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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

IX. The poor and the Scottish poor law

54. The Poor of Blair-Atholl, 1847 (2)

Texte intégral

1Here is another of Somers’s letters (also see introduction to text 53).

2R. Somers, Letters from the Highlands (After the great Potato Famine of 1846), (1848), Inverness: Melvens Bookshop Ltd., 1977, p. 183-185.

My remarks on the administration of the Poor-Law in Blair-Atholl drew forth the following letter from the Established minister of that parish to the Editor of the North British Daily Mail:—

SIR, – Some one has sent me your paper of the 23d instant, containing an article by your “Special Correspondent,” on the state of the parish of Blair-Atholl, under the title, “Condition of the Highlands.” With the greater part of his lucubrations I mean not to meddle. I have no special call to expose his misstatements or controversial reasonings on matters that do not concern myself personally, my time being employed more profitably, I hope, both to myself and others, than it could be in newspaper controversy.

But I feel it to be due to myself, as well as to others, to take public notice of what he says of the state of the poor in this parish; and I am obliged to say that on that subject there are nearly as many misstatements as there are sentences in the paragraph that refers to it.

He says, “There are 70 poor in the parish receiving parochial relief.” The roll is now before me, and the number of poor in the parish receiving regular and occasional aliment is 48.

He says, “The general aliment is 6d. a-week.” Of the 42 paupers on the regular roll, there are just four receiving that amount, all the rest receiving more; and of these four, three have houses rent-free, and are able to earn a good deal by their own industry; the fourth, from whom no complaints have reached the parochial board, has a daughter who properly and dutifully contributes to her maintenance.

He says further, “Nothing can be more meagre and inadequate than the allowance doled out to the poor.” Has he such a minute acquaintance with their circumstances, and their means of subsistence from whatever sources, as to entitle him to say so? I must take leave to say that his information upon this point is of a piece with what he gives as the amount of their allowances.

He proceeds—“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 in many cases it was substituted for the allowance which the poor would otherwise have received from the parochial fund.” This last statement is utterly unfounded. In no case was the Queen’s donation substituted for the allowance which the poor would have received from the parish fund. They got their regular allowances, and their shares of the Queen’s bounty in addition. It is true that this fund was distributed from time to time, and that some complaints may have been made that it was not all paid away at once. But it is no unreasonable request to make, that the managers of the poor should be allowed to know in what way a sum left at their disposal should be best bestowed for the benefit of the poor themselves; and your correspondent must deem your readers more ignorant of human nature than I do, if he expects them to believe that a large sum paid away at once would not, in many cases at least, have been grossly abused.

Your correspondent, in the next instance, proceeds to generalise in the assumed accuracy of his previous statements, and says, “the administration of the poor law, in rural parishes generally, is partial and corrupt.” If, as I am led to conclude from the juxtaposition of this sweeping condemnation to the passage previously quoted, Blair-Atholl is one of those parishes, it is only left me, from the general terms of the statement, to give it a flat denial. The administration of the poor law in this parish is not partial, if by that he meant that any other rule is observed than the extent of the paupers’ necessities. It is not corrupt, if by that he meant that it is conducted with any other view than the relief of the poor. I must further say, that if his charge against other parishes rests on no better foundation than his charge against this; or rather, as it certainly seems, if his charge against them rests on the case he thinks he has made out against this, no charge could be more unwarranted, or less supported by facts.

He proceeds—“An entire change is desirable, as it is most unreasonable that proprietors, who clear the people of 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 burthens entailed by their own system.” I, too, think this unreasonable; but I deny that any evasion of the legal burthen of supporting the poor has been attempted here.

  • 4 In Scotland the basic unit of dry capacity was the boll (from the word ‘bowl’). One boll was about (...)

I have another charge to bring against your correspondent. He speaks of the “extremities with which the labourers were threatened” last winter, owing to the high price of provisions, and mentions, in a very ungracious fashion, the Duke of Atholl’s raising the wages of his labourers, which he attributes to “the immense lever power of railways,” and gives the Duke no credit for a desire to mitigate the pressure of the past trying season. But did your correspondent hear nothing of a meal fund, by which about 180 bolls4 of oatmeal were sold at the rate of 20s. per boll, when the market price of it ran from 30s, to 32s.? Did he not hear that 64 families of the industrious poor—none of whom were on the pauper roll—were thereby relieved, and enabled to maintain themselves with comparative ease? It is not credible that a person so minutely, however inaccurately informed on other matters affecting the poor, should be ignorant of this. What, then, is to be thought of his fairness in withholding the slightest hint of it, and, moreover, grumbling “that the Central Relief Board refused! to send supplies into Blair-Atholl,” when he must have known that Blair-Atholl was able to supply the wants of its own poor, and to contribute a very large sum besides to the funds of that central board.

  • 5 The Latin term “suppressio veri” means “the suppression of the truth”.
  • 6 The Latin term “suggestio falsi” means “the suggestion of something which is untrue”.

Whether the suppressio veri5, as well as the suggestio falsi6, rests with your correspondent, or (if he be a stranger to Blair-Atholl) with those who misled him, is his affair. He is responsible for what he gives to the world, and should have been careful, especially when bringing such sweeping charges, to derive his information from trustworthy sources, and not from those who are fonder of a grievance than of truth – a rule I would commend to the special observance of all southrons who undertake to enlighten the public on the “Condition of the Highlands.”

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

ALEX. K. IKVOE. The Manse, Blair-Atholl, Oct. 25.


4 In Scotland the basic unit of dry capacity was the boll (from the word ‘bowl’). One boll was about 145 litres.

5 The Latin term “suppressio veri” means “the suppression of the truth”.

6 The Latin term “suggestio falsi” means “the suggestion of something which is untrue”.

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