Empty streets, self isolation, physical distancing… Not scenes from 2020 as you might expect but Leith in 1645, the year the bubonic plague ravaged the port and killed over half of its population.
Scotland was no stranger to the plague. The country had suffered waves of the disease ever since the time of the Black Death in 1350. National measures were taken in 1452 when an Act of Parliament permitted the burning of any house affected by plague.
Quarantine regulations followed in 1456, restricting the movement of people and goods and in future years these were strictly enforced by parliament, the privy council and the burghs. Penalties for concealment of plague were harsh.
In Spring 1645, the plague began to spread in southern Scotland amongst a populace weakened by famine due to a disastrous harvest the previous year. Soldiers were also accused of bringing plague back from England but understanding of what caused it was poor – many ascribed plague to the wrath of God on a sinful population.
Gilbert Skene, who wrote the earliest vernacular treatise on the plague in Scotland – Ane Breve Description of the Pest – believed the plague of 1568 was the ‘inscrutabill Counsall and Justice of God’. He also held that:
‘Ane pest is the corruptioun or infectioun of the Air, or an venomous qualytie and maist hurtfull Vapour thairof’
The hard task of combating the plague in Leith fell to the baillies (magistrates) of the burgh and the kirk session. Their efforts to contain it are graphically described in the surviving minute book of South Leith Kirk Session (NRS: CH2/716/5).
On 3rd April 1645, the minute book reported the first few incidences of the plague: men were instructed to provide food and drink to James Thomson and John Dunlop whose houses were ‘inclosit for feare of the plague’.
But on 14th May, a breakout in the new King James’ Hospital was reported and that same day, the session clerk David Aldinstoune, was ordered to isolate himself in his house for having prayed at the deathbed of Margaret Gilmuir. From 16th May until Aldinstoune’s return on 15th June, there is a gap in the record but by the time he had returned to his task, the plague was clearly out of control.
Cleansing the town
It was recognised that the filth which built up in towns despite regulations contributed to the spread of the plague. On 20th June all were notified they must remove ‘their middens of mucke and dead swine affe the Streete’. William Strachan was paid to carry the ‘filthe and mucke’ away on sledges and take it down to the shore to ‘the full sea that it might be washine away’.
Experienced cleansers were brought in to clear and fumigate houses affected by the plague. They were highly sought after but it was a risky job. By October, the session had to send out for more and eight new ones had been appointed. ‘Foul cleagners’ were responsible for moving and burying the dead and clearing refuse on the Links. In July, at the height of the plague, they were ordered to come to the town to remove the dead from houses ‘seeing some lyeth long unburied’.
Whins (gorse) were cleared from the Links and burned to fumigate the houses. Once this supply had dried up, the Session sought supplies from Pilrig and Currie, as well as straw and heather. These all had to be paid for and on 17 July, it was noted that the Minister of Currie parish had refused to bring any more heather as the last load hadn’t been paid for. The cleansing of houses this way risked setting them on fire, so buckets of water were ordered to be placed outside each house affected.
By August, many of those responsible for cleaning away the middens were themselves sick or had died, and the session sought replacements where it could. Twelve women who had survived the plague were appointed to ‘mucke out and reid (set in order)’ houses before the cleansers fumigated them. Not all were willing to gather the ‘clutrie’ (refuse) and those who refused were threatened with being thrown into prison.
Quarantine and life on the Links
Immediately anyone fell ill, they were isolated in their house with their whole family.
‘Ludges’ (wooden huts) were built on the Links of Leith to isolate those infected with the plague. The Links were divided into four quarters reflecting the four divisions of the parish, and each had an overseer responsible for taking the names of who was there.
One of them, Alexander Hay, reported that he could not compile this list ‘because none will goe with him’ though by 17th July, he was able to present the Session with a paper book showing the division of the Ludges – who had built them, to whom they belonged and how many people were in each. He too became a victim of the plague.
Peter Cochrane’s house on the Links was taken over to store the food for the quarantined. This ‘Magazine house’ had itself to be cleansed when its overseer, George Nesbit, fell sick and died.
On 20th June, it was decreed that everyone enclosed in the Ludges or in their house in the town should receive 3 half loaves and a pint of ale per day. Some had brought their cattle with them but at the end of July it was ordered that cattle whose owners had died were to be slaughtered for the common good.
Clothing was widely believed to harbour and transmit the plague. Bedding was immediately burnt, but large cauldrons in which to boil clothing were set up on the Links. A ‘Great Coppir Kettle’ was borrowed from James Storie’s brewery. By the time it was returned in November, Storie was dead. A kiln was also built to fumigate clothes.
Funding the crisis
The focus of the Session was to cater for the needs of the poor who were the most affected by the plague. Those who had the means to leave fled the burgh at the first sign of the plague. In June, a tax was levied on them to contribute for supplies for the poor.
Those who were able to support themselves were required to pay for the heather and straw burned to cleanse their houses and fumigate their possessions. By July, the Session decreed that none were to get coffins ‘but those who are able to pay for them.’ Otherwise they were buried in their blankets.
Any cash left in the houses of those who died was taken for public use. On 19 June, Allan Girvan’s house was ordered to be cleansed ‘with all expedition as it is thought that there are moneyes in his house which may be gottin for the necessitie of the poor’. The money would be reimbursed to any surviving family on return to normality.
As the summer wore on, the Session struggled to raise money and as they could not pay for goods, gave I.O.Us instead. The Session sought support from Edinburgh burgh council. In August, beset by famine, they petitioned Parliament, now sitting in Perth out of reach of the plague, for relief from:
‘the calamitie and distress wherunder the said town doe lye for the present, being visit with the plague of pestilence in such sort that the number of the dead exceeds the number of the living and amongst them it cannot be decernit quha [who] are clean and quha are foulle’.
The end of the plague
By November, the Session could see that the plague was abating. Controls on those entering the burgh remained, but the Ludges were dismantled in early December. All those whose houses and clothes had been disinfected were ordered to also ‘cleange their bodies with all expeditioune’. Nobody was allowed into the newly cleansed Kirk or to be married until they were thoroughly clean.
On 14th December anybody still not fully recovered remained in quarantine in John Cochrane’s house on the Links ‘put apairt out of this towne seeing the toune is almost cleangit’. The Session remained vigilant about strangers who might re-infect the town, requiring them to provide testimonials that they were not sick.
On 23rd December, the Kirk Session – itself decimated by the disease – met for the first time in the Session House since the ‘restraint of the plague of pestilence (blissed bee our Lord) and it was ordainit the elders and deacones should be thinking upoun some speciall honest men (whom our Lord hath spared) to be upoun the Session’.
Leith was reckoned to have around 4,000 inhabitants before the plague struck. The tally of those who died drawn up in the following January makes for grim reading, with well over half the population having succumbed.
And what became of David Aldinstoune, the Session Clerk, who has left us his gripping account?
On 7th April 1646, the Session recommended that he receive some ’consideration’ for ‘his diligence painis and travaill’ during the plague ‘who never removed out of this towne the said tyme’.
Aldinstoune survived the plague and died in post in 1674.
Dr. Alison Rosie
National Records of Scotland