The 1738–41 Harvest Crisis in Scotland

The 1738–41 Harvest Crisis in Scotland

The Scottish Historical Review, Volume XC, 1: No. 229: April 2011, 27–63    


Between 1738 and 1741 Scotland experienced one of the harshest harvest crises and depressions in the eighteenth-century. After at least two consecutive harvest failures (in 1739 and 1740 and perhaps also in 1738) agrarian and industrial output contracted, the price level doubled, and average incomes fell below subsistence. Due to an increase in mortality, there was also a considerable contraction in aggregate demand. Data drawn from both the micro- as well as the macro-level shows the disastrous economic impact such deficient harvests – the depression’s initial trigger–would have upon Scotland, a pre-industrial economy dominated by agriculture. Such shocks in agrarian supply tended to work out as general adverse shocks in aggregate supply, as the economy’s business cycle was to a large extent determined by movements in the harvest cycle. The implicit task of the paper also is to point out the variety of available sources for, as well as one possible strategy of, writing a quantitative macro-economic history of eighteenth-century Scotland. 

Recently Professor T. M. Devine has pointed out a grave deficiency in Scottish historiography, viz. that ‘the ‘new’ economic history in general has had little impact on the study of Scottish history’. While the current article does not attempt to explain why this should be the case, it is contended here that the available sources do in fact allow writing such a quantitative history and that it is very likely that in the end the identification of short-cyclical movements in the Scottish business or harvest cycle may become possible, allowing further tentative conclusions on size and trend, perhaps even structural composition and distribution of Scottish national income. This should allow placing the Scottish quantitative evidence into the increasingly formalised quantitative framework established by economic historians and historical economists for the English and European economies of the eighteenth century.

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