The Statistical Accounts of Scotland Adding Detail to Your Research

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Recent advertisements on television suggest that family research is as easy as entering a few names and dates and following the green leaves to your genealogical destiny. While this method may satisfy some, those of us who enjoy the hunt for every possible (documented) detail about our ancestors know the satisfaction found in discovering resources that develop our richer understanding of the lives of these individuals. The Statistical Account of Scotland represents one of those resources. I first discovered these Accounts on microfilm some years ago at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Today, searchable full-text versions are available online and can be downloaded to your computer making their use much more efficient in terms of time and travel distance.

The Statistical Account of Scotland – don’t let the dry title put you off –  was developed to survey the various geographical areas of Scotland. Their contents provide not only a “statistical” picture of Scotland, but also a detailed geographical, economic, and human understanding of Scottish society.

Following several earlier less-than-successful attempts to produce descriptive accounts by both the Church of Scotland and Sir Robert Sibbald, Geographer Royal for Scotland, the twenty-one-volume first Statistical Account – sometimes known as “old” – was written and published between 1791 and 1799 under the direction of Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster. The parish-by-parish collection of the information was assigned to Church of Scotland ministers who asked questions about three specific areas of interest: geography and topology, including climate, natural resources and natural history; the population of the parish; and agricultural and industrial production. In addition, they asked a series of miscellaneous questions. The ministers involved in the project often exceeded their instructions providing meticulous detail about their parish, its surrounding areas, its history, its people, and their daily lives.

The second or “new” Statistical Account of Scotland was begun in 1832 and published between 1834 and 1845. While similar in format to the earlier Account, the “new” work included maps of each county and, in some cases, doctors, landowners, and schoolmasters added their input into that of the parish clergy.

A third Statistical Account of Scotland was begun following World War II and its first volume was published in 1951, although the final volume was not published until 1992. The third Account includes thirty-one volumes.

The “old” and “new” Accounts are the most useful for genealogists as they provide insight into a period of time when many of our ancestors may have been living in Scotland prior to emigration. The Accounts are available online. Edina (a Joint Information Systems Committee National Data Centre based at the University of Edinburgh) provides a subscription service to the first two Statistical Accounts. Fees are nominal (from £10 for 2 months’ access to £40 for a year’s access) and include a variety of search and other services and associated documents. Electric Scotland, however, provides free full-text access to both the “old” and “new Accounts through the use of Google files which are available for downloading in pdf or text format. A list of parishes is available to help locate the appropriate volume. (Please note, however, that for the “oldAccount pdfs and for at least some of the “newAccount pdfs, you must click on the link at the end of page one leading back to Googlebooks to search the same pdf files there for specific content.) A third source of online access can be found at archive.org, but the site’s organization is not as intuitive and the files accessed are the same Google files available much more easily on Electric Scotland. While it may seem more logical to go directly to Googlebooks to access the files, I found access through Electric Scotland to be more organized.

What type of information can be found in the Statistical Accounts? Here is an example for the Parish of Turriff from the “new” Account. The Parish of Turriff is located in the Presbytery of Turriff and Synod of Aberdeen. The information was provided by the Rev. James Cruickshank, Minister, although he notes that John Shier, a Professor of Agriculture at Marischal College, Aberdeen, provided the article on geology. Interesting notations, chosen at random from the parish account, include the fact that during the previous summer a woman had died at the age of 99 and that a few persons above the age of 90 and a “good many” between 80 and 87 years of age live in the parish. It mentions the estate of Towie, “which had been the property of the Barclays for 400 years and upwards, was sold by a descendant of that family to the Earl of Findlater, whose son sold it, in 1762, to Gordon’s Hospital and the Infirmary at Aberdeen, who hold it still today.” In describing the cemetery at the Old Church, it details the inscription for one of the Barclays of Towie, complete with transcribed inscription, noting that in 1845 the monument was “somewhat mutilated.” For instance, we learn that the register of baptisms begins in 1697, and that of births and baptisms in 1797, though they are very defective. The marriage registers begin in 1727, but there is no death register. Mansion houses are described, including Towie Barclay. The population of Turriff increased by 740 over the previous twenty year period. The diet of Turriff’s residents may be deduced from the fact that “turnip husbandry is very successfully practiced.” Pigs were raised in quantity, but not sheep. The number of “thrashing mills” had increased from three, at the time of the old Statistical Account, to sixty-three. Many of the farm houses had been improved and were in large part heated by coal from England, although the condition of the cottages was deplored. The term of a standard lease was nineteen years with rents generally paid in money. No weekly market was held in Turriff, but eight fairs were held annually for the sale of cattle, horses, sheep and merchandise, and fairs at Whitsunday and Martinmas provided the opportunity to employ male and female servants. A parish library had been established in 1841 “to promote and encourage a taste for reading” with a subscription rate of 1s per quarter for books “of the first class” and 6d per quarter for books that had been in circulation the previous year. The collection totaled 567 volumes with 100 subscribers. “The newspapers of the day, of all shades of politics, with a few of the cheaper periodicals, are also eagerly read by all classes of the community.” Finally, public safety was then, as now, a concern and the minister noted that “One of the most crying evils…was the overwhelming concourse of vagrants and traveling mendicants to whom a well-meaning but mistaken liberality afforded a temptation to make this place a favourite haunt. Since the institution of a rural police and the activity of the district constable, with the terror which his baton and uniform inspire, this annoyance has been much lessened…”

As is evident from this brief selection of items for the Parish of Turriff from Volume Twelve of the New Statistical Account of Scotland, a careful reading of the entire account provides quite a detailed picture of the day-to-day life of the parish. While some effort is required, that time is well-spent as locating and reading these accounts will help illustrate the life of your ancestor.

Related reading includes:

Parish life in eighteenth-century Scotland: a review of the Old Statistical Account by Maisie Steven (Aberdeen: Scottish Cultural Press, 1996).

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