McNeur Family Home
Home         Scotland's shifting population
Scotland's shifting population - 1770 - 1850
This is a copy of hand written notes found among Dad's (Ian McNeur) research papers but no note on where it came from. There is a note "Ref: D.F. MacDonald".
I presume this is from D.F. MacDonald's book of the same title (published May 1980), which seems to be currently out of print.

In 1750, England had enjoyed a century of almost unbroken peace and was rich, with a strong central government and a relatively advanced economic organization. Scotland had had little respite from war, religious persecution and political unrest. It was miserably poor, feudalism still applied in some parts and economic organization in the more remote areas remained mediaeval. When change came to Scotland, it was more sudden and violent. The Agricultural Revolution, free from cumbersome and costly enclosure acts, proceeded more speedily. Industry and commerce, with ideas borrowed from the English, developed more rapidly.

Little was known of Scotland's vital statistics. Church records registered only baptisms, proclamations of banns and burials, but even these had glaring defects. The proclamation of banns were the most reliable records, being an essential preliminary to the marriage ceremony by Act of Parliament. Clandestine marriages were frequent - if the bride and bridegroom came from different parishes, a double return of marriage was the usual result. The registration of deaths was generally confined to cases where the mortcloth was hired - in many parishes infant burials (which were numerous) were not recorded because mortcloths of appropriate size were not available.

Secession from the Established Church further impaired the system - seceders normally refused to comply with a practice regarded as the perogative of an alien sect. Matters were worsened by a tax on registration in 1783 - the only penalty of non payment was omission, and the Act thus confirmed a premium on every act of negligence and obstinancy. The tax was abandoned and was not resumed, Even in towns like Edinburgh and Glasgow, where registration was maintained, not more than a third of total births were recorded. A census statistician in 1801 found if was impossible to arrange a comprehensive abstract of baptisms, marriages and burials in Scotland - of the 850 parishes which made returns, only 99 had registers, the rest made occasional registers or kept no registers at all.

An enumeration drawn up 1743 - 55 by Alexander Webster is sufficiently accurate for comparisons. The first Statistical Account of Scotland, 1790-98, also worked through the clergy. A serious handicap was the popular belief it heralded a new tax whose weight was to be in direct proportion to the number of children in the family, or to ascertain the number of young men available for military service. Yet it is an invaluable picture of conditions in Scotland at the time.

From these studies, it emerges that the population of Scotland increased steadily through the 18th century by some 560,000, and in the first half of the 19th century by 1,128,000. the slowness of increase in the 18th century was probably related to the period of unrest up to 1745, followed by a period of scarcity and emphasis in a commercial rather than a military direction. The primitive state of agriculture was responsible for regular destructive famines between 1683 and 1793, which increased deaths and checked births and marriages. There were improvements from 1770 when the potato replaced oatmeal as the staple food. Famine persisted in the Highlands, but less frequently - the new arable farming principles were slowly adopted, largely as the system of land ownership forbade it. Scientific farming, particularly sheep farming, caused depopulation in rural areas. The Agricultural revolution increased greatly the number of births and marriages.

Advances in, and the dissemination of, medical knowledge also favoured population increases. In the 18th century plagues flourished in the unhygienic conditions in town and country - especially smallpox, cholera and typhus. Smallpox vaccination was a step forward but cholera and typhus increased in frequency and virulence in the first half of the 19th century.

It is difficult to assess the effects of emigration and immigration. In the second half of the 18th century there was large scale emigration from the Highlands. There was also emigration from southern shires to England, and, to a lesser degree, return to Scotland. There was a greatly increased volume of Irish immigration.

The main population gain was in the early 19th century, most pronounced in the Clyde - Firth belt, where industry flourished. The staple industry up to the 1770's was the manufacturing of linen - at first, domestic, then with improved machinery a gradual transference into factories, causing a concentration of population, especially of Fifeshire and Forfarshire. The advent of cotton manufacture after the 1770's displaced the linen industry in West Scotland and by 1800 it was beginning to pass into factories with the use of steam power in Lanark and Renfrew cotton spinning mills. Cotton manufacture slowed down in the 1830's because of the rise of iron and metal industries to a premier position, with great use of coal, in Lanarkshire and Ayreshire predominantly.

The census returns of 1841 and 1851 showed an extraordinary concentration of population in towns, to a great extent due to the immigration of the population of the ten principal towns in 1851. 47% were born in these towns, 9% in surrounding towns, 28% in other parts of Scotland. This increase was furthered by many immigrants being of fertile ages and manufacturers encouraged the employment of young children. The factory population was largely recruited from country districts.

Reasons for people leaving country areas:

  • The attraction of higher wages in factories
  • The lack of cheap fuel in some areas - eg, little peat and a tax on all coal "carried coastwise". This tax was removed in 1793.
  • The suppression of illicit distillation after 1821, a common source of revenue to small landholders in northern shires.
In the Lowlands, in the early 18th century, a typical farm was held in "Run-rig", occupied by a number of tenants jointly responsible for management. There were also sub-tenants ("crofters") and cottars (who rendered service in return for diminutive holdings). The implements of husbandry were cumbersome ad inefficient - eg the Scottish plough, with a team of 8-12 oxen and 4 men, ploughed half an acre in a day. Tenants often had no leases and they were harassed with a multitude of services to fulfil. The land was over-populated.

With improvements, the run-rig system was abolished. The land was improved and laid off regularly. There was a greater variety of crops on rotation. Long leases became the rule. Implements were more efficient - eg the 2 horse plough. Much waste land was reclaimed. The rearing of sheep and cattle developed. An increased size of arable farms and pasture caused a decrease on country populations. After 1831 there was a sudden and marked decrease in rural population, due to the conversion of crofts into large farms for large scale cattle farming. A farmer rented a property which had previously maintained up to 10 tenants, with a corresponding number of sub-tenants and cottars, with their families. Such enlargement of farms was usually followed by the demolition of cottages. The displacement of cottars led to a shortage of rural labour. A large number of displaced families emigrated to Ireland and America.

In the Highlands, change came late, but the effects were more intense and clearly defined. The results of the extension of sheep farming led to abnormally severe consequences. After 1745 the clan system deteriorated. The land had been held by tacksmen or leaseholders from the proprietors or Chief, whose relations they usually were. Tacksmen in turn gave the land to their retainers who were sub-tenants at will, paying a rent in kind and in services. The pasture lands were held in common and the arable land was run-rig. Under this feudal tenure, land was more valuable to the proprietor for the number of fighting men it could maintain.

The breakdown of the system was heralded in 1746 by the abolition of heritable jurisdiction and by the delegation of most of the powers of chiefs to appointed sheriffs. The Clan Acts (1714 - 52) deprived many chiefs of their estates until they were returned to their owners in 1784. By then the landlord / tenant relationship had changed - land now meant money, not men. Neither landlords nor tenants had any security of tenure, Before the clearances, husbandry was miserable in the extreme. The lack of leases and the heavy services exacted discouraged improvement, The subdivision of arable land holdings by crofters among their families led to a growth and redundancy of population. Famines were frequent, The produce from an average croft did not support a family for 6 months of a year, and a considerable quantity of grain was normally imported, the cost being defrayed by the sale of livestock.

At first, evictions after 1745 had political motives. Evictions continued in the 1770's, but with the aim of better agriculture. Large scale sheep farming dated from 1762 and by 1770 the full effects were apparent. Then the common pasture was withdrawn and the arable fields disappeared. Frequently no provisions were made for displaced tenants who had the choice of migration to Lowland towns, or emigration. Clydeside was the main target, and many went to Dundee, Perth and Edinburgh. New villages sprang up in the districts bordering on the Lowlands, with populations of mainly displaced Highlanders. Handloom weaving was the main industry.

Highlanders also migrated to the coast, encouraged by the proprietors of kelp estates, with promises of grants of land (minute subdivisions). The prospect of work in the fishing industry was also held out, The results were tragic - the produce from the land was insufficient in a favourable season, there was no fishing equipment and no money to buy it. As the land was improved, the holdings were reduced in size and the rents were raised up to 600%!

The linen industry was entirely domestic up to 1770. The concentration of workers began with the rise of a merchant class in industrial towns who provided spinners with flax and weavers with yarn. Cotton had a firm foothold in Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire by 1770 and by 1780 linen was superseded. After 1820 there was a rapid increase in the number of spinning mills, which replaced the hand wheels, forcing displaced workers towards the mills in the towns, Cotton advanced up to 1850, but its importance was secondary to the development of the coal and iron trades. Allied industries - bleaching, dying, printing, attracted labour from the north.

Iron and coal

The Carron ironworks, founded in 1759, were the first to use natural deposits of ironstone and coal for smelting. The invention of the hotblast in 1850 led to a full development of the industry and a greater influx of population.

An act of 1606 made it illegal for any employer to engage a collier from another district who did not have a testimonial from the previous employer, without which the collier could be reclaimed by his former master within a year, and punished severely. Thus, a collier could be bound for life. Serfdom was hereditary, as whole families were regarded as attached to a colliery estate. These were movements of labour which attracted little attention unless the culprits were caught. It was to the advantage of the new employer not to give the fact any publicity. With an increased demand for miners after 1760, this serfdom was removed by an Act of 1775. Workers came great distances, especially the Irish. The ration of men to women in mines was 3:1. In 1843 an Act put an end to the employment of women and of boys under 10 years in mines.

Highlander immigrants were very numerous in the 18th century, They were regarded by Lowlanders as alien, differing in manner, speech and religion. The Highlanders kept themselves apart, spoke only Gaelic, and Gaelic churches were erected in Glasgow, Greenock, Paisley and Dundee.

Health of the Towns

The Glasgow population rose from 30,000 in 1770 to 359,000 in 1851. Towns with populations more than 10,000 held 17% of the country's population in 1801 and 32% in 1851, and Glasgow's share rose from 5% to 11.5%.

In Greenock, in the late 18th century, there were so many Highlanders one could walk from one end of the town to the other without hearing a word of any language but Gaelic.

The large towns were the worst plague spots in Britain. Glasgow was by far the unhealthiest in Scotland, with a death rate of 1/37 in 1837 and 1/18 in 1847. Greenock was the second unhealthiest. Immigrants from the country districts were more likely to provide the fatal cases rather than the native-born inhabitants of the towns.

Cholera is due to a vibrio, a small organism which causes violent vomiting, painless diarrhoea with copious rice-water stools, severe and rapid dehydration, cramps and urinary suppression. It is usually acquired from infected water. Flies carry the disease by contaminating food, milk etc with infected faeces. The incubation period is 2-3 days. The mortality rate varied in different epidemics between 30-50%, being most fatal at the start. Young children, pregnant women, aged and debilitated people and alcoholics did badly.

After a lapse of 200 years, cholera visited Scotland in 1832. Beginning in South-east Asia, it travelled through Russia and the Continent, reaching Sunderland in November 1831. This was the most severe visitation, Forewarned of the imminent epidemic , the cities took elaborate precautions; cleaning streets of waste matter and stagnant water, attempting to provide better ventilation in small over crowded homes of the working class, providing lime and soap for the cleansing of houses. But all these precautions could not halt the great wave of the disease, and the first cases occurred in Scotland in the first week of February 1832 in a number of areas, suggesting that the disease was being spread by travellers. Soon it became general and the rapidity of its spread was terrifying, aided by the state of the towns and cities. The streets were receptacles of all manner of filth and refuse. There was overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate water supplies. Polluted rivers and wells were prime sources of infection. In 1827, as a result of famine in Ireland and the Highlands, many thousands of immigrants entered Glasgow. The great majority of industrial workers were exposed to a greater risk of an early death for themselves and their families through urbanisation. The transfer from agriculture to industry usually meant a move from country into towns, which were more dangerous places to live in.

In Glasgow the hospital filled, By May 1832, 40 had died. After a great demonstration in connection with the first Reform Bill in June, 100,000 people were crowded in the streets, and the disease assumed terrible dimensions. By the time the epidemic has run its course in November 1832, 3000 had died.

There were further cholera outbreaks in 1834, 1848 and 1854. Whilst the first epidemic principally affected the poorer people, in the 1848 outbreak , the wealthier class suffered most; 3700 died. In the 1854 outbreak, there were 3900 victims. This was the last cholera epidemic because later improved sanitary conditions, drainage, and water supply were against the disease gaining hold.

Typhus: Typhus was the most fatal infectious disease. Due to a Richettsia, it is a highly contagious fever characterised by sudden onset, severe prostration, delirium and termination by crisis about the 14th day. The infection is conveyed by body lice. Predisposing causes are verminous infestation, over crowding and destitution. The greatest mortality is in those above middle age, and alcoholics. Epidemics occurred in Sottish towns every 5-6 years. An epidemic raged in 1814-15, being more virulent in the winter, In an 1818 outbreak the lower classes were ravaged. A few temporary hospitals were erected, to which 2000 cases were admitted. Between 1835 and 1840, there were 68,000 cases, of which nearly 6000 died. In 1847, 9000 died.

There was a heavy toll of young children, especially with small pox. More than 50% of children died before reaching 10 years and of this 50%, one third died of smallpox. After vaccination was introduced, child mortality was still high. The incidence of child deaths varied with destitution and disease - the great bulk of pauper burials in Glasgow were children. The employment of children weakened their physiques.

Immigrants played a large part in producing an unhealthy atmosphere in towns. Many of them gravitated naturally to the lower forms of employment and inhabited the more noisome quarters. The immigrants were more susceptible to disease and the Irish often brought diseases with them. There was little town planning. Gaols were over crowded, There were terrible conditions in the lower quarters: the wynds held a population of 15,000 - 30,000; numberless entrances led in to small squares and courts, each with dunghills reeking in the centre.

Poor relief

This system in 1770 had undergone little change for almost a century. The able bodied poor had no right of support, and it was only available to the poor, impotent and decayed. The system relied for funds on the voluntary contribution of the public by collection and bequest. Pauperism became an urgent problem in overcrowded industrial areas. Voluntary donations were insufficient and authorities were resistant to imposing assessments but had to come to it. So poor relief was by no means adequate but it was dependable in the industrial areas. But in the greater part of Scotland, especially in the agricultural districts, poor relief was meagre and unreliable, and there was a strong resistance to assessment, especially in the part of the clergy who saw such a system as discouraging independence. So when employment was scarcest, relief was the most meagre.

The Poor Laws promoted migration by open encouragement given to vagrancy and mendicity. Authorities, unable or unwilling to grant relief from poor funds, urged applicants to take toll of the generosity of neighbours. Badges of authenticity were given and beggars were allowed to wander abroad, including maniacs and idiots, who were found to beg so successfully they could maintain themselves and their families without the parish being put to expense. Vagrants tended to make for the towns, and the prevalence of mendicity was a constant source of complaint up to 1850. The Irish were very addicted to begging. Even when men in towns were in work, the women and children went into adjoining parishes to beg.

There was inevitably a movement of the poor from unassessed to assessed parishes, particularly in industrial towns, In the longer term, 1/3 of the Scots who applied for relief were from country districts, partly due to the susceptibility of immigrants to disease e.g. in Glasgow, pauperism was very common amongst the Highlanders because parents succumbed to fever, leaving children destitute.

The movement of the poor to towns were not always voluntary. The fear of landowners that undue poverty on estates might lead to assessment caused them to drive out the poorer tenants. This was a reason for the hastiness of the Highland Clearances. New landlords had little sympathy with the poorer tenants. Agricultural labourers unfit for work and the elderly and infirm (mainly women) went to the towns, where the laws were more generously interpreted. In towns, relief was occasionally given to those temporarily disabled by sickness. The unemployed were sometimes given work at a reduced wage. There were institutions outside the Poor Laws which helped destitute immigrants - in Glasgow, there was the Highland Strangers Friend Society and the Celtic Dispensary.

Poor relief was generally administered on and outdoor basis. There were few workhouses and such as existed had more applicants than could be taken, and often had no accommodation for children. It was common practice to send out pauper children for their living, even those under 12 - e.g. the boys as apprentice weavers, the girls as domestics. In Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, the poor orphan was boarded with strangers, who paid no more than 4pounds 6d per month. The children were sent out to work in factories to make up the deficit. Some children were sent to employers in the colonies to avoid the evils of factories, where they might have their morals corrupted and have little opportunity to improve themselves. The girls ran the risk of falling back for refuge into the ranks of the degraded and prostitutes.

Removal of paupers back to their own parishes were often carried out - the pauper and his family were given a pass and every parish through which they had to pass was required to help them. This arrangement was abused by vagrants who wished to reach a particular district, eg Clydeside. Irishmen were sent back to Ireland from Renfrewshire without necessarily having an agreement.

Under the Poor Law Act of 1845, a parish had to relieve a pauper until the parish of settlement could be ascertained. Machinery was set up to assure a greater uniformity in the execution of the laws - a Central Board of Supervisors, with a Parochial Board in each parish. There was no direct compulsion on a parish to levy a poor-rate, but there was indirect pressure - a Parish Board had to appoint an Inspector of the Poor, who had direct control of poor relief. Should the local Board refuse relief, the applicant could plead to the Sheriff or Board of Supervision - this reduced the infiltration of the poor from unassessed to assessed parishes. The policy of removing paupers had sanction now - chiefly removal from large towns. Glasgow had the greatest numbers, then Edinburgh, Greenock and Paisley - there were more female paupers than male. Removal was not used in fit cases of relief, but only if there was doubt of genuineness.

Poor relief defects were most obvious in the Highlands, Even in favourable years, most Highlanders were never far removed from want. Poor relief was practically non-existent before 1845, and therefore insufficient. During famines, other means were used to prevent starvation - especially public subscription. In 1847 there was a severe famine, followed by failure of the potato crop. Board was arranged for the able-bodied to have work in the Lowlands, where their welfare would be attended to, e.g. harvesting, herring fishing, railroad work, The next year, these avenues of employment closed, as public relief work was set up, especially road building.

Seasonal migration

Seasonal migration especially involved Highlanders, through economic necessity, after 1770. They were usually smallholders or crofters, dependant for at least half of their means of subsistence with the cultivation of holdings. Also involved were cottars with no land at all. Some were almost totally reliant on fishing. In normal years, the migrants were mostly young men and women, but the failure of the potato crop would compel the removal of a greater number, including older men for a longer time. Some were hired as fishermen in the South - or they worked on roads, railways and canals. Women who went to Glasgow or Greenock as domestic servants usually came home for the winter.

With the new methods of farming, which had driven great numbers off the land, there was a great scarcity of labour in the busy seasons, and farmers were glad to pay high wages. Labour might be sought in neighbouring small villages and towns where those driven off the land were prepared to return. In districts such as Galloway and the Border shires, where there were no large towns, farmers had to depend entirely on vagrant bands of Highlanders. In the 19th century, there was more competition from Irish who came across in their thousands in boats for 6d in 8-10 hours in search of seasonal work in the Lowlands, thus reducing the opportunities for the Highlanders who took a week or so to get there. This was offset by agricultural improvements in Invernesshire and Rosshire which created a demand for seasonal labour.

The fishing industry declined in the late 18th century, under a heavy salt tax; there was a revival when the tax was repealed in 1817, with a greater opportunity for seasonal work.


A few Highlanders emigrated before 1745 to North Carolina and Georgia. After 1746, the flow was steady and by the 1760's it had accelerated. Between 1763 and 1775, probably over 20,000 had (1 line of writing missing) mostly from the islands and the West Coast. This was perhaps due to rack renting ( the raising of rents on the 18th century without any corresponding advance in the profits of farming). This was to do with increase in population causing greater competition for land and with the desire of some proprietors to get rid of tacksmen. The tacksmen headed the emigration, often with many of the subtenants, This movement was cut short in 1775 by the War of American Independence.

Emigration revived in 1783 with greater intensity as Scotland was in the throes of a very severe famine. Between 1782 ad 1803, at least 12,000 emigrated.

As sheep farming moved north, emigration increased. A decision to leave depended on the amount of money available - many crofters and cottar could not afford it and travelled within Scotland instead.

Up to the early 19th century, landlords in the north-west districts and the Hebrides opposed the emigration of crofter. The kelp industry was profitable and many workers were needed. This influenced an Act of 1803 imposing restrictions on emigration and raising the cost of transport. However, as the century advanced, the landlords encouraged emigration, especially after the profitability of the kelp industry started to fall, and in search of new sources of income, sheep farming and clearances were introduced. But most of the crofters and cottars could not afford the £2 passage to America , and the landlords packed them into emigrant ships, instead of the previous evictions, leaving them to go wherever they wished.

In the famine of 1836-7 in the Highlands, public funds were used to finance emigration and the Government helped crofters to go to Australia. Sheer poverty prevented many Highlanders from emigrating and in 1851, the Highland Emigration Society was formed. It paid 2/3 of the expenses and the proprietors paid the rest. Most were sent to Australia. Between 1852 and 1855, 47,000 were sent, mainly from Glasgow.

Up to 1850, the great bulk of the Highlanders went to Canada. After 1763, the Highland regiments were disbanded and settled there, joined by friends and relatives.

Conditions for emigrants were bad, with overcrowded ships, deaths, lack of food and water, and diseases - especially typhus. An Act of 1835 improved conditions and enforced inspection of all passengers before sailing and employment of a surgeon for any boat with more than 100 passengers.

There was also emigration from the Lowlands after the agricultural changes - there were 7000 before 1786, mostly displaced agricultural labourers. In 1820, unemployed from Glasgow and other towns were helped to emigrate but this was discontinued in 1821 as too expensive. In 1826 the plight of cotton weavers was miserable but emigration could not be arranged. There was emigration in the spinning trade, due to the prosperity of the industry, and the unions were sending away surplus operatives to keep up wages.

Social welfare

(ref; Scottish Family History, David Moody)

There was legislation in 1424 enacting that no person between 14 and 70 should be allowed to beg; others were issued with badges permitting them to do so. The Poor Law Act of 1574 introduced a distinction that was to dog poor law practice up to World War II, between the able-bodied unemployed and the destitute. Newly appointed justices of the peace were to produce lists of the poor and the parishioners assessed (taxed) for their upkeep. There was provision for the transference of a pauper to his or her parish of birth. The pauper walked, but was issued with a certificate allowing him or her to pass from parish to parish during the journey, and to get temporary relief.

Responsibility for relief passed in rural areas to kirk sessions and heritors, who became joint administrators. The abandonment of the government system, and partial reversion to the practice of mediaeval times, reflect the weakness of the state and its reliance on the church's institutional and ethical structures to cater for many areas of human need. There was an attempt at collaboration, sources of relief including a parish assessment or land tax, income from bequests or mortification, as well as the church door collections (the most popular, as it involved no legal obligation - an indication of suspicion in which the state was still held).

Burgh provision was rather more complicated. In Glasgow, the town council, the church, the incorporated trades and the merchants house (their guild) all contributed, and it was mainly in burghs that poorhouses were erected. Poorhouses provided for the very old and the very young, as well as the sick, but only to a small extent for the unemployed, who in most cases thought it was shameful to be "on the parish", preferring the dignity of insurance through friendly society membership. Such ideas persisted with the onset of industrialisation, though they became increasingly undermined by the prevalence of structured unemployment, a feature of an industrial economy. Attempts were made to adapt the parochial system of poor relief for urban areas and at the same time maintain the feature of voluntary contribution.

This was prized for the encouragement it gave to the habit of economy, the kindness of relatives, the sympathy of the poor for one another and the sympathy of the wealthy for the poor.

The problems in the traditional system of support from family, church and community was investigated in the first half of the 19th century. An 1844 report was symptomatic of a shift from church to state influence, further reflected in 1845 by the establishment of parochial boards. A Board of Supervisions, a radical innovation, was set up in 1845 to supervise the work of the Parochial Boards- this was the first direct involvement of the state in the administration of welfare services.

Stages in this development:

  • A social problem, exacerbated by such phenomena of the cholera epidemic on 1831-2.
  • Appointment of an inspectorate to enforce compliance with the new legislation, when the voluntary principle is found wanting.
  • Appointment of the Board of Supervision, coincident with the introduction of a factory inspectorate.
  • The persistent and powerful voices of professional and technical experts pressing for intervention and superintendence.
  • Disillusion with grand gestures in favour of a slow process of change and regulation.
  • Discretionary executive powers are given to the expert, who is regarded as having better judgement than the politicians.
The development of social welfare over the centuries set a pattern that can be followed in other areas. Schooling moved from being the responsibility of the church to that of the local Schhols Board adfter 1872. responsibility then shifted to the country wide education authorities and then to county councils in 1929. The parish church school gave people enough literacy to read the Bible and to inculcate rules of acceptable social behaviour. For all its limits, ints role as moral tutor to the young, the Church was finely attuned to the traditional function of the family in introducing children to the social habits and standards of society, Modern schools have progressively abandoned the moral stance in favour of mental development and technological knowhow.
Back to Top