‘The improvidence of the poor’

In 1830 the Kirk Session of Dornoch considered themselves ‘well acquainted with the improvidence of the Poor’. That April they met to discuss an unexpected windfall. Alexander Ross, a merchant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had left a hundred pounds to be distributed among the poor of his native parish. Should they divide it into tiny amounts and hand it out as per his will, or should they keep it ‘till a time of scarcity of human food should occur’?

Before Scotland’s New Poor Law of 1845 it was not the nation state which was responsible for social care, but the church. This was a continuation of the ‘parish state’ instituted after the Reformation. This power and responsibility was vested in the hands of elders, a group of local men esteemed for their ability, piety or, sometimes, their status. They, along with the minister, met regularly as the Kirk Session to perform two functions, one moral and one economic. After the Reformation the church diligently attempted to make everyone conform to Protestant religious standards. Their pursuit of people committing sexual offences (usually fornication or adultery) is best known, but until the eighteenth century they also tried to enforce Sundays as a day of rest and church-going, and endeavoured to keep a lid on drunkenness, violence, gossip and other anti-social behaviours. Apart from some revitalisation of the power of the Kirk Session connected with nineteenth-century religious revivals, by 1830 the main business was financial: collecting and disbursing the Poor Roll.


Halifax: where Alexander Ross of Dornoch made his money. Still plenty of trading going on at this strategically important spot, just below the Citadel, where the Bedford Basin empties into the Atlantic. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The Dornoch minutes from 1830 detail specific arrangements for handing out the money before the clerk gushed his ‘high respect for the memory of the benevolent Testator, who left such a substantial testimony of his attachment to his native Parish’. However the bequest ended up being a bit of a disappointment. After corresponding with Angus Ross, the Glasgow-based brother of the deceased Alexander, it became apparent they would only be sent the sterling equivalent of £100 in Halifax currency, amounting to £78.5.4. The Session ‘judged it to be their wisest plan to submit, as they could not afford to litigate the point’. The duplicity seemed to release them from any sense of obligation in following the precise conditions of the bequest. Instead they felt

they should best answer the Testator’s benevolent intentions by depositing the above sum in a Bank (the interest annually to be divided among the poor) till a time of scarcity of human food should occur, when they should have this money to draw upon to purchase meal for them: for the session, are so well acquainted with the improvidence of the Poor, that though the whole sum were distributed among them at once – which would not be more to each than 10/- or 12 shillings, they would be the next year as much in want as if they had not received a sixpence of it: – whereas, by reserving it, as the Kirk Session have done, for a time of great scarcity, it will prove the means of seasonable relief to them.

Maggie Dempster

Older folks like Maggie Dempster, a fisherwoman from Embo, were particularly at risk of falling into poverty when they could no longer work. This was especially the case for women who tended to be lower paid and were less able to save money. This picture was taken in 1870. Photo: Historylinks Image Library. Ref: 2009_059  No: 7724 

A perusal of some of today’s newspapers would quickly reveal contemporary examples of such ‘victim-blaming’ of society’s most disadvantaged. The elders assumed the difficulties of all 139 people on the poor roll were, fundamentally, an issue of inadequate character rather than the consequence of ill-health, poor wages, lack of secure employment, clearance policies, the abandonment of a spouse, or any other number of possibilities. Despite such lack of insight, the elders endeavoured to manage the resource to best effect. Their forward planning was justified seven years later when the clerk noted rather smugly

That time is now arrived when there is every appearance of a great scarcity of human food, in this Parish and though the Country generally. The Session therefore, intend to draw on this Legacy to purchase meal for the Poor to meet their wants in the ensuing summer. The example of the Kirk Session, in this case, may also serve for a precedent to those who may succeed them in the management of the Poor’s funds.

The incident hints at a lot: that the well-known Highland emigration of the nineteenth century included well-to-do merchants as well as cleared crofters; that Highland migrants, like most, maintained personal, economic and emotional links with their country of origin; that the 1837 famine affected the east Highlands as well as the west; and that the church, for all its lack of insight into structural reasons for poverty, tried to be wise in their responsibilities.


Highland Council Archives, CH2/1588/1/2, Dornoch Kirk Session Minute book containing collections and distributions of Poor’s Money 1843-1849

John MacAskill, ‘It is truly, in the expressive language of Burke, a nation crying for bread’: the public response to the highland famine of 1836-1837’ Innes Review, (Autumn 2010), 61.2, p169-206.


Andrew MacDonald of Rogart fights the French in Canada

Andrew MacDonald not only survived the severe injuries he sustained fighting the army of Siraj-ad-daula at Plassey under Clive of India, but he survived the long sea voyage back to Britain to recuperate. He recovered with his military and imperial ambitions undimmed. His employers, the East India Company, helped him to buy a commission in the Scottish Regimental Contingent which was being recruited to serve in North America. 

By the 1750s, Britain and France were at war. The two nations fought everywhere that they had political and economic interests: in West Africa, India, the Philippines, and in North America. The North American struggle broke out in 1754 over the allegiance of the aboriginal people of the Ohio. Defeat there prompted the British to take on the French in their Nova Scotian territories. The French had a major military and commercial fort on the coast of what is now Cape Breton. It had been captured ten years earlier by the British but returned in exchange for Madras in India. Early in 1758 Andrew MacDonald was sent to assist with besieging the Fort of Louisbourg. The French garrison resisted for just long enough to prevent the British from marching westwards to invade Quebec that year. However, British naval superiority prevented the French government from reinforcing the fort with men, munitions and supplies so it was not too long before MacDonald and his comrades captured Louisbourg. Following their victory he was moved south to Halifax where the British were building up their military presence. The man from Rogart was soon moved westwards to join the force which sailed from the fort he had helped capture, as J.M. Bumsted explains. The series of

British attempts to seize Quebec … did not prevent another major expedition under General James Wolfe … The largest and best-equipped military force that North America had ever known assembled at Louisbourg over the winter of 1758-9 while the frozen ice of the St Lawrence isolated the French.  The British force consisted of 8,600 troops, most of them regulars, and 13,500 sailors aboard 119 vessels, including 22 ships of the line and five frigates.  This great armada required six days simply to clear Louisbourg harbor in early June 1759.  On 27 June Wolfe landed his army on the Ile de Orleans without serious French opposition. There followed over two months of skirmishing.

Andrew MacDonald and his comrades knew time was running out – the massive British fleet could not overwinter in the St Lawrence. At the end of the summer troops found a path up the cliffs leading to the plain above. They sneaked past the French sentries and the rest of the British troops followed them. The French commander, Montcalm, made a tactical error. Rather than waiting for reinforcements he decided to attack the British who were in formation on the plain. The French ranks broke, but not before both Wolfe and Montcalm were killed. The British took Quebec. There were many months of negotiations, but it was the victory at Quebec which marked the British domination of North America and the decline of France as a superpower.

ImageThe Citadel (British fort) at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where MacDonald spent much time.

Permission to use this photo kindly given by Nova Scotia Tourism Agency: photographer R. Garnett

The capture of Quebec was also important to MacDonald personally. It earned him a promotion to Captain and a return to Halifax. His climb up the ranks continued and in 1766 he became a Major in the 59th Regiment. Rather than returning home when he retired on full pay in 1770, he remained in Halifax. He had settled there and had many friends among the Scottish merchants of the city. The year after his retirement he joined the North British Society and for the next quarter century he was an active and enthusiastic member of this philanthropic club. He is described rather formidably as having a ‘powerful and robust personality’! MacDonald worked to develop the burgeoning colonial town of Halifax. Despite having been settled in the colony of Nova Scotia for thirty years, in 1798 he decided to return to Scotland. For the final decade of his life, until his death in 1809, he lived where he had been born, in Rogart.


Annals, North British Society, Halifax, with portraits and biographical notes, 1768-1903http://www.archive.org/details/annalsnorthbriti00nortuoft pps 20-21

J.M. Bumsted, A History of the Canadian Peoples (Oxford: OUP, 2007)