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.”
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.”