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The Old Poor Law in Scotland: The Experience of Poverty, 1574-1845. .

The Old Poor Law in Scotland: The Experience of Poverty, 1574-1845. By Rosalind Mitchison (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. 246pp. $28.00/paperback).

The Scottish poor law system long had a reputation as both more rigorous and more religious than that of the English system. During the nineteenth century, political economists and critics of the old English poor law held up the Scottish system as an example. They applauded its reliance on voluntary charity, raised from the inhabitants of parishes, and administered through the kirk (Scottish church). They believed that the old poor law did not give anyone a right to relief, instead enshrining charity as a benevolent relationship among neighbors. And they held that the Scottish poor law refused relief to the able-bodied poor. This lack of rights was thought to encourage a greater independence among the Scottish poor. As Mitchison ascerbicly points out, however, these polemicists never explained why relief from voluntary charity would encourage more independence than relief from state aid.

Mitchison's extensive research into kirk sessions records reveals several misconceptions behind these arguments. First, poor relief depended on voluntary assessments from parish inhabitants because landowners, often absentee, evaded assessments for poor relief. Second, the poor did have some right to relief and in fact sometimes went to court to enforce it. The decision Pollak vs Darling, 1804, enshrined this right, but it was ignored or denounced by many early nineteenth century commentators. Third, the old system occasionally granted some relief to the able-bodied, especially during times of famine or severe unemployment, all too common in Scotland's undeveloped early modern economy. Nonetheless, Mitchison stresses that the old Scottish system gave extremely inadequate relief to the poor, usually just some oatmeal, expecting them to beg in order to survive. She evens cites an instance when a parish stripped a five-year-old orphan of relief, telling her to take the roads to beg or work.

By the early nineteenth century, this system could not cope with the new economic situation of developing Scotland, with the extreme instability of the factory system and the clearances in the countryside. The splits in the kirk, culminating in the Disruption of 1843, meant that the church could not effectively organize relief (although she refutes R.A. Cage's claim that the Disruption impelled the Scottish Poor Law of 1845). The Rev. Thomas Chalmer's system of voluntary relief through urban kirks failed to solve the problem of working-class poverty. As a result, by 1845 the new Scottish Poor Law was passed, giving a new board of supervisors oversight over poor relief. Unfortunately, Mitchison does not explain the central provisions and practices of the new Scottish Poor Law.

Rosalind Mitchison's book on the Scottish poor law is the first to cover the period from the first Scottish enactment on the poor laws, to the establishment of a formal system in 1845. This book also goes into much detail on issues which will be of most interest to Scottish historians and of less use to historians of other areas. Although there is a useful glossary of Scots terms, the book does not explain abbreviations such as the OSA and the NSA (Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland), and there are some minor repetitions, typographical errors, and organizational lapses which better editing would have prevented. With the exception of the last chapter, she focuses more on the practices of poor relief in Scotland than the experiences of poverty.

Overall, The Old Poor Law in Scotland will prove valuable to historians of poor relief and social welfare in general, because it raises many issues prevalent in both nineteenth century social reform and today--whether there is a "right to relief, and whether voluntary, local, or religious charities can substitute for well-organized state aid.
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Author:Clark, Anna
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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