10.4.2 Health and Diet

The diet of the rich was very different from the diet of the poor. For the rich, there is documentary evidence including some recipes and letters (Geddes 1994). For the less wealthy, oats and then potatoes remained the mainstay (Brown 1996).

Evidence of drink is plentiful thanks to the kirk session records, documentary accounts and oral traditions. While more attention has been focussed on commercial distilling and brewing (see 10.5.7), small production for household use, both legal and illegal, also took place (Bratt forthcoming). Identification and recording of small remote stills, probably illegal for the most part, has advanced in recent years. For example, the Strathconon, Easter Ross survey by NoSAS revealed a large number of still sites in an area which was known to be off limits to excise men (Marshall 2011b). Further discoveries have been made on National Trust for Scotland estates in the Highlands, particularly at Torridon (Wordsworth and Harden 2002; MacDonald 2011).

A probable still bothy, Strathconan. ©NoSAS

Health and Demographics

Only in the post-medieval period is it possible to gain an insight into population density and health, and even then realistically only from the 19th century onwards (Flinn et al 1977; Donnachie 1986; Anderson 2018). Highland examples include studies on Skye in the 1880s (Garrett and Davies 2003). The Old and New Statistical accounts, estate documentation and parish birth and death records all allow a rough picture to be assembled before the advent of the mid-19th century census, Valuation Rolls and government recording of births, marriages and deaths. Before the clearances, even the rural Highlands had large populations, with many large families, and population growth continued in the 19th century. This was a real factor in economic hardship, with more mouths to feed from limited resources. The increased population over the period created insupportable factors in a situation that was already unravelling (Dodgshon 2004; Richards 2007, 32ff).

Documentary sources provide details of diseases and ailments, with limited archaeological input (ScARF Modern section 4.3; Oram 2007). The marginal subsistence, and starvation during famine, resulted in a weakened population susceptible to disease (Bangor-Jones 2000a, 66). The Highlands and Islands had a strong Gaelic tradition in medicine during the 17th and 18th century (Burnett 1997, 13–15). Healing wells were frequented into modern times and a variety of charms circulated for curing or prevention (see 10.6). Cholera epidemics show that there were problems in public sanitary arrangements (Oram et al 2009, 76; MacAskill nd).

Written charm to cure toothache given by the wife of a gamekeeper at Garve, Ross-shire, to a domestic servant in Dingwall in 1869. ©National Museums Scotland

As most human remains are still in active cemeteries, there has been little analysis of human remains for the evidence they could provide about health. At Hilton of Cadboll, Easter Ross, a 25–35 year old male buried after 1527 showed general good health though with dental issues and a healed fracture on the right forearm. Infant burials from Phase 4 (late medieval to early post-medieval but not radiocarbon dated) at Hilton of Cadboll, in contrast had poor health markers that suggested malnutrition (Roberts 2008, 363–5). The poorly preserved human remains from the Carmelite Friary at Kingussie, Badenoch, were mainly disarticulated and provided only limited data (McSweeney 2020). Analysis of disarticulated bones from Kirkmichael on the Black Isle provided evidence of poor diet, disease, infections and a prevalence of arthritic symptoms, but the bones were undated, and could be medieval as well as post-medieval (Lynne McKeggie, 2017).

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