Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 3

As our current epidemic subsides in this country, here are some final thoughts from Malcolm Bangor-Jones on cholera in Sutherland.

Dr Ross provided further details of conditions in the parish of Rogart. The cottages were “by far the strongest and best built of any we fell in with, and better finished in every respect their furniture is excellent and well kept and in not a few of them we found Grates, both in their Rooms and Kitchens. The people seem to want none of the ordinary Comforts of Life, their Barns were full of Corn, and their Stores inside their houses were equally well appointed as few of them were without their meat Barrels of Beef mutton or pork and some had part of them all. And as to Potatoes they admit if it were possible to preserve them, that they have a stock sufficient for two years Consume. Let me assure you that in many of the houses we saw in and about Rogart, no Gentleman, let his Rank be what it may, but might find himself comfortable for a night.”

On the other hand in the Strathfleet end of the parish they found “many poor widows and old maids in destitute circumstances, and such was the primitive simplicity of those poor Creatures, that rather than expose their wants they borrowed Blankets and Bedcovers from their neighbours, to make what they wished, a decent appearance on that day.” There had been many cases of typhus in Strathfleet that winter – the deaths had been mainly of the more elderly. Possibly this was accounted for by the mild winter.

There was, however, much going on in Strathfleet in terms of its improvement. Dr Ross was not impressed by the crofters in the parish of Dornoch who were “the most useless set of Rascals I know.” Gunn also reported that while there had been very great improvement around the lower part of Birichin, Fleuchary, and Astel they were behind their neighbours in other parishes. He suggested that “the people, perhaps from being nearer the Dornoch law; are more stiff necked, & want the energy of the other Parishes.” George Gunn “threatened & scolded them where I saw occasion for it”. As John Ross, the catechist, was among the worst Gunn promised him a summons of removal “which will have the effect of shewing him & others that we are in earnest.”

Once word got out hundreds of applications for assistance from ‘needy people’ were received. Some argued that the landlords should be assessed. However, an alliance of large farmers and factors managed to ensure that assistance would be provided by way of a voluntary charitable contribution from tenants and landlords. By mid March about £450 had been raised in the east of Sutherland. Mr Dempster did not contribute but instead established a soup kitchen for the poor on his own property and distributed a considerable quantity of flannel and blankets.

Patrick Sellar drew attention to the increase in the number of whisky shops over the previous decade. The distillers had “set up agents and creatures in every Corner; and, one’s servants can scarcely go to Church on Sunday without being entrapped into one of these poison stores. It is in vain that we give meal to feed the hungry if such an agency of poverty, disease, and death be left in full employment against us.” The county agreed that measures should be taken to limit the number of tippling houses. It was also agreed that supernumerary dogs should be got rid of – no aid would be given to anyone who unnecessarily kept a dog.

These measures did not stop cholera coming to Sutherland later that year. Nor is it is easy to determine whether there was a long-term impact on the standards of cleanliness. Certainly a boost may have been given to the improvement of housing.

However, the systematic inspection of every dwelling – possibly unique – did highlight the depth of poverty amongst sections of the population, especially the aged. This was to come to the fore when evidence was gathered by the Poor Law Commission in the early 1840s.

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