Poor Relief in Edinburgh and the Famine of 1621-24

Poor Relief in Edinburgh and the Famine of 1621-24

Stewart, Laura A.M.

International Review of Scottish Studies, Vol. 30 (2005)


Between the years 1621-24, Scotland and the north of England were afflicted by a famine which must count amongst the more important demographic events of the seventeenth century. Michael Flinn did not flinch from calling it a national disaster which may have surpassed the so-called Seven Ill Years of the 1690s in its scale and intensity. The timing of the famine is also significant; twenty-four separate cases of either localised or national food shortages have been identified in the period 1550-1600, but by the second decade of the seventeenth century, Scotland seems to have been exporting surplus grain and reducing imports of victual from the Baltic.

The crisis of 1621-24 has primarily raised interest amongst historians who see it as an indicator of the persistent instability of what was still, for most people, a subsistence economy in Scotland. Furthermore, it has been used to highlight the short- comings of a poor relief system that was not designed to cope with large-scale destitution. Rosalind Mitchisonís work has been particularly influential in establishing this view. She rightly stressed how formidable obstacles to collective action in the localities severely limited the effectiveness of legislation on poor relief, but these stimulating preliminary studies have not been substantially advanced. Mitchison herself acknowledged that she had focused on the rural parish; towns were conspicuous by their absence, yet it was towns, even relatively small ones, which possessed organisational mechanisms that could protect all but the most vulnerable members of the community from starvation.

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