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Issue 18 - Sinclair's snapshot of a nation

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 18
January 2005

 

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Sinclair's snapshot of a nation

James Irvine Robertson on Sir John Sinclair and The Statistical Account of Scotland

Even within the memory of man, the past is foggy. Go back before the creation of modern media of record and historians struggle to interpret the facts that survive, let alone the motivation of those that recorded them. In Scotland we have one great work which illuminates the lives of the entire population a couple of centuries ago. No other nation has a comparable resource.

In spite of its name The Statistical Account of Scotland is not about statistics. Its originator, the incredibly industrious Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, said that he borrowed the term from Germany and his meaning was ‘an inquiry into the state of a country for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants and the means of its future improvement.’

From Caithness, in the far north of Scotland, Sinclair was a moderniser who had imported the Cheviot sheep and rebuilt the town of Thurso as the hub of his thriving agricultural estates. He was the first ever Agricultural Minister in the administration of the British Prime Minister William Pitt.

Among other topics he wrote on foreign policy, economics, medicine, and the Scottish dialect, but ‘owing to a lack of humour and unbounded self conceit he viewed all his achievements with a somewhat ludicrous complacency.’

In 1782 came the last great famine in Scotland. Beyond the awful weather, Sinclair knew its cause was largely the result of the primitive farming system that was generally practised, but change was hampered by the absence of knowledge about almost every aspect of peoples’ lives.

How could this be remedied? Sinclair was a member of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and he realised that each of the 938 parishes in the country had an educated man as its minister. By promising any profits that might result from the survey for ‘the benefit of the sons of the Clergy’. He insured their support and, in 1791, with the help of a £2,000 grant from Parliament, he sent out a round robin containing 166 questions, many subdivided into additional questions, to each minister of every parish.

A high proportion of the recipients took on the task with enthusiasm. Others had to be harried unmercifully and the final rump who were too idle, drink-sodden, or stupid for the task had their parishes covered by statistical missionaries sent out by Sinclair.

It took until 1798 to complete, in 21 thick volumes, and was a triumph. It was regarded as a ‘model book of the nation’ for every country in Europe, and as such it was lauded by their most distinguished statesmen and rulers. The thoroughness of the inquiry is best illustrated by a few of the questions.

“26. Have there been any battles or sea fights near the coast? And when did any remarkable wrecks or accidents happen, which can give light on any historical fact?

“35. Hath there been any remarkable mischief done by thunder and lightning, water spouts or whirlwinds?

“39. What quadrupeds and birds are there in the Parish? What migratory birds? and at what times do they appear and disappear?

“87. What is the proportion between annual births and the whole population?

“106. What number of acres to each sort respectively, as wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, turnip, cabbage. &c.?

“158. Are the people disposed to humane and generous actions; to protect and relieve the shipwrecked &c? and are there any events which have happened in the parish, which do honour to human nature?”

This snapshot of the Scottish people was obtained at a time of great change. The Highland clan culture was gone, rooted out after the 1745 Jacobite Rising and the agricultural and the industrial revolutions were underway.

As well as descriptions of ways of life in swathes of the country which can hardly have changed for a millennium, there are sketches of the fires of the great iron works of the Carron Company at Falkirk, of cotton mills, of silk mills, of the incoming sheep which would depopulate the Highlands, of the critical importance of the potato which had supplanted oats as the staple of the diet, of the wicked prevalence of tea drinking, of whisky supplanting ale, of the generosity which meant that the poor were supported by their neighbours.

Superstition was dying but far from dead. Half the people died before they were aged 10, but the survivors could live on into ancient, hardworking and healthy old age.

Smallpox inoculation was just starting and those progressive parishes in which it was practised reported the miraculous defeat of an ancient killer. Hats were replacing bonnets and all girls could afford ribbons for their hair. Meat could only be afforded on Sundays.

Since parishes ranged from central Edinburgh to the remotest of the Outer Isles, generalisations of any sort are difficult, but worries about fuel constantly crop up.

Coal was taxed, expensive and difficult to transport. Peat demanded vast amounts of labour and in some places the deposits were almost exhausted. Life was hard enough but would be impossible if potatoes or porridge could not be cooked, or the dank, damp cottages unheated.

Schoolmasters’ wages was another topic which concerned everyone. Some were paid only £5 ayear, perhaps a third of the average income, and had to support themselves by digging graves or by selling dead birds after cockfights.

And this was a scandal, largely the fault of the land owners, in a nation which prided itself in education. Emigration is a subject often discussed, mainly emigration from the countryside to the towns, but people were moving to America in great numbers.

The tiny Island of Eigg with a population of 70 today lost 176 people between 1788-90; 2400 sailed from Skye. Most left to seek a better life for their families, driven off by rocketing populations trying to live on poor soil.

Schoolmasters’ salaries were improved after the Account was published. Farmers did take notice of the possibilities of new crop rotations and better technology. And Sir John Sinclair was universally praised.

In 1822, during the visit of George IV to Edinburgh, he was granted a private audience with the King and presented him with all 20 volumes of the Account, bound in finest calfskin.

In John Prebble’s words “it was his penultimate attempt to secure a peerage. It would not succeed, nor would his last effort a few days later, the gift to the King of six bottles of Mountain Dew whisky from Caithness.”