Seven ill years

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Map of Scotland published in 1689

The seven ill years was a period of national famine in Scotland in the 1690s. It resulted from an economic slump created by French protectionism and changes in the Scottish cattle trade, followed by four years of failed harvests (1695, 1696 and 1698-99). The result was severe famine and depopulation, particularly in the north. The famines of the 1690s were seen as particularly severe, partly because famine had become relatively rare in the second half of the seventeenth century, with only one year of dearth (in 1674). The shortages of the 1690s would be the last of their kind.

Starvation probably killed 5 to 15 per cent of the Scottish population, but in areas like Aberdeenshire death rates reached 25 per cent. The system of the Old Scottish Poor Law was overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, although provision in the urban centres of the burghs was probably better than in the countryside. It led to emigration between parishes and to England, Europe, the Americas and particularly to Ireland. The crisis resulted in the setting up the Bank of Scotland and the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. The eventual failure of the Company in the Darién scheme increased the pressure for political union with England, which occurred in 1707.

Causes[edit]

Temperature comparisons, showing the "Little Ice Age"

Before the seventeenth century, with difficult terrain, poor roads and methods of transport, there was little trade between different areas of Scotland. Most settlements depended for subsistence on what was produced locally, often with very little in reserve in bad years. Most farming was based on the lowland fermtoun or highland baile, settlements of a handful of families that jointly farmed an area notionally suitable for two or three plough teams. These were allocated in run rigs, of "runs" (furrows) and "rigs" (ridges), to tenant farmers.[1] Those with property rights included husbandmen, lesser landholders and free tenants.[2] Below them were the cottars, who often shared rights to common pasture, occupied small portions of land and participated in joint farming as hired labour. Farms also might have grassmen, who had rights only to grazing.[2] There were also large numbers of casual wage labourers who carried out basic agricultural work. Labourers on fixed incomes, along with pensioners, were particularly vulnerable to the impact of famine, but it also affected those with land, who could not save enough seed for future planting and feed their families. Even pastoral farmers were affected as the price of animal feed became unaffordable.[3]

The closing decade of the seventeenth century saw the generally favourable economic conditions that had dominated since the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, come to an end. There was a slump in trade with the Baltic and France from 1689–91, caused by French protectionism and changes in the Scottish cattle trade. These were followed by four years of failed harvests (1695, 1696 and 1698-99).[4] The period is named after the Biblical famine in Egypt predicted by Joseph in the Book of Genesis.[5] The famine was evident for five years nationally and was present for less time in some regions. However, there is evidence that the harvest failures from 1685 followed years of relatively poor harvests from the 1680s and that the impact of poor harvests did not entirely subside until after 1700.[6] The 1690s marked the lowest point of the Little Ice Age, of colder and wetter weather.[7] This reduced the altitude at which crops could be grown and shortened the growing season by up to two months in extreme years, as it did in the 1690s.[8] The massive eruptions of volcanoes at Hekla in Iceland (1693) and Serua (1693) and Aboina (1694) in Indonesia may also have polluted the atmosphere and filtered out significant amounts of sunlight.[9]

Impact[edit]

Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, where the town council erected a "refugee camp" to deal with the influx of starving families in 1696

The results of the climatic conditions were inflation, severe famine and depopulation, particularly in the north of the country. The price of oatmeal, the stable Scottish cereal crop, peaked in Aberdeen in 1698, which was particularly badly hit because of its reliance on the Baltic trade,[10] at 166.7 per cent of average prices for 1690-94.[11] Individuals were reduced to eating grass, nettles and rotten meat in order to survive.[12] There is considerable eye-witness material indicating that large numbers of people died from starvation.[13] In 1698 local tacksmen claimed that during the period 1695-97 "many people were starved to death for want, both in town and country" and in 1698 reports reached Edinburgh of people found dead on the roads throughout the country.[14] Overall deaths from starvation reached 5 to 15 per cent, but in areas like Aberdeenshire they reached 25 per cent.[15] The young, the old and widows were particularly vulnerable.[10]

The famines led to a rapid increase in the number of paupers and vagrants taking to the roads to find work, charity and food. In 1698, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1655–1716) estimated that perhaps one-sixth of the population of Scotland, about 200,000 people, had left their homes to beg for food and charity, a doubling of the 100,000 vagrants that he estimated travelled the country during non-crisis years.[16] Much of this movement was within large parishes, which allowed families to continue to receive the poor relief that was officially confined to local residents. However, many of these families later moved further afield to major urban centres and to other countries, particularly England and Ireland. So many poor beggars arrived in Edinburgh in search of relief in December 1696 that the town council had to erect a "refugee camp" in Greyfriars kirkyard to house all of them. Other towns reacted by enforcing severe punishments for beggars.[17]

The system of the Old Scottish Poor Law was overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis.[18] In the countryside, where the majority of the population lived, it relied on funds raised and distributed by the kirk session, usually led by the parish minister and on the generosity of local landholders, particularly the local laird. The role of the minister was undermined by the results of the change of regime in the Glorious Revolution in Scotland, which meant that many episcopalian ministers had been ejected from their livings and had not been replaced by the time of the famines. In the urban settlements of the burghs there were more mechanisms that could be used to provide for the poor. In addition to the kirk sessions and general sessions of the church, there were guilds, trades' societies and town councils. Town councils also had the ability to intervene in local grain markets in an attempt to maintain low prices in times of scarcity.[19] The impact of the famine may have been exacerbated in urban centres as the influx of new starving populations brought outbreaks of disease such as smallpox, which are evident from parish registers for the period.[20]

Significance[edit]

Runrig farming outside the town of Haddington, East Lothian c. 1690

The famines of the 1690s were seen as particularly severe, partly because famine had become relatively rare in the second half of the seventeenth century, with only one year of dearth (in 1674) and the shortages of the 1690s would be the last of their kind.[21] The famines resulted in some migration between estates and parishes in Scotland. There was some emigration to England, although this was probably a relatively small number because of the draconian English Poor Laws, which prevented distribution of relief to strangers. Emigration to continental Europe was limited by the similar conditions of famine in much of northern Europe. Famine may have been a push factor in the emigration to the American colonies and the West Indies by volunteers as indentured servants, which became the most significant form of transatlantic emigration from Scotland in this period.[22] Between 1650 and 1700 approximately 7,000 Scots migrated to America, 10-20,000 to Europe and England and 60-100,000 to Ireland.[23] Emigration to Ireland, particularly to Ulster, was a continuation of a process that had been underway since the early seventeenth century, with cheap and abandoned land in the north created by James VII's invasions in the early 1690s. It has been estimated that 20,000 Scots emigrated to Ulster between the famine years 1696 and 1698.[24]

The Parliament of Scotland of 1695 enacted proposals that might help the desperate economic situation. Three acts of parliament passed in 1695 allowed the consolidation of runrigs and the division of common land, which would be the basis of the agricultural improvements of the eighteenth century that would make Scottish farming highly productive.[25] These changes would ensure that people could be fed in extreme conditions, even with the population growth.[10] Other changes included the setting up the Bank of Scotland. The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies received a charter to raise capital through public subscription.[4] The Company of Scotland invested in the Darién scheme, an ambitious plan to build a colony on the Isthmus of Panama in the hope of establishing trade with the Far East,[26] almost entirely funded from Scottish investors. The scheme was a disaster, with the colonists abandoning their project in 1700. Only 1,000 of 3,000 survived and only one ship managed to return to Scotland.[26] The cost of £150,000 put a severe strain on the Scottish commercial system and led to widespread anger against England, but also highlighted the problems of maintaining two economic policies, increasing pressure for full union, which occurred with the Acts of Union, 1707 that created the Kingdom of Great Britain.[27]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ J. Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470-1625 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), ISBN 0-7486-0276-3, pp. 41-55.
  2. ^ a b R. Mitchison, Lordship to Patronage, Scotland 1603-1745 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), ISBN 074860233X, p. 82.
  3. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The 'Ill Years' of the 1690s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 55.
  4. ^ a b R. Mitchison, A History of Scotland (London: Routledge, 3rd edn., 2002), ISBN 0415278805, pp. 291-2 and 301-2.
  5. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The 'Ill Years' of the 1690s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 14.
  6. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The 'Ill Years' of the 1690s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 15.
  7. ^ I. D. White, "Rural Settlement 1500-1770", in M. Lynch, ed., Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), ISBN 0199693056, pp. 542-3.
  8. ^ T. C. Smout, "Land and sea: the environment", in T. M. Devine and J. Wormald, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), ISBN 0191624330, pp. 22-3.
  9. ^ I. Morrison, "Climate: ", in M. Lynch, ed., Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), ISBN 0199693056, pp. 99-101.
  10. ^ a b c H. M. Dingwall, "Health, famine and disease: 2 1500-1770" in M. Lynch, ed., The Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), ISBN 0199234825, pp. 286-7.
  11. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 87.
  12. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 56.
  13. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 19.
  14. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 117.
  15. ^ J. Wormald, Scotland: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 0191622435.
  16. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 158.
  17. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 160.
  18. ^ R. Mitchison, Lordship to Patronage, Scotland 1603-1745 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), ISBN 074860233X, pp. 127 and 145.
  19. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 105.
  20. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, p. 153.
  21. ^ R. Mitchison, A History of Scotland (London: Routledge, 3rd edn., 2002), ISBN 0415278805, pp. 254-5.
  22. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, pp. 173-4.
  23. ^ T. C. Smout, N. C. Landsman and T. M. Devine, "Scottish emigration in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries", in N. Canny, ed., Europeans on the Move (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), ISBN 0198204191, p. 90.
  24. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, pp. 178-9.
  25. ^ K. Bowie, "New perspectives on pre-union Scotland" in T. M. Devine and J. Wormald, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), ISBN 0191624330, p. 314.
  26. ^ a b E. Richards, Britannia's Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (Continuum, 2004), ISBN 1852854413, p. 79.
  27. ^ R. Mitchison, A History of Scotland (London: Routledge, 3rd edn., 2002), ISBN 0415278805, p. 314.