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The Social and Industrial history of Scotland, from the Union to the present time
Eighteenth Century: 10. Poor Relief and Crime


At the beginning of the century Scotland, according to Fletcher of Saltoun, swarmed with beggars. The circumstances of dearth and famine in which he wrote were exceptional. But owing to the depression of the first half of it the number was still comparatively large, for the professional beggar was a legacy of former times, despite the old laws against the "sturdy" race. In 1579 Parliament had authorised, though it did not make compulsory, an assessment for the poor in each parish. But the enactment remained practically a dead letter and by the year 1740 only eight parishes had taken advantage of it. The method in vogue was that of licensing so many indigent persons in each parish to beg within its bounds, beyond which they were not permitted to exercise their calling, and to grant relief from the church collections for this object. Relief was thus dependent on the charity of the people, which was dispensed either directly in kind, or indirectly in money, through the agency of the Kirk Session, which distributed the collections. i( Distressed persons," such as cripples and other sufferers, who were popularly known as "objects," were carried in carts or barrows from house to house throughout the parish by the inmates who, after relieving their needs, expedited them in this fashion to their neighbours. The begging fraternity invariably turned up at marriages, funerals, and communions to get a share of the good things going. The collections as a rule were meagre, for the people, especially in the early part of the century, had little to spare in the form of dyots, bodies, groats, and bawbees of which the infinitesimal parts of the Scots shilling consisted, the shilling being only equal in value to the English penny, and the pound to Is. 8d. sterling. Moreover, the poor box at the church door was the receptacle for the bad copper money in circulation which was refused at the shop or the market. When the box was opened it was often found to contain nearly as many bad coins as good, and Kirk Sessions were often at their wits' end to meet the demands made on them. The weekly dole was, therefore, small, but it at least offered no temptation, as did the statutory relief in England, to live on the rates or undermine a healthy spirit of self respect and independence among the people, characteristic of Scots folk in the olden days.

The improvement in agriculture in the second half of the century, by providing more work and higher wages, ultimately tended to diminish pauperism in the rural districts, except in the Highlands. The progress of commerce and industry similarly affected the towns for the better. At the same time the change in economic conditions, by favouring the concentration of population in the large towns, to some of which the destitute from the Highlands drifted, tended to increase the number of the poor, without materially increasing the means of their relief from voluntary sources, and made the problem of pauperism a pressing one. Moreover, if wages rose, prices also rose and providence among the working class did not necessarily increase with them. This fact alone made the task of relieving the poor, who from various causes increase with the growth of population in cities, a difficult one. The civic authorities were thus compelled to face the question of compulsory assessment versus voluntary relief in towns like Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Paisley. There was a strong feeling against departing from the old method as tending to lower self respect and put a premium on poverty. The ministers were for long almost unanimously in favour of maintaining the old method of voluntary relief. They were, however, fain to confess the inadequacy of the church collections to cope with the task in many parishes. In the larger towns at all events it was becoming hopeless, and Glasgow, Paisley, and Edinburgh were compelled in the second half of the century to have recourse to the law of 1579 and make trial of compulsory assessment. By the year 1800 ninety-three parishes had adopted this expedient.

Witchcraft was still accounted a crime and punished as such till well into the century. The last victim of this horrible delusion was burned at Dornoch in 1727, but happily the abolition of the Act against witches in 1736 rendered a repetition of such an atrocity henceforth impossible, to the consternation of all believers in the "traffickers with Satan," including Mr W. Forbes, professor of law at Glasgow, who in 1733 still gravely expatiated in his lectures and his Institutes of Scots Law on the evidence of this hellish agency. Child murder was a common crime in the first half of the century, due in part to the rigorous ecclesiastical discipline which subjected the mother of an illegitimate child to the obloquy of a public penance before the congregation. Executions from this cause were at all events common before the more humane influence of Moderatism relaxed the old censorship of ministers and Kirk sessions. The criminal law was, however, much less brutal than in England, where no fewer than 164 crimes involved the death penalty. Whilst murder, or arson, or robbery of a serious nature were punished by death, imprisonment or banishment from the burgh, with branding and a whipping into the bargain were as a rule the only punishment for ordinary theft. Notorious thieves of the vagabond type, known as "sorners" or "Egyptians" were liable to banishment from the realm, and if caught in the act were hanged. The hereditary jurisdictions which invested the greater barons with the power of holding criminal courts within their domains had become a grave abuse, though interested persons might still defend them. The juries in these courts being composed of the lord's dependents, their verdict was naturally such as the lord or his baron bailie chose to make it. The lord's hangman or dempster was much in evidence under this arbitrary regime, especially in the northern parts. Transportation, though illegal, was a common device, since it enabled the impecunious baron to turn the administration of justice to his profit by sending the accused to the plantations in return for a money payment by the agent of some planter, as an alternative to the death penalty. It was not till 1748, after the second Stuart rising, that this arbitrary and corrupt jurisdiction disappeared at a cost to the country of 152,000, or about one-fourth of what these greedy magnates demanded. The riddance of this oppressive system was well worth the money. Serious crime was, however, rare in Scotland and its punishment mild in comparison with England, and such practices as the public flogging of criminals, especially of women, ere long came to grate on the public taste and disappeared. The prisons or tolbooths were, however, no better than in the southern country, and the lot of their inmates, of whom the majority were dishonest debtors, was found by John Howard towards the end of the century to be wretched in the extreme.


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