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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

IX. The poor and the Scottish poor law

56. Sir John MacNeill’s Report, 1851

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1Sir John MacNeill (1795-1883) was the first Chairman of the Board of Supervision, the body established to oversee the administration of the new Scottish Poor Law of 1845. In 1851 MacNeill went to the Highlands to investigate the problems of the area. He concluded that assisted emigration was the only solution to solve the problems of overcrowding and poverty. His report led to the establishment of the Highland and Island Emigration Society, the body that was in charge of raising the necessary funds to help people emigrate to Australia. The following article taken from the Inverness Courier explains how Sir John MacNeill conducted his enquiry.

2“Sir John MacNeill on the State of the Highlands”, The Inverness Courier, 31 July 1851.

The official report prepared by Sir John MacNeill on the state of the Highlands was presented to Parliament on Thursday evening last. It is a very lengthy document, extending to nearly sixty folio pages, accompanied by a voluminous appendix. It enters fully into the whole subject, and our readers will ascertain its character and conclusions from the following condensation:

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

Sir John Macneill states that on the 3rd of February he set out for the Western Highlands and Islands to conduct the special inquiry intrusted to him, and returned on the 17th of April having investigated the condition of twenty-seven parishes. The manner in which the inquiry was conducted was by calling a meeting of the Parochial Board at a stated time, when certain written questions were laid before them, with a request that they might be put by the chairman to the meeting, and recorded in their minutes, together with such answers as they might think it proper to give to them. When the answers to these questions had been recorded by the Parochial Board, after a full discussion–other questions were addressed to the whole body of persons assembled, whether members of the Parochial Board7 or spectators, not as a Board, but a body of resident inhabitants well acquainted with the parish, who could give useful information regarding it. The questions they put were openly discussed by the persons present. The substance of their answers was afterwards read to them, and having been corrected, was signed generally by all who understood English, and who could sign their names, and occasionally also the names of persons who could not sign them were affixed by their own desire, and attested. “It is due”, he says, “to the working classes of the parishes I have visited to state that their deportment was uniformly civil and obliging, even in circumstances that might have produced feelings of discontent. They had very generally formed or imbibed erroneous and exaggerated notions of their rights, and especially with reference to the occupation of land, and to some supposed obligation on the part of the nation, or of the Government as representing the nation, to provide them with employment and the means of subsistence where they reside, and thus to relieve them from the necessity of going from home to look for employment. There was an impression or belief that the aid they had received for some years was but the fulfilment of some such acknowledged obligation. I pointed out the erroneous character of the notions they had adopted, and the fallacy of many of their views.”

The subject that first demanded attention was the present and prospective urgency and extent of the distress said to prevail in each parish. The necessity of immediate assistance beyond what the local resources could supply, to prevent absolute famine, had been urged some months before in numerous communications from Skye, from the Inverness district and from other places. It was therefore to be feared that some persons might already have suffered in health from want of sufficient food. If so, they could be pointed out, and the number of such cases would establish the urgency, and in some measure indicate the present extent of the distress. On the other hand the prospective urgency and extent of destitution could be a matter only of inference and opinion–capable of being supported by reasoning, but hardly capable of being immediately verified by observation. In the questions addressed to the Parochial Boards, this distinction was kept in view, and the advantage of prescribing it soon became apparent.

Three questions were laid before each Parochial Board:
I. Are there at this date, in the parish of—, persons, not by law to demand relief, who are suffering from want to such an extent as to endanger health or life, notwithstanding every effort they can make to obtain the means of subsistence, and all the aid they are receiving from any quarter or source?

To this question, all the Parochial Boards, with the exception of two, who misapprehended its meaning, ultimately recorded an answer in the negative. But this result was hardly arrived at without some discussion, and the investigation on several occasions of particular cases adduced to support an affirmative answer.—The examination of such cases was undertaken immediately, the other business being suspended till the result was ascertained; and in no instance did that result substantiate the allegation that there was suffering in health from want of sufficient food to sustain health. In one instance, the investigation having apparently failed to satisfy the gentleman who brought forward the case, it was thought proper to record the original statement and the facts elicited. There prevailed, in most of the parishes, a general impression that there were persons in some parts of it suffering from want of food; and it was not until the members of the Parochial Boards were called upon to name the individuals who were suffering that it was discovered that, either that none of the persons present were prepared to point out such a case, or that such cases that were pointed out failed, when investigated to support the allegation. To a majority of the members this result was probably quite unexpected; and it showed the advantage of preserving the distinction between matters of fact, that admitted of being immediately verified, and statements as to matters of inference and opinion, the accuracy of which could not be immediately ascertained. In like manner, persons pointed out by their neighbours of the working-class as being in absolute want of food, were found, after minute investigation, not to be in that condition. It was thus ascertained that, up to this time, the cases of the most urgent destitution known in each parish were not cases of suffering in health from want of sufficient food to sustain health. In fact, the general condition of the inhabitants of all of those districts in regard to health continued to be at least as good as it had usually been, and better than appeared to be compatible with suffering from insufficiency of food. These results were so far satisfactory; but they referred only to the past and the present, and gave no sufficient assurances for the future.


7 See introduction to chapter 9, p. 165.

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