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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

IX. The poor and the Scottish poor law

IX. The poor and the Scottish poor law

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1The Scottish system of poor relief was based upon various statutes of the Scottish Parliament. The basis of the Scottish Poor Law was the Act of 1574, “Anent the Punishment of Strong and Idle Beggars and Provision for Sustentation of the Poor and Impotent”.

2It was the kirk session, the lowest court in the Church of Scotland, which was responsible for the administration of poor relief. Funds for relief came from voluntary contributions; the parish could decide to impose a legal assessment if these funds were insufficient, but such an assessment was not obligatory. Most of the time the able-bodied poor had to look after themselves or were helped by families and neighbours: the poor were helped by the poor.

3Poor relief became a major political issue in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. The old traditional system could not cope with the periodic mass-employment brought about by the Industrial Revolution. In 1840 Dr W. P. Alison published a pamphlet entitled Observations on the Management of the Poor in Scotland, in which he outlined the inadequacy of the existing system. He asserted that Scotland spent much less for its poor than other European countries.

4A Royal Commission was set up in 1844 to enquire into the operation of the Poor Law in Scotland and to make recommendations to improve the system. The Commission sent questionnaires to all the parishes, and members of the Commission visited every presbytery. The seven volumes of the Report (nearly 15,000 pages) constituted a comprehensive study of the living conditions of the poor in Scotland. The Committee recommended that only the impotent, the old, the infirm and the orphaned should be entitled to get relief. The Report stressed the necessity of encouraging the able-bodied poor to work:

  • 1 Quoted in R. A. Cage, The Scottish Poor Law, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1981, p. 41.

If a man will not work neither should he eat. The overlooking of this salutary maxim […] has been proved by experience to be productive of the most serious evils in the social system.1

5The conclusions of the Commission led to the adoption of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1845. The law as it existed before 1845 was not fundamentally changed. No change was made in the description of the persons legally entitled to get relief. The major changes concerned the administration of the system of relief. The Act created a central body, the Board of Supervision and parochial boards, local structures which were given the power of levying rates for poor relief. Parochial boards consisted of heritors, members of the kirk session and elected rate-payers. Parochial boards were to appoint an inspector of the poor, who was to visit the poor in their homes at least twice a year. It also became easier (in theory) to appeal against local decisions to the Board of Supervision. As indicated in the 1849 report of the Board of Supervision it was extremely difficult for paupers to obtain satisfaction:

  • 2 “Scottish Poor Law”, The Inverness Courier, 9 August 1849.

Of the 707 complaints [of insufficient relief in 1847], there was refused or withdrawn 420; and in 279 cases, the ground of complaint was removed. Of the 437 complaints in 1848, there were refused or withdrawn 248, and in 179 cases, the ground of complaint was removed.2

6The major difference between the English and the Scottish systems remained, i.e. the relief to the able-bodied poor. Indeed the unemployed able-bodied were denied any right for relief. Scottish parishes offered the poorhouse to the non-able bodied poor but not to the able-bodied, which explains why outdoor relief often remained the preferred option.


1 Quoted in R. A. Cage, The Scottish Poor Law, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1981, p. 41.

2 “Scottish Poor Law”, The Inverness Courier, 9 August 1849.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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