The curious case of Alexander MacGibbon and the Old Statistical Account for Parish of Kilmadock or Doune (1798)

This blog post is somewhat different from stuff I usually write about. As we are all at home due to the COVID 19 pandemic, I have been thinking a lot about the notion of ‘home’ and what it means to me personally. Is it the people I live with who give me a sense of home? Yes, my family certainly do give me that feeling (wherever we are). Is the bricks and mortar where we spend our days, and where at present my husband is trying to work from home while both my teenage kids try to keep up with some schoolwork? And what about our pets and how much love and joy they bring to our lives? What about the village we live in, the country we live in?  There are loads of things to ponder about.

What I do know is that I have never in my 46 years felt as at peace as I do in Scotland. When we cross the border at Gretna, there is most definitely a feeling of arriving home. The same is when I see the familiar points along the road on the way back; Stirling Castle is the point where I know I only have about ten minutes until I arrive home.

I live in the village of Doune, Perthshire and have done for four years although I’ve visited for twenty years as this is where my husband grew up (and his family live in the next village). Just across the road, there are remains of a roman camp under the cricket pitch where we walk our dog and I sometimes wonder what it would have been like back then. From our home, we can see the world-famous Doune Castle (which, ironically, has only ever been closed once before now– in January 1746 when it was captured by the Jacobites and used as a prison for Hanoverian troops after the Battle of Falkirk). Just behind our home is a very small lane called Park Lane which houses the remains of old cottages, including the wall of a pistol maker’s cottage (which now backs on to the Coop supermarket). There are layers upon layers of folks who have lived here before, who have loved here before, who have faced crises here before and who have gone through hard times before.

One of my favourite resources which I have used during my studies is the Statistical Accounts of Scotland website, , which you can browse for free from anywhere in the world. Another couple of favourites is the National Library of Scotland’s Maps website (the oldest map of showing Doune is Roy’s Military Map of 1747-1755) and Canmore (here’s a link to the info about the old Roman camp). One thing that really jumps out at me on Roy’s map is evidence of townships around Doune which sadly are no longer there and how gigantic Blair Drummond once was in comparison with the rest of the area.

Sir_John_Sinclair.jpeg.jpeg

Figure 1: Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster by Henry Raeburn (1794-5) accessed from here on 3rd April 2020. The portrait is lifesize; it is 238 cm in height by 154 cm in width

 

The Statistical Accounts of Scotland were created thanks to the vision of one man, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, who is credited with introducing the word ‘statistics’ and ‘statistical’ into the English language[1]. Sir John Sinclair was a member of the gentry and the MP for Caithness at Westminster, who was interested in estate improvement and had learned about ‘statistics’ in Germany.[2]

In May 1790 Sir John, as an elder of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, wrote to all 938 ministers across Scotland and asked them to complete a voluntary questionnaire with 160 questions about their parish, so that an analysis of the “quantum of happiness” of the population may be revealed so that further improvements could be made.[3] At the time most ministers had attended one of the four Scottish universities – which were ‘centres of the Scottish Enlightenment’- and had an excellent local knowledge of their parishes, which generally made for in-depth reports of each parish which included information on local history, population, agriculture, fauna and flora, geography, housing and schooling which became combined into a “massive project of self-representation.” [4]

The old statistical account for the parish of Kilmadock was written by Mr Alexander MacGibbon in 1798[5]. MacGibbon was not the minister of Kilmadock church[6], the Reverend Patrick Murray was. The minister was relatively new to the parish and this was his first posting (he was a tutor beforehand) so that could, in theory, explain why someone else was chosen by the Church for this important task; it was vitally important that the author would be someone who knew the parish intimately. I decided to do a bit of digging around to see if I could find out who he was and what qualified him to write the account instead of the minister.

It is unclear who MacGibbon was and why he wrote Kilmadock’s first statistical account. He was not a member of the Kirk Session for the parish; I spent a morning at the archives in Stirling looking at the Kirk Session minutes (which was not an easy task thanks to the handwriting of some of the secretaries) and all they detail from this period was who was fornicating with who out of wedlock, the punishment they received (repeated public shaming in front of the parish on at least three occasions) and the occasional proclamation from the King (George III, asking commanding prayers for the troops engaged in war against the French).

MacGibbon did not attend any of the universities in Scotland, which is surprising given that the Enlightenment clearly inspired the writer of the account and it seems pretty evident that he was a man of learning. [7] Mr MacGibbon makes references to “the pleasures of the imagination are much refined by the prospect of romantic woods and groves”[8], dedicates poetic verses to Henry Home, Lord Kames, who lived at Blairdrummond but describes Ochtertyre House as having “grotesque pleasure-grounds” which is surprising as historian John Ramsay owned it.[9] The Blair Drummond estate was the home of a key figure of the Enlightenment, Henry Home, Lord Kames who is much praised in the account and perhaps served as an inspiration to MacGibbon. [10]

A good proportion of the account discusses how important it is to provide improvements to agriculture (pages 61-70 of the account are devoted to this topic), is a topic the author refers to in the appendix and he states that “the state of agriculture is the most important object.” [11] It is clear from the text that the author very clearly has an in-depth understanding, and perhaps personal experience, of agriculture.

The health of agriculture workers and the poor is clearly of concern to MacGibbon, as is their housing[12], their insufficient clothing and an inferior diet. He argues that the landlords are responsible for improving living conditions for their tenants so that they are happy and comfortable, thereby making them stronger, more vigorous who then thrives and can pay more in rent.[13] This criticism of the wealthy could perhaps be seen as being very surprising at this time. Could it be that our mysterious writer was a self-taught man who had been born locally on a farm, perhaps? There is indeed one Alexander MacGibbon who was born at (East) Brae and would have been in his forties when the account was written. However whether this is the same man, we don’t know.

The Adelphi Cotton Works are discussed and are criticised for having attracted people who had “refined each other in all manner of wickedness” who had become insolent, disobedient and careless due to their high wages but that the work in the mill destroyed their health. However, new steps had been taken by the management to improve living conditions and their moral characters, as well as the teaching of children.[14] The New Statistical Account of the parish, which was published in 1845, discusses the mill at length and discusses the dangerous working conditions and the poor health of the workers, so it, therefore, seems that any improvement was temporary.[15]

Finally, the author discusses the use of Scots in the parish in a very dismissive manner, stating that “This jargon is very unpleasant to the ear, and a great impediment to the fluent conversation[16] and describes the use of Gaelic in the western part of the parish in even more dismissive terms. [17] MacGibbon’s criticism of the local Gaelic speakers is somewhat surprising given that he clearly understands Gaelic as he explains the etymology of local place names and seems instead to be a rather snobbish criticism of Perthshire Gaelic over classically-taught Gaelic. [18] The same can be said for his criticism of Scots; his comments smack of snobbery and are therefore fitting of someone from the upper classes of the period, which gives us a clue into the character of the elusive Alexander MacGibbon.

 I have just chosen a few things from the account to write about here in this post today.  I highly recommend reading through both accounts (I know you will have time on your hands at present and might welcome a distraction!), having a look around the Canmore site at all the fascinating places which are registered in this parish and also have a good look at the Maps website.  And then have a think about what home means to you (please feel free to leave comments below; I’d love to hear from you). 

 

Notes

[1] R. Mitchison, “Sinclair, Sir John, first baronet” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2005)

[2] Sir John is credited with the introduction of the word ‘statistics’ and ‘statistical’ into the English language. He had learned about the concept in Germany where it referred to a collection of facts about the political strength of a country (R J Morris, T C Smout, C W J Withers, An Introduction to the Statistical Accounts of Scotland)

[3] ibid

[4] T. Furniss, ‘Plumb-Pudding Stone’ and the Romantic Sublime: The Landscape and Geology of the Trossachs in The Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-99). In: Romantic Localities: Europe Writes Place. The Enlightenment World. (London, Pickering and Chatto, 2010) pp. 51-65.

[5] A. MacGibbon, ‘Statistical Account Number III Parish of Kilmadock or Doune (County of Perth, Synod of Perth and Stirling, Presbytery of Dunblane) by Mr Alexander MacGibbon’ in Sinclair, J. (eds). The Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. 20 (1798) pp 40 – 96

[6] P. E. McNiven, Gaelic place-names and the social history of Gaelic speakers in Medieval Menteith (2011) Unpublished Ph.D., p63.

[7] The indexes of the graduates of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Aberdeen Universities – which were the four universities in existence at the time in Scotland- have all been searched for the exact name and similar names, to no avail

[8] MacGibbon, Kilmadock, p44

[9] Ochtertyre House was the home of the historian John Ramsay of Ochtertyre, author of the 18-volume Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century, who was a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Ochtertyre is the neighbouring estate to Blair Drummond (where Henry Home lived) and is far from grotesque. It is more likely that MacGibbon was making a comment on Ramsay himself and the fact that he appeared to live a life of leisure.

[10] MacGibbon presumably wrote this as no author is given; he punctuates the account in places with poetry and only references someone called Thomson once.

[11] MacGibbon, Kilmadock, page 62

[12] which he describes as being like a “miserable rickle, with a damp earthern floor, more like a humble sheep-cote, than the rural habitation of the generous farmer” and also “the house, too, are in several places, wretched huts, scarcely capable of supporting the roof, and far less to defend against the storm and colds of winter.”

[13] Throughout the account, there are examples of the author criticising landowners and placing on them the responsibility to improve life for their tenants (particularly on page 52 and page 71)

[14] The kirk session minutes for the 1790s are full of workers from the mill fornicating and getting rebuked for it; some were even made to sign the accounts in the minutes.

[15] Rev Gordon Mitchell AM, Parish of Kilmadock

[16] MacGibbon, Kilmadock, p53

[17] “In the quarter towards Callander, the generality of the inhabitants speak Gaelic; and this is perhaps still more corrupt than even the Scotch, in the other quarters of the Parish. It is impossible to conceive any thing so truly offensive to the war, as the conversation of these people. The true Gaelic is a noble language, worthy of the fire of Ossian, and wonderfully adapted to the genius of a warlike nation; but the contemptable language of the people about Callander, and to the east, is quite incapable of communicating a noble idea.” MacGibbon, Kilmadock, p53. MacGibbon’s comments are also at odds with work published recently by Charles Withers regarding the boundaries of Gaelic speaking areas (C. J. W. Withers “The geographical extent of Gaelic in Scotland, 1698–1806”, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 97:3, (1981) pp130-139)

[18] Although he wrongly suggests that Dùn is a rounded hill in English; it is not, it refers to a fort