Seven ill years

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1689 map of Scotland

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.

During this period, starvation probably killed 5–15 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 migration between parishes and emigration to England, Europe, the Americas and particularly Ireland. The crisis resulted in the setting up of 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 were 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 reliant 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

These problems were not confined to Scotland; the years 1695-97 saw catastrophic famine in present-day Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Norway and Sweden plus an estimated two million deaths in France and Northern Italy. [21] Its historical significance and impact is partly due to the fact famine had become relatively rare in the second half of the seventeenth century, with only 1674 being one of dearth and these were to be the last of their kind.[22]

The conditions resulted in limited migration between estates and parishes in Scotland; emigration to England was limited by English Poor Laws preventing distribution of relief to strangers, while continental Europe had the same issues. It may have been a factor in 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.[23] From 1650 to 1700, approximately 7,000 Scots emigrated to America, 10–20,000 to Europe and England and 60–100,000 to Ireland.[24] An estimated 20,000 migrated to Ireland from 1696-1698; these numbers were part of a continuation of the Ulster Plantation, with cheap confiscated land available in the north after the Williamite War of the early 1690s.[25]

To tackle the desperate economic situation, in 1695 the Scottish Parliament passed Acts allowing the consolidation of run rigs and the division of common land which drove the agricultural improvements of the eighteenth century.[26] These changes made Scottish farming highly productive and ensured people could be fed in extreme conditions, even with the population growth.[27]

Other changes included the creation of the Bank of Scotland, while the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies received a charter to raise capital through public subscription.<[28] The Company invested in the Darién scheme, an ambitious plan funded almost entirely by Scottish investors to build a colony on the Isthmus of Panama for trade with East Asia.[29] 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.[29] The losses of £150,000 put a severe strain on the Scottish commercial system and was a key driver of the 1707 Acts of Union creating the Kingdom of Great Britain.[30]

References[edit]

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. ^ 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 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. ^ de Vries, Jan (2009). "The Economic Crisis of the 17th Century" (PDF). Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. 40 (2): 151–194. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  22. ^ Mitchison, Rosalind (2002). A History of Scotland (3rd ed.). Routledge. pp. 254–5. ISBN 0415278805.
  23. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, pp. 173–4.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ K. J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873, pp. 178–9.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Dingwall, HM, in Lynch, Michael (ed) (2001). Health, famine and disease: 2 1500–1770, in The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford University Press. pp. 286–287. ISBN 0199234825.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  28. ^ Mitchison, Rosalind (2002). A History of Scotland (3rd ed.). Routledge. pp. 301–2. ISBN 0415278805.
  29. ^ a b E. Richards, Britannia's Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (Continuum, 2004), ISBN 1852854413, p. 79.
  30. ^ Mitchison, Rosalind (2002). A History of Scotland (3rd ed.). Routledge. p. 314. ISBN 0415278805.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Bowie, K., "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.
  • Cullen, K. J., Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), ISBN 0748638873.
  • Dingwall, H. M., "Health, famine and disease: 2 1500–1770" in M. Lynch, ed., The Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), ISBN 0199234825.
  • Mitchison, R., A History of Scotland (London: Routledge, 3rd edn., 2002), ISBN 0415278805.
  • Morrison, I., "Climate: ", in M. Lynch, ed., Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), ISBN 0199693056.
  • Smout, T. C., "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.
  • Smout, T. C., Landsman N. C., and Devine, T. M., "Scottish emigration in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries", in N. Canny, ed., Europeans on the Move (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), ISBN 0198204191.
  • White, I. D., "Rural Settlement 1500–1770", in M. Lynch, ed., Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), ISBN 0199693056.
  • Wormald, J., Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470–1625 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), ISBN 0-7486-0276-3.
  • Richards, E., Britannia's Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 160 (Continuum, 2004), ISBN 1852854413.
  • Wormald, J., Scotland: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 0191622435.