AYRSHIRE ROOTS

 

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Nineteenth Century Scottish History Short Notes

 

Queen Victoria ascended her throne in London in 1837. Five years later she undertook a visit to Scotland, only the second monarch to have done this since the Union of Parliaments in 1707. The country she visited in 1841 had a population of 2.6 million, double what it had been at the first enumeration of Alexander Webster in 1775.  Glasgow, the squalid industrial city of textiles and engineering had reached 275,000 population. 12 times as large as 1775. However only 35% of the population of Scotland lived in towns larger than 5000 inhabitants. 

The city slums in the 1830s and 1840s had grown quickly and to some degree the upper classes lived in fear of insurrection from the ghettos. The reality of the slum was brought home by the Reports on the sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Scotland produced by Edwin Chadwick as a companion to a parallel report in England. When Dr Alexander Miller a gynecologist attached to the Royal Dispensary was asked what he had observed. He replied:

' The dwellings of the poor are generally very filthy...Those of the lowest grade often consist only of one small apartment, always ill-ventilated, both from the nature of its construction and from the densely peopled and confined locality in which it is situated. Many of them, besides, are damp and partly underground... A few of the lowest poor have a bedstead, but by far the larger portion have none; these make up a kind of bed on the floor with straw, on which a whole family are huddled together, some naked and the others in the same clothes they have worn during the day.'

One of Dr Miller's colleagues visited the wynds of Glasgow himself. Squeezing through the passages and interlocking courtyards 'occupied entirely as a dung receptacle of the most disgusting kind'. Their inhabitants, 'worse off than wild animals which withdrew to a distance and conceal their ordure', actually hoarded their own dung to help pay the rent.

Life in Scotland in the 1840s was competitive, unprotected, brutal and, for many, vile.

The true grimness of the Scottish town lay not in the slums, though that was bad enough, but in the ordinary standard working class house - in the tall, grim, blackened tenement blocks that the average working class citizen inhabited. The first census to deal with the problem was that of 1861. It showed that 34% of all Scottish houses had only one room:  37% had two rooms: 1% of families lived in houses without any windows. The 'but-and-ben' and the 'single end' were in fact the normal environment to bring up a family. In 1886. in Glasgow, a third of families lived in one room. This situation only improved very slowly, and it was 1881 before windowless houses had all but gone. The proportion of houses with only one room was down to 13% by 1911 and 3.5% of the population were still living in one in 1951. In 1911 when half the Scottish population was still living in one or two roomed houses the proportion in England was 7%. 

The society of rural industrial Ayrshire was extremely poor in the 1840s. Male weavers wages were falling (6s or 7s a week), about a third less than a male farm servant, so they relied increasingly on their wives and daughters as muslin embroiderers.. The practice of sewing or 'flowering' the fine cotton cloth was put out to tens of  thousands of women in the west of Scotland by Glasgow manufacturers. It took fourteen to sixteen hours a day, six days a week, to make 12s

The 1841 census listed 125,000 Irish born individuals in Scotland, and in the famine of 1848 there were up to 1000 new arrivals a week from Ireland. The vast majority arrived from Ulster, already accustomed to sectarian bitterness. The protestant immigrant, very often already bearing a Scottish surname found it easier to integrate than the catholic, he would very often assert his Orange and anti-papist sentiments as a way of allying himself to the native Scots and dissociating himself from his fellow Irishman. The Catholic Irish were driven into a ghetto mentality and clung to Mother Church to find comfort and support in an unwelcoming environment.

Handloom weaving had grown enormously in some areas of Scotland. Paisley and Glasgow were the main centres in west Scotland. The number of people making a living from this in Scotland had risen from 45,000 around 1790 to a peak of 85,000 by 1840, only to fall catastrophically to 25,000 by 1850 and 4,000 by 1880. the depressions of 1841-3 and 1848 together with the introduction of the powerloom were the main reasons for this.

Ayrshire was an area of mixed economy where there were weaving and mining settlements interspersed with the farms. Dairy husbandry predominated and this meant that there was little need for labour gangs to hoe and harvest. Farms were small and mostly cultivated by family labour. Where farmhands were employed they were often unmarried, some saving to own their own farms. They would often marry a female farm servant who had been equally thrifty.

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