Raiding the Archives

Recent information published from the last census in 2011 suggests that single-person households are now the largest type of household in Scotland eclipsing figures from historical censuses. However, as we have argued in our previous blog relying simply on statistics is misleading, as this reliance is likely to lead to spurious assumptions.

This research project is using a host of sources and archival materials in an attempt to understand the history of working-class marriage, courtship, relationships and household forms in Scotland. Such an undertaking requires a good knowledge of what archives exist and what they hold that might relate to our underpinning research questions.  The Census of Scotland is an excellent starting point for understanding the demographic make-up of the nation. The census returns offer an unparalleled insight into the household formations of ordinary Scots. The census reports which were generally published within 3 years of the census date contain a vast amount of information ranging from the conjugal ‘state of the nation’ to the prevalence of foreigners within the country.  However, for a deeper understanding of individual family make-up we have also been examining the census returns, page after page after page after page after page (ok, you get the idea) of households located within working-class districts of large Scottish parishes such as Govan to smaller rural parishes such as Echt, in Aberdeenshire. Alongside this material we’ve also been using the district examiners’ reports which contain a wealth of information regarding aspects of Scottish culture and tradition.

 On top of the census reports the annual Registrar-General’s reports prove invaluable; they are a statistician’s delight and used in combination with censuses can offer a rich analysis of life in Scotland. Our analysis demonstrates that there were very few truly ‘national’ trends; each geographical area contained its own peculiarities whether related to family forms, gender and work, or sexual ‘morality’. For example, in the Rhins peninsula the illegitimacy rate was 10 times that of Lorn, 100 miles to the north. Even within regions the diversity of illegitimacy rates are surprising, Aberdeenshire being a good example. Household structure also varied considerably. Using the example of Aberdeenshire we have found that single-parent families were considerably more common in Strathdon than they were in Leochel Cushnie.  Careful analysis will help to understand such variation within Scotland.

Yet, the census returns, reports and statistics cannot possibly tell the whole story. We learn very little about the day-to-day ‘ordinary’ experiences of those individuals and families contained within those pages. Thus, in an effort to find out more we are using Poor Law archives. The quality of surviving poor law material varies by region, so we have undertaken exhaustive enquiries to determine where the very best preserved material exists. This could not have been achieved without the co-operation of local authority archivists and archive assistants up and down Scotland. The specific regions that we are using (and visiting regularly this year) are those whose records will enable us to draw out key material which will be used in our research output.

Poor Relief archives not only offer us an insight into the economic conditions in which working-class Scots operated but they reveal evidence of dominant attitudes of the time. In the report from the House of Commons Select Committee on the Poor Law in Scotland (1870) it was stated that the Committee was aware ‘of the grave evils, moral, social, and economical, which are created by granting to any class in the community a legal claim for relief on their wealthier neighbours…and the amount of improvidence and recklessness it engenders’. It appears that little has changed and the discourse of ‘welfare dependency’ persists to this day, when we compare such a position to that emanating from government.   Recent trips to Ayrshire Archives to examine poor relief records for Kilmarnock reveal further interesting parallels with today: not only were applicants’ economic situations scrutinised but their characters and living arrangements were too. After the passing of the Poor Law Emergency Powers (Scotland) Act, 1921, the ‘able-bodied’ were able to apply for poor relief, and throughout the records – from a variety of regions – comments such as ‘ill-tempered fellow’, ‘a heavy drinker’, ‘idle and unfriendly’, ‘house is a tip’, ‘children unwashed and ill mannered’,  ‘wife is slovenly’, ‘this man has no intention of working’ appear.

Scottish birth, death, marriage and demographics records are among the best in the world, and regional archives house rich resources which will prove invaluable in our research.

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