Poverty and Poor Relief

This week’s blog is submitted by Graham Hannaford who is studying from his home in Australia for his Masters in ‘Highlands and Islands History’ at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

 It’s never much fun being poor but in the Highlands of the mid-nineteenth century, things were really grim. Queen Victoria was reigning over an empire on which the sun never set, but many of her subjects in her beloved Scottish Highlands were barely surviving, living in terrible conditions.

The old and new poor laws in Scotland attempted to avoid starvation in the population. There was no expectation that any relief provided would be generous and it is clear that both before and after 1845 when new laws came into being providing for relief for the poor, many, including in the Highlands, lived in circumstances which can only be described as appalling. There was an expectation that people should provide for themselves by their own labour and if that failed, families took responsibility; only when all else failed did parishes take over care, being required to raise the money needed to take care of their own paupers. While we might sometimes view the events as being a long time ago, 1845 was within the lifetime of my own great-grandfather.

The Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland provide detailed parish reports completed through responses to a long list of questions. According to the Old Accounts (1790’s), in the parish of Dornoch, potatoes became a principal food source by about 1758, with at least some of the population subsisting on them for up to two thirds of the year. In addition, of an estimated population of about 2600 in the parish, some 80-100 were on the Poor Roll but there was no regular fund for their support except that raised in the Sunday collections in church and occasional small fines levied on delinquents. Such collections amounted to only about seven pounds sterling per annum, and from that figure some salaries were paid. The next Statistical Account for Dornoch, forty years later, lists a population of about 3400, with much of the increase ascribed to the tendency to marry young. Some 120-130 persons at this time were receiving parochial aid, with about £70 available for distribution among them; the lowest amount provided to a pauper was 6 shillings, the highest 25.

Further up the coast in the parish of Golspie, Rev William Keith reported for the Old Account that of the approximately 1700 population, 100 were on the poor list; but with a net amount of about £8 to distribute among them, no one individual could expect much help. Forty years later, Rev. Alexander MacPherson reported for the follow-up survey that the population had fallen to 1149, with the decrease having arisen “from a powerful cause, which has been, for the last 40 years,  in full operations in all the Highlands of Scotland” – the Highland clearances. On average, 60 persons received some poor relief, amounting to about 8 shillings each, and some meal, but none could survive entirely on this aid. When we look at the situation in these two parishes, we can see why the central government enacted new Poor Laws in 1845 in an attempt to try and provide some improvements.

Only some fragments of the documentary records of poor relief have survived to today. However, below is a copy of a 3 July 1874 receipt for payment by Donald MacKay of Badninish of parochial assessment levied. The document survives in our own Historylinks Museum collection. It is interesting to see that poor relief and schools were the major beneficiaries of the rates this year, while public health was apparently sufficiently funded from elsewhere.


The Statistical Accounts of Scotland can be found online here: http://edina.ac.uk/stat-acc-scot/ 

For a modest subscription fee you can access lots of great associated resources as well as the keyword search facility.

2 thoughts on “Poverty and Poor Relief

  1. Thanks Graham very interesting, life wasn’t milk and honey after the Clearances but it doesn’t seem to be too great before them either!

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