Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 1

In this time of plague, Malcolm Bangor-Jones has been investigating the experience of cholera in the local area, and efforts made to mitigate it. Some might seem familiar. Part 1 of 3.

Michael Hook’s history of the burgh of Dornoch mentions the precautions taken by the authorities in 1831-32 to prevent the spread of cholera. He quotes from the report by the magistrates into the poverty amongst the inhabitants with many, especially widows, the old and infirm, “wretchedly ill off for the very necessaries of life.” [Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch, 2005, page 81]

The arrangements made in Dornoch replicated those made for the county as a whole. Indeed the overall lead was effectively – and unsurprisingly – taken by the Sutherland estate. The factors, especially George Gunn who was based at Rhives, led from the front. He was advised and, as occasion required, instructed by the Sutherland estates commissioner, James Loch, with whom he was in frequent contact. However, in making himself aware of events in Sutherland, Loch also drew upon reports provided by other respectable men in the county. The estate, however, was not officially in charge of arrangements – the responsibility rested with the local authorities.

The approach taken was agreed at a general special meeting of deputy lieutenants, heritors and JPs on 22 November 1831. It was resolved that cleanliness and the circulation of pure air were essential, as was the removal from the vicinity of houses of all ash pits, pigsties, manure and nausea of every description. Lime should be provided to enable inhabitants to whitewash and cleanse their houses. The clergy were to intimate the resolutions of the meeting from their pulpits.

To facilitate these arrangements the county was divided into districts each under the charge of a local committee – “not doubting their ready acceptance” – who were to inspect every house and report their findings to a committee of the deputy lieutenants. The entry into the county of beggars and vagrants – “the dregs of the south country population” – was to be prevented.

Great conscientiousness was shown by factors, large farmers, clergymen and even the sheriff substitute in visiting houses and it was soon evident that the cholera question “engrosses the thoughts and conversation of all classes here at present.” Within a few weeks there were apparently signs of a miraculous change in the appearance of the people and their surroundings.

In mid-December Gunn suggested to Loch that it was essential to “foster the spirit which at present pervades all classes – the Clergy, the Magistrates, the Farmers & smallest Lotters, as if it be allowed to cool & not acted on while in its vigour, there never will be another opportunity of effectually bringing the people to change their habits & mode of living.” By keeping up the visits of the houses for at least six months and by making examples of some of more “most careless”, Gunn expected there would be little trouble with the people so far as regards cleanliness in the future: “the present will be a marked era in their history.”

P1040721

Little Rogart, overlooking St Callan’s Church where such announcements were doubtless read out. The parish is not currently bestrewn with laundry. Photo: Malcolm Bangor-Jones.

The clergy had taken up the matter with “as much zeal as any class – last Sunday, a lecture was given in every Parish warning the people of their danger and advising them earnestly to use every precaution.” Dr William Ross had reported that there was “not a bush in the parish of Rogart but is covered with washed blankets & clothings, & that the furniture is all scrubbing before their doors as if it were a general removal.”

Gunn had taken part in visiting the parish of Clyne. At Achrimsdale and Dalchalm the people were “dressed in their Sunday clothes – their furniture & bedclothes carefully washed & the walls whiten than we have seen many Parlours of high pretensions”. However, the Clyne committee found “many miserable creatures around the Lady’s Loch & other places, who positively have not a rag of bed clothing to cover them, but lie on a wisp of straw in their day clothes, or borrow from their neighbours who can ill spare them.”

Lloyd George, the ‘King’s pledge’ and liquor control in the Cromarty Firth

Current events, which include restrictions on travel across the country, prompted Neil Bruce to study how governmental decisions affected life in the Highlands during the two world wars of the twentieth century. In this post, he focuses on liquor control in the North of Scotland during World War One. Neil is a graduate of the MLitt Highlands and Islands History programme at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands.

On 1st April 1915, two Cromarty men were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour at Tain Sheriff Court for buying sailors alcohol, making them ‘less efficient’.(1) No April fool, it reflected official concern that drink was seriously damaging the war effort. Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George claimed it was ‘doing more damage to us than all the German submarines.’(2) The government in 1915 and 1917 seriously considered effectively nationalising the licenced liquor trade, literally ‘lock, stock and barrel’.(3) In 2020, though, shops with alcohol licences were classed as ‘notable exceptions’ when others were instructed to close to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).(4)

Newspapers reflected considerable disagreement about whether drink was hindering war efforts. Temperance advocates and shipbuilding employers demanded its prohibition.(5) The Cabinet failed to get opposition support to increase alcohol taxes. Lord Kitchener joined King George V’s pledge that he and his household would abstain for the duration of the war, but it was not generally supported.(6) Lloyd George’s proposal to spend £68 million to buy the breweries and public houses met with unsurprising resistance from the temperance movement.(7)

The government decided to take control of the sale and supply of alcohol to ensure ‘national efficiency’. It set-up the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) with absolute powers to designate alcohol control areas where there were naval, military, munitions and other war functions.(8) Within a year it controlled all the Highlands and Islands. No spirits could be sold during the weekend in Inverness-shire and Ross and Cromarty’s western mainland, islands and ‘all arms of the sea and water between’.(9) In Caithness and Sutherland spirits sales were prohibited except for medicinal purposes: other liquor could only be sold between 12 noon and 2:30 pm, and 6 to 8 pm on weekdays.(10)

In April 1916, the board bought all the public houses and hotels around the Cromarty Firth, including Cromarty and Invergordon, to ensure naval operations remained efficient.(11) It closed 19 licensed premises, kept 39 open under its management, and only permitted off-sales from two of the four licensed grocers. To prevent smuggling into service quarters and vessels, weekly lists of all off-license sales were provided to the naval base. Service canteens did not stock spirits and civilians who bought servicemen liquor would be fined.(12)

Lloyd George and the Cromarty Firth 1

Lloyd George and the Cromarty Firth 2

Henry Carter, The control of the drink trade: a contribution to national efficiency, 1915-1917 (London, 1918), facing 134.

In September 1916, the board met representatives from Highland counties and burghs, naval, military, local and licensing authorities in Inverness to hear about the controls’ effectiveness.(13) The armed services and chief constables of Caithness, Inverness, Inverness-shire, Nairn-shire, Ross-shire and Sutherland reported reductions in drunkenness.(14) The Dornoch, Thurso and Wick provosts demanded spirit sales be consistent to stop an illicit whisky trade: spirits were being smuggled into prohibited areas and online, or at least on railway lines, parcels were being sent by train and post.(15) Liquor control threatened the viability of seasonal hotels in Inverness-shire and Sutherland, while the Inverness provost wanted methylated spirit consumption stopped.

The press highlighted the role whisky played in daily life. One reported the ‘consumption of ardent spirits’ was a social habit in the Highlands’.(16) Another quoted an old man: ‘more than half the pleasure of a dram lies in having a friend to share it with.’(17) Those able to buy whisky found it watered down by 10% on the board’s instructions.(18) When German submarine warfare hit food imports in 1917, beer production was threatened. The government reduced its strength by half rather than see morale plummet, though it became dispiritingly nicknamed government or Lloyd George’s beer.(19)

The government’s challenges during wartime and the current crisis bear some comparison. During both it assumed powers over individuals’ ‘normal’ lives and protected essential services, particularly necessary industrial production. In 2020, measures included bolstering the economy, designating essential workers, and financially supporting employers and employees. In 1915, it created a board with unfettered powers over liquor, including direct control of Cromarty and Invergordon’s retail trade. In invoking restrictions on citizens, government expected compliance in the common good, and in return needed to maintain morale. The king ‘cracked open’ a bottle of brandy on Armistice day 1918, but Highlanders had to wait six months before any liquor control regulations were lifted.(20) We do not know, yet, how long current regulations might remain in force.

1 The Scotsman, 1 April 1915, 8. One man was imprisoned for a month, the other for 15 days. 2 Manchester Guardian, 1 March 1916, 6. 3 See Turner, J., ‘State Purchase of the Liquor Trade in the First World War’, Historical Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, 589-615; 4 https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-business-and-social-distancing-guidance/ accessed 31st March 2020. 5 Lloyd George, D., War memoirs of David Lloyd George, vol. 1 (London, 1938), 194-196. 6 The Scotsman, 1 April 1916, 7; 6 April 1916, 4. 7 Lloyd George, War memoirs, 196-197. 8 Duncan, R. R. G., ‘Panic over the pub: drink and the First World War’, unpublished thesis (University of St Andrews, 2008), 129. 9 The Scotsman, 22 March 1916, 6; 13 February 1917, 7. 10 The Scotsman, 20 June 1916, 4. Licensed premises could open at 5:30 am to supply food and ‘non-exciseable’ drink: Local variations were also permitted. Carter, H., The control of the drink trade: a contribution to national efficiency, 1915-1917 (London, 1918), 141; 155. 11 Ash, M., eds. J. Macaulay & M. A. Mackay, This noble harbour: a history of the Cromarty Firth (Edinburgh, 1991), 203, n 112; Carter, The control of the drink trade, 175. 12 The Scotsman, 13 February 1917, 7. 13 The Scotsman, 30 September 1916, 7. 14 Ibid. 15 The Scotsman,13 February 1917, 7. 16 Ibid. 17 The People’s Journal, 27 September 1915, quoted in Duncan, Panic over the pub, 144. 18 The Scotsman, 13 February 1917, 7; Duncan, Panic over the pub, 146. 19 Duncan, Panic over the pub, 238-9, 261-262; Lloyd George, War Memoirs, 790. 20 Duncan, Panic over the pub, 261-262; 268; Lloyd George, War Memoirs, 790; The Scotsman, 12 April 1919, 10.

Shilpit Bairns, Part iii: treating a sickly child

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers is a bioarchaeologist, a Trustee for the Tarbat Historic Trust, and a lecturer in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. Shirley’s research focuses on reconstructing medieval and early modern diet, health and disease from skeletal and stable isotope analyses, with an interest in the lifeways of Scotland’s past inhabitants. In this third and final part of Shirley’s blog, she discusses some of the treatments used to treat the ‘shilpit’ child.

Treating a sickly child in medieval Scotland would have varied depending on several factors, including geographical location, family status, and community beliefs, with some treatments being borne out of folklore and tales of magic and mystery. For example, there was a strong belief of children being stolen by faeries and replaced with a changeling. Symptoms a child was indeed a changeling included incessant crying, refusing to settle or curiously distorted facial features or limbs. Some of these symptoms may simply be attributed to what we now know to be skeletal abnormalities. For example, rickets results in distorted limbs, and cleft palate alters facial features, yet such abnormalities in antiquity were simply attributed to otherworldly causes. Efforts to banish a changeling were not exactly child-friendly either. Exposing a changeling involved holding a baby over a hot stove or under water, or denying the child food, although this would more likely induce illness or trauma despite the parents’ good intentions. Water is a particularly powerful source of healing and evokes other-worldly beliefs. Clootie wells and ancient springs were popular sources of healing. Children would be dipped in water or submerged in a lake to cure ailments. Pilgrimages, another form of healing, were made far and wide across Scotland to places such as the revered well in Portpatrick (Wigtownshire); St Fillan’s spring (Stirling) and Fortingall spring (Perthshire). These were all popular choices for healing and mothers would travel for miles to treat their children, attesting to the level of care afforded to their young.[i] There are also several wells in and around Portmahomack that would have no doubt served as healing places, such as Tobar na Baistidh (Baptism well) situated south of the church. Pilgrimages to holy shrines were also popular, such as those to St Duthac’s shrine (Tain) and St Ninian’s cave (Whithorn); both of which are still popular pilgrimage sites today.

OS map Port mahomack 1880_NLS (002)

OS map of Portmahomack (1880) showing the baptism well (Tobar na Baistidh) near Tarbat Church[ii]

If affordable, herbal or more formal medicinal remedies were sourced from local healers or physicians, or even influenced by local elite families, many of whom wrote various medical recipes. One 17th century manuscript, the ‘Medical Recipes for the Family Erskine of Alva’ includes a recipe for ‘The Restorative Jelly for a Consumption’. How accessible would such texts or indeed ingredients be to the parish folk at Portmahomack around this time? Some ingredients such as snail shells and hartshorn shavings may have been accessible but others such as Seville oranges, Rhenish wine, and white sugar were surely too expensive. However, these medicinal recipes may have been adapted to meet the means of a less affluent household, meade to replace wine and honey to replace sugar for example, especially if the parents of a sickly child had exhausted all other possibilities.

The Restorative recipe_NLS.MS.5112 (002)

Medical Recipes for the Family Erskine of Alva, 17th – 18th century (Author’s photo)[iii]

Although it is beyond the scope of this blog to talk about the diet and isotope component of my research, it’s worth noting that sugar is an interesting foodstuff from an isotope perspective as it has a distinctive carbon signature. However, a carbon enrichment in an individual from medieval Portmahomack most likely reflects the consumption of fish rather than sugar.[iv] This is because sugar is not a native plant to Britain and was not introduced until the late medieval period. Even then, sugar was only affordable to the elite and only became more widely used from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, we cannot ignore the fact that from the 16th century, the acquisition and consumption of sugar was acquired in and around Easter Ross,[v] albeit by the elite. Thereafter, with increased demand and reduced cost, it rapidly made its way into everyday households.

So, I hope from my three blogs I have given a glimpse of how the study of past childhoods is just as fruitful and important as those of adults; it enables us to understand childhood health and well-being from the skeletal evidence, the importance of good diet and nutrition, and in the wider context, the role of children within their community and their treatment in life and death. It also enables us to be better equipped to influence policies, initiatives and promote positive health and well-being for our young society.[vi] Further research on past childhoods in the Highlands is much needed, but we are heading in the right direction – multidisciplinary research, collaborations and community support are key.

[i] MacKinlay, J.M., 1893, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs. Glasgow: William Hodge & Co.

[ii] Ross-shire & Cromartyshire (Mainland), Sheet XXX (includes: Tarbat), 1880. Map source: National Library of Scotland Maps: https://maps.nls.uk/view/74428354 [Accessed 27/12/2019].

[iii] Medical Recipes for the Family Erskine of Alva, 17th – 18th century, National Library of Scotland, NLS.MS.5112.

[iv] Curtis-Summers, S., Montgomery, J., and Carver, M.O.H., 2014, Stable isotope evidence for dietary contrast between Pictish and Medieval populations at Portmahomack, Scotland. Medieval Archaeology 58: 21-43.

[v] Macgill, W. (Ed.), 1909, Old Ross-shire and Scotland, as seen in the Tain and Balnagown Documents. Inverness: The Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Publishing Company Limited; Worthington, D., 2019, Sugar, Slave-Owning, Suriname and the Dutch Imperial Entanglement of the Scottish Highlands before 1707, Dutch Crossing: Journal of Low Countries Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03096564.2019.1616141.

[vi] For example, the Scottish Government’s policy on promoting child and maternal health, in partnership with NHS Scotland: https://www.gov.scot/policies/maternal-and-child-health/ [Accessed 29/12/2019].

Shilpit Bairns, Part ii: the osteological evidence

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers is a bioarchaeologist, a Trustee for the Tarbat Historic Trust, and a lecturer in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. Shirley’s research focuses on reconstructing medieval and early modern diet, health and disease from skeletal and stable isotope analyses, with an interest in the lifeways of Scotland’s past inhabitants. In this second part of Shirley’s blog, she discusses some of the osteological evidence from the children of medieval Portmahomack.

Of the 40 child skeletons assessed from Portmahomack,[i] 19 had evidence of skeletal pathologies, some of which will be presented here. The highest prevalence was found in conditions associated with nutritional deficiencies and infections. Only a few children were affected by scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and rickets (vitamin D deficiency) but all were less than two years old when they died. This places these children within the breastfeeding age and suggests some cultural and economic factors that hindered adequate nutritional health. For example, we receive up to 90% of vitamin D from sunlight, but for some in antiquity, sun exposure was drastically reduced, especially for child workers (e.g. mills, factories, mines) or by swaddling babies, hence depletion of the vital mineral component needed for healthy bone growth. Foetal and infant health could be severely compromised if pregnant and nursing mothers had poor health or nutritional stress. This may have been the result of bouts of harvest failure in the Highlands, hence poor maternal diet and inadequate breastmilk available, or that mothers were too busy to breastfeed (from agricultural duties for example) and weaned the child early, if the child was breastfed at all that is.

One interesting case was from a child who was merely a few months old yet had infectious lesions on the inner ribs (against the chest cavity). This suggests an acute form of respiratory disease, which may have been caused by poor air quality such as indoor smoke inhalation. This is a plausible suggestion, especially if the child was born and nursed in the winter months, thereby confined to a damp and smoky environment. Even with ventilation, a newborn’s lungs are more sensitive to even modest amounts of smoke, let alone concentrated bursts that emit from an open fire, which was the standard form of heat in dwellings of the period. An alternative diagnosis is pneumonia, often caused by an underlying condition, such as congenital heart disease or low birth weight, a consequence of the mother’s poor health.

Islay weavers cottageInside a weaver’s cottage on Islay, 1772, by Charles Grignion. © British Library (shelfmark 185.a.18) [ii]

It is very rare in the archaeological record to find obstetric burials (mother and unborn child) and even rarer that we see skeletal evidence of pathology that links poor health between the pregnant mother and unborn child. At Portmahomack one such case was found. Osteological assessments on the foetus, which was close to full-term, revealed evidence of iron deficiency but no pathologies of consequence were identified on the mother.[iii] It is unknown what caused the death of the mother, although the foetus was in a very precarious position (a ‘transverse lie’), which meant that unless the baby turned spontaneously or was turned by means of external or internal version, natural delivery would have been impossible and would have proved fatal for the mother. Preeclampsia (from high blood pressure) or antepartum haemorrhage are therefore possibilities for the death of the mother, especially if no midwifery expertise was available. We may draw some interpretations from the later Old Statistical Accounts of Scotland that recorded a lack of midwives in the region. For example, in 1791 Kiltearn (Ross and Cromarty) it was noted with concern for pregnant mothers that they “seldom have proper assistance when in child-bed, as there is no regularly bred midwife in the parish”.[iv] Evidence of inadequate midwifery care from the historical record, combined with osteological evidence of a complex pregnancy, goes some way to shed light on the fatal consequences of childbirth around this time in the Highlands.

I have highlighted just a couple of interesting cases here but from the osteological evidence, nearly half of Portmahomack’s children had some form of pathology and more alarmingly, high mortality occurred in those within first few months of life. This suggests socio-economic factors were involved that restricted adequate nutrition to the child (mother having poor health or overworked?); enabled greater susceptibility to infections (living conditions?), and even possibly, the effect of traditional treatments of newborn babies (swaddling practices?) The latter reminds us of the fatal consequences of poor hygiene from cultural practices on newborn babies from St Kilda, where during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, seventy-six infants died. In 1890, the Reverend Angus Fiddes, a Free Church clergyman and Scientist, finally linked these deaths to unsanitary treatment of the umbilical cord, after which deaths quickly ceased. It was believed that a combination of a dirty knife to cut the cord; fulmar oil (stored in ‘unclean’ gannets’ stomachs) to heal the cord, and unclean swaddling all attributed to neonatal tetanus.[v] Could cultural practices at Portmahomack have contributed to the cause of infections and nutritional deficiencies of their infants? What step did parents take to treat their sickly child? Next time, we look at some of the methods that were used to treat the shilpit bairn.

[i] Curtis-Summers, S., 2015, Reconstructing Christian lifeways: a bioarchaeological study of medieval inhabitants from Portmahomack, Scotland and Norton Priory, England, PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

[ii] Pennant, T., 1774, A tour of Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772. Chester: John Monk Publishers. Image source: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/inside-of-a-weavers-cottage-in-islay-after-miller [Accessed 27/12/2019].

[iii] However, only part of the female skeleton was recovered during excavation (Cecily Spall, pers.comm, 18th June 2019), hence a full osteological assessment could not be carried out.

[iv] OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 288. https://stataccscot.edina.ac.uk/static/statacc/dist/viewer/osa-vol1-Parish_record_for_Kiltearn_in_the_county_of_Ross_and_Cromarty_in_volume_1_of_account_1/osa-vol1-p288-parish-ross_and_cromarty-kiltearn [Accessed 17/12/2019].

[v] Stride, P., 2008, St Kilda, the neonatal tetanus tragedy of the nineteenth century and some twenty-first century answers, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 38: 70–7.

Shilpit Bairns, Part i: setting the scene

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers is a bioarchaeologist, a Trustee for the Tarbat Historic Trust, and a lecturer in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. Shirley’s research focuses on reconstructing medieval and early modern diet, health and disease from skeletal and stable isotope analyses, with an interest in the lifeways of Scotland’s past inhabitants. Here, she introduces her research on reconstructing past lifeways of the children of medieval Portmahomack. (No content of this post is to be reproduced without prior permission from the author. Contact s.curtis-summers@bradford.ac.uk for further details.)

In autumn 2019 I gave a talk at Portmahomack entitled ‘Shilpit Bairns and Clashing Swords’, which was based on bioarchaeological analysis of the medieval skeletons excavated from Tarbat Old Church. One question I was asked a few times was what ‘shilpit’ meant, which made me realise this is not as common a word as I first thought. One of the first uses of ‘shilpit’ was in 1658 when Sir Robert Moray wrote to Alexander Bruce, 2nd Earl of Kincardine, stating: “best to abstain from wine a while for your cough, seeing I guess the best you have is but shilpit [weak] stuff”.(1) Thereafter, this term was used to describe someone who was weak or sickly,(2) yet its usage seems to have been lost in more recent times. Just like Portmahomack’s past people, it is now timely to revive that which was lost. This is where we come on to reconstructing past lifeways of the medieval people from Portmahomack, the focus of this blog.

Archaeology, and by extension, osteoarchaeology, palaeopathology and bioarchaeology (the study of ancient human remains), are popular disciplines; you only need to look at the constant flurry of television shows and news articles on the latest discovery of graves, skeletal analyses, rare finds, and the odd royal under a car park. However, most of these reports tend to be on the past lives of adults, with children receiving little primary focus. This may be partly due to sensitivities when discussing studies on juvenile human remains. People may find coming face-to-face with the skeleton of a child more unnerving than that of an adult. In my experience however, the public are fascinated with the study of past people, including children, and acknowledge their value in contributing to reconstructing past lifeways. Therefore, to help us understand health and society in the past, the study of past childhoods is just as fruitful as that of adults. Moreover, the dearth of studies on children and family life in the medieval Scottish Highlands attests to the need for greater dialogue and research in this area.(3) This is not an easy task considering the lives of children from the lower echelons of society were not deemed important enough to grace the pages of kirk, parish, manorial or court records in any great detail before the early modern period. We therefore need to turn to another resource, their bodies. Skeletons yield a wealth of information on the health, well-being, sometimes even death of an individual, and are therefore of great importance and value.

Death and the Mother_Dance of Death

Death and the Mother, from D.N. Chodowiecki’s ‘Dance of Death’, 1791 (Wellcome Library no. 31263i) (4)

I am sure many of you are familiar with the archaeological investigations at Portmahomack, which under the direction of Professor Martin Carver, yielded a wealth of information on the lives of Pictish monastic and medieval parish church communities.(5) Excavations of the burials revealed that only one child grave was found within the Pictish monastic level (8th to 9th century) and the remaining child graves were from the later medieval levels (12th to 17th century). The highest number of child deaths at Portmahomack was from those who were just a few months old. This was a dangerous age for children in antiquity, especially if they were not being breastfed or had an inadequate quantity or quality of breastmilk, either due to the mother being in poor health or overworked from agricultural duties for example. Children that were exposed to a dangerous concoction of poor nutrition and hygiene would therefore be more susceptible to nutritional deficiencies, infections, and diarrhoea, all which can result in fatal consequences. In general, child mortality rates from medieval Scotland are highly variable, with no clear division between Highland and Lowland, rural and urban, or coastal and inland areas, although more investigation is needed. Preliminary comparisons to data from other studies (6) suggest mortality rates at Portmahomack were nearly twice as higher than lowland sites. This may suggest different influences that resulted in a higher rate of child deaths in the northern Highlands, such as varying economy and subsistence strategies that were affected by harsh climatic episodes; care and midwifery provisions (or lack of), or even cultural and traditional views on childcare and well-being.

Part two of this blog will discuss the evidence from osteological assessments on the children at Portmahomack and present some interesting case studies. In the meantime, try to abstain from shilpit wine!

1. R. Moray, Lett, 1658. Transcripts, circa 1830, of letters, 1657-1674, of Sir Robert Moray to Alexander Bruce, 2nd Earl of Kincardine, National Library of Scotland, NLS MS.5049–50, fol.230.

2. In Shetland, ‘shilpit’ was used to describe something as sour or bitter: https://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/shilpit [Accessed 2/1/2020].

3. Although some scholars are addressing this lacuna in medieval Scottish childhood studies, e.g. Nugent J. and Ewan E. (eds.), 2015, Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland, Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.

4. The dance of death: death and the mother. Etching by D.N. Chodowiecki, 1791, after himself. Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0. Source: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/kpv8gz4y#licenseInformation [Accessed 06/01/2020].

5. Portmahomack on Tarbat Ness, PNAS digital book: http://books.socantscot.org/digital-books/catalog/book/4

6. Willows, M., 2016, Health status in Lowland Medieval Scotland: a regional analysis of four skeletal populations, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh: https://era.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/25484 [Accessed 17/12/2019].

A Craftsman in Rogart, Glasgow and London: The Life and Times of William Murray, 1796-1867

Post by Lloyd Pitcher, former Head of History at Bomaderry High School, History Presenter at Shoalhaven University of the Third Age, Nowra, New South Wales, Australia. Lloyd can be contacted at rl.pitch@bigpond.net.au.

William Murray was a highly regarded carver and gilder in Glasgow, Scotland. His funeral card described a substantial person: ‘a Citizen of Glasgow for upwards of 45 years’. When I first looked at this card, it was among some papers in a box, passed to my father by his mother, and to her father by his sister in Scotland. No-one in the family had connected the information in the box.

After many years of research, the information in the box is now connected. On 26 October 1795, an entry was made in an old Parochial Register of Proclamations of Banns and Marriages for one Duncan Murray, ‘Soldier in Drummond’s Regiment of Fencibles’ and Barbara Sutherland, daughter of Alexander Sutherland, ‘Soldier in the First Battalion of Breadalbane Fencibles, at the Gaelic Chapel in Perth, Scotland. The resident minister of the Chapel, Duncan McFarlane conducted the marriage ceremony.

A fencible was a soldier belonging to a British militia which could only be called up for service on home soil for the duration of a war, to free up regular soldiers for overseas duty. This force was especially necessary in Scotland, which had no substantial militia until 1798. Beginning in 1793, fencibles were initially formed by landowners – often descendants of the old clan chiefs. The term is derived from Middle English and means ‘fit or suitable for defence.’

WILLIAM MURRAY'S BIRTHPLACE, ROGART, SUTHERLAND

The centre of the parish of Rogart, from near the church. Photo: Robin Pitcher, 2012.

William was born to Duncan Murray and Barbara Sutherland on 2 September 1796 in the parish of Rogart in Sutherland, 85 kilometres north of Inverness. His mother was only twenty when he was born. William Murray was baptised on 23 October 1796 at Torbreck of Morness, Rogart. Of his childhood, his siblings and his early years, nothing is known until his marriage to Margaret McCallum in Bridgetown, Glasgow in 1821.

William and Margaret had eight children, six of whom survived. The family lived in a substantial mansion in Glasgow. Evidence shows William Murray to a very successful carver in wood, making high quality furniture. One item which recently appeared for auction described his highly detailed work. ‘The rectangular sienna marble top above a deep relief carved border, the moulded and panelled frieze decorated with paterae and cartouches, the tapering legs of architectural form and with corinthian capitals, the panels filled with bellflower pendant chains, and joined by moulded stretchers, the scrolled trees enclosing suppressed balls.’

A Fine William IV Gilt Pinewood Center Table

wm label on pinewood table

William IV pinewood marble-top table with provenance and authenticity label attached. Image courtesy Neal Action House, New Orleans USA.

In 1849, Margaret Murray passed away. William married Ann Ewing of Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 1851. Perhaps this was a catalyst for three of William’s sons to leave Scotland. In 1852 Archibald and Hugh made for the gold fields of Ballarat, near Melbourne, Australia. There is no evidence they ever returned. Son William travelled to the West Indies and New York, later settling in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1881 William visited his family in Scotland and returned to New Orleans. In 1855 Margaret Anne married China tea clipper captain, Donald MacKinnon, from the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. They had three children and for a time lived not far from William and Ann in London. Son Duncan and daughter Christina remained single.

Captain MacKinnon Medallion

Wax portrait of Captain Donald MacKinnon. Portrait restored by The Scottish Conservation Studio. Reproduced by kind permission of An Iodhlann, Isle of Tiree.

William Murray suffered severely from bronchitis. This was a genetic family predisposition which continues among descendants to the present day and which is referred to as ‘the Murray chest.’ By 1865, William and Ann had moved from Glasgow to 2 Seymour Terrace, Loughborough Road, Brixton, London. The belief was the London air was ‘softer’ compared with the air of Glasgow and would be better for William’s health. In an 1865 letter to his son Archibald in Sydney NSW, William Murray wrote that he had sent ‘a small specimen of his handywork of former days. It is a small plaster model of a likeness of William’s uncle, Dr [Adam] Sutherland, in Scotland.’

William's uncle, Dr Adam Sutherland

Plaster of Paris casing of Dr Adam Sutherland, William Murray’s uncle, sent to William’s son Archibald in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Lloyd Pitcher.

The years 1865 to 1867 were productive for William. During his convalescence from bouts of bronchitis he made wax and plaster of paris models. Models to be sent overseas were made in plaster of paris as wax models could distort in the heat.

By 1867, William and Ann had relocated to 13 Fairfield Place, Bow. But London air is still very cold in winter and in 1867, the bronchitis from which William suffered so severely eventually overwhelmed him.

As far as can be determined, William Murray’s grandchildren in Scotland had no children of their own. William never saw any of his seven grandchildren living in Australia. They all married and had families of their own. William Murray’s antipodean descendants are today scattered all over Australia.

From his beginning in Rogart, William Murray is remembered today as a successful carver in wood and as a citizen of Glasgow, Scotland. His six children lived very different lives from his own. Three left Scotland and two never returned. From 1852 to 1867, he never again saw them. It is fortunate some of the letters he wrote have survived to the present and enabled his descendants to gain insights into the life and times of William Murray. 

Sideboard carved by William Murray

Centrepiece of William Murray's sideboard

Sideboard, and closeup of the centrepiece, carved by William Murray circa 1860.

Sources:

Lloyd Pitcher The Life of William Murray 1796-1867: Carver and Gilder, Citizen of Glasgow (Vincentia: New South Wales, 2018)

An Iodhlann, Tiree’s Historical Centre.

http://www.aniodhlann.org.uk/object/2015-46-1/ (accessed 18 July 2019)

https://www.prices4antiques.com/Furniture-Table-Center-Baroque-Style-Murray-William-Giltwood-Rectangular-Top-Carved-Apron-Scrolled-Legs-F7991779.html (accessed 21 July 2019)

https://www.prices4antiques.com/Furniture-Table-Center-William-IV-Pinewood-Relief-Carved-Marble-Top-B164783.html (accessed 21 July 2019)

Communion Tokens: What are they and how were they used?

Ann MacKenzie Vanderwal is a part-time MLitt student with UHI in history and archaeology. She teaches 15 to 18 year olds history, Latin, law and social in Calgary, Alberta. She has a personal knowledge of communion tokens from attending the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland as a child and teenager in Toronto, Ontario where they were used until 1989.

In the Historylinks collection are four little bits of metal that look like square or oblong coins. Although unfamiliar to most today, these are communion tokens which were widely used in Scotland, and around the world by the diaspora, for hundreds of years.

Fig 1

Tokens on a Gaelic catechism. Photo: Ann Vanderwal.

The idea of communion tokens was first conceived by John Calvin in 1560 as a way to know who was a member of the church (permitted to participate in communion) and who was not. The idea was rejected in Geneva but embraced by French Huguenots and in Presbyterian Scotland. In 1562, the Kirk of Scotland’s General Assembly decided that communion should only be held in each church between two to four times a year, making the opportunity to participate in this important aspect of Christian life even more treasured.

Communion developed into a series of services labeled the ‘communion season starting on Wednesday or Thursday and concluding on Monday. Customarily, on Saturday, members who attended the service would go to a church elder to receive one of these tokens. The elder would not only check to ensure they were indeed on the roll of members but might refuse a member a token if their recent behaviour was felt to not reflect proper Christian behaviour. Saturday was also the opportunity for people to become members. The minister and elders would meet potential members individually and ask them a series of questions to determine their knowledge of essential doctrines. Each applicant also related their personal testimony which would include their conversion experience. Those who were felt to be genuine received a token and their names were recorded on the communicant roll.  Since communion was only held in some areas twice a year, it was very common for members of one church to visit another church to take communion more frequently. In such a case, their own minister or elders gave a token to the member who could use it to show their admissibility.

Dornoch 1789

Dornoch token from 1780 (or perhaps 1789) Photo: Ann Vanderwal.

After the sermon on Sunday, or the Sabbath, the minister ‘fenced the table’. He warned those whose heart was not in the right state to refrain from coming forward, even if they had obtained a token. Each member or visitor presented their token to the elder at the front of the church and could then take a seat at the communion table. Most communions had visitors from many other areas resulting in a ‘mixed-bag’ of tokens.  Some had a number stamped on them because there were too many people for the number of tables available and each group would come forward when their number was called. Serving everyone could take an entire day, even with visiting ministers to help. The communion season was often scheduled to coincide with the full moon to make it easier for everyone to see their way home.

New tokens were made when the old supply started to run low, an updated design was wanted or there was a fear that unused tokens had fallen into unapproved hands. Early tokens were made by the local blacksmith, but firms such as Crawford’s of Glasgow began to produce them commercially. Most congregation’s tokens were unique. The earliest have one or more letters to identify the congregation and perhaps the date. As time went on, more information was included such as the minister’s name, a Bible verse and perhaps a graphic such as a burning bush. The majority were in English but there are tokens from Lewis, Harris and St Kilda in Gaelic. In 1843 at the Disruption the Free Church made stock tokens but individual congregations quickly had their own made.

Carloway token

Free Church token from Carloway, Isle of Lewis. Photo: ‘Carloway, Lewis Token, post-1843’, Hunterian Museum, GLAM-7412, http://collections.gla.ac.uk/#details=ecatalogue.73351  (accessed 02.04.19).

Tokens began to fall out of use in Scotland in the 1800’s when they were replaced with paper cards but some congregations continue to use them up to the present. Wherever immigrants or missionaries from Scotland went, they took the idea of tokens with them. One minister, John Geddie, from Aberdeenshire moved to Pictou, Nova Scotia and then continued on to Vanuatu in the South Pacific as a missionary. He took some Pictou tokens with him but once a congregation was established in Vanuatu, he created tokens for them in the local language while conforming to the style popular in Scotland at the time. These pieces of lead or tin might be small but they tell a fascinating tale of an idea that Scots treasured for centuries and took with them around the world.

Free Church 1843 back

Bible verse encouraging self-examination on the back of a Free Church stock token from 1843. Photo: Ann Vanderwal.

Further Reading

Burns, T., Macgregor, J. and Brook, A., Old Scottish Communion Plate (Edinburgh: R & R Clark, 1892).

Brooks, A. ‘Communion Tokens of the Established Church of Scotland: Sixteenth, Seventeen and Eighteenth Centuries’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 41 (Edinburgh, 1907). p 453-604.

Haddow, E., ‘Communion Tokens, Vanatu’ in Jacobs, K., Knowles, C. and Wingfield, C. (eds), Trophies, Relics and Curios? (Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2015), p. 171-208.

Shutty, M., Communion Tokens: A Guide for Collecting Scottish, Canadian and United States Tokens (Shelbyville: Wasteland Press, 2013).