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by Gordon Johnson, Wick, Caithness, Scotland

This article has been kindly given by Gordon and is his copyright (2002) - it must not be copied or reproduced in any form without his permission.


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Modern medicine is a high-tech, well-informed science today, yet even a severe outbreak of flu can be burdensome to a community. Imagine what it was like when an epidemic of any kind swept through a population, the doctors not understanding what caused it, no-one sure of any cure for it, and a high death rate which accompanied all these epidemics. I'll tell you what it was like, in Scotland.

It was panic.

We have all heard of the Black Death. That was the common phrase for bubonic plague, the scourge which appeared from the Far East and worked its way inexorably westwards, through Europe, into England, and up to Scotland, where it arrived around 1349 A.D. News travelled slowly in these days, but word of mouth is a pretty fast spreader of tales, and basic precautions were taken.

However, no-one had much previous experience, so the precautions failed miserably. Some estimates have suggested that around 25 million people died of the Black Death in Europe. The death rate was in the region of two-thirds of the population dying. Although the Black Death was the worst ever plague to hit Europe, it was not the first, and even after it had subsided, it remained latent in the population and came back again and again. It was not until 1648 that the last outbreak of bubonic plague was recorded in Scotland. No doubt infections have spread and take their toll of populations in prehistory, but it is not until better records were kept that we have anything definite to point to. The Romans first noted some form of plague around the 7th century, and outbreaks appeared all over the Roman world, all the way to Scotland. While it is not clear what exactly these plagues were, it could have been bubonic plague, although it did not seem to remain active, possibly due to the small population not providing a sufficient reservoir for mutated versions to arise. The Chronicle of Holyrood, written in Edinburgh describes this virulent plague happening in the year 664. "There broke out a sudden pestilence, which first devastated the southern districts of Britain, and then laid hold upon the province of the Northumbrians....and killed a large number of the inhabitants. This plague was equally destructive in the island of Ireland." Another chronicler of the time, Adamnan, said it laid waste all the countries of Western Europe with the exception of the tract of country occupied by the Picts and Scots. This meant effectively the area north of the Antonine wall, but why the north should have been spared is a mystery, as trade contacts should have brought the disease to Scotland..

The early historian Bede also describes this outbreak, calling it the year of the eclipse and the pestilence (there was an eclipse of the sun on May 2nd of that year). Despite the surviving comments of St. Adamnan, a local tradition in Glenlyon, Perthshire, says that he (they call him St. Eonan) was a missionary there when a plague broke out over Scotland. At Fortingall it was said to be so virulent that only one person survived, and the location was repopulated from outside later on. The tale says that the missionary was asked to save the people from death.

He held a meeting at which he preached, then he seperated the sound from the unsound, sending the healthy to the mountain shielings while he attended to the sick. With these efforts, the plague soon stopped, and it was ascribed to the power of the saint. More likely, it was his public health technique which was effective! Most of Scotland may have missed that one, but there were many more, with pestilences reported in 683, 897, 962, and 1154. This last one was a plague affecting animals only, but it still left a great famine in the land. The Black Death was reputed to have been the worst, perhaps because it was so well reported, then there was a period of recuperation before the new outbreaks appeared in Scotland.

These came in 1361, 1380, and 1401, according to Wynton's "Orygynal Cronicles"(Andrew Wynton, writing from the 1390s onwards). Then in 1439, he says, an illness occurred that was so virulent that "there died more that year than ever there died under the pestilence or yet in any other sickness in Scotland." He called this the Land-ill of Wame-ill, and it appears to be something other than bubonic plague, for he adds "and that same year the pestilence came in to Scotland and began at Dumfries, and it was called "the pestilence without mercy". Anyone catching it died within about 24 hours. It was not a happy time, that is certain. Finally the Scottish government got around to invoking basic public health precautions, issuing in 1456 an act prescribing measures to be taken. Those who were stricken with the plague should remain in their own houses, providing they were able to maintain themselves and their household. If they could not, provision was to be made for them. Those who refused to abide by these restrictions were to be put outside the town, at a place where they had to stay until they died or recovered. A policy of medical isolation of cases of infection was finally being organised, and the place of banishment outside the towns were generally known as the Foul Moor. The isolation of lepers in "hospitals" (a basic building to provide shelter, sleeping and cooking arrangements) outside town walls was a long-standing local policy, so the plague arrangements were merely an extension of this. Very few histories take much notice of the effect of pestilence on normal life, partly because for most people it truly was a normal occurrence at variable intervals, and an occurrence that they could do little to prevent as far as they were aware.

Many local records give mention of pestilence appearing, and measures taken to protect the town or cope with its effects. There are outbreaks in various parts of Scotland at different times, but it hit noticeably in 1498, 1504, 1512, 1530, 1538, 1543, 1545, 1568, 1574, 1585, 1587, with 1585 being one of the worst of all these. Through all the burgh records there runs a thread of similar measures being taken, and sufficient people ignoring the rules so that the pestilence arrives and spreads. Most burghs tried to keep out strangers and travellers, and even local traders were not allowed to visit a plague area and return home. The town entrances would be guarded, and non-locals sent away; side roads into the town would be blocked with thorn fences to stop anyone trying to sneak in; and the council would institute inspections of any suspect illness. At the first sign of the symptoms of pestilence, it was either house arrest or the Foul Moor. As the years and the outbreaks continued, the burgh council were ready to institute their measures when a new pestilence was threatened. For a while, no major outbreak came to cause problems, so caution was relaxed and people started to forget how bad it could be. Then came the first warning signs, when in 1631 word came of plague in England. Glasgow issued a decree banning anyone from going to England "where the pest is", and no-one coming from England was to be allowed into Glasgow without special, permission from the burgh council. A fortnight later they came down heavily on a Glasgow merchant, Archibald Watson, for going to England on business and returning, not even keeping to his house on returning. His "freedom was cryit down". It goes quiet again until November 1644 when the council minutes rejoice in the statement "it hath pleased God to visit the south countrie with the plague of pestilence." The 1631 warnings came back into force. It was Paisley that got the brunt of the plague when it struck there in 1645. The baillies of Glasgow in December 1645 voted to send 20 bolls of meal (grain) and some cash to help the people of Paisley, who were short of food. In 1646 the infection had arrived in Glasgow, but built up slowly, allowing the burgh to organise the isolation on the Foul Moor, with regular checks for new cases, ensuring that family members did not visit relatives on the moor. Gradually the measures become more restrictive as more cases appear: No men to leave the town, lykewakes after funerals are banned, as are other public gatherings. An official is appointed to keep a register of events, and record the graves on the moor. There was belated realisation that cleanliness was a factor, and so a man with a horse and cart is employed to collect the rubbish from the streets. A doctor is paid to make regular inspections of suspect victims. Soldiers quartered in the burgh are moved out to buildings outside the town, with the approval of the military authorities. The soldiers were also regularly checked for the disease, for troops were not very easily obtained and trained. Losses would be hard to make good. By April 1647, the pest had finally reached Aberdeen. It had been brought back to Scotland by soldiers who had served at the siege of Newcastle and unwittingly were carriers. On April 12th, the council minutes show that the Provost, Patrick Leslie, called a public meeting in order to inform everyone that a message had arrived saying that the plague had reached Bervie and was raging there. He asked every householder to refuse to accept any person arriving in town from any suspect place in the south, unless they carried a testimonial that they were free of the disease. How this was to operate is unclear, if the person who was being questioned was already in the city and looking for accommodation! Burghs issued these testimonials, and one example was prepared by the baillies of Aberdeen in September 1645 for William Scott, a wright and burgess and his servants William Robertson and Margaret Duguid. It testified that they came from a place free of plague and asked any burgh or parish they arrived at to let them pass without trouble or hindrance, as long as they themselves behaved properly. A watch was also set night and day at all the southern entrances to Aberdeen, staffed by local people on a rota basis. This system failed due to laziness on the part of some members of the rota who just did not turn up for their stint. As a result at least one carrier brought the plague later that month before a more efficiently organised watch was set up and staffed by paid personnel, so this improvement was too late. The infection came with a woman from Brechin who had slipped past the slipshod cordon. A child at the house where she lodged in Aberdeen caught it from her and so it passed to the child's schoolmates. It then spread widely through the burgh and became the worst outbreak of disease they had ever experienced, not fading away until December. The poorer citizens afflicted were taken to isolation huts on the Links - grassed-over sand-dunes, and buried there when they died. The wealthier infected citizens seem to have been allowed to remain isolated at home, and those favoured ones who died - 65 of them - were allowed burial in the churchyard. Householders were advised to wash and cleanse their goods, and then expose them to the frosty air, as this was considered to be a means of killing the infection. Bubonic plague fades away after this time in Scotland, though other places like London, with its Great Plague, still suffered for some time. Precautions remain for as long as plague is being noted elsewhere. In 1665 the council decreed that no ships were to be allowed into harbour without first being examined. The arrival in Aberdeen of a Captain Woodward and his family from Northwich in England resulted in them being placed under guard in their house, because he could produce no up-to-date certificate attesting him free of the plague. Their isolation period was set at 40 days, with the cost of the guard on his house charged to him. A ship from Gravesend was refused entry to the harbour, there being suspicion that not only the men but the goods might be contaminated with the pestilence. Even an English naval frigate was stopped outside the harbour until a magistrate went aboard and got sworn statements from the captain that no-one aboard had been in any place suspected of plague for at least six weeks. These and other sanitary and quarantine precautions all help build up a barrier to the plague, and no outbreaks are noted by any of the Scottish burgh councils thereafter. While no-one at the time knew what the method of transmission of the disease was, they had a suspicion that it had to do with unhealthy conditions.

It was in fact transmitted by fleas, which also inhabited rats, so getting rid of the fleas on humans was not enough. You also had to decimate the rat population for full effectiveness. The fleas bit an infected person, and as the blood the insects took contained the bacillus, the organism then multiplied inside the flea until it was passed on to another healthy human via another bite. It was never clear why the plague died away throughout Europe. It simply declined by itself until by around 1700 it had effectively gone. None of the proposed answers fit the pattern, but we have learned a lot more about the body's abilities in the last half century, so it may simply be that the immune systems of Europeans had built up their own mechanisms against the bacillus. Certainly outbreaks have continued in other parts of the world right up into the 1900s, with the odd case occurring anywhere. America continues to harbour bubonic plague, but in minimal amounts, kept under control by effective medical treatment.

Scotland has remained pretty well immune, but other plagues took over as the population grew. What started to attack the population in its stead was cholera, a disease encouraged by concentrated populations and polluted water. Cholera outbreaks ravaged the UK on many occasions until the mid-1800s, when public health finally got top priority and massive sewer systems were built in all the great cities. Public water supplies bringing pure piped water were engineered, and the whole basis was constructed of modern city-wide refuse collection, street cleaning and sewerage - all methods of keeping our surroundings safe from major infections. Diseases passed person-to-person still remained, and the Spanish Flu of 1919 killed millions of people throughout Europe; more indeed than the first world war did. We can never feel fully secure from plagues of disease, and we must be prepared to respect public health systems as a real safeguard for all of us. Modern communications can spread disease far faster than was ever possible in the past. The threat remains







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