The Minutes of the Parochial Board of the Parish of South Knapdale

(being concerned with the poor, the lunatic and the sick)
1845 to February 1855

The original is a hand written minute book in the possession of the Argyll and Bute Council Archives of Lochgilphead, Argyll. The transcribed portion included in the attached pdf covers the period of the Board's inception in 1845 to 1855 (a couple of years after my own Knapdale ancestors had left for Canada.)

Scotland's local social welfare system was administered by the Parish. Since most people in Knapdale lived on rural estates, the landowners (or "Heritors") were - theoretically - the main support for those in need. The central mechanism delivering charity was through the the kirk session, the kirk elders and the Parish minister. In 1845, Scotland took the first step to regularizing this often slapdash system with a Poor Law. This Minute Book is a record of South Knapdale's Parochial Board, established in order to comply with this Poor Law. In larger centres, the majority of paupers entered 'poorhouses'. Sometimes, several parishes came together to build such cooperative poorhouses. Indeed, the South Knapdale Board considers such a suggestion a couple of times, and rejects it.

You might think that (aside from genealogical interests) these minutes are boring to the extreme. However, the decade of 1845 to 1855 was action packed, what with the 1848 Potato Famine and a Cholera Epidemic. As the Board members gathered in an Ardrishaig Hotel for their meetings, they had to deal with collecting money for the poor and the sick and the lunatic when all such contributions were voluntary. As time goes on, too, you can see that this Board taking responsibility for public sanitation and - finally, a local hospital!

POTATO FAMINE OF 1848

There had always been trade between the Western Highlands and Ireland, and of course, seed-potatoes were a major part of this trade. John Campbell of Kilberry Estate (south of Ormsary Estate) recorded the following in his diary 1st August, 1848:

"Yellow turnips about one third singled. After dinner beautiful for haymaking. N. B. within the last three or four days the potatoes have quite assumed the diseased appearance and today the field smells quite strong. There have been three I hear already brought in diseased from the garden." (1)

Knapdale's crops were, however, more diverse than those of Ireland. Of course, the price of 'meal' shot up for the duration. By 1851, the Board agreed "to reduce the allowances of the following individuals, in respect that they were given at a period when the price of provisions were very high, viz 1847..." (page 33 of the pdf)

TAXATION: ESTATES VERSUS TOWN

Money is a constant irritant for the harassed Board members. To collect voluntary payments was always difficult, and to squeeze anything at all out of non-heritors was almost impossible. The Crinan Canal had led to more business, less isolation, and the growth of the village of Ardrishaig, all within two generations. In 1847, these new interests made a 'voluntary contribution' to the Board of 60 pounds sterling; but the question of subsequent 'contributions' repeatedly came up in meetings. In 1852, Campbell of Stonefield (a Knapdale estate on Loch Fyne) proposed a legal assessment (taxation!!!). He repeated this threat in October 1853. It seems that even the Crinan Canal Co. declined to pay their fair share of the 'voluntary contribution.'

CONTAGION: CHOLERA AND SMALLPOX

Contagious diseases were a source of deep concern. At the time of this Minute Book, it was believed that disease spread through the air. A logical response to contagion was therefore a Sanitary Committee, which allied with the local constabulary, enforced the cleaning of Knapdale's many odiferous "ashpits" so that their 'miasma' would not spread disease.

When, in 1854, a couple of people became sick with Cholera, fear is palpable in the notes of this Minute Book. The victims were welcome nowhere, and one victim was, apparently, deserted by everyone. When a sailor with smallpox was reduced to wanderng between Ardrishaig and Lochgilphead, finding no shelter anywhere, the Board was deeply mortified. By August, 1854, it had agreed to build a "House of Reception for the Casual sick Poor" in Ardrishaig, at the cost of 90 pounds sterling.

And here, we have the timeless and universal problem faced by all such worthy projects: "Not in My Back Yard." Parents of school children objected to this hospital being situated so close to the Ardrishaig's school!

SHOVELLING OUT THE PAUPERS... REALLY!!

In order to handle the 'excess population' of the poor, and in the face of famine and unemployment, you will note in the Minutes, interest in providing subsidies for travel to Canada. For example, on the 17th June, 1850,

"The Inspector having called this meeting specially for the purpose of considering the propriety of defraying the expenses of conveying Widow McLean and her family to America - she having a son there who is willing to support her provided her passage is paid. The meeting considering that she is herself a Pauper supported by the Parish and her family who are invalids and likely soon to become burdensome to the Parish, unanimously agree to defray the above expense, and instruct the Inspector to arrange the matter in as economical a manner as possible and if necessary to proceed to Glasgow for that purpose." (pages 28 and 29)

By the next meeting, 7 August, the Inspector reported that he had arranged for the conveyance of the Widow McLean and her three daughters to America, for the cost of sixteen pounds 17 shillings 3 pence sterling.

A VERY MODERN COMMITTEE

Membership represented the local power brokers: the landowners and the kirk. At the same time, the Board consciously worked within the framework of a national regulatory system, as well as in a tradition of ordered local control of social problems. Behind all of this, of course, was the Christian ethic that the poor and unlucky must be helped by the fortunate.

The form these meetings took is familiar to a person of our time. The members gather, on a regular basis, at the Hotel (Mr. Finlay's Hotel) in Ardrishaig, so they were a sort of holiday for the participants, and I'll bet the lunches were very convivial. The minutes list those present, and the position of Chairman is soon fobbed off from a Heritor to the estimable Reverend MacKenzie. Motions are made, recorded and discussed, and followed up with action. Paupers are carefully listed, and deaths of same are noted (because they are then off the Poor Roll). Money is carefully tracked and checked. It is modern and boring and most effective in staving off the worst effects of poverty and contagion in Knapdale.

OF ADDITIONAL INTEREST:

My own ancestor, Mary McNeill, appears on this Paupers' Roll (pages 11 and 40.) A complete listing of the names in this excerpt of the Minute Book is at this data table.

The year of the Potato Famine, 1848, was also the year of the Arichonan Clearance. Niel Malcolm of Poltalloch, the heritor responsible for the clearance, personally attended a South Knapdale Board Meeting 18 October 1848. The trial of the Arichonan people took place in September, 1848.

(1) Marion Campbell. A Farm Manager's CashBook, 1843 - 1854. Photocopy of article from an unknown periodical.

Email: heathermc at northwestel dot net