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The Story of Leith
XXV. Plague and Pestilence


JUST as a wave of pestilence seemed to follow in the wake of the Great War with Germany, so in those evil days of civil war in England between Cavaliers and Roundheads, and of the fierce and savage campaign of Montrose in Scotland, Leith and Edinburgh were desolated with the last and most terrible outbreak of the plague they were ever to know. Sir Thomas Hope, the great Puritan lawyer of Charles I.’s time, as he sat in his stately old mansion, now displaced by the Edinburgh Public Library, records in his diary under May 12, 1645, "A dauchter of Sir William Gray’s departit of the plaig, which put us all in greit fear." The dread scourge broke out in Leith about the same time, for, dated 3rd April, is the following ominous entry in the South Leith Church Records: "To furnish provisions fur ye woman at ye Yarde heads who is steekit up (that is, shut up in her house) for feare of ye plague."

These cases were but the heralds of a fast approaching scourge. Soon death and desolation reigned in every street, and to add to the horror of the situation the pestilence was accompanied by famine, for the harvest of the previous year had been a failure. In old-time Scotland plague, or the pest as it was usual to call it then, frequently followed times of scarcity, and this, together with the distress and anxiety caused by the protracted civil strife, had so reduced the vital power of the people that their bodies, thus weakened, were unable to resist the attacks of the pestilence. The filthy and evil-smelling streets, which were never cleansed, were in themselves fruitful sources of disease.

Old YardheadsAll who could, as in the severe outbreaks of 1475 and 1504, fled the town. As a result the infected were frequently left unattended, and in this way the death roll was largely increased. Dread of the plague made the people utterly selfish, a heartlessness of which we are still reminded by the saying, "to shun a person as if he had the plague." Where those who thus heartlessly forsook their friends and neighbours betook themselves we are not told, but wherever they had gone it was resolved to tax them for the support and maintenance of the poor of the town.

Among those who remained and did their best for the suffering people were the minister, the Rev. Mr. Sharp, and the session clerk, David Aldinstone—Mr David he was respectfully called by the parishioners. One of his duties was the writing of the minutes of the session meetings. Mr. David’s minutes at this time and for many months to come are wholly taken up with the plague which was absorbing all men’s thoughts.

The minute-book, of seven hundred and sixty-five closely written pages, is entitled "Register of S. Leith Church, 1643 to 1660," and forms a valuable record of one of the most eventful periods in the history of the town, the period of the strenuous fight of the Army of the Covenant, of the last and greatest visitation of the plague, and of the invasion and occupation of the town by Cromwell’s Tronsides, who for seven years closed the two parish churches to their congregations, and used them as storehouses for their artillery and other munitions of war. Save in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year in London, a highly imaginative work of fiction be it remembered, based on hearsay, no more interesting account of the ravages of plague and the efforts to cope with it Was ever penned than that of Mr. David Aldinstone in the old session minute-book.

The Kirk Session, who in those times exercised a large police jurisdiction over the town, along with the Water-bailie and his Deputy, set themselves, as was usual in times of plague, to prevent the spread of the disease rather than to relieve those whom it had already stricken.

In doing this they took very enlightened measures. They instinctively felt that the cleansing of the town was the best way to check the scourge "quhilk be the Grace of God and good governance may be stanchit." But the cleansing of the streets was no easy task. Some idea of their state may be gathered from the first intimation on the subject, which declared that every one remove the middens and dead swine off the streets. (Pork was then very generally eaten. The pigs were housed beneath the outside stairs, and many had died from want of food, as their owners were either plague-stricken or dead.)

There was no town cleansing department in those days. Week after week, and month after month, carts were employed in this work, which became more and more difficult to accomplish as the plague spread and carried off one after another of the workers. The various cart-loads were, at first, laid down on the Sands within high-water mark, so that the flood-tide would carry them out to sea. To expedite the work, all those who rented fields or farms round the town were, on pain of being "laid fast in prison," to carry out the street refuse and lay it on their land. Then, in spite of the wages of those thus employed being raised, no new men for the work could be had, and so women and boys, especially those who had recovered from the plague, as they were not so liable to be again affected, were commandeered for this work, under threat of imprisonment! if they refused.

The members of the Kirk Session reported all cases of sickness to the two Bailies, but after a few days it was found that Bailies and Session were quite inadequate to cope with the work, and a meeting was held in the Tolbooth to make up a roll of helpers.

Men called quarter-masters were appointed to visit the different quarters of the town and report all new cases of plague. When the plague broke out in a family they had to indicate the fact by hanging a white cloth from their house. It was then the duty of the quartermasters, as a preventive against infection, to lock them in and go round daily with their supply of food—three half-loaves and two quarts of ale each day. Tea and coffee were not yet in use. On the death of the infected member of the family, the others with their gear—that is, their household goods—of which people possessed much less then than now, were removed to a plague camp on the Links, where they were housed in "ludges" or wooden huts for many days till all fear of infection was gone. Meanwhile their houses were closed up until they were "singit and fyrit with hether "—that is, until they were thoroughly disinfected with the smoke of burning straw, whins with which the Links were then covered, or heather from the heathery braes around Pilrig and the Gallow Lee. After this process they were cleansed by being scrubbed out. But there was serious risk of fire from this singeing by the "smeikers." Just two months before the town of Kelso had thus been completely burned down by the cleansing of "ane of the houses thereof whilk was infected by the plague." For this reason, before any house was disinfected, "puncheons" of water were placed beside it in case of fire to sloken the same." The day of water mains and fire engines was as yet far off.

The number of "ludges" went on increasing as the infection spread, and soon a regular town of them was built on the Links, divided into quarters to correspond to the quarters of the town. There were three great groups of these huts—one beside the Boothacre at Seafield, to which they probably gave the name; another stood between Links Place and Charlotte Street; while the position of the third is nowhere stated. An overseer was appointed for the "ludges" who was provided with a horse. It was his duty to ride round morning and evening to provide the occupants with their needful food from a store or magazine house in the neighbourhood of the huts. Quarter-masters were appointed for the Links as well as the town, but their courage must have failed them, as the overseer, Alexander Hay, complained that none would tend those there placed in quarantine save himself. But his own spell of office was short. Within a month he had fallen a victim to the plague, and after much difficulty a new overseer was at last found courageous enough to undertake the duty.

But now the supply of food began to fail. The famine had set in and supplies had to be obtained from Musselburgh and elsewhere, but they had to be paid for. It is impossible for us in our day to realize the gloom, the terror, and the distress of the folk of Leith at this time. The streets were deserted, for even those who had as yet escaped the attack of the scourge dreaded meeting their neighbours for fear of infection. The horse in the dead cart had to be taken to Restalrig, where the plague also raged, to be shod, as no smith could be found at work in Leith. Perhaps it is to the sorrow and sadness of this time we owe the legend in large Roman lettering over the old doorway in St. John’s Close, Canongate: THE LORD IS ONLY MY SUPORT, for to arrest the progress of the plague seemed beyond the power of man.

Wellington PlaceFor the first few weeks after the outbreak the victims of the pestilence were buried in the churchyard. But the dead now became so numerous that to dig individual graves was no longer possible. Besides, it was feared the infection might burst forth anew if ever the graves were reopened for future burials. The dead were now buried on the Links in great trenches, mostly in the neighbourhood of Wellington Place, where their remains are frequently uncovered in digging the foundations of new buildings. Those who died in the plague camp at Boothacre were interred on the Links near Sea-field, at first in "deid kysts," or coffins, and then simply in the blankets in which they died, "for the number of the dead exceeds the number of the living, and some lyeth long unburied." To avoid infection as far as possible the removal and burial of the dead was done under silence of night. In Leith the dead-cart was William Strachan’s slaid—that is, sledge—a common form of cart everywhere in earlier days, and on its side was hung "ane bell whilk sal make warning to the people."

In the older portion of South Leith Churchyard, the part on the south side of the church, it is very noticeable how the graves lie east and west in parallel rows, a relic of pre-Reformation times. In Covenanting days we are led to believe that the people sternly turned their backs on everything that savoured of the old faith. Yet the plague graves, both at Wellington Place and the Boothacre, hasty as the interments must have been, all lie east and west, while the bodies, apparently without exception, had been buried with the hands crossed or in the attitude of supplication like the prereformation effigies of the Forresters in Corstorphine Church. Where there were coffins they were of plain fir deals—that is, they were of home-grown timber and bore no signs of ever having been covered or decorated with cloth, which was not customary at that time.

The records of North Leith Church for this period have long since disappeared, so that no details of the ravages of this last visitation of the plague in North Leith are now known. Remains of interments have been found near the coast between Leith and Newhaven. These were supposed at the time to have been the graves of Cromwell’s soldiers who died during theft occupation of Leith from September 1651 to the close of the year 1659. They are more likely to have been those of victims of the plague.

The Building on Logan's Lea, LochendIn the vicinity of the plague camps the clothes and other effects of the stricken or suspected persons were purified by being boiled in large cauldrons erected over peat fires in the open air. They were then further disinfected by being smoked in kilns built for this purpose. One of these cauldrons came from the brewery of James Storrie, who is no doubt name-father to Storrie’s Alley. A kiln, convenient both for Leith and Restalrig, was erected on Logan’s Lea, the meadow-land beside the loch at Lochend, where, curiously enough, an old building like a kiln stands to-day beside the allotments on the rising ground just north of the loch. Local tradition, which so frequentlv leads us astray in the story of Leith, declares this building to have been a dovecot, but an examination of the interior would seem to disprove this belief.

The plague began in April, and raged all the summer and autumn, but the cold and storms of winter came as a blessing to the stricken town. The scourge then began to abate, and, after threatening more than once to break out again, disappeared with the approach of spring. The population of South Leith before the outbreak could hardy have exceeded 4,000 people. Of this number 2,421. or considerably more than half, had been carried off.

In Restalrig the victims numbered 160, while in the Craigend or Calton there died 155. The total for the whole parish was therefore 2,736. Many houses were left uninhabited, as their occupants had fallen victims to the ravages of the plague. The town was left overwhelmed with debt, her trade had been brought to a standstill, and it was years before she regained her wonted prosperity. Unless the kiln at Lochend be one, there is no other memorial of this piteous time in Leith save the graves of the unknown victims. Edinburgh possesses three interesting memorials of this last and most terrible visitation of the plague—in the tombstone in the grounds of Bruntsfield House, the Morocco Land in the Canongate, and the "plague ceilings" in Brodie’s Close, Lawnmarket, with the dates 1645 and 1646, showing that the work was suspended during the pestilence and completed when it had passed in 1646.

A Plague Grave at Holyrood


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