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A Plague in 1600s by Forbes Inglis

In the middle of the 17th century, the inhabitants of the town of Montrose in northeast Scotland, like their counterparts throughout the country, paid little attention to hygiene and sanitation. A substantial part of the town's economy was based on pig rearing so it comes as no surprise that heaps of dung and other rubbish littered the streets. This, added to cramped, over populated living conditions, encouraged the spread of disease and other serious health problems.

One of the earliest recorded diseases was leprosy, the affliction that carried off King Robert the Bruce in 1329. The local council dealt with the problem as well as their then limited knowledge of medical matters permitted, appointing two officials as inspectors of lepers, charged with ensuring that no one with the disease gained entry into the town. Lepers were permitted to beg outside the town wall but entry was strictly forbidden.

The biggest fear however  was Bubonic Plague or the Black Death as it has become more widely known. The common symptoms of the Black Death were swelling, normally in the groin, armpits and neck, coupled with coughing up blood. There had been an outbreak of this particular pestilence in the year 1566 and  it returned with a vengeance some 80 years later. 

In 1646, hearing that other Scottish towns such as Ayr and Leith were suffering from serious outbreaks, the Montrose Councillors passed a byelaw stipulating that no burgess  (landowner, merchant or craftsman) or indweller (town resident) was permitted to leave the town before  February 4, with a fine of 500 merks (about £333 Scots) for any transgressor. The potential spread of infection was no doubt magnified by the fact that the burgh was a busy seaport, with seamen of numerous nationalities frequenting the local alehouses while their ships' cargoes were being loaded or unloaded.

For nearly a year the town was effectively in quarantine and the port was closed, with no ships allowed to come up the river during that period. Certainly, foreign trade was one of the ways the pestilence spread, transmitted by infected fleas, rodents or close contact with infected people or animals. Catching the plague was almost invariably a death sentence and given the number of deaths, and the fear of catching the dreaded disease from the dead, many corpses were buried together in mass graves that we now call plague pits. Even today, locals are concerned when developers wish to build on areas known to be a mass burial ground for plague victims.

Although the medical knowledge of the time was extremely limited, the authorities seemed to have a basic knowledge of transmission. They seemed to realize that infection could be passed from person to person and that peoples' belongings and merchants' goods - or more likely flea infestations in them - could also be source of disease. Indeed, around that time the Council in Aberdeen enacted byelaws seeking the eradication of rats and mice, although the prevalence of fleas among the population in those unhygienic times was probably the greatest source of risk. Recent research has suggested that fleas rather than rodents were the most likely cause of infection.

In fact, the epidemic continued for some three years but in March 1649, just as the problem seemed to be abating, came news of another outbreak in nearby Brechin. It is generally accepted that around one in five of the population of Scotland at the time succumbed to the plague - in Brechin the number of deaths was believed to have been approximately 60% of the inhabitants. The news resulted in an increased frenzy among the population of Montrose. People from the landward area were banned from coming into the town on Thursdays, then the market day when the country folk would come to the burgh to  sell their wares. Anyone trying to sell their goods or open a market stall on market day was to be fined £4 Scots.

It was also decided that the Old Parish Kirk, the main church in the town, should be disinfected and two local men were appointed to oversee the job. It would appear that fumigating the church involved burning straw within the building but initially there was no straw to be had. Eventually, that difficulty was overcome and a squad of cleaners known as 'clengers', men experienced at their work having carried out similar employment in the south of Scotland, were hired to carry out the work. Clengers were expected to burn, cleanse or fumigate property where infection had occurred, keep streets and closes (narrow public passageways) free of middens (dung heaps) and to bury the dead.

By March 29 1649, a week had gone by without any further outbreak or new cases and the Council resolved to reopen the Kirk on April 26. The two overseers reported that they had  'cleanged the church, also weill as possible they could, so that they thought there was no hazard but the people might convene there'. With that comforting thought  in mind the Kirk did reopen on that date and, following morning worship, the Minister and Elders met in the Session Room, the first time they had met there for some time.

At the time, the people believed that any plague was sent by God as a punishment for their sins and the Kirk Session of the time was no exception. Along with the congregation, the Elders thanked God for their deliverance from this dreadful affliction. However, that in itself was not enough. They passed several resolutions protecting the Sabbath so that it regained its status as a day of religious significance; seamen and fishermen were not to be permitted to go to sea that day, while travelling, washing or drying of clothes and the carrying of water from any of the local wells were also forbidden on Sundays. Any Sabbath breaker was to be fined and the money collected used for the poor of the parish.

During the epidemic itself the Kirk Session had met on one occasion at James Scott’s house, Newmanswalls, an estate on the outskirts of the town.  Apparently, this was not to discuss the plague but to deal with an un-married mother. If paternity could be established the burden of supporting her presumably moved from the parish to the father, a bit like modern day welfare.

We now know that that particular strain of the plague was not transmitted through the air but our ancestors did not have the benefit of such knowledge. So, on other occasions during the actual epidemic, the Kirk Session met in the kirkyard, each Elder standing at a safe distance from his fellows to prevent infection  - effectively social distancing. That sounds familiar.

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