Won­der­ful lo­cal history sources

The Oban Times - - Community News -

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 iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

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