Coping with the poor has long been a problem for governments and local communities and, of course, let’s not forget enduring the indignity of relying on others for something to eat and a place of shelter has never been much fun for the poor themselves.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when times are tough those with the least take the biggest hit – an attitude gladly adopted during these austere times by the UK government.
In the not-so-distant past help for the poor came through charities, mortification funds or bequests, personal handouts and assistance usually undertaken by the local presbytery. In the 19th century Poorhouses were introduced to provide an alternative to outside support for those incapable of surviving on nothing: no job, no income, no home. Today we have the safety-net of benefits -albeit they are being whittled away – but before universal benefits were introduced poor relief was applied on a one-to-one basis and was of the merest kind.
There’s slight confusion between Poorhouses and Workhouses. The terms are often conflated but in Scotland indoor relief was provided through the Poorhouse and the more familiar Workhouse was in fact an English institution somewhat different in that inmates had to work for their keep hence the name. The impression is the same system operated throughout Britain which is not true but a legacy of careless and misinformed teaching in our schools. Another difference was that the poor in England and Wales were expected to pay towards their keep whereas that was not so in Scotland.
Scotland’s poor relief was less weighted down by regulation than in England and Wales so that a body looking into improving poor law there looked at the Scottish system before implementing its 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. And despite another myth taught in schools Scotland was not regulated by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.
The Act of Union of 1707 preserved poor relief within the laws of Scotland which gave rise to differences in attitude and application across the nations. However being poor and dependent on charity was no more fun in Scotland than elsewhere.
Prior to the inauguration of Poorhouses which it has to be said only helped a tiny fraction of the destitute the degree of poverty among the people is difficult for us to imagine today. Most people lived on practically nothing but some literally had nothing beyond the clothes they stood up in.
In Edinburgh in 1826 it was found in one beggar’s hotel down one of the city’s closes thirty people sharing one room with each paying between 1 penny and 3 pennies a night.
Twenty years later provision for the poor in Scotland underwent major changes with the introduction of the 1845 Poor Law Act which called for parochial boards to be established to organise local poor relief with the boards’ overall management retained in the capital, Edinburgh, and made up of representative from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Renfrew and Ross and Cromarty. The Act allowed for neighbouring parishes to join together to build Poorhouses for the needy in their vicinity – those who could not be sufficiently helped through outdoor relief (money, food or clothing and such.) Soon after the 1845 legislation was passed permission was given for building eight new Poorhouses.
Prior to the Act little Rosemarkie on the Black Isle had 39 paupers out of a population of 350 with poverty increasing. The poor at Rosemarkie may have lived in turf houses like many in their condition but were said to be better fed and clothed than in some other parishes and reasonably well educated with most children attending school though occasionally they didn’t because it was suspected from lack of clothing although this was never admitted to by families. The next village of Fortrose recorded 49 on the poor roll from its population of 559. Losing your job was the quickest way to becoming a pauper then but age was an important factor as was desertion of women and children by men.
In an echo of recent times when the poorest in our society have been charged more for gas and electricity through pre-payment meters the poor during the 1840s – unemployed labourers – had to plead credit from shopkeepers and were charged more than 5% interest on their meagre purchases, certainly in and around Fortrose.
By the end of the 19thC, in the 1890s, Scotland had Poorhouse provision sufficient to accommodate more than 15,000 paupers although the actual numbers living in Poorhouses at any one time was never near that number.
The Poorhouse for the Black Isle was built at Chanonry between Rosemarkie and Fortrose, in the parish of Rosemarkie, and designed by William Lawrie of the Inverness office of Aberdeen architect James Matthews. The Chanonry Poorhouse looked similar to the company’s other Poorhouses at Inverness, Bonar Bridge and Nairn only smaller. The Matthews office designed several Poorhouses, some as Mackenzie and Matthews, notably one for the parishes of St Nicholas and Old Machar in Aberdeen following a blueprint for Scottish Poorhouses that aimed to make them less oppressive in appearance, to give them an air of domesticity and so limit the impression of them being what they were, heavily regulated institutions.
Back in the Black Isle a Combination Poorhouse for some fifty poor souls from the parishes of Rosemarkie and Fortrose, Avoch, Cromarty, Killearnan, Knockbain, Resolis and Urquhart was erected at Chanonry where folk now go to observe dolphins. There may have been a start on a Poorhouse as early as 1856 but the Lawrie one materialised in 1859 and opened its doors only in 1861. Domesticity is surely in the eyes of the beholder because the Poorhouse remit of an H-form, two-storey building plus attic does not soften its severity, although that might be reading into its appearance what is known of its purpose. Staff were accommodated in attractive single-storey cottages alongside.
The familiar H-shape Poorhouse enabled easy separation of male and female inmates. There was further separation of able-bodied (fit for work) and the infirm. Children were removed from their parents and separated again by sex so that each group had its own area within the H-block. Work areas were provided, again according to women’s or men’s work- a bakehouse in the male part and a laundry in the female area.
Poorhouses were run like prisons without the enforced stay. You entered through a public area where you were checked – your identity and for diseases both physical and mental. Your belongings were searched and your clothes removed for washing and put away until you left, if ever, and you were bathed and provided with a uniform.
The central front area housed the offices of the Poorhouse master and matron along with a kitchen and dining-room which also served as a chapel. Also at the front was a room that could supply clothing to those on outdoor relief who did not stay overnight in the institution. In the yard outside areas were designated for male and female activities and a privy was provided in one corner. The whole area was enclosed by a high stone wall.
The Poorhouse provided both refuge for those incapable of fending for themselves and as a hospital of some kind. You could not just walk in but had to be referred, usually by the local Inspector of the Poor, and although you were free to leave you did not automatically get re-admission so a person had to think long and hard what was best for them for there might be even greater hardship to endure on the outside.
The need for Poorhouses grew through the 19thC because of differences in the social makeup of Scotland, its landholdings and changing work practices and, of course, tied houses – those that went with a job and were taken away once the worker died, left or was sacked. By 1868 Scotland had some fifty Poorhouses, mainly around the central belt.
At Chanonry Poorhouse four staff members are listed in the 1881 census but presumably others were involved working with inmates but living outside. The master of the Poorhouse then was John Fraser of Avoch (pronounced Och) and his Glaswegian wife Agnes as well as two young women housemaids, Ann Mackenzie from Avoch and Kate Noble from Durnish who was also the Poorhouse cook.
The committee running the Poorhouse in 1907 was headed by the master or governor of the Poorhouse, John McKay, and met there at 12 noon on every fourth Monday of May, August, November and February and involved the doctor assigned to the house; A. H . Mackenzie from Fortrose as well as committee secretary Robert Gillanders who was also the local Inspector of Poor.
Medical relief for paupers was often provided freely at the discretion of doctors, certainly in Rosemarkie, Fortrose, Avoch and Cromarty although some parishes such as Kilearnan did grant small sums to pay for medicines.
When the census was taken in 1881 Chanonry Poorhouse housed 21 people ranging from 90 year old farmer’s widow Ann White from Avoch to two abandoned little children – Isabella McIver and Hugh McLennan both 2 years old and both from Rosemarkie.
The sorry list of their fellow-inmates reveals how awful life was for working people before old age pensions were brought in, especially those only scratching a living while fit and others who were vulnerable for all sorts of reasons. Back in ’81 the majority brought low enough to turn up at the door of the Poorhouse were women, and most of them were over 60 years of age though not all. Amongst the 21 recorded at the time of the census we find a fisherman’s widow, a woman shoebinder, a porter, farm workers, a domestic servant, a laundress, a housekeeper, the widow of an iron moulder, a needlewoman, a weaver, a shoemaker.
Widows were liable to find themselves with nothing to live on once their husbands died and especially if they stayed in accommodation tied to their husband’s job and both men and women had to keep working into old age or severe infirmity because until the 20thC there was no alternative. At Alford agricultural workers who did not rent land were found to be particularly vulnerable to hostile landowners who would not let cottages without land attached which the poorest could not afford so became homeless. A couple of miles away at Tough it was found most day labourers did keep a tiny piece of land, a croft with one or two cows, so were better protected from destitution.
Poor relief outwith from the Poorhouse was managed by kirk-sessions. At Rosemarkie old paupers who were not confined to bed were given 4 to 5 shillings annually for their upkeep but widows and children received less. Mostly the poor in the Black Isle lived on nothing much more than potatoes and with the tiny allowances allotted them often turned to begging (which in Rosemarkie was not punished as it was in many other places.)
Poor funds were supplemented by legacies, mortification money or sometimes pockets of land, and these attracted people to move to areas where it was known they had funds for distribution, such as Fortrose.
Cromarty too had mortified funds which attracted its fair share of folk from surrounding areas as well as people in search of work at the town’s hemp manufactory. Ropemaking and fishing were main sources of income for people in that town but many supported themselves gathering sea weed which they sold to farmers for fertilisers and widows could find work baiting hooks for 4 pennies a day for Cromarty’s fishermen. Seasonal work such as harvesting was also a source of employment for women around Cromarty who might earn 6 pennies a day in the fields. That said Cromarty’s poor were said to suffer more extreme poverty and destitution than in other areas. Among those requiring help were people suffering mental illness who were supported from locally raised funds. Amounts paid to recipients varied widely from as little as 2 shillings a year and rarely exceeded 10 shillings but a few payments of 20 shillings were made at Rosemarkie while the average in Cromarty was 12 shillings annually.
Mary Ann Cumming from England was 76 years old and a resident in the Chanonry Poorhouse in 1881. Her fellow-countryman, Ely Thimpeny, a former weaver, was a year older. He was there with his wife, a local woman from Kilmuir in Ross & Cromarty, but of course they would be mostly separated from each other as long as they remained in the Poorhouse. Another originally from outside the area was Charlotte Mackenzie from Glasgow. Donald McDonald was only 18yrs old and described as a pauper on the census. Donald was blind and presumably unable to fend for himself and so found himself at such an early age an inmate of the Poorhouse.
In 1894 Poor Law in Scotland was replaced by the Local Government Board and then in 1919 a Scottish Board of Health assumed responsibility for poor relief. After the end of the Second World War and the start of a proper welfare system Poorhouses became relics of the past. By then the need for the Black Isle Poorhouse had diminished and its name was changed to Ness House in the late 1930s but long after continued to be known as the Poorhouse.
Wi silver in ma pocket an oatmeal in ma scoo
Ah’ll tramp gladly homeward like cadgers always do
An when Ah reach the bothie so sair an tired I am
Ah’ll keep the home fires burnin an fry the ham
An then to bed as usual, three, four pints o beer
It’s best to tak things easy, we’ll no be always here
Oh wha would slave like Storum or stare like Jessie Poose
There’s little sense in savin pence for Chenrey Hoose.
verse taken from The Cromarty Fisherfolk Dialect http://wanderengland.com/images/The%20Cromarty%20Fisherfolk%20Dialect.pdf