Dec 182015

Christmas tree, from ‘Rutherfurd's Southern Counties Register... being a supplement to the almanacs; containing […] much useful information connected with the counties of Roxburgh, Berwick and Selkirk’ Published in Kelso, by J. and J.H. Rutherfurd, in 1858

Christmas tree, from ‘Rutherfurd’s Southern Counties Register… being a supplement to the almanacs; containing […] much useful information connected with the counties of Roxburgh, Berwick and Selkirk’ Published in Kelso, by J. and J.H. Rutherfurd, in 1858 (courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

Christmas is coming and, while the goose is getting fat, the Edina elves will be sharing some of the festive traditions described in the accounts on twitter and Facebook. As we head into the festive season, we’re also pleased to be able to share here some of our plans for the redevelopment of the Statistical Accounts online service. Our engineers have been working hard over the last few months, and behind the scenes we’ve made great progress on developing a robust technical framework and organising the metadata. We’ve also made significant headway with what will be the new interface. Users of the refreshed service will benefit from:

  • an improved search mechanism, which will be much more flexible than the current search tool, include new features such as ‘related terms’, and offer more efficient ways of filtering and sorting results
  • new map features which allow alternative navigation to and through the accounts, and which help readers to geographically locate the parish they are reading about
  • new modes of presenting contextual information, such as introductions to counties and parishes, and new modes of showcasing the content of the accounts through changing exhibitions
  • revised help texts and case studies that help you get the most out of the service
  • improved citation assistance

We’re currently working on a prototype, which will allow for user testing over the next six months, and we hope to launch the refreshed service in the late summer of 2016. If you’d like to give us feedback on the current service, or to be involved in the user testing of the new service, then please drop us a line at

So with that good news, we wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hogmanay!

Oct 282015

‘As recently as the 1970s, deaf history did not exist,’ writes John Vickery Van Cleve (Deaf History Unveiled, 2002), pointing out how, until recently, the history of deaf people and their lives had been overlooked as a viable area of study. Such neglect is a shame, because deaf history can be fascinating. What it encompasses is as varied as the different degrees of hearing loss; the word ‘deaf’ can be applied to every point on the audiological spectrum between mildly hard-of-hearing and profoundly deaf, and the experience of someone who was deafened in old age (and who has participated in majority ‘hearing’ culture all their lives) is entirely different to that of a person born completely deaf. While the former almost certainly experiences hearing loss as a loss, the latter may not see their deafness that way – it hasn’t been lost, since it was never there in the first case. Deaf people for whom speech is inaccessible are also more likely to use a sign language, which, as languages which have developed naturally in deaf communities across the world, are grammatically distinct from (but as complex as) spoken languages.[1] The lives of these deaf people and their communities are particularly absent from the historical record: sign languages are minority languages with no written form and thus no primary source material exists before the invention of film. There are few accounts written in English by deaf people themselves, as formal deaf education only began in Britain in 1760 and very few deaf children received an education until the mid-19th century. So-called ‘deaf and dumb’ or ‘deaf-mute’ people were typically pitied, disparaged or simply overlooked, and so deaf people were seldom written about by (hearing) record keepers in any detail, if at all. It is, Van Cleve continues, ‘as though the world in which deaf people grew up, married, worked, procreated, and educated their children was somehow unrelated to the larger world inhabited by people who hear.’ Trying to find evidence of deaf lives throughout history, and especially before the second half of the 19th century, can be a challenge; as with the histories of other minorities, we often have to seek tantalising details hidden in the historical record and extrapolate a wider picture from these.

It was in this vein that the Old (First) and New (Second) Statistical Accounts of Scotland came to mind. For the last five years, I have taught on a course at the University of Edinburgh where the Statistical Accounts form the basis of the students’ written assessment – and, as my students will testify, my enthusiasm for the Accounts and the nuggets of localised social history they contain is, if anything, growing in intensity. So when I became interested in sign languages and the history of deaf communities, I immediately wondered whether there were any mentions of local deaf people in the Old and the New Accounts; thanks to the ‘search all text’ function, I was able to find them. There weren’t very many: out of 938 parishes, only four in the Old Statistical Account of 1791-99 (OSA) and 67 in the New Statistical Account of 1834-45 (NSA) mention ‘deaf and dumb’ people. Nor were these mentions very detailed: most merely state the number living in the parish, sometimes lumped in with other so-called ‘unfortunate’ demographics, as in the parish of Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire, which claimed seven ‘insane, fatuous, blind, deaf, dumb’ (NSA). Yet throughout the Accounts there are small glimpses of deaf lives that provide a useful springboard from which to investigate and piece together deaf history in the 18th and 19th centuries.

'Dumbie House where Thomas Braidwood established the first school for deaf children, ‘Braidwood's Academy for The Deaf and Dumb’ in 1760: By courtesy of Edinburgh City Libraries'

‘Dumbie House where Thomas Braidwood established the first school for deaf children, ‘Braidwood’s Academy for The Deaf and Dumb’ in 1760: By courtesy of Edinburgh City Libraries’

One example from the OSA comes from the parish of Aberdalgie in Perthshire. The minister writes that the local schoolmaster, Mr Peddie, had ‘acquired without any instructor, the rare talent of communicating knowledge to the deaf and dumb’ and had been teaching one ‘deaf and dumb’ boy from the parish. The boy had ‘never had another teacher’ – unsurprisingly, since the first school for the deaf, Thomas Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb (established in Edinburgh in 1760), had moved to London in 1783; there would be no other deaf school in Scotland before the Edinburgh Institution for the Deaf and Dumb was established in 1810. The solution in Aberdalgie appears to have worked well: Mr Peddie is described in glowing terms, and the young boy ‘has made a very great proficiency under him’ and ‘can read, write, and solve any question in the common rules of arithmetic, as well as most boys of his age who do not labour under his disadvantages.’

Education also features in the NSA. The Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow Institutions for the Deaf and Dumb were established early in the 19th century, yet these schools were expensive and over-subscribed. In the parish of Dunfermline in Fife, Rev. Peter Chalmers wrote in the NSA that, having been unable to raise enough money to send local deaf children to one of the Institutions, he had organised an ‘experiment’ in a local school:

A few years ago, four or five deaf and dumb children, belonging to the parish, were taught in Rolland School for two years and a half, by a deaf and dumb young woman … who had previously received a good education in the Edinburgh Institution.

Whereas it was (and is) often assumed that deaf education must be conducted by non-deaf tutors, Chalmers’ experiment had a young woman, Janet Robb, running an early prototype of a deaf unit in a mainstream school, working alongside but separately from the school’s main, hearing teacher of the non-deaf pupils. Although Chalmers’ experiment did not last long due to a lack of books and resources, he describes it as ‘succeed[ing] far beyond his expectations’, and declares himself convinced of the ‘entire practicability of the deaf and dumb teaching others.’ Chalmers was later able to send some of the children to the Glasgow Institution where they ‘made very rapid progress in their farther education, and in religious knowledge and character.’ Furthermore, in his self-authored, two-volume Historical and Statistical Account of Dunfermline (1844-1859), he claims that the Rolland School experiment directly inspired Edinburgh’s Deaf and Dumb Day School, which was established in 1836 by a deaf, sign language-using teacher, Alexander Drysdale, and catered to poorer children than could attend the Edinburgh Institution. Drysdale and Janet Robb had been schoolmates, and Chalmers reports that she and some of her pupils were invited to visit the fledgling school for three months, to encourage the pupils and to participate in the capital’s deaf community.

Rural deaf communities are harder to spot; eastern Fife may have had one, as, in the NSA, twenty ‘deaf and dumb’ people (including members of three deaf families) were recorded in five different parishes within 15 miles of each other. One Fife parish, Kilconquhar, is the only example where both the OSA and the NSA mention deaf parishioners; in the OSA, they are described as ‘abundantly sensible and active, and attend public worship regularly.’ Another rural example comes from the west coast, where the NSA for Portpatrick gives an insight into the lives of two ‘blind, deaf and dumb’ (or deaf-blind) siblings, living in a parish that included four other ‘deaf and dumb’ people. The 73-year-old sister and 66-year-old brother were both born deaf, but had been become blind in their 40s – possibly due to the genetic condition we now call Usher Syndrome. Deaf-blind people often use a tactile form of their sign language called ‘hands-on’, which is what Portpatrick’s minister may have meant when he wrote that the siblings ‘can be made to understand by means of touch what their friends find it necessary to communicate to them for their bodily comfort and personal safety.’ Their lives are described in a few short lines:

He can attend to the fire to supply it with fuel when it is required. She is remarkably particular as to her dress. Both can be made to understand when any one is present with whom they have formerly been acquainted; and when they are informed that the minister is present, they compose themselves, and assume a grave and serious aspect.

Outside official school and institutional records, it can be difficult to find details relating to the lives of ordinary deaf people, yet, as the Statistical Accounts of Scotland show, the details can be there beneath the surface, tantalising and incomplete. Human diversity has been a constant throughout history, and the lens through which we view history is forever widening beyond the traditional fixation with ‘the great and good’ to include the social history of working people, of women, of ethnic and other minorities – in short, to include the voices that may not have been heard or, in the case of deaf history, seen. There have been deaf people negotiating living in a hearing world throughout history and, although the record is vague, deaf lives can often be found hidden in the pages of ‘hearing’ documents. Through these, deaf history can be brought into existence.

Ella Leith

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.


[1] Although we have no record of the signs they used, we know that deaf people were signing together in Ancient Greece, in the Scottish royal court in the 15th century, and in England and France in the 16th century. Today, British Sign Language (BSL) is used across the British Isles; however, throughout this blog I use the terms ‘sign language’ and ‘signing’ rather than referring to BSL, because the signs used in the 18th and 19th centuries may have differed considerably from the language as it is today.


Anthony Boyce and Pam Bruce, Loyal and True: The Life and Times of Alexander Drysdale (1812-1880) (Winsford: Deafprint, 2011)

Rev. Peter Chalmers, Historical and Statistical Account of Dunfermline (London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1844-1859)

John Hay, Deaf Edinburgh: The Heritage Trail (Warrington: British Deaf History Society 2015)

Peter Jackson, Britain’s Deaf Heritage (Edinburgh: Pentland Press, 1990)

John Vickery Van Cleve, Deaf History Unveiled: Interpretations from the New Scholarship (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University press, 1993)

Old Statistical Account: parishes of Aberdalgie, Kilconquar

New Statistical Account: parishes of Dunfermline, Kilbarchan, Portpatrick

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

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

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

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.