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.

Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 2

Malcolm Bangor-Jones continues with his investigation of cholera in east Sutherland.

According to the Rev Kennedy of Dornoch everywhere was “all in a bustle.” He had addressed his congregation not only on the cholera as “a visitation of Divine Providence; but also on the use of means, in reliance on the divine blessing, to arrest its progress”. Dornoch had not had such a thorough cleaning for at least half a century. But the “the poverty and wretchedness of the great body of the Inhabitants of this place is extreme.” In many parts of the landward parish the situation was not much better.

The Rogart committee comprised: Mr John Polson, Rovie; George Gunn Esq, Rhives; Patrick Sellar Esq, Morvich; Captain John Mackay, Davochbeg; Dr William Ross, Cambusmore; and Rev John Mackenzie. The minister reported that the committee had met on 9 December and appointed four men to inspect all premises and direct the inhabitants to clean their houses, whitewash the walls with lime, scour their furniture and bedding if necessary, remove dunghills, pigsties, and every kind of filth to a suitable distance from the house and drain off stagnant water. Copies of a printed circular had been handed round and its nature explained in Gaelic from the pulpit. House visits commenced on 21 December and were completed on 19 January. In mid-February each parish was divided into districts and additional men appointed to assist the committee.

The people were most willing to comply with the instructions which had been issued and there were very few who had refused. The minister could not conceal “that the appearances of poverty about some of them were striking; and that aid, to improve their diet and clothing, is as essentially necessary, as the enforcing of cleanliness, to defend them from the influence of contagious disease.”

Sellar, who had been a most efficient member of the Rogart committee – especially in advising people how to form drains around their houses – admitted that he had been among the poor people in the parish more than he had been for 16 years. Some army pensioners and road contractors living in new houses near the road were “very comfortable”. However, Sellar was certain that “there is a deal of poverty and Silent suffering among the sort of farmers [or small tenants].” He suggested that three quarters of them might be assisted to emigrate and the holdings made six times larger. However, he recognised that Lord and Lady Stafford might not wish to pursue such a course. In the meantime, some blankets and meal would help to relive human suffering. He could not resist asking the Sutherland estates Commissioner, “What would have been your case to day had the whole vale of Golspie and Aberscross, Kildonan, Strathbrora & Strathnaver &ca been filled with ‘palmers’ [beggars] of the same Cast?” These areas had been cleared of most of their inhabitants, and replaced by more commercially profitable sheep, by him a decade or two previously, to much criticism.

7866FADF-46D9-439A-A390-8CBA70948659_1_105_c (1)This photo is clearly not from the time! It appeared at an opportune time on the Rogart Heritage Society facebook page and this wonderful example of what people’s houses and outbuildings were like, albeit in the next century, seemed too good an opportunity to miss in this context. Photo credit: Flo Stuart/Rogart Heritage Society

It was noticeable that there was “more misery & appearance of poverty” in Langwell than in all the rest of Rogart. Langwell then belonged to Dempster of Skibo. A separate report noted that many of the tenants on the Skibo estate as a whole were indifferent about the state of their houses. There were a few houses about Skibo itself which were “remarkably well-ordered and clean; but these were inhabited by rather respectable people, who have always clean houses.”

At the end of January the Rogart Committee reported that inhabitants had, with very few exceptions, complied with the instructions as to cleanliness. But to prevent cholera two things were necessary: the complete enforcement of the county injunctions; and affording some relief to a limited number of indigent persons whom the committee found “to be so miserably fed and clothed that they must be in the greatest degree liable to the influence of epidemic disease of every sort.”

The prevailing view was that each landlord should help the inhabitants on their own estate. By the end of February many yards of flannel and numerous pairs of blankets had been bought for the Sutherland estate. Meal was provided as an improvement in diet was considered to be “an important ingredient in the removal of predisposition to cholera”. Medical supplies were also obtained.

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.”

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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.”