Oct 052015

A few weeks ago, we took the Statistical Accounts to the Edinburgh Fringe as part of the Beltane network’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. Board member Helen Aiton and EDINA’s Nicola Osborne wrote and presented ‘Back to the Statistical Future’, a delorian-powered tour that brought to light some uncanny parallels between the historical world of the accounts and contemporary Scotland.  We posted about the show at the time, and we’re now pleased to be able to make this recording available.

We hope the video will give you a sense of the rich historical detail to be found in the accounts and prompt you to browse the service to find out more!

We’re keen to introduce as many audiences as possible to the unique resource that is the Statistical Accounts of Scotland:  if you’d be interested in having us come along and talk at an event you are organising, please get in touch.

Sep 142015

Perhaps particularly in a post-Christian society it is stereotypes we live with, rather than the nuanced reality of religion. Listening to the thoughts of ministers by reading the Old Statistical Accounts has challenged one of these for me recently. We are all familiar with the notion of religion’s hostility to folk culture. The story of John MacDonald, born in 1779 and brought up in Reay, on the north coast, demonstrates this perfectly.

He early manifested an intense love for music, and even in his boyhood acquired considerable skill in subduing into melody for Celtic ears the wild sounds of the bagpipe. This was his favourite instrument; and on leaving home for college in 1797 [in Aberdeen] it was carefully packed in his trunk, and doubtless furnished many a pleasant interlude amidst the busy studies of the session.

However the young man, son of a Church of Scotland catechist, was becoming increasingly committed to his faith.

Poltalloch Harp, West Highland Museum

Poltalloch Harp, Courtesy of West Highland Museum

Before the following session higher matters began to occupy his attention, and the pipe was that year left purposely behind. His father, in order to try him, wrote to inquire what would be done with the pipe. “Just what you think right,” was his answer, well knowing what treatment his idol was likely to receive at his father’s hands. The old man no sooner received this license from his son than he went to fetch the pipe from its place, and laying it on the block, he plied with right good-will the axe on its chanters.

The fingers of all musicians will tighten a little on their mouse as they read that. Young John became an influential preacher, down in Ferintosh on the Black Isle, and beloved to many across the Highlands. But he didn’t feel that music and his brand of faith were compatible. It seems that as people became more religious, affected by the Evangelical movement in the late 1700s in Sutherland and Ross-shire, and in the early 1800s on the west coast, that they rejected their music and the telling of the old stories. The poet Derick Thomson likens Calvinism to a scarecrow; a ‘tall, thin black-haired man’ who ‘took the goodness out of the music’ replacing it with ‘a new song’ and ‘fragments of the philosophy of Geneva’. Thomson is ambivalent about this religious legacy, but is sure it was hostile to folk culture.

The ministers writing in the Statistical Accounts were not all John MacDonalds nor did they all usher in scarecrows. Many record local leisure activities neutrally, even positively. The minister of Islay noted that ‘dance and the song, with shinty and putting the stone, are their chief amusements. Numbers of them play well upon the violin and the bagpipe.’ In Coll and Tiree the people composed and sang songs, told Fingalian tales, and held ‘dancing assemblies at different farms in turn.’ The minister in Thurso fancied himself an expert on fiddle and pipe music. He found ‘the Highland reels are played particularly well … in Caithness; but the proper slow bagpipe tunes and marches, are not given in that perfection here, which seems almost peculiar to the West Highland pipers.’

A few used folk culture to lament changing times. On the south shores of the Dornoch Firth, the minister romanticised the people of Kincardine. They were apparently moral, hospitable, agile, inquisitive, ‘fond of information’ (which I suspect means gossipy!) and ‘extremely patient under hunger, cold, and other distresses, from which their southern neighbours would shrink with horror.’ However he felt all was not well and used the decline in ceilidh culture to emphasise this. ‘The tale, the song, and the dance, do not, as in the days of their fathers, gild the horrors of the winter night.’ He blames this on the rise of legal distilling. The minister of Strachur, Argyllshire, went further. He used a romanticised vision of the past and a perceived cultural decline in music and poetry to subtly criticise the landlord for introducing commercial sheepfarming.


David Allan ‘Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl’ featuring the famous fiddler Neil Gow (1780).

This positive clerical view is not the whole story. In Stromness the minister saw the connection between ‘sottish enjoyment of drinking’ and music and dancing. His neighbour in North Ronaldsay worried about fifty of his parishioners who gathered at some prehistoric cairns on New Year’s Day for ‘dancing with moon light, with no other music than their own singing.’ The connection of music, dancing and community get-togethers with drinking and with ancient spiritual beliefs gave many ministers cause for reflection.

My study is not meant to suggest that the church, particularly Evangelical Calvinism in the way it was absorbed and put into practice in Scotland, has nothing to repent of in its frequently invidious effect on local culture. But the more I look, the more Jackson Pollock-like becomes the picture. John MacDonald was not the only influential religious leader to throw out the musical baby with its bathwater. Yet ministers were not doctrinal automatons. For as many as saw moral dangers in the old stories and the new tunes, others were neutral, enthusiastic or even sentimental about folk culture.

Of course there may be another reason ministers living in draughty manses supported musicians. In Ronaldsay the music of the piper, it was said, was capable of banishing rats!


Dr Elizabeth Ritchie, Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands

We hope you have enjoyed this post: it is characteristic of the rich historical material available within the ‘Related Resources’ section of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland service. Featuring essays, maps, illustrations, correspondence, biographies of compliers, and information about Sir John Sinclair’s other works, the service provides extensive historical and bibliographical detail to supplement our full-text searchable collection of the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Statistical Accounts.


John Kennedy, The ‘Apostle of the North’: the Life and Labours of the Rev. Dr. M’Donald, (Toronto: J. Campbell, 1866)

Derick Thomson, ‘The Scarecrow’, quoted in Malcolm Chapman, The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978)

Old Statistical Account: parishes of Kilchoman, Tiree and Coll, Thurso, Strachur and Stralachan, Stromness, North Ronaldshay

Aug 272015

As always, August in Edinburgh is abuzz with lots of exciting theatre and shows. We were delighted to have the opportunity to present our own show again this year, once more as part of the Beltane network’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. Written and presented by EDINA’s Nicola Osborne and Helen Aiton, a member of the Statistical Accounts editorial board, ‘Back to the Statistical Future’ explored parallels between the ‘New’ Statistical Accounts of Scotland (1834-1845) and our contemporary cultural and political contexts. The wonderful comedian Susan Morrison was master of ceremonies and ‘minister of the parish’ as the discussion ranging over topics such as education, social deprivation and welfare and libraries.

2015-08-26 15.40.21

Helen Aiton, Nicola Osborne and Susan Morrison on stage.

With the aid of a time machine and the fantastically-imagined ‘hover-board of social policy’ (a reference for the film buffs!) we posed the question of how different Scotland in 2015 is to Scotland in 1835. Might we be returning to a time, we asked, when libraries are only sustained by subscriptions? Is it possible that, as some of our ancestors believed, the poor are being ‘corrupted, by being taught to read and write’? As good education becomes increasingly costly and inaccessible, are our modern ‘lords and gentlemen’ motivated once more by the belief that the masses would be ‘more obedient and dutiful, were [we] more ignorant, and had no education’?

Pondering such subversive suggestions, the audience came up with some rather brilliant proposals including introducing dancing sessions to libraries, building more sustainable energy-driven social housing, allowing ordinary people to sit in parliament, and even taxing celebrities based on the column inches they generate.

Many thanks to all who made it possible, and to those who came and contributed their own dangerous ideas!

Aug 052015

The first blog about the Statistical Accounts of Scotland service described how in May 1790, Sir John Sinclair wrote to every Church of Scotland Minister in each of the 938 parishes in Scotland with a list of 160 questions plus an addendum of 6 further questions. Sir John intended to use the responses to his very thorough range of questions to elucidate the Natural History and Political State of Scotland or “the quantum of happiness” of its people.

Whilst researching the origins of the first Statistical Accounts for a performance at the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas on the Edinburgh Fringe, myself and Nicola Osborne from EDINA discovered an additional five questions in the next very persuasive circular letter from Sir John Sinclair, which the Ministers received in January 1791, 8 months after the initial request.


   IT is with infinite pleasure I have the honour of acquainting you, that by the zeal and patriotism of the clergy of Scotland, I have already in my possession materials for drawing up a Statistical Account of a considerable part of the whole kingdom…

..But I am anxious that the Clergy of Scotland should not only do it well, but quickly; so that the state of the whole country should be known, if possible, at nearly the same period of time.  I therefore hope, Sir, that, for the honour of our national church, you will make every exertion in your power to send me as full, and as accurate an account, as possible of your  parish…

…In the queries formerly sent, some particulars were omitted, of which I should be glad to be informed, even from those gentlemen who have already favoured me with their answers: as,   

1. What is the state of the schools in the parish; the salary and perquisites of the schoolmaster; and the number of his scholars?  

2. What is the number of alehouses, inns, &c.; and what effect have they on the morals of the people?  

3. What is the number of new houses or cottages which have been built within those ten years past; and how many old ones have been pulled down, or have become uninhabitable?  

4. What has been the effect of employing cottagers in agriculture, or of working by hired servants in their stead? and,  

5. What has been the number of prisoners in any jail in the district, in the course of the year 1790; and for what causes were they imprisoned?   

Tables of births, marriages, and deaths, kept in any particular parish would be very desirable.  Nor can the information respecting all points connected with the population of the country, be too accurate and minute.


We are not aware of what the “patriotic and zealous” Parish ministers thought when they received this request for yet more information, especially those who had already responded very promptly! It would be a further eight years before all of the twenty-one Volumes of the First Statistical Accounts of Scotland were published.

These questions, along with images and transcripts of the first 166 questions can be found within the Related Resources Section of the Statistical Account Service.

– Helen Aiton June 2015

Helen Aiton and Nicola Osborne present ‘Back to the Statistical Future‘ as part of  The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas at the Stand Comedy, Edinburgh. 

How different is Scotland in 2015, to Scotland in 1835?

As good education is increasingly costly and inaccessible to the poor, are we seeing our modern ‘lords and gentlemen’ believing we will be ‘more obedient and dutiful, were [we] more ignorant, and had no education’?

Might our poor potentially be ‘corrupted, by being taught to read and write’? Might we be returning to a time when libraries are only sustained by subscriptions?

Join us for a whistle stop hover-board ride through the bizarre parallels between modern Scotland and the ‘New’ Statistical Accounts of Scotland (1834-1845).



We hope you have enjoyed this post: it is characteristic of the rich historical material available within the ‘Related Resources’ section of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland service. Featuring essays, maps, illustrations, correspondence, biographies of compliers, and information about Sir John Sinclair’s other works, the service provides extensive historical and bibliographical detail to supplement our full-text searchable collection of the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Statistical Accounts.



Jun 252015

We are pleased to report that the County Surveys of Great Britain 1793 – 1817 project, which is related to the Statistical Accounts, has now released an online bibliographic search tool. This is a key output of this pilot project and will be of wide interest to historians and researchers in many fields.

Here we re-post of the County Surveys blog announcement:

We are delighted to announce that our bibliographic search tool is now live and accessible from the ‘Search’ tab in the menu above.

Our demonstrator includes bibliographic data from some of the best collections of the surveys and, where possible, provides links to library catalogue entries and  digital editions. Researchers can search by modern county name, by series, by county and by author. Results are presented in a new tab after each search, so that you can compare multiple search results by toggling between pages. There are also detailed analyses of collections, revealing the extent of holdings and coverage, and indicating which surveys would be needed to complete each collection.



We hope that the demonstrator will be a useful finding aid and discovery tool for those interested in the County Surveys, the history of statistical reporting and British history more broadly. We would welcome any feedback on the tool, and would be very keen to hear about how it is used or whether it could usefully offer other features and information. If you have ideas, please get in touch with us at edina@ed.ac.uk.

Jun 172015

The Statistical Account presents a fascinating picture of eighteenth-century Scotland. It gives a rich and often detailed view of the working lives of ordinary people, and was of particular importance to my area of research which was concerned with the origins of eighteenth-century popular political consciousness and the relationship between Presbyterianism, literacy and political activity. Hence sources of information relating to occupations and social status were vital, and the OSA provided considerable insight as to the range of occupations in which heads of families were employed in villages and towns throughout Scotland. The on-line version of the OSA with its text searching facility was invaluable in pinpointing specific information and saved hours of manual searching.

As one aspect of my thesis was the relationship between religious controversy and popular political consciousness expressed through patronage disputes, it was important to determine what kind of people involved themselves in such disputes. Patronage disputes were widespread across eighteenth-century Scotland and were significant, in part because they displayed clear opposition to the élite and to government policy, but also because they involved whole communities, with opposition from heritors, elders, and heads of families, essentially including people from every stratum of society, and every occupation.

Little Dunkeld Kirk Perthshire Scotland, built 1798

Little Dunkeld Kirk Perthshire Scotland, built 1798

Using the on-line search facility I was able to search by occupation and place, and by comparing the occupations in the OSA with the occupations on book subscription lists, it became evident that the types of occupation followed by heads of families had not changed over the century. This provided a clear guide to the kind of people who were at the heart of eighteenth-century patronage disputes and later political activity. For example, at Campsie in Stirlingshire, where there was a disputed presentation in 1784, there were ninety-six heads of families: twenty-eight were feuers who farmed their own lands, fifty were tenants, seven of whom were chiefly employed in grazing, and the remaining eighteen were masons, carriers or road makers. At Crieff in Perthshire, heads of families included apothecaries, physicians and surgeons, mantua makers, bakers, masons, slaters, barbers, shopkeepers, butchers, carriers, carters, messengers, clergymen, midwives, clockmakers, millers, coopers, saddlers, dyers, schoolmasters, distillers, excise-officers, shoemakers, farmers, smiths, spinsters, stocking makers, fiddlers, tailors, gardeners, weavers, wrights, hecklers, writers, inn-keepers, labourers, manufacturers, and gentry. The variety of occupations underline the social status of those involved.

The OSA also offered numerous examples of ordinary peoples determination to access education, books, pamphlets and newspapers, as well as their desire to associate, meeting together in clubs for discussion and debate. The accounts from parish ministers testify again and again to their parishioners’ over-fondness for books about ’controversial divinity’, as well as a wider interest in books generally. Many ministers commented on the range of people expressing interest in newspapers and current affairs, for example, the Revd Andrew Duncan of Wigton noted that, ‘An attention to publick (sic) affairs, a thing formerly unknown among the lower ranks, pretty generally prevails now. Not only the farmers, but many of the tradesmen, read the newspapers, and take an interest in the measures of government’. The Revd John Bruce remarked that, in Forfar, ‘A spirit of enquiry and a taste for reading … (with) subscriptions to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Bee, and several periodical and other publications, scientific, religious, moral and political, are more numerous of late’. The minister at Little Dunkeld in Perthshire, noted that ‘Newspapers and other periodical publications find their way to every corner of the parish’, and this interest in current affairs was not a recent phenomenon but one which had existed since at least the time of the American War of Independence. He also commented on the formation of several reading clubs. Such observations emphasised the significance of reading, and many ordinary people’s involvement in political activity was enabled by the coincidence of widespread literacy encouraged by a Calvinist education, from which they had not only gained that skill, but the ability to reflect, form opinions, and question authority, capacities which could be brought to bear in the wider context of assessing their position in Scottish society. Ministers’ observations throughout the OSA highlighted the availability and variety of reading material, and how common the practice of reading and book buying was, a practice which encouraged debate, and contributed to popular involvement in the radical political movement of the 1790s.

I hope this brief description has highlighted what a wonderful resource the OSA is with its wealth of information and ease of use through on-line access and search facilities.

Dr Val Honeyman


We hope you have enjoyed this post: it is characteristic of the rich historical material available within the ‘Related Resources’ section of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland service. Featuring essays, maps, illustrations, correspondence, biographies of compliers, and information about Sir John Sinclair’s other works, the service provides extensive historical and bibliographical detail to supplement our full-text searchable collection of the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Statistical Accounts.

May 182015

Those familiar with the Statistical Accounts of Scotland will be aware that they belong to a greater body of works initiated and supervised by Sir John Sinclair, forming the base of what he envisaged as a grand ‘pyramid of agricultural enquiries’. An extensive and ambitious survey of ‘the existing agricultural state of England and Scotland respectively, and the means by which each might be improved’, the pyramid comprised four levels.  Scotland’s parishes were the focus of the Statistical Accounts, while the ‘General View…’ series covered a much broader geographical area by focusing on the counties of Scotland, England and Wales.  Then came The General Report of the Agricultural State, and Political Circumstances of Scotland, published in 5 volumes in 1814 and, at the pinnacle of the pyramid, Sinclair’s Code of Agriculture, published in one volume in 1817. This, as historian Heather Holmes explains, “combined all the enquiries into one code ‘for the purpose of rendering, a general knowledge of the principles of husbandry, more easily accessible’.”

The Statistical Accounts of Scotland service makes the full text of the accounts available through searchable digitised copies which provide important reference sources for researchers across numerous disciplines and fields of study. Over the years, we have also built up a fantastic collection of related resources including maps and illustrations, correspondence, manuscripts and information about Sinclair’s other works.

We are therefore delighted to report that EDINA is currently undertaking a project to assess the potential of a similar virtual collection of the County Surveys, the second layer of Sinclair’s pyramid.

The County Surveys recorded comprehensive information on the agriculture, rural economy and political economy of each county in Great Britain between 1793 and 1817. They provide a unique insight into the innovation and agricultural improvement during a significant period in the making of Britain as the first industrial nation. Despite its remarkable historical interest, this resource is currently under-used because very few surveys are available in digital format, and printed copies are difficult to locate and access.

‘The County Surveys 1793 – 1817: Exploring Considered Digitisation’ aims to explore how the creation of a virtual collection can unleash the potential of the County Surveys for discovery. The project is funded by EDINA, University of Edinburgh and scheduled for completion in July 2015.

Our approach of “considered digitisation” involves:

  • Reviewing extant digital fragments of the County Surveys to assess their availability for public access, the quality of their digital image, OCR text and metadata, and their suitability for computer automated text analysis, search and retrieval
  • Supporting re-digitisation when appropriate to offer public domain content of sufficient quality
  • Identifying sources of printed copies for the County Survey and encouraging digitisation
  • Engaging with organisations holding copies of the County Surveys to encourage and support digitisation and re-digitisation efforts, and sharing openly our experience of “considered digitisation”.

Find out more about the project and its progress here.

Feb 092015

We know shockingly little of how ordinary Scottish people spent their working lives in the past. We know even less about the work women did. An intriguing comment by the minister of Rogart in the 1790s suggests that whatever it was, it was important. He maintained that a family working for one of the ‘farmers in better circumstances’ were as well off as their masters if, but only if, the wife was industrious. What was it that these industrious women did that was so vital?

I am a great fan of the thick descriptions of life in the 1790s contained in the drily-entitled First Statistical Account of Scotland. They contain surprisingly few statistics and are fantastic sources for glimpsing into the experiences of ordinary people. I thought I would find out how women were spending their time and energy in the eight Sutherland parishes near my home: Creich, Lairg, Rogart, Dornoch, Golspie, Clyne, Loth and Kildonan.

How work was divided up between the sexes was not an issue that was of particular interest to people in the 1790s so was not usually commented on. This leaves historians with the task of identifying little pieces of the jigsaw, the inadvertent remarks of long-dead commentators, and joining them up to create some sort of an incomplete picture. There are a few jobs, like spinning, which seem to be exclusively female and a lot where we don’t really know how labour was divided.

The late eighteenth century was the time of the first industrial revolution. Textile manufacturing on a commercial scale was developing all over Scotland, including in south-east Sutherland. Some Dornoch women processed flax on a small scale, but the biggest impact of this industry was in Brora and Spinningdale. By the 1790s two Brora men were in business as merchants. They imported goods from Aberdeen and London for sale in their shop, and they also imported lint. They paid as many as two to three thousand women to spin the lint in their own homes and then re-exported the yarn to the south. On the banks of the Kyle of Sutherland, David Dale tried to take the textile business one step further by manufacturing, rather than just preparing, raw materials. The venture came to a fiery end, but it provided an income not only for those who worked in the cotton factory, but for women who could earn up to four or fivepence a day in their own homes. One remarkable spinner allegedly produced 10,000 spindles annually.

Fishing boats pulled up in Brora harbour, 1890. From here the two merchants would have shipped the lint processed by local women.

Fishing boats pulled up in Brora harbour, 1890s

Photo credit: Historylinks Image Library http://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number6307.asp

Other women left the region to earn wages. Many young people migrated seasonally to the big arable farms of the Lowlands. Apparently as soon as the boys of Rogart and Creich were strong enough for heavy work they took off in search of higher wages, returning in the winter, to ‘live idle with their friends’. The young, single girls went south later in the summer ‘to assist in cutting down and getting in the crop’. Presumably when they were a little older they put these skills to use getting in their own harvests.

Most of the information in the Statistical Accounts about work does not distinguish between what men did and what women did. Most likely they worked together, or broke big jobs down into smaller tasks: some for men and some for women.

Housebuilding, peat digging, crop raising and tending livestock were probably all shared tasks. Most of these involved hard, physical work and the co-operation of all family members. Houses in east Sutherland were built with turf and ‘thatched with divot’. To build a house you needed to dig turf, transport it, build, then after three or so years when the house was somewhat falling into disrepair and the materials were coated with soot, pull it down and spread the materials on the fields as fertiliser.

Providing heat and light also required the hard labour of all who could provide it. In the parish of Dornoch, the peat mosses which supplied winter fuel were awkwardly distant from the fertile coastal strip where the bulk of the population lived. If nineteenth-century practices of peat digging are anything to go by, men dug and women stacked. By the end of the summer when the peats had dried, the people and their ‘small, half-starved horses’ trekked into the upland areas. They walked from their homes in the evening, camped out in the open, and loaded up the baskets tied to the horses’ backs the next morning.

Monochrome negative of photograph of the harvesting in the Highlands. From Miss Lyon’s collection. (1920)


Harvest in the Highlands

Photo credit: Historylinks Image Library  http://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number3158.asp

Women and men spent most of the year in agricultural tasks. There is no way that men alone could do all the ploughing, planting, sowing, manuring, weeding, harvesting, threshing, storing or drying for the oats, bere, pease, potatoes, beans and rye that people grew and ate in Sutherland. These crops fed themselves and the stock of pigs, goats and sheep which provided for the family, plus the black cattle whose sale in the southern markets raised cash for goods and rent. As elsewhere in the Highlands, women played crucial roles in summering these cattle on the low hills of east Sutherland, especially through dairying.

We still don’t really know precisely why Rogart’s minister thought an industrious wife was so vital. However, the clues in the Statistical Accounts at least suggest what tasks women did, and why communities divided work in the gendered ways that they did.

Dr Elizabeth Ritchie, Centre of History, University of Highlands and Islands


We hope you have enjoyed this post: it is characteristic of the rich historical material available within the ‘Related Resources’ section of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland service. Featuring essays, maps, illustrations, correspondence, biographies of compliers, and information about Sir John Sinclair’s other works, the service provides extensive historical and bibliographical detail to supplement our full-text searchable collection of the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Statistical Accounts.

Sep 052014

Welcome to the first post on the new Statistical Accounts of Scotland Blog. My name is Helen Aiton, and I am the User Support Manager for EDINA, based at the University of Edinburgh. I’m also a member of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland Editorial Board, which means I help to steer the development of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland service. I’ve been a huge fan of the Accounts since I started doing that back in 2001.

In this blog I will give a brief outline of how the Old Statistical Accounts came about – future posts will draw out more of what is in these Accounts, The New Statistical Accounts and will feature guest posts from those who regularly use the Accounts including academics. Please get in touch with us if you would like to share your own guest post on your experiences, thoughts, or personal highlights from the Accounts.

Painting of Sir John Sinclair

Portrait of Sir John Sinclair.

In the late 18th century – a decade before the first modern census of Great Britain – Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, MP for Caithness, decided he’d undertake the modest challenge of recording the agricultural and social statistics for the whole of Scotland. And, although he’d been inspired by German statistics gathering, he definitely had his own idea of what “statistics” might mean:

the idea I annex to the term is an inquiry into the state of a country, for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants, and the means of its future improvement; but as I thought that a new word might attract more public attention, I resolved on adopting it, and I hope it is now completely naturalised and incorporated with our language.

In order to gather data on every part of Scotland for his comparative analysis of physical, economic and social life, Sir John wrote to the ministers in every one of the 938 parishes asking them to complete a survey for him. A pretty ambitious survey too… 160 questions… plus an additional 6 in the addendum and then 5 additional questions in his follow up letter about schools, alehouses, housing, employment and jails… A total of 171 questions!

Sir John Sinclair, Extract from the first letter to clergy, 25th May 1790:

… In many parts of the Continent, more particularly in Germany, Statistical Inquiries, as they are called, have been carried to a very great extent; but in no country, it is believed, can they be brought to such perfection as in Scotland, which boasts of an ecclesiastical establishment, whose members will yield to no description of men, for public zeal, as well as for private virtue, for intelligence, and for ability…

Not everyone replied promptly to Sir John’s first request… This is the fifteenth circular letter to the non-responding clergy date April 1797:

I AM very much disappointed, at not having hitherto received the Statistical Account of your parish. There are very few now deficient, and you cannot imagine the bad effect which the want of those must have, in the opinion of many who are perpetually inquiring, whether the Statistical Account of Scotland is, or is not, completed? It is unnecessary for me, I am persuaded, to urge you more upon the subject. You may easily judge of my impatience and anxiety about it, when I can think about any literary matter at so busy a time in Parliament as this.

I remain, with esteem, your faithful and obedient servant, JOHN SINCLAIR.

And finally by July 1797 the six remaining errant clergy receive a letter from Whitehall in red ink…

SIR JOHN SINCLAIR presents his compliments to

He sets out for Scotland next week, and will be much disappointed indeed, if he has not the pleasure of finding the Statistical Account of                      ready for him; as, on his arrival, he must bring the Work to an immediate conclusion. There are now only six deficient parishes; and from the Draconian colour of his ink, any Statistical delinquent may fee, what the rear rank has to look for. Sat sapienti

Sir John published individual volumes of the parish accounts as the returns came in over the years. Eventually in 1799 – some 9 years after his first requests went out – Sir John had collected twenty-one huge volumes of data about Scotland, its people, its agriculture, its “quantum of happiness”. About 13,000 pages!

Image of Volumes from the Statistical Accounts of Scotland

Volumes from the Statistical Accounts of Scotland.

The accounts contained so much more than “facts”. There were statistics like the price of sheep; numbers of births, deaths and marriages; records of flora and fauna; and measures of the number of fishermen, labouring servants, Jews and “negros” but it also included rich accounts of daily life of ordinary people in each parish, local history and folklore.

The returns Sir John collected depend on how the minister interpreted the questions. All of the survey responses are seen through the eyes of the minister and so there’s a lot of opinion and judgement there too… and the accounts were edited before publication as well…

The next post will consider Sir John’s questions and show how they shaped the general structure of each of the Parish reports. Here is a one of the more unusual questions

  • Question 151: Are the people of the country remarkable for strength, size, complexion, or any other personal or mental qualities

How would you answer that question? And how has your Parish changed since the Old Accounts? We would like to hear your thoughts on your “parish” in the comments below.

If you are looking up your own (or perhaps an ancestor’s) parish remember that anyone can access the Statistical Accounts Online service from anywhere in the world. You can browse images of the pages for free, or you can subscribe to access full transcripts and a wealth of useful additional features and related resources. To find out more you can watch me giving an introduction to the service in this video:

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