Contributors to the Old Statistical Account: Reverend Doctor James Octavius Playfair (1738-1819)

This is the second guest blog post from the independent researcher John Moore, who is writing to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of a number of contributors to the Old Statistical Account. This time, he is focusing on the Reverend Doctor James Octavius Playfair.


On 26th May 1819, the Reverend Doctor James Octavius Playfair, minister of the Perthshire charge of Meigle (1777-1800), died and we commemorate the bi-centenary of his death this month. Playfair was the author of the entries for both Meigle, a parish lying in the centre of Strathmore (OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 503-518) and the adjacent Angus parish of Eassie and Nevay (OSA, Vol. XVI, 1795, p. 212-221) in the Statistical Account.

Born the son of a farmer at West Bendochy in Perthshire, he studied at St. Andrew’s University before becoming minister of Newtyle in 1770, having been presented by James Stuart Mackenzie, Lord Privy Seal. In 1773 he married Margaret Lyon, daughter of the Reverend George Lyon of Longforgan. Seven years later, he transferred to the neighbouring parish of Meigle. During his time there, he wrote A System of Chronology in 1782, his alma mater awarded him an honorary doctorate in divinity (DD) in 1779 and in 1787 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The Meigle description appears in the first volume of the Old Statistical Account (1791) and much of the text reflects Playfair’s interests. He notes the heights of several local hills with great accuracy as ascertained by barometrical measurement and describes carefully the course of the river Isla. However, his discussion of local antiquaries, Playfair is quite scornful of early writings, stating that ‘the tales and stories related by fabulous writers are, for the most part, too wild and extravagant to merit belief’ (OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 505). In describing a monument in Meigle churchyard said to be dedicated to Vanora (or Guinevar), he comments that ‘the antiquary  may amuse himself with the fragments that remain; but he can scarcely form one plausible conjecture with respect to their original meaning and design’ (OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 507).

The memorial to Rev James Playfair, St Andrews Cathedral churchyard

The memorial to Rev James Playfair, St Andrews Cathedral churchyard

By 1791 the parish had a population of 1148 but the description of Meigle as an ancient, inconsiderable and meanly built town suggests that Playfair had little love for his charge, particularly as he scarcely mentions the conditions of its people. There can be no doubt, however, about where Playfair’s loyalties lay. He praises the period since 1745 as a fortunate epoch for Scotland, contrasting the formal rude and uncivilised state of the country with the benefits enjoyed following the introduction of many agricultural improvements, including his own use of a better quality of oats. The production of linen was the parish’s principal manufacture and Playfair details how progress would result from the construction of a canal between Perth and Forfar.

The account of Eassie and Nevay did not appear until four years later. Local rivers are again detailed and Playfair makes mention of James Mackenzie as its chief proprietor. Most of the text discusses various aspects of agricultural change – farms, inclosure, manures and livestock. With a population of 630, the parish inhabitants are described as ‘sober and industrious, strangers alike to intemperance and dissipation of every kind’.

At the end of 1799, he was appointed to be principal of the United Colleges of St. Leonard’s and St. Salvator’s in St. Andrew’s and moved to become minister of the congregation of St. Leonard’s in that city. It was during his time there that Playfair came into his own as a writer on geography. He published a sizeable System of Geography, Ancient and Modern between 1810 and 1814, followed by a four-volume General Atlas, Ancient and Modern (1814) and a Geographical and Statistical Description of Scotland in 1819. This final work is almost entirely based on the original Statistical Account of Scotland. In addition, Playfair was the official historiographer of the then Prince of Wales. He admired the work of Robert Burns and was one of the defenders of the authenticity of Ossian’s poems.

Playfair died at Dalmarnock near Glasgow soon after his Statistical Description appeared. Of his sons, Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair (1786-1861) was born at Meigle manse and served as an officer in the East India Company’s Bengal army. On his return to Scotland, he settled in St Andrews and was elected provost in 1842 – a post he held until his death. His older brother, George (1782-1846) became Inspector General of Hospitals in Bengal.


We would like to thank John for this guest post.


Contributors to the Old Statistical Account: Reverend John Clunie (1757-1819)

2019 is the 200th anniversary of the death of a number of contributors to the Old Statistical Accounts. This provides a perfect opportunity to discover those who wrote the actual parish reports at the end of the 18th century and so learn about the people behind this great resource.

Below is a guest blog post written by John Moore, an independent researcher, focusing on the writer of the parish report of Borthwick, County of Edinburgh (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 622-639), the Reverend John Clunie.


This month sees the bi-centenary of the death of the Reverend John Clunie (1757-1819), minister of Borthwick from 1791 until his death and author of the parish entry in the Old Statistical Account. Clunie was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Edinburgh in December 1784 and was a schoolteacher in Markinch for a while. His first charge was at Ewes parish before he moved to Midlothian. He had a reputation as a fine singer and led his congregation as precentor in his church at a time before organ music accompanied services. He wrote a version of the Scots song ‘I lo’e na a laddie but ane’ and his reputation as a song-writer led to an acquaintance with Robert Burns, who described him as ‘a worthy little fellow of a clergyman’. During his time of office, Clunie served as Chaplain to the Eastern Regiment of the Midlothian Volunteer Infantry. He married Mary Oliphant, daughter of the minister of Bower in 1790 and his son, James, subsequently became commandant of Moreton Bay Penal Settlement in Australia between 1830 and 1835.

Published in 1794, his extensive description of Borthwick states that ‘the air is pure; the inhabitants in general are healthy, and subject to no particular local distempers.’ (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 623) He notes that the six leading proprietors, who would have been the parish heritors, owned nearly half of the property. In discussing agricultural improvement, Clunie mentions James Small of Ford, the best plough-maker in Scotland who produced up to 500 ploughs in a year and introduced a superior cast-iron version of this important farming tool. Like many other accounts, the author mentions ale-houses ‘which are by no means favourable either to the health or morals of the inhabitants.’ (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 627) Having been a teacher, Clunie also provides much detail about the parish education and the ‘sort of genteel starving’ faced by the local schoolmaster. (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 628) The Account estimated the parish population at 858.

A photograph of Borthwick Church

Borthwick Church

Borthwick Church stands in a dominating site close to Borthwick Castle, which Clunie describes in his account. The east part of the building is substantially medieval with a 12th century apse and the 15th century Arniston Aisle. Medieval fabric survives inside, notably the magnificent Borthwick tomb and pre-Reformation piscina. Clunie’s account relates that the old church suffered a serious fire in May 1775 and was rebuilt three years later. The church continues to serve Middleton, Borthwick and the surrounding area.


We would like to thank John for this guest post. Look out for the next installment in May!


Highland Childhoods in the Old Statistical Accounts – Part 2

Guest blog post

Here is the second part of the guest post by Helen Barton and Neil Bruce, MLitt students at the University of the Highlands and Islands, who have carried out research on gender and family in the Highlands using the Statistical Accounts.


In part one, we considered what the Old Statistical Accounts told us about Highland Childhoods, focusing on Health and Disease, and Family Structures. In part two, we look at the Domestic Economy and Education.

Domestic Economy

Rural and town children were commonly brought up in homes where domestic work, employment and child-rearing were being juggled by female adults across generations. Accounts allude to the precariousness of bringing-in income. In many cases, both parents needed to earn to achieve sufficient income to sustain the family. When an Avoch fishing crew drowned, widows received charitable aid, but social expectation was that even those with young infants would soon return to industrious work (OSA, Vol. XV, 1795, pp. 634-5):

The distress of the widows having been thus mitigated, particularly until such of them had been left pregnant were delivered, and had nursed their infants, they have almost all now returned to the proper habits of industry, sufficient to support themselves and their families.

We can discern from the accounts typical levels of family income, and the cost of sustaining life, not just lifestyle. Families were experiencing increases in costs, noted to have doubled over four decades in Tarbat (OSA, Vol. VI, 1793, pp. 431-2). In the far North Highlands, it was estimated to be in the region of £14 per year (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p.29).  Children frequently worked for wages or boarded as farm labourers to make ends meet. Married men received a higher wage than single people, and men generally received higher wages.  Income was gender, age and board-dependant. In Dingwall, there were limited wages for male labourers and families were highly dependent on supplementary income. This was usually from women spinning as “(T)here is no room for children to exert industry as there are no manufacturers.  The whole income of the family can therefore not exceed L9:16”’ (OSA, Vol. III, 1792, p.13). This example of working mothers is repeated throughout the region. It points to waged work being introduced, and again, the need for two adult incomes to sustain families.

Elsewhere in Scotland, children were widely employed in manufacturing. They were cheap to employ before reaching at 14 years when higher wages were paid (C.A. Whatley, ‘The Experience of Work’, in T. M. Devine & R. Mitchison (eds) People and Society in Scotland, Vol 1, 1760-1830 (Edinburgh, 1999), pp. 239-46). There are frequent references to Highland children’s priorities being to the family; in Rogart, children worked as “servants”, for their parents, (OSA, Vol. III, 1792, p. 566) and on Barra they worked seed-planting and harvesting instead of attending school (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 339). The contribution of children’s wages to the household was especially significant in areas where men were absent as women earned much less (OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 288).

However, most parish accounts make little direct reference to employment for children. It may be that in some parishes, children did not ordinarily work. More likely it was simply widely accepted they contributed to the family economy as another pair of hands, whether ‘wage-earning’, as domestic workers, or in farm work.  It certainly seems common from the reports they were assumed to contribute to the overall household economy, though at what age is not always obvious.


Initially there were no questions about schooling requested of parish ministers. A supplementary request to find out about “the state, organisation and size of the parish’s schools, number of scholars, subjects taught and how many went on to university” was made a year later (though sent out as Appendix C with a letter to clergy in 1791, the source quoted here is J. Sinclair, Specimens of Statistical Reports: Exhibiting the progress of political society, from the pastoral state, to that of luxury and refinement (London & Cornhill, 1793), p. XV).

As mentioned above, the economic value children contributed to the family unit meant education came second to work. their availability to attend school was determined by seasonal demands. Sir John himself subsequently assessed that “(T)he common people, in general, have little time for education.” (J. Sinclair, Analysis of the Statistical Account of Scotland: With a General View of the History of that Country, and Discussions on Some Important Branches of Political Economy (Edinburgh, 1831), p. 72). His statement was informed by the reports indicating poor school attendances, but did not note parental income levels, or the ease of access to schools.

While the local heritors (landowners) were legally required to ensure the provision of a school in each parish, in practice, that could depend on their residency or absence, willingness and ability to fund. It also depended on their preparedness for others, such as the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, to establish schools. The Scottish Society’s (SSPCK) Secretary, for example, identified “2 populous districts … where schools might be erected to great advantage”, were the proprietor to part-fund it (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 315). Parish and other schools could and did charge for children to be taught; the quarterly fees in Stornoway, for example, included English and writing 2/6d; arithmetic and English 3/-; Latin, writing and arithmetic 4/- (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 243).

The requirement was ‘a’ parish school – in Skye, the Outer Hebrides and Small Isles, a vast area of 2,000 square miles, and many inhabited islands, there were only 15 parishes, and unsurprisingly, the reports revealed the paucity of educational provision.  Rev. John Macleod summed up the challenges of school provision and uptake on Harris: “the people of this country are so detached from each other” and the terrain, distances and paucity of good roads, meant, “there is really no fixing on a station in which any public institution can be of universal benefit” (OSA, Vol. X, 1794, p. 380).

What Sir John also did not acknowledge were reports of parents in more remote places making their own arrangements to have their children schooled. Equally, the accounts do not detail the age of those who attended school, or for how long; there is no reference to informal educational opportunities. As the reporters were usually the Kirk minister, there is often little information on the schooling of Roman Catholic children. Prunier has noted that Roman Catholics were debarred from teaching (C. Prunier, ‘‘They must have their children educated some way’: the education of Catholics in eighteenth-century Scotland’, Innes Review, Vol. 60, no. 1 (2009), p. 37).

Attendance at school in the west and north Highlands and Islands meant learning in English, not Gaelic, though for most, Gaelic was still their native tongue. This introduced children to another language, and in Barray, “numbers … who attended the school … (spoke) … English tolerably well” (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 341). In contrast on the east coast, in Rosemarkie, Avoch, and Wick, for example, few, if anyone spoke Gaelic (OSA, Vol. XI, 1794, p. 348; Vol. XV, 1795, p. 632; Vol. X, 1794, p. 32).

The reporting of schooling was non-gendered, with either the subjects, or the number taking them listed. At North Uist’s parish school, “ten in general read Latin; the rest study geography, book-keeping, arithmetic, writing, and reading English” (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 315), and at Strath, reading, writing, arithmetic and Latin were taught (OSA, Vol. XVI, 1795, p. 226). However, the reports do point to gendered-based opportunities for, and expectations on children – Sir John, himself argued, “society cannot be placed on an equal footing, unless the blessings of education are extended to both sexes”, though by that he obviously did not mean they both receive the same opportunities (J. Sinclair, Analysis of the Statistical Account, p. 126).

Sinclair himself penned the Thurso report and promoted the idea of an academy for boys once the Napoleonic Wars were over, lamenting there was no boarding school where girls could learn “needle-work, music and other subjects suited to the sex” (OSA, Vol. XX, 1798 p. 512). Elsewhere, girls were learning how to spin, for example, at SSPCK schools at Rowdill, and two spinning-schools in Barvas, jointly run with Mrs Mackenzie of Seaforth. At the latter, they were “taught gratis, have 10 pence for every spindle they spin, and to encourage them, they have their wheels at low rate; ” (OSA, Vol. X, 1794, p.269; Vol. XIX, 1797, pp.278–279). At Lochs, on Lewis, the minister opined that girls “secluded from the more cultivated part of society” could gain skills, industry and “real happiness” by learning to spin (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, pp. 278-279). In nearby Stornoway, two of the three SSPCK spinning schools were “laid aside for want of the requisite number of scholars”, the minister lamenting that previously “many poor girls have been rescued from habits of idleness and vice, and trained to industry and virtue” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, pp. 243-244).

Stornoway’s parish had a broader, more obviously male-orientated curriculum, geared to future employment opportunities included navigation and book-keeping, and mensuration, the study of measurements (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 243). The reports suggest only a few boys continued their education at university. Duirinish parish had four “students” at university in Aberdeen; North Uist’s parish school sent “one yearly to College”, and two, “who got the rudiments of their education” attended “University last winter” (OSA, Vol. IV, 1792, p. 133; OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 315).


there is much to be gleaned about what childhood meant for the many growing up in the later eighteenth century from the Far North and Outer Isles parishes accounts. Our examples do point to the limitations of the Accounts as the level of detail is inconsistent, anonymised and general, rather than specific.

We’ve only scratched the surface and there are other fruitful areas, for example:

  • the family economy;
  • inter-generational relationships;
  • what it was like to be one of the elite;
  • the extent of choice children had in their future.

And, perhaps, given that Sir John, set out to ascertain the “state of the country” in 1790, to “reveal the quantum of happiness in a population”, believing “every individual … shall have the means of enjoying as much real happiness as the imperfect condition of human nature will admit”, assessing how happy childhood was for the many (R. Mitchison, Sir John Sinclair, first baronet (1754 – 1835), Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 19th September 2017; J. Sinclair, Specimens of Statistical Reports, p. IX).


We would like to thank Helen and Neil for their fascinating guest blog post. We hope it inspires others to carry out their own research using the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. Indeed, if you would like to write a guest post on how you have used the Statistical Accounts in your study or work please let us know by emailing!


Highland Childhoods in the Old Statistical Accounts – Part 1

Guest blog post

It is always wonderful to discover first-hand how people use the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. Two MLitt students of the University of the Highlands and Islands, Helen Barton and Neil Bruce, have carried out research on gender and family in the Highlands using the the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. They have written a blog post, divided into two parts, providing us with the results of their research. Below is part one, covering the themes of health and disease and family structures of children living in the Highlands.


Last year as part of our Masters course, we considered ‘Gender and the Family’ in the Highlands. We were challenged to use the Statistical Accounts to research the experience of childhood. We know very little about children in the region in the pre-Clearance era, and what little we do know is about the offspring of the elite, “the formal education and socialisation of children where it yielded a written record is more easily understood” (S. Nenadic, Lairds and luxury: the Highland gentry in Eighteenth-century Scotland (Edinburgh, 2007), p. 43).

An historian focusing on lost English society, Peter Laslett found the “crowds and crowds of little children … who were a feature of any pre-industrial society” are often missing from the record. Margaret King broadened this point across Europe: “We know less about the course of childhood itself, the socialization of the young, and the lives of the poor, always a black hole” (P. Laslett, The World We Have Lost (London, 1971), pp. 109-110, quoted in H. Cunningham, ‘The Employment and Unemployment of Childhood in England c. 1680-1851’, Past & Present, No. 126 (1990), p. 115; M. L. King, ‘Concepts of Childhood: What We Know and Where We Might Go’, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 60, no. 2 (2007), p. 388).

Sir John Sinclair included three questions relating to children:

  • The parish’s school population
  • Family sizes
  • The number of under-ten-year olds.

With this limited and “unwitting testimony” provided by the authors of the parish reports, the historian can glean an understanding of what children’s lives involved (A. Marwick, The Fundamentals of History, accessed 26th June 2018).

In our research we focused on the Outer Isles, Skye and the Far North, and the themes of

  • Health and Disease
  • Family Structures
  • Work
  • Education

We’ll cover the first two sections in this blog and the other two in part two.

Health and Disease

The reports frequently refer to children (and families) having a high risk of contracting and succumbing to disease. Surviving the first five to eight days was crucial in Lewis, where a “complaint called the five night sickness” “prevails over all the island” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 265, p. 281). The minister in Barvas thought “the nature of this uncommon disease … (was not) … yet fully comprehended by the most skilful upon this island” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 265). In Uig, it was described as epilepsy, where, other than two cases, all contracting it died; one survivor experienced severe fits, remaining “in a debilitated state”. Incomers had initial immunity, but even their new-born could contract it (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 281). Croup “proved very mortal, and swept away many children” (OSA, Vol. XVII, 1796, p. 279).

Smallpox had a “calamitous” effect, during an apparent epidemic, 38 children died within months; parents in Tarbat, Easter Ross, were “deaf” to the “legality and expediency” of inoculation (OSA, Vol. VI, 1793, pp. 428-429). An epidemic in Harris in 1792 “carried off a number of the children”, most “inoculated by their parents, without medical assistance” (OSA, Vol. XX, 1794, p. 385).  In Strath on Skye, and on North Uist, inoculation had “now become so general” that “the poor people, to avoid expenses, inoculate their own children with surprising success” (OSA, Vol. XVI, 1793, p. 224; Vol. XIII, 1794 p. 312). In Tongue, in Sutherland, within five years of inoculations being introduced, smallpox had been virtually eradicated (OSA, Vol. III, 1792, p. 524). Even were a doctor affordable, there were only three surgeons and no physicians listed between Skye, the Small Isles, and the Outer Hebrides, all three in the latter, two of whom were on Lewis (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 250; OSA, Vol XIX, 1797, p. 281; OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 613).

Common “distempers” included colds, coughs, erysipelas (a skin infection) and rheumatism (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 275; OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 308; OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 264). The most comprehensive list of diseases was on Small Isles, including ‘hooping’ cough, measles, catarrh, dropsy of the belly, and pleurisy (OSA, 1796, Vol. XVII, p. 279).

It is more difficult to understand from the reports who cared for children when they were ill, or the role children had caring for others, in a community and society where “constant manual labour produced early arthritis … old age came prematurely, without the possibility of retirement for most” (H. M. Dingwall, ‘Illness, Disease and Pain’, in E. Foyster (ed), History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1600 to 1800 (Edinburgh, 2010), p. 114).  In rural Sweden, Linda Oja found that both parents had roles in caring for sick offspring (L. Oja, ‘Childcare and Gender in Sweden’, Gender History, Vol. 27, no. 1 (2015), p. 86).   Correlating the inter-relationship between diet, health, life expectancy and diseases requires deeper investigation.

Family Structures

The family and work for children of the Highlands and Islands was intertwined. As ordinary daily family life was not the focus of the Accounts’, any details have to be discerned from what they recorded about ‘industry’, wage costs and general passing comments about local living conditions and culture.

Where detailed population statistics were recorded, they demonstrate the average household size. A typical family was nuclear: two adults and four or five children, rising to between seven and 14 in the islands. In many areas, longevity was reported. Women bore children from their early twenties until as late as their fifties, grandmothers were suckling their own grandchildren in the Assynt area (OSA, Vol. XVI, 1795, pp. 207).

Marriage may have had romantic foundations, but for many was an economic partnership where both partners worked to achieve a living, either waged or unwaged. In Lewis, there was a pragmatic approach to widowhood; “grief … is an affliction little known among the lower class of people here; they remarry after ‘a few weeks, and some only a few days” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, pp. 261-2). Consequentially, children gained step-parents. This claim does seem extraordinary and further investigation through other sources would be beneficial. Nonetheless, the economic hardship of widowhood is well illustrated by his blunt statement.

Families were also on the move in large numbers. The Highlands and Islands were not immune to changes in agricultural systems taking place in the Lowlands and elsewhere. Sir John Sinclair himself was an enthusiastic encourager of new scientific methods. He enclosed his own Caithness estate, changing its management, and introducing new breeds of livestock, including large non-native sheep flocks (M. Bangor-Jones, ‘Sheep farming in Sutherland in the eighteenth century’, Agricultural Historical Review, Vol. 50, no. 2 (2002), pp. 181-202). Many people were displaced to new crofts and settlements on the coast.

The population was declining rapidly in Highland straths, but overall was generally-rising. Couples reportedly married younger than had previously been the trend locally. This was often by the age of twenty, apparently lower than the national average of 26/27 years old. In Halkirk, the report comments on ‘prudential considerations [being] sacrificed to the impulse of nature’ as young people no longer had to wait for an agricultural tenancy (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 23):

Before the period above mentioned, people did not enter early into the conjugal state. The impetus of nature was superseded by motives of interest and convenience. But now, vice versa, these prudential considerations are sacrificed to the impulse of nature which is allowed its full scope; and very young people stretch and extend their necks for the matrimonial noose, before they look about them or make any provisions for that state.

More research on the reasons for earlier marriages would be beneficial.

To be continued …