Coronavirus: Pandemics in the Past

This is an article I wrote on the history of pandemics in Scotland.

Scotland and its Pandemics

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As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, we are controlled by government restrictions as to what we may do. All schools and non-essential shops and businesses are closed, all places of entertainment and leisure are shut, while leaving our home is restricted to once a day for fresh air and exercise, and vulnerable people are to stay isolated for anything up to 12 weeks and perhaps beyond. All social gatherings are banned. Those who do not obey are fined.

Nurses and doctors wear protective equipment and patients are isolated. Curbs are put on panic buying and foreign travel is heavily restricted. 

And yet, this is not a modern way of coping with an epidemic. A 16th century Scot would be only too familiar with such clamp downs on personal freedoms. These type of restrictions in the face of a pandemic are centuries old.

One of the first recorded reports of a pandemic was by a monk by the name of Bower, from the monastery at Inchcolm. Plague had entered Scotland in 1349 from trade with Asia via Mediterranean countries and killed two-thirds of the population, including 24 canons in St Andrews who were infected from attending the dying.  In 1361, it struck again, killing one-third of the population.

1498-99 saw the plague revisit Edinburgh and the Lothians and restrictions were put in place. All taverns and schools were closed and there was a 10pm curfew. All residents had to take a turn guarding the town gates to prevent the entry of food and goods from infected areas. Any English cloth brought in had to be burnt. Punishments for disobeying those rules were banishment or death. 

In Haddington in East Lothian, dogs and pigs had to be kept in a yard rather than roaming the streets. Children found out and about were put in stocks and whipped, a teacher running a school would be banished while all shops and stalls were closed.

The need to cleanse contaminated places was recognised. Cleaners were employed at the rate of 12p a day to wash and smoke out infected houses.

In Edinburgh in 1500, more restrictions were introduced. The main market in the Lawnmarket was closed and anyone bringing in goods without permission was punished; women were branded on the cheek and men had a hand cut off.

All members of a household with a plague victim had to avoid contact with anyone for 12 days.

1505 saw further regulations. Illness must be reported within 12 hours and each close had to have two people in charge of identifying those who were ill and organising the cleansing of their abode.

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Plague Doctor

Plague continued to be a problem until 1514 with even stricter rules coming into force. Clearing of rubbish was instigated and all beggars and indigents were driven out of the city.

But by 1530, the plague had returned and continued to do so until the early 17th century. Punishments were still harsh, branding being a popular choice though a man who attended church, knowing his wife had the plague, was hanged.

The importance of cleansing the homes and goods of those infected was recognised and in Edinburgh in 1574, John Forrest was appointed to be in charge on pain of execution if his efforts at containing the plague were not successful. Apparently he succeeded,  as in 1585 he was again in charge of cleansing houses and homes deemed to be infected.

Those with plague were taken out to the Burgh Muir as were their contacts, where they were kept separately. Others were kept shut in their homes with food and drink being supplied until they either died or recovered. The townspeople were not to congregate around the close mouths and the muck and ordure was to be removed from the streets.

The Great Plague of 1665 in England did not reach Scotland though sporadic outbreaks occurred over the next two hundred years.

The last instance of bubonic plague happened in August 1900 in Glasgow in the Gorbals. Situated down by the River Clyde where ships from abroad were docking and foreign sailors coming ashore, it was no wonder that the plague was brought there from the many other overseas ports infected with it. At first it was thought to be typhoid which was much more common then, especially in the overcrowded and unsanitary houses in the Gorbals area. But a doctor recognised the symptoms of plague and measures were immediately introduced.

Rats were suspected of being the carriers and an army of rat-catchers was sent out to try to eradicate the creatures. Glasgow at that time, was well used to outbreaks of infectious diseases and its hospital system, although pre-dating the National Health Service by almost 50 years, was prepared and ready to deal with the outbreak. Its quick response meant that, in all, the plague was confined to a few streets in the area with 35 people infected and 16 dying. 

1n 1898, it had been shown that it was the fleas on rats which were responsible for spreading the disease, but the Glasgow public health authorities suspected that human contact was transmitting it. With the overcrowded conditions in the Gorbals at that time, the rate of spread suggested just that. The Medical Officer for Health immediately set up an investigation and identified Mrs B, a fish hawker as being the first person to fall ill along with her grand-daughter. They then identified anyone who had attended her wake and quarantined them. In support, the Catholic Church banned wakes of those who had succumbed to the plague. The plague was then successfully contained and quickly eliminated.

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Spread of the plague, Glasgow 1900

Recent research in 2019 by the University of Oslo found that indeed, the authorities were correct in suspecting human contact to be the means of transmission and that the killing of rats did very little to control the plague. Had the authorities not responded so quickly in identifying and quarantining those infected as well as their contacts, the plague could have spread beyond those few streets.

We have become complacent over the years with the advent of antibiotics and other medicines but now we are faced with a pandemic that is out of control and which does not respond to the medicines we have. We have reduced our medical facilities to a bare minimum, now inadequate and unable to cope with such a spread of disease. So we are having to fall back on to the old ways, used for centuries and effective if strictly applied and endorsed with severe punishments. 

We have a long way to go before Covid 19 is eradicated – for the time being. Let’s hope the lessons from history will be learnt.

Publication Days

Publication days come like buses – nothing for ages then two come at once.

Not only is this publication day of  Festival Fireworks in ebook format – paperback following soon!annburnett 1

 

– but, as I discovered when the post arrived this morning, my article on the Traprain Law silver is also published in the latest edition of the Highlander magazine.

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The hoard of Roman silver was found locally and can now be seen in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

A double whammy for the city as my novel is also set in Edinburgh!

 

The Edinburgh 7 Awarded Degrees After 150 Years

My article on the Edinburgh 7 was published recently in the Highlander magazine as The Edinburgh 7 and Their Fight to Become Doctors. It told how, in 1869, seven women applied to study medicine at Edinburgh University. They were accepted but with various restrictions and were the first women to register for a degree at any university in the UK.

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After many difficulties, including a riot when they tried to sit an anatomy exam and male students pelted them with mud and shouted obscenities,  they completed four years study but were prevented from taking their exams. This meant that they could not graduate and they were forced to complete their degrees abroad. However, their leader, Sophia Jex-Blake, qualified in Dublin and returned to Edinburgh in 1878 where she was the first female doctor in the city.

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Now Edinburgh University has decided to right a wrong and on Saturday July 6th 2019, 150 years after they matriculated, it will award them posthumous MBChB degrees.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-47814747

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The Plaque at Surgeon’s Hall

Articles Galore!

Recently I’ve been writing articles for an American magazine, The Highlander. The magazine focusses on Scotland before the 20th century and takes all sorts of interesting stories about people and places and events.

So far this year, they have published two of mine, both on the town of Haddington; one about Bruce’s Charter which he gave to the town in 1318 and which is kept in the John Gray Centre in the town, and another on the street where we lived temporarily while waiting for our new home to be ready. There aren’t many streets that can claim  to have a Custom Stone at one end and the site of a battle at the other with John Knox’s school in the middle for good measure!

They are also publishing my article on Susan Ferrier, known as ‘Scotland’s Jane Austen’  who lived in Edinburgh, was a great friend of Sir Walter Scott and was a very successful writer in her day, with a caustic wit and wonderful characters in her books.

So now I’m researching more stories to write up. Yesterday we visited Dunbar and John Muir’s Birthplace. John Muir is revered in the United States for his work in setting up the first National Parks there, particularly Yosemite, so I want to find a different angle to write about as I’m sure the magazine will have published many articles about him.

I’m also trying to find out more about Vaclav Jicha, a much decorated World War II Czech pilot who was killed near Soutra Hill just south of here when his plane crashed in a snowstorm. He is buried in Haddington and now has a street named after him here.

And then of course, there are the competitions for the Scottish Association of Writers conference to enter…..

I think I’m going to be busy!

Moving On … Again!

We’ve been on the move again, this time to Edinburgh. Our new house isn’t ready yet so we had to leave our previous rental (golfers had it booked for the Open at Gullane) and find a new home.

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A snowy Edinburgh Castle

Not as easy as it sounds in the middle of the holiday season and with the Edinburgh Festival next month. However friends of our family were planning to rent out a flat with Airbnb and were pleased to let us have a long let (hopefully just a couple of months) instead.

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The Scottish Parliament Building at Holyrood

So it was stuff everything thing into our suitcases and plastic bags and head up to the capital. My ‘office’ has expanded to half of a dining table which is positively luxurious compared to the quarter of the breakfast bar I had before.

But my writing is sluggish. The next novel has ground to a halt as there are too many other things on my mind like where did I pack x, y, or z, where are the nearest shops and how does the washing machine work?

I did however, write an article about the street we were living on in Haddington as it was full of history – a battle was fought there in the sixteenth century, John Knox, the Protestant reformer went to school there and the whole area has been flooded several times, the first recorded one in 1348 and the last in 1948.

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John Knox’s School

Being in Edinburgh has its advantages of course. We’ve already found our way to Princes Street and the National Gallery of Scotland, Chambers Street where we visited the National Museum of Scotland and naturally, the shops! Next month is Festival month with the official Festival outnumbered by events at the Fringe, and my favourite, the Book Festival where I hope to catch up with many of my writer friends.

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Getting ready for the Festival Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade

And a last plug – my new book, Love Begins at 40, will be published on July 18th. It’s set in Largs on the Scottish west coast, while Festival Fireworks is set in Edinburgh during the festival itself.

A Scottish Childhood: Growing up a Baby Boomer.

I’m delighted to announce my latest book, A Scottish Childhood: Growing up a Baby Boomer has now been published. I’ve collected together all the articles I wrote for the magazine, Scottish Memories, before, sadly, it closed. A Scottish Childhood

I’ve added an introduction and more photos that my father took of us growing up in the West of Scotland after the Second World War. He was a keen amateur photographer, winning prizes for his work and publishing photos in newspapers and magazines. One of his pictures was also used for an advert for bicycle saddles!

But it wasn’t all sweetness and light. The marriage broke up and eventually I decided that I wanted very little to do with him as I blamed him for the distressing circumstances we found ourselves in. It was only after his death when my brother handed over photographs and journals which my father had compiled that I was able to reappraise the man he was and learn to my astonishment that he too, had been a writer.

As I looked through the photographs which he had taken, it brought vividly to life happier times in my childhood and this book celebrates those days.

The book is available on Amazon.