore about children and child-rearing, and lore composed specifically by and for children of the ‘tuath’ (peasantry).

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