the pestilence in ayrshire

Articles of interest in our present circumstances

 

“TAE A VIRUS”

Twa months ago, we didna ken,
yer name or ocht aboot ye
But lots of things have changed since then,
I really must salute ye
Yer spreading rate is quite intense,
yer feeding like a gannet
Disruption caused, is so immense,
ye’ve shaken oor wee planet.

Corona used tae be a beer,
they garnished it wae limes
But noo it’s filled us awe wae fear
These days, are scary times.
Nae shakin hawns, or peckin lips,
it’s whit they awe advise
But scrub them weel, richt tae the tips,
that’s how we’ll awe survive
Just stay inside , the hoose, ye bide
Nae sneakin  oot for strolls
Just check the lavvy every hoor
And stock-take, your loo rolls
Our holidays have been pit aff
Noo that’s the Jet2 patter
Pit oan yer thermals, have a laugh
And paddle ‘ doon the waater ‘
Canary isles, no for a while
Nae need for suntan cream
And awe because o this wee bug
We ken tae be..19

The boredom surely will set in,
But have a read, or doodle
Or plan yer menu for the month
Wi 95 pot noodles.
When these run oot, just look about
A change, it would be nice
We’ve beans and pasta By the ton
and twenty stane o rice.

So dinny think yell wipe us oot
Aye true, a few have died
Bubonic, bird flu, and Tb
They came, they left, they tried
Ye might be gallus noo ma freen
As ye jump fae cup tae cup
But when we get oor vaccine
Yer number will be up.

(Anonymous)


With thanks to ‘The Times’ Newspaper:

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THE PLAGUE by John S. Jackson, and J. Dixon.
From “The Royal Burgh of Ayr: 750 Years of History” 1953.

The word plague is applied to a wide variety of conditions varying from minor annoyances such as a plague of flies to major outbreaks of epidemic disease. In a medical sense, however, it refers to a definite group of signs and symptoms which are characteristic of a particular disease. Bubonic plague is the best known example of plague in its scientific sense, and it is an extremely infective and fatal illness which, for many centuries, grossly disrupted the social and economic life of many nations and accounted for victims numbered in millions.

Only in comparatively recent years has the real cause of the spread of plague been discovered. The rat is now known to be the primary offender. This rodent is particularly susceptible to plague; when it dies, the fleas present in its fur during life and nourished by its infected blood, seek a host. Whenever possible they transfer themselves to man, and in the process of feeding inoculate him with the virulent germs acquired from their late host. Wherever conditions of life are low, sanitation neglected, and poverty and overcrowding rife, the spread of plague is facilitated by the consequent proximity between man and rat.

The germ theory of disease is a comparatively recent discovery. During the three hundred years when plague was present in Scotland our ancestors had no such satisfying explanation of the spread of an affliction which caused universal dread. The rational fears provoked by the approach of plague were intensified by the belief that these visitations represented the wrath of God. A poisonous condition of the atmosphere germinated by various supernatural agencies, was the popular belief concerning the physical cause of these frequent disasters. The prevalence of this conception acted as a barrier to the advance of more enlightened views, and thus the affected population were totally unable to appreciate the true cause of their affliction, which lay inherent in their environment. The overcrowded hovels, the streets littered with filth, the verminous and poverty stricken state of the majority of the population were all responsible for precipitating the numerous outbreaks of plague. These recurring attacks were on such a scale and so deadly in nature that the primitive social structure of medieval communities was completely disorganised by the onslaught. It was, however, quickly appreciated by common experience that plague was a highly infectious disease, and, though fettered by ignorance and superstition, various eminently practical measures were applied by the authorities in an effort to check its inroads.

Early descriptions of plague are numerous. The narrative of Homer opens with such an account. The Great Plague of Athens is described in detail by Thucydides. The Plague of Ashdod (1st Samuel, 5 and 6) is clearly bubonic plague; the ’emerods’ are undoubtedly the inguinal buboes or gland swellings characteristic of the disease. The first of the great epidemics in Europe of which there is a definite account was that at Constantinople in A.D. 542, when Justinian was emperor. This outbreak began in Egypt and spreading along the trade routes, as is the way of pestilence, it ultimately reached the city and gradually mounted to a climax until the dead are reputed to have numbered ten thousand a day.

England first experienced plague in the course of the spread of the Black Death in 1348. This memorable outbreak originated in South Russia and gradually and remorselessly spread until the whole of Europe was engulfed. The Black Death was undoubtedly bubonic plague in its most virulent and acutely infective form. Introduced at a port in the south of England, it extended rapidly over the entire country. From this time until the Great Fire of London in 1666 the disease remained in Britain. As each epidemic subsided its elements continued to smoulder in various centres until the next upsurge. During the latter half of the fourteenth century it is estimated that people perished in Europe alone during recurring outbreaks of bubonic plague.

The scourge first appeared in Scotland early in 1350. For a time it was stayed at the border, but following a raid into England, it was brought back among the spoils of that ill-fated incursion. Fordoun wrote of it: ‘By God’s will this evil led to a strange and unwonted kind of death in so much that the flesh of the sick was somehow puffed out and swollen and they dragged out this earthly life for barely two days.’ Before it subsided the Black Death is estimated to have destroyed a third of the population of Scotland.

A further outbreak occurred in 1362, the ‘pestis secunda’, which raged in south Scotland and caused David the Second and his court to flee north for safety. Epidemics in 1380 and 1401 wrought much havoc, that of 1401 being particularly fatal. The next recorded outbreak was in 1430-32 when Edinburgh was the principal sufferer. Plague had raged with great virulence in France and England in 1439 and was introduced to Scotland later that year. The Chronicle States: ‘and that samen year the pestilence came in Scotland and began at Dumfries and it was callit the Pestilence but [without] Mercy, for there took it none that ever recoverit, but they died within twenty-four hours.’ In 1456 the first Scots law relating to the subject—The Rule of the Pestilence—was passed, marking the initial attempt at ‘staunching of the Pestilence’. Altogether plague was present in Scotland for almost three centuries, beginning in with the last case occurring in 1648.

The burgh of Ayr in the sixteenth century was both an important market town and a seaport having a substantial coastal and foreign trade. On both these counts there was a steady coming and going of merchants and traders bringing their goods into the town, and with them, on occasion, pestilence. The early records contain many references to the pest, to the dread of its approach and to the measures adopted to ward it off. As in other towns in Scotland of the period, sanitation was practically ignored in Ayr. Conditions were particularly bad during the intervals between visitations of the plague, but the authorities were stirred to feverish activity by its presence in the neighbourhood or by the arrival in the harbour of a ship from a suspected port. Despite the superstitious fears which prevailed on these occasions, the measures adopted to deal with the menace were essentially sensible and practical so far as they went.

At the first tidings of the approach of the pest the streets were ordered to be cleared of the litter of ‘myddings, intrallis of bestis, and fish guts’, which were habitually thrown there. It was ordained that they should be removed to the hills ‘tar quensing and stainching of the blawing of the sand’. The ports or portals of entry to the town were repaired and provided with ‘hingin yettis and leifis’. All the ports in the town were guarded by a special watch. The vennels and back dykes were built up, and none were to enter the town except by the ports. The penalty for breach of these regulations was scourging and branding of the cheek. The inhabitants were forbidden to entertain strangers unless they had previously been examined by the magistrates. A further regulation demanded that before strangers could be admitted to the town they must be in session of a certificate of health issued by the authorities of their own town. To ‘speik, intercommoun or ony wys medell wt ony persoun yt salhappin to be stayit and debarrit at the portis’ involved forty days’ banishment.

In times of danger messengers were sent to neighbouring towns to get ‘tryell anent the infectioun’. Within the burgh in time of plague a strict supervision was maintained over the inhabitants. All cases of sickness had to be brought to the notice of the magistrates since there was a widespread tendency to circumvent the regulations by concealment of cases of sickness by relatives anxious to avoid the inconveniences and hardships which followed discovery. The magistrates had the responsibility of making the diagnosis. If, in their opinion, the sickness was plague, the patient was isolated on the ‘foul mure’. This was a stretch of waste ground forming part of the Burrowfield which lay outside the town and was approached from the Kyle Port. This procedure resembled, in a crude way, the modern method of isolation of cases of infectious disease. The ‘foul mure’ was converted into a lazaretto by the hasty erection of wooden booths or ‘ludges’ to house the sick and suspected persons. Infected goods and clothing were transported with the patient, and this ‘foull geir’ was boiled in huge cauldrons set up in the open field. Unless the sick were accompanied by relations or friends able and willing to look after them, they were dependent on the attentions of the ‘foull clengers’, Who were hired by the burgh authorities to supervise the plague camp and its inhabitants, to carry out the work of the camp, to bury the dead, and to prevent patients from escaping. Any ‘infectit and foull persons’, who left the moor without permission, were liable to be ‘brunt with anc hait irn on the chyk’. There they had to stay until death put an end to their sufferings, or until they recovered and were given leave to return to the town.

These ‘foull clengers’, male and female, were usually recruited from the lowest classes, and were quite unsuitable as attendants of the sick. The nature of their work being highly dangerous, they were paid high wages and entitled to certain privileges. During the plague in Edinburgh in 1499 they were paid 12d. per day, together with the fees they were allowed to exact from householders whose goods they ‘clengit’. In the year 1607/8 Burgh Accounts show in the treasurer’s discharge certain items of expenditure for the town’s cleaners; William Hunter and John Dowok were paid £20 for their services during Whitsuntide. In addition, £13 6s. 8d. was allotted for clothes, and £4 for expenses. Special cleaners brought down from Glasgow during this emergency were paid at the rate of 8s. for every door disinfected, for every pound of silver, 6s. 8d. for every cauldronful of clothes treated in the town, and 13s. 4d. for every kettleful on the moor. If any householder refused admission, the cleaners were authorised to force an entry and carry out their duties.

The infected houses, from which plague victims had been removed, were disinfected by the town ‘clengers’, who were hired for the period of the epidemic. These cleaners wore a distinctive uniform in the shape of ‘ane joupe of blak wt a cross of quhyte claith sewit about with the same for desegning and knowing of thame be uthers’. They also carried staffs ‘with a hupe of quhyte iron at the end’ as marks of authority. In many instances they took undue advantage of their position and by their indiscipline, extortion, and highhanded methods frequently aroused the wrath of the citizens. In this connexion a note in the privy Council records states that a notary, George Douglas, became embroiled with some cleaners at Ayr, he being armed ‘With a sword, gauntlet, and long hagbut’. He was tried before the Privy Council on four charges of assault and the carrying of arms illegally but was discharged as the evidence was considered insufficient.

Cleansing, which formed an important part of the preventive measures, was effected by means of ‘Watter and fyre’, and from time to time over-zealous or careless application of these means of disinfection caused disaster. The ‘clenging’ of a house in Kelso in 1645 caused a fire, which spread and destroyed the town. In Ayr the town clerk’s house was infected in the outbreak of 1545/6, and in the process of disinfection some of the town records were destroyed. Airing and ventilation followed these drastic procedures; clothing was boiled in large kettles or cauldrons, and other goods not suited to such treatment were exposed to the air for prolonged periods, frosty air being considered particularly favourable. All these procedures have their counterpart in modern methods of disinfection. As has been stated, Ayr, during the period under review, was a considerable seaport and consequently it behoved the authorities to keep a watchful eye on the arrival of ships from home and foreign ports when the pest was prevalent. Without constant vigilance it would have been a very likely occurrence for infected goods to have been introduced, In 1602, a ship carrying hides arrived in the anchorage from Ireland, where plague was said ‘to be veray vehement’. A request for leave to land was refused and the vessel ordered to remain in quarantine under the sandhills until the moon had changed. All on board were forbidden on pain of death to have any Communication with the town or townspeople until the period had expired. Then, having washed the hides, cleansed themselves and changed their clothes, they were allowed to enter the town. Infected or suspect ships coming to Ayr frequently had their cargoes landed and cleansed on the sandhills near the north bastion of the Fort, the ship being quarantined off the shore at that point. There are also records of such ships being secluded on the Newton Green side of the river until the danger period had elapsed.

Very early in the history of epidemiology was the value of quarantine appreciated and put into rigid practice, but since no regular means of imposing equitable restrictions existed, each plague alarm had to be met by hastily improvised measures erring on the side of harshness and lacking in humanitarian principles. Indeed, the enforcement of the quarantine rules involved the owners of ships in such financial loss that every means was used to evade them. These restrictive measures usually involved suspected ships being anchored off some small island near the harbour or off an isolated part of the shore. There the crews had to cleanse themselves and the cargo, the latter by washing in water or by fire, and thereafter exposing it to the air for a prolonged period. In some instances where this was not practicable the ship was forced to scuttle in tidal water so that the goods could be washed by the cleansing sea. Until the local authorities gave their consent the crews were forbidden to have contact with anyone ashore. These extreme procedures meant severe hardships for those on board, and always heavy financial loss to the owners. Only in the course of centuries were these harsh measures gradually alleviated and effective control maintained with a minimum loss to those concerned.

The records of plague in Scotland before 1500 are very meagre, but it is probable that the burgh of Ayr suffered during the course of the Black Death in 1350, and in the three great epidemics which followed in 1361, 1380 and 1402, though there is no record of this. Plague must have been in the neighbourhood in 1499 as in May of that year the burgh of Prestwick made regulations concerning preventive measures which were to remain in force ‘quhill the plaig ces and speciali quhill Zule (Yule)’, and it was in Irvine during the following summer. The first reference to the pest in Ayr occurs in an item in the Burgh Attounts concerning the year 1539 when the Master of Works paid 2s. 2d. for ‘closing the town’s waste entries’. The town was evidently in a state of vigilance judging by references to the special watch set up at the ports and the repairing of the yetts. These precautions appear to have been successful since there is no further reference to the subject until 1545, when the burgh of Ayr, along with many other towns and localities, was infected and ‘the pest Wis wonder greit in all the burrowis townis of this realm’ (Diurnal of Occurrents). This outbreak raged in Ayr from September 1545 until March 1546. Every effort was made by the authorities, within their limited means, to minimise the disaster. The gates were built up and a special watch set to guard the ports night and day. Quartermasters were appointed by the Town Council to supervise and apply the emergency regulations. The treasurer’s discharge for the year 1544/5 shows items of expenditure incurred by these measures such as, ‘for keeping the ports til Miehaelmas in time of pest, £5 18s. 4d., and keeping the Brig-yett for 17 days after Midsummer, 17s.’. The master of works expended 10s. in erecting ‘thornis and stakis to the oppin partis of the toun in the tyme of the pest’ to make good deficiencies in the ‘toun dykes’ which were built of turf and were barely three feet high. They could scarcely be regarded as offering any impediment to entry to the town and therefore necessitated a vigilant watch being maintained. A certain William Neisbit was appointed ‘kepar of the toun and furnissar of the seik folkis upoun the mure in tyme of the pest’, various revenues being allocated to him for carrying out his duties. One payment made in this respect amounted to £111 8s. 4d. The money required to meet these extraordinary expenses threw a heavy burden on the burgh finances. In this outbreak half the burgh treasurer’s revenues were consumed in plague expenses, and for many years afterwards discharges appear in the Accounts against different people for their services during those terrible six months. Further sums were paid to Neisbit the following year; one item mentions ‘for John Johnsoun’s grassum granted to William Neisbit fur furnissing of the mure in the last pest, £10’. In all Neisbit expended £243 17s. 6d. in providing for the sick on the moor and in the town. These expenses also covered repairs to locks, yetts and ports. He appears to have been appointed chief executive officer during this critical period, responsible for the carrying out of the anti-plague measures, and is styled president and vice-provost. From all accounts he appears to have fulfilled his tasks With great zeal. His ‘compt’ had not been paid by 1548, by which time he was dead, a probable victim of the pest.

At this time half the dean of guild’s rents were in arrears and until 1550 the treasurer was paying off debts incurred during the ravages of the plague. Among the payments thus delayed was one to Mr. Neil Orr as promised for the time ‘quhen the schule held not for the pest, £3 6s. 8d.’. Several references to the payment of compensation occur at this time as, for example, ‘to Archibald Jelle ror the burning of his house and heather stack during the pest, £10’, and £2 40s. to ‘Andrew Willok for a bag of blue wool that was burnt’, the result of over-enthusiastic application of disinfection.

From then there is a long interval before further references to the pest appear in the town records. Between 1584 and 1588 the plague was raging with great violence in Scotland. It erupted at Johnstone in May 1585, when the magistrates at Ayr were alarmed at the intelligence that some ‘infectit and foull personis’ had escaped from the moor of that town where they had been detained. All the customary restrictions were imposed on the town of Ayr and an embargo put on trade. No strangers were allowed ingress unless by approval of the authorities, and they had to bear a certificate of health from the town whence they came. No townsmen of Ayr might proceed to Edinburgh, where the plague was rife, without a permit to travel. The inhabitants were advised these procedures from time to time ‘by tuck of drum’.

These efforts to preserve the burgh from infection were intensified when it was learned in the month of June of the increase in virulence of the pest in the ‘east country’. Persons entering the town by any but the recognised ports would, if detected, be scourged and branded on the cheek, and to ‘speik intercommoun or ony wyis medell wt ony persoun yt salhappin to be stayit and debarrit at the portis’ entailed forty days’ banishment. There is a reference at the time to the Mime ‘foull and infectit personis’ on the moor, but these appear to have been very few for the pestilence abated in July the same year. In September 1596 it broke out with renewed violence in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and among other precautions the burgh authorities ruled that the grazing of cattle on the Common be prohibited. In order to prevent the surreptitious entry of strangers, innkeepers with premises outwith the town ports were forbidden to brew on pain of banishment and the destruction of the implements of their trade.

Further alarms occurred in 1587 1588. Strictures were reimposed against the entry of strangers and vagabonds and ‘pure folkis not natif of ye burt’. The ports were watched and the customary penalties applied to ‘ye cuming in be bak dykis’ because of ‘ye vehemence of ye pestilence eistwart’. Two months later it was ordained that the ‘portis and vennelis be stekit and closit’, and a watch was set night and day in order that ‘be the assistance of ye almyt god the seiknes may be avertit’. These precautions appear to have been successful and the town emerged unscathed. No further alarm occurred until 1597 When the pest had reappeared in Edinburgh. A meeting was held in the Tolbooth at Ayr where news of ‘the greit infectioun of the pest to the cist ovir in Leith and vyr eist paiita of this realme qr sindrie of this cuntrie resortis’ was reported by the magistrates. The usual measures were adopted and the Michaelmas Fair cancelled lest the town might be infected by visitors from Edinburgh and neighbouring parts. The presence of plague in Dumfries the following year put a veto on visitors arriving from that town unless they were provided with ‘sufficient testimoniall’.

No further reference to pest appears in the records until the opening years of the seventeenth century, when the dormant disease again became menacing. It is stated that in the year when the town was in a state of vigilance, two pedlars arrived at one of the town ports seeking entrance. John Welsh, then minister in Ayr, happened to be present and strongly advised that they should be excluded. ‘Bailie,’ he said to the quartermaster, ’cause these men to put on their packs again and be gone; for if God be in heaven, the plague is in these packs.’ Subsequent events proved him right. The men, repulsed at Ayr, proceeded to Cumnock, where, shortly after their arrival, plague broke out and was so virulent that ‘the living could scarcely bury the dead’.

During these anxious years the plague was warded off only by the exercise of constant vigilance until the summer of 1606 when it broke out in Ayr. A public meeting was then held in the Tolbooth to devise ways and means of meeting the situation which had now developed. The meeting was preceded by a prayer of supplication to Almighty God Who had ‘plesit to veseit this sinfull toun with the seikness of ye pest justlie deservit for ye sinns thereof’. The ‘foul mure’ was converted into an isolation camp for the reception of the sick and the suspect. ‘Ludges’ were erected to house them, and huge cauldrons set up for disinfecting the ‘foull geir’. Arrangements were made for the supply of food and fuel to the victims and none were to leave the camp without permission. In the town itself the work of disinfection went on relentlessly. Special ‘clengers were brought from Glasgow, with powers to break into houses if refused admission. The Glasgow burgh records of 21st August 1606, refer to Ayr ‘as a suspect place’, but it was more than that by that time, because on 22nd August of that year the Convention of Burghs meeting at Burntisland excused the absence of the Ayr delegates ‘be ressoun of the pestilence quairwith thay are veseit at this tyme notourle knawin to the haill contry’. On 27th August the privy Council gave the magistrates of Ayr special powers which were to continue in force as long as infection remained in the burgh. The mortality of this outbreak appears to have been very severe; Lord Dunfermline, writing to Lord Ellesmere on 30th October 1606, says that Ayr and Stirling are ‘almost overthrown’.

About this time the records of the burgh of Newton mention that the proximity of the pest was causing the local authorities great anxiety : ‘the burrow court of Newtoun sett and haldin in Alexander Wyleis chalmer the 17th day of October the yeir of god Jaj sax hudr and thrie yeirs … ordainis yt ye haill toune dykes be biggit sufficientlie wt all deligence hereto for outhaldin of all strangers suspect of the pest.’ A further alarm was occasioned in the summer of 1604 when the usual precautions were put into effect ‘becaus of ye greit feir and suspitioun of ye fleand plaig of ye pest yt is in ye land’. Among various references to plague at this period is an account of the procedure much used in other areas concerning ‘suspectit geir’ known as ‘taking the sey’, meaning the assay or trial of the gear. It was ordained that if the suspected goods were really dangerous then infection would be manifest primarily among the handlers, and, since the owners and their families usually did the handling themselves, it would be no more than justice if one of them was smitten. It should be mentioned that such goods had to be retained in the custody of the owner until a sufficient period had elapsed for disease to reveal itself.

In 1602 it was decided that funds, which had been bequeathed by certain burgesses of Ayr for the building of ‘a hospitall’, should be applied forthwith so that it could ‘be biggit wt all deligences’. A further advance was made in 1603 when a medical man, one James Harper from Stirling, was given leave to practice in Ayr. He was encouraged to reside permanently by the Town Council agreeing to pay his first year’s house rent. Thus, When the plague appeared in 1606, for the first time a surgeon was in charge of the sick. He was specially engaged ‘for ministrating of his cure upoun ye seik personis of yis burt infectit wt ye seiknes of ye pest during ye tyme of ye continuance of ye said seiknes’. The terms of his employment with the Council, though generous, were dependent on his surviving the epidemic, the Council having very judiciously inserted a clause in the agreement exonerating them from claims lodged by his heirs should the doctor succumb before the pest had left the town. He did, however, survive and was duly paid in February 1607, on condition that he should ‘attend upoun ye curing of ye seik folkis incais ye seiknes (as god forbid) brek out agane’. Various other outstanding dues were settled at the same time, among these being wages to the ‘clengaris and coldron men’; and the school, which had been closed, was ordered to be ‘liftit up agane’. This epidemic began on 30th July 1606 and lasted until the end of the year, when the kirk-session, whose meetings had been suspended, resumed their duties. The minute of their first meeting is stated thus: ‘At the brut (burgh) of Aire, the 29 of December, 1606, the Session being convenit after the Lord’s rod was removit.’ In the course of this epidemic two thousand people are reputed to have lost their lives.

A period of almost forty years elapsed before plague was heard of again. In 1644 the Civil War being contested, and on 9th October of that year Newcastle capitulated to the Scottish army under Leslie. The plague, which had been raging with great violence in that city, infected the victorious troops, who brought it home with them. It rapidly spread over the entire country, producing one of the severest epidemics in the national annals. Ayr was fortunate during this period in that the infection did not get past her defences until September and did not endure more than three months. In that time only 34 people were claimed as victims. The advent of the pest after such a long period of immunity caused deep dejection among the townspeople, the disaster being regarded as a ‘messinger of the Lord’s wrath’. This attitude of mind was expressed and intensified in the sermon preached by Mr. Adair, then sole minister in the town, on a certain Sunday early in the course of the epidemic. He took as his text ‘the land shall mourn every family apart’, and by the fervour of his address aroused his congregation to a high pitch of repentance, which was followed be a general confession of sins throughout the whole town during the course of the ensuing week. First the kirk-session confessed and thereafter the various trades and crafts. The confessions were read from the pulpit the following Sunday and were subsequently entered in the session book ‘for the use of posteritie’.

This proved to be the final appearance of plague in Ayr, although it raged in various places in Scotland until 1648. The references to plague in Ayr in the old records are sufficiently numerous and informative to provide a picture of the enormous problems with which the community was beset, and of the inadequacy of their resources. To meet such dangers would have taxed the efforts of a modern society equipped with the knowledge, the administrative machinery and the means which have evolved through the centuries. It is obvious that the social evolution of Scotland, among other nations, was constantly affected by the presence of plague either as an actual or a potential danger. The development of the public health service, among other social  services, owes its inception to the crude and elementary precautions brought into being by small separate municipalities fighting for their lives in circumstances darkened by ignorance and superstition. One example may be mentioned of the impact of plague on Scotland’s political history. It is interesting to speculate on the course of events had Montrose, fresh from his victory at Kilsyth, not been preventcd from occupying Edinburgh by the presence of plague in the capital. The most lasting impression of all is the fortitude with which the citizens met these recurring perils, and by standing to their duty, even in the shadow of death, finally vanquished them.


The Plague by J. J. Fowler, M.A.
From AANHS Collections, Vol 2 Ch 16.

In their chapter on The Plague the authors remark that references in the old records are sufficiently numerous and informative to provide a picture of the enormous problems with which the community was beset, and the records of the Presbytery and of the Kirk Session of Ayr bear witness to the truth of this statement. After noting the ordinance of the Commission of the General Assembly for the observance, on the first Lord’s Day in 1645, of a “solemne humiliation by prayer and fasting for removing of the plague of pestilence in England and Scotland”, the Presbytery minutes record the approach of the plague: a letter from the late moderator of the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr informs the Presbytery that “it wes thoght that the nixt Synod suld meit in the town of Glasgow, instead of in Paisley, which wes for the tyme infected with the Pestilence”; and a month later one of the causes of the absence since the former Synods “of Master Johne Burne”, the minister of Kirkoswald, is given as the enclosing of himself in his house “becaus of the suspition of the Pest in his paroche, and death of sum in that plague about the kirk.”

The most interesting entry, however, is one that reveals the disturbance of normal trading relations, and the use made of the organisation of the Church to relieve the situation, once the plague had reached Ayr. The bretheren, we read, “taking to there the state and case of the towne of Air now aflicted by pestilence, were desyred to exhort there severall congregations, to furnish to the said towne, such commodities as they might spaire, vpon the charges of the said towue, vpon moderat rate. and the sellers of the said commodities within each Paroch to make choise of one day in the weeke for that effect and they to be accompanied with foure of the elders of there session, or Other discreet men of the paroch, that so the present necessitie of the said towne may be suplied, and each broth[er] to remember the said towne in there prayers.” Three months later the Presbytery considered the of the minister of Alloway, Mr. David Mequorn (who had been ordered to use diligence “in having a manse built and, in the meantime, to reside in Ayr). His excuse for his absence” from his floke in tyme of there by the plague being no wayes found satisfactorie he was “gravely censured, & exhorted to be more carefull to visite his floke, hereafter.”

Assistance, however, was not confined to the bounds of the Presbytery; immediately after the report of Mr. Mcquorn’s censure it is stated that a representative of the Presbytery of Irvine made an appeal for “a voluntarie contribution” because of the great strait & necessitie of the paroche of the Largues by Pestilence.” After having referred the matter to the Committee of the Shire, the Presbytery ask for collections to be made for this purpose.

When one reads the confessions, made at Ayr during the plague of 1647, and “put in wryt & wpon record . for the vse of posteritie”, one wonders to what particular event the session of Ayr refer when, as the fourth “rod” of God’s wrath, they mention “the slaughter of two companies of their young men in the bloddie wars”; or again, why, while the glovers met in their Deacon House, the weavers met “at the hills” of Ayr and the cordiners “at the back of the kirk yeard deik”; or yet again, one wonders why it was only the ” deacon & remenant of the coopers, the few number of the craft of wakers [i.e. fullers] and the few number of candlemakers of the lost-mentioned three names only—who met together; is it merely because few followed these occupations, or had the members of these crafts suffered more severely from war and pestilence?

Before taking leave of the article in our Collections it may be proper to note here that the reader of to-day will almost certainly be misled, when he learns that Johnstone is the place where the plague broke out in 1585. Though Murray Lyon also calls this town Johnstone, his transcript of the Ayr Burgh records refers to it as “Sanct Johnstoun”, which indeed it was — St. John’s Town of Perth, shortened in our day to Perth. To the modern reader Johnstone probably suggests the Renfrewshire town, which had its origins as such in the feuing, in 1781-2, of the ground at the ” Brig o’ Johnston”, where previously there been only a few cottages.


The ‘Pestilence’ in Ayr, 1545-56
From J. Strawhorn “The History of Ayr”

The Black Death had ravaged Scotland in 1350-51 and 1361-62; there were later epidemics in 1380, 1401, 1430, 1439, 1456; in 1499 and 1500 it is known that Prestwick and Irvine were threatened. Experience no doubt suggested the drastic measures recorded in the burgh records when the pest came to Ayr with dreadful impact in 1545-56; threatened again in 1585, 1587, 1597, and 1601; re-appearing to wreak further havoc in 1606-07 and in 1647. How devastating was the epidemic of 1545-46 can only be guessed. Impressive precautions were taken as soon as the scourge was rumoured. In 1544 the ports were strengthened and manned by watchmen, two vennels were closed up, and thorns and stakes protected ‘the oppin partis of the toun’. Despite efforts to exclude infected persons, from September 1545 till the following March ‘the pest wis wonder greit’ in Ayr as in ‘all the burrowis townis of this realm’. The normal burgh organisation broke down. Provost Richard Bannatyne very likely fell victim, as Master of Works Alexander Farquhar certainly did, and possibly other members of the council. In this emergency William Neisbit was appointed ‘kepar of the toun’ and as ‘vice-provost’ or ‘president’ isolated ‘the seik folkis upoun the mure’ and exercised special disciplinary powers against ‘thame that brak rewli in the tyme of the pest’. How ruthlessly the crisis was handled is revealed by an edict of 1585 (probably based on the measures of 1545) that persons entering the town otherwise than by the ports should be scourged and branded; any person communicating with unauthorised visitors would be banished; all infected persons were to be hospitalised in wooden ‘ludges’ erected on the Foul Mure beyond Carrick Street; if any such re-entered to the town they would be summarily hanged. ‘Clengers’ were hired to disinfect clothing by boiling in kettles, and to fumigate houses with fire and water. The cost to the town was horrific. Loss of life must have been considerable, including William Neisbit himself. At least £470 was spent over the next few years in connection with the pest, including compensation to persons whose houses were burned down and to the schoolmaster for fees lost ‘quhen the schule held not’. It says much for the resilience of the local economy that the burgh finances were soon restored to normalcy.


 

 

 

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