Helen Aiton

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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