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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

IX. The poor and the Scottish poor law

53. The Poor of Blair-Atholl, 1847 (1)

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  • 1 Crofter: (especially in Scotland) someone who lives and works on a very small farm.

1Robert Somers visited the Highlands in 1847. He found that crofters1 suffered from chronic insecurity – they were often refused leases so that they could be removed without difficulty. He also noticed that Highland villages were overcrowded with very poor people who had no choice but to practise limited and inefficient subsistence farming and fishing. Somers was one of the rare journalists of the time who dared criticize the landlords for their extravagance, selfishness and absenteeism.

2Somers’s thirty-two letters were published in the North British Daily Mail, a newspaper that took a marked interest in every question affecting the condition and prospects of the Highlands. The following passage is taken from the third letter in which Somers describes the situation of the paupers of the parish of Blair-Atholl (also see text 54).

3R. Somers, Letters from the Highlands (After the great Potato Famine of 1846), (1848), Inverness: Melvens Bookshop Ltd., 1977, p. 13-15.

  • 2 The Central Board of Management of the Fund for the Relief of the Destitute Inhabitants of the Hig (...)

In a parish, therefore, which, like Blair-Atholl, has been extensively cleared, it is always important to inquire how it fares with the labourers and paupers. The condition of the large farmers presents only the fair side of the picture; but in the circumstances of those who have been displaced to make room for all that fine glitter, we discover the real character of the clearings. The day-labourers of Blair-Atholl are enjoying a degree of prosperity at present which, I fear, is not to be regarded as permanent. The railway operations have raised wages here, as in other parts of the country; and, in one sense, the severe distress of last winter may be said to have improved their condition. The Central Relief Board2 very properly refused to send supplies into Blair-Atholl, on the ground that the proprietors were capable of doing all that was necessary themselves. The labourers were threatened with the greatest extremities. Employment was scarce, and food was selling at a famine price. In this emergency, the Duke of Atholl gave work in his woods and pleasure-grounds to a considerable number, at the rate of 10s. and 12s. a-week. This employment is still continued, and wages continue at the same rate as during the dearth. In conversation with one of the labourers, I said, in a half interrogatory way – “Wages are pretty good here; 9s. a-week, I dare say?” “More than that,” replied he; “some of us have 12s. a-week.” “Indeed; that is a good wage.” To this opinion, however, the man scarcely assented; and, with a knowing look, referred me to wages on the railways. “Yes,” said I, “that is true – wages on the railways, I believe, are 18s. and 21s. a-week.” “Well, then,” said the labourer, effectually clinching his argument, “what for no should we tak’ less than 12s. here?” The railway operations have thus, like an immense lever-power, raised the poor man’s lot, not merely in the neighbourhoods in which they are carried on, but to the farthest and most inaccessible corners of the country. But should a pause occur in the march of railway industry, or should an arbitrary stop be put to the works during the present winter, on account of the monetary pressure, it is fearful to what a point of depression such a rebound might plunge the poor labourers of a parish like Blair-Atholl. There is nothing to sustain them in such a crisis. The employment given them by the Duke is entirely ornamental, and, like all industry of that sort, is exhaustive and temporary.

Much anxiety is manifested by the labourers to get an acre or two of land; but only a very few enjoy this privilege; and as these few are subtenants of the large farmers, they pay dearly for it. Their object in having land is to rear as much turnip and straw as will feed a cow during winter, the advantage of which, to a poor family, can scarcely be over-estimated. Were the proprietors to give allotments sufficient for this purpose to all the day-labourers, their condition would be greatly improved. As it is, their lot is one of hardship and vicissitude.

  • 3 See introduction to chapter 9, p. 165.

There are about seventy persons in the parish receiving parochial relief, and nothing can be more meagre and inadequate than the allowance doled out to them. The general aliment is 6d. a-week! Some who enjoy the special favour of the Duke are well treated by his Grace; but the great majority would be literally starved except for the charity of their neighbours. An application was made to the Board of Supervision3 last year by one of the poor people for an increase of aliment, but it was refused. There is no legal assessment, and the poor are managed by the heritors and kirk-session. The Queen, during her visit to Blair-Atholl, gave a donation of £ 100 for the benefit of destitute people in the parish; and great complaints are made of the way in which the kirk-session dealt with her Majesty’s bounty. Two years elapsed before it was finally distributed. It was given out in sums of 5s. from time to time, and was a relief to the heritors rather than the poor, as it was practically substituted for the allowance which the poor should have received from the parochial fund. The administration of the Poor-law in rural parishes generally is partial and defective; and the Central Board seems unwilling to exercise the necessary control. An entire change is desirable, as it is most unreasonable that proprietors, who clear the people off their estates for what they consider their own private advantage, and thereby reduce the aged and infirm to pauperism, should be permitted to evade the burdens entailed by their own System.


1 Crofter: (especially in Scotland) someone who lives and works on a very small farm.

2 The Central Board of Management of the Fund for the Relief of the Destitute Inhabitants of the Highlands was created in 1847 to help the Highland peasantry.

3 See introduction to chapter 9, p. 165.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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