Wonderful local history sources
ITS title suggests something pretty dull and boring but The Statistical Accounts of Scotland is certainly not; it is the greatest source of research on Scottish life in the 18th to 21st centuries ever published.
There have been three accounts. The first, called the ‘Old’, was published between 1791 and 1799 by Scottish politician Sir John Sinclair from Ulbster, a scattered crofting community on the east coast of Caithness.
The second, known as the ‘New’, came out between 1834 and 1845 under the auspices of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the third, consisting of 27 volumes, between 1951 and 1992. The first two are considered to be among the finest European contemporary records of life in Scotland during the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
Many people think of statistics as just tedious figures and tables but these accounts, which can now be accessed online and printed off, are far more interesting than that.
Parish by parish they provide a rich record of a wide variety of topics: wealth, class and poverty; climate, agriculture, fishing and wildlife; population, schools, and the moral health of the people; antiquities, geology, place names and local history.
How was the information gathered in the days before telephone, fax and internet? In 1790, Sir John sent questionnaires to more than 900 parish ministers, covering the whole of Scotland.
These contained 160 questions in four sections, namely geography and topography, population, agricultural and industrial production and miscellaneous questions.
The second and third accounts followed a similar pattern but this time the contributors included doctors, schoolmasters and local historians on the assumption they were likely to be meticulous and enlightened scholars with a good command of the English language which was thought essential in the more remote Highland and Island parishes where Gaelic was still in everyday use.
It is also possible the compilers felt that some of the ministers were becoming too judgemental. For example, spending money on football pools was denounced; in the parish of Kemback, Fife, the minister described the inhabitants of Dura Den as extremely ignorant and singing in the schools and the church in the Parish of Inch, Wigtownshire, was ‘painful to an educated ear’.
In the days when parish ministers were already doubling-up as voluntary marriage-guidance counsellors, farmers, social workers, lawyers and land agents as well as gatherers of souls, being asked to compile what amounted to a major history of their parish must often have been an unwanted chore. But on the whole what they wrote was well done; their contributions have stood the test of time and are more or less at-the-moment snapshots of the past.
Here are a few extracts from the ‘Old’ statistical account for the Parish of Morvern. It was compiled by the Rev Norman Macleod who, in 1794, recorded there were 14,000 sheep (of the South Country breed), 2,500 black cattle, 250 horses, 1,764 people (in 1793, today there are 181), 34 weavers, 15 tailors, two blacksmiths, one shoe makers, four broguemakers and 12 dramhouses.
By 1843, the Rev John Macleod, son of the previous minister, writing in the flowery ‘New’ account style, recorded the freestone quarries at Lochaline and Ardtornish had provided stone for the Crinan Canal, Lochaline House and the Lismore lighthouse. The sheep population had risen to 29,000, while black cattle numbers had fallen to 690. His main grouse was the shortage of roads, the rainfall, the inferior inns, the lack of a resident doctor, an infestation of moles, absentee landowners and no regular or steady employment.
Just over a century later, the Rev Hector MacSween, who contributed the chapter on Morvern for the third account, managed to be a bit more upbeat. He recorded 460 people living in the parish and although the number of children had fallen sharply there were still schools at Lochaline, Claggan and Bunavullin with rolls of 25, 20 and nine each in the charge of a woman teacher. The percentage of Gaelic speakers had fallen from 86 in 1881 to approximately 50 in 1955, but it was still habitually spoken by the older inhabitants. On Ardtornish estate a good herd of dairy cattle provided the people of Lochaline with their milk supplies.
Up to 1952 approximately 430,000 tons of high quality silica sand had been exported from Lochaline. The annual output was between 40,000 and 50,000 tons employing 50 workers housed in temporary accommodation at Tor-na-Fhaire and elsewhere around the village. Electricity was provided by the sand mine.
The sand was transported from an adit on the west shore of Loch Aline over a light railway to a processing plant and pier on the Sound of Mull where it was crushed, screened, washed and stored in bunkers ready for shipping.
About 25 men were in regular employment in Fiunary Forest bought by the Forestry Commission in 1930, which meant there was little or no unemployment in the 1950s.
Try Googling the Statistical Accounts of Scotland the next time you are on the ‘net’. Search for your own parish and be prepared for a pleasant surprise.
Iain Thornber firstname.lastname@example.org