Scotland Accounted For: An Introduction To The ‘Old’ (1791-1799) And The New (1834-1845) Statistical Accounts Of Scotland


by Charles W J Withers, Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Edinburgh

photograph of the Accounts

What are Scotland’s statistical accounts?

Scotland’s statistical accounts provide vitally important reference sources for Scotland’s history, geography and society. Based on detailed parish reports (with supplementary reports, for example, on the universities), the statistical accounts enumerate and describe such topics as agriculture, antiquities, industrial productions, population and natural history at crucial periods in Scotland’s past.

There have been three statistical accounts of Scotland. The first, undertaken at the end of the eighteenth century under the direction of Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (1754-1835), is referred to simply as the Statistical Account of Scotland. Known also as the ‘Old’ or ‘First’ statistical account by reference to its later companions, it was published in twenty-one volumes between 1791 and 1799. The second was the New Statistical Account, published between 1834 and 1845. The Third Statistical Account of Scotland was undertaken and published between 1951 and 1992.

This brief introduction summarises the nature and origins of the ‘Old’ and the New accounts in order that the modern reader should understand the background to, and the content of these valuable historical sources. The introduction is in several parts. The first considers the accounts in historical context. The second discusses the nature of Sinclair’s Statistical Account and outlines what contemporaries understood it to be. The third part summarises the purpose and the publication history of the New Statistical Account. A short guide to further reading is provided.

Scotland’s statistical accounts in historical context

Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland in the 1790s is rightly seen as the first in a sequence of national descriptive accounts. Yet, as Sinclair recognised, it should also be understood as the first successful attempt to survey Scotland geographically.

Earlier failed efforts were, like the ‘Old’ and the New accounts, usually undertaken through the ministers of the Church of Scotland. Such men represented the most reliable sources of credible local knowledge. The Church outlined plans for such a survey in the 1620s and early 1630s. Sir Robert Sibbald, from 1684 Scotland’s Geographer Royal, distributed ‘General Queries’ in the 1680s and 1690s about the state of the nation, and plans made in the early eighteenth century for a never-realised Royal Society of Scotland included a parish-by-parish description of the country.

The Church authorities were again active between 1720 and 1744 in proposing a ‘Geographical Description of Scotland’. In a similar exercise, in 1743-44, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was involved in parochial questionnaires through its Moderator, the Rev. Robert Wallace, in his plans for an annuity scheme for the widows and orphans of ministers. Wallace’s work, which influenced the Rev. Alexander Webster’s 1755 population census of Scotland, was a major prompt to the development of the actuarial sciences in which context Sinclair’s work – a national account – must also be seen. There is an important connection, too, with the New Statistical Account which was organised on behalf of the General Assembly by a ‘Committee of the Society for the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy’.

In 1767, the Scottish political economist Sir James Steuart recommended an examination of the nation ‘parish by parish’ in his Enquiry into the Principles of Oeconomy. In 1781, David Erskine, Earl of Buchan and founder of the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland, proposed a general parochial survey of Scotland in order to further historical understanding and, as he put it, advance ‘national improvement’. Only a few parishes were ever surveyed in Buchan’s scheme and by the time the limited results were published (in 1792), his scheme had been overtaken by Sinclair’s Statistical Account.

The Statistical Account of Scotland stands, then, as a ‘new’ beginning for understanding Scottish and, indeed, British society, but also at the end of over 150 years of failed attempts to enumerate the nature of the nation – attempts which failed for several reasons: lack of money, too few people involved and/or no central organisation. Sinclair succeeded both by drawing upon these earlier schemes (but by not making the same mistakes) and because his contemporaries had a clear and shared sense of the work’s purpose. The New Statistical Account in turn built upon its earlier counterpart and was further supported by widespread interest in the 1830s in the nature and condition of civil society, in Scotland and elsewhere.

Scotland’s ‘political anatomy’: Sir John Sinclair and the ‘Old’ Statistical Account, 1791-1799

Sir John Sinclair, MP for Caithness, lay member of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and known as ‘Agricultural Sir John’ for his interests in estate improvement and work for the Board of Agriculture, first articulated proposals for a detailed parish-by-parish survey of Scotland in May 1790. Sinclair aimed to elucidate ‘the Natural History and Political State of Scotland’. Those terms mean rather different things now, but in his understanding and in that of his contemporaries, this was a project of statistical intent, of knowledge relating to the state as a political unit and to its condition, its state, in terms of natural and human history.

His plan involved parish ministers working to a pre-planned set of questions. In summary, a set of 160 questions in four sections was distributed to the clergy: questions 1-40 covered the geography and topography of their parish, its climate, natural resources and natural history; 41-100 addressed population and related matters; 101-116 concerned the parishes’ ‘agricultural and industrial production’. A final section embraced miscellaneous matters. A further six questions were asked as an appendix to his circular of May 1790 and five more followed in a circular of May 1791. Not all ministers responded by the deadline. By June 1796, Sinclair had resolved ‘to send Statistical Missionaries‘ to different parts of the country to hurry ministerial replies. Yet, by 3 June 1799, the project was complete: Sir John laid before the General Assembly ‘a unique survey of the state of the whole country, locality by locality’.

The returns made were neither compiled nor published at the same time, and for that reason the Statistical Account is not, strictly, an at-a-moment ‘snapshot’ of the condition of the nation. But it has the great merit of being locally written – in large part by the parish ministers – and factually based. This was, as Sinclair knew, a project of empirical inductivism along the lines practised by contemporary natural scientists then investigating ‘nature’s economy’:

The superiority, which the philosophy of modern times has attained over the ancient, is justly attributed to that anxious attention to facts, by which it is so peculiarly distinguished. Resting not on visionary theory, but on the sure basis of investigation and experiment, it has risen to a degree of certainty and pre-eminence, of which it was supposed incapable. It is by pursuing the same method, in regard to political disquisitions, by analysing the real state of mankind, and examining, with anatomical accuracy and minuteness, the internal structure of society, that the science of government can alone be brought to the same height of perfections.

The Statistical Account should be seen, then, as a work of scientific intent, of national social accountancy and of ‘political anatomy’ investigating the state of ‘the body’ of Scotland. It was, in all these ways, a work which reflected and directed the rational philosophical interests of its age: as one modern historian has noted, it is a ‘remarkable manifestation of Enlightenment idealism at work’.

‘A farther service to the public’: the New Statistical Account, 1834-1845

The suggestion to have a further statistical account of Scotland ‘by requesting from the parochial Clergy a description of their respective parishes’ was first made to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by the Committee of the Society for the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy in 1832. The Society had felt moved to undertake this project given, as it explained, ‘their having possessed the property of the first Statistical Account, which was conveyed to them by its benevolent and public-spirited projector’ [Sinclair].

The New broadly follows the form of the ‘Old’ but several distinguishing features should be noted. Maps were included of the counties. Although the parish reports were mainly either written or edited by the resident minister, the New has contributions from other local credible informants: doctors, landowners, schoolmasters. As was noted at the time:

Above all, it will be remembered that a Statistical Account of any country implies something more than the mere reporting of ascertained facts; and that it cannot be accomplished, in all points completely, without great and various labour in the ascertainment of the facts to be reported, – by the scientific survey of its physical qualities, by inquiries into its past history and situation, and by the close investigation of its actual state, industrial, social and moral.

So great had been the changes in Scotland’s industrial, social and moral state since the first Account that the advertisement accompanying the first part of the New Statistical Account, which was published in March 1834, noted how the Committee ‘do not hesitate to announce, that they now present not merely a new Statistical Account, but, in a great measure, the Statistical Account of a new country’. It is for precisely that reason, of course, that much of the utility of the accounts – to the modern reader now and to the contemporary observer then – rests in the comparison of the parish reports. We are afforded insight into educational improvements, the changed state of agriculture, the nature of the local economy and the circumstances of people in their daily routine. More so than for the ‘Old’, the New is also a reliable source for Scotland’s natural history.

For the modern reader using the New as a source document, either as ‘a moment’ or in relation to the ‘Old’ and other documents, two points of caution should be noted.

Statements by reporting ministers and others, however ‘factual’ they may be claimed to be, should not be separated from the context of their time, from the moral and other judgements of the reporter: this is also what was meant at the time in noting that a statistical account ‘implies something more than the mere reporting of ascertained facts’. It is important, too, to note the publication history of the New Statistical Account. The New was published in three formats. The first edition, which took the form of 52 quarterly parts, was published between March 1834 and October 1845. A re-issue in 33 county volumes was published between 1841 and 1845. A second re-issue, in 1845, took the form of 15 collected county volumes. It is this second re-issue which has been used here.

Anyone examining Scotland’s past through this rich and detailed source should be aware, then, that, like its counterpart, the New Statistical Account documents a period of time rather better than it captures single moments.

The original volumes can be consulted in the National Library of Scotland and in public and academic libraries and archives. The first two statistical accounts have been made available here in digital form to make it easier for everyone to use them and allow in depth searching and comparison. Publication of a Third Statistical Account began in 1951 and was completed in 1992.

A short guide to further reading

For a summary of national ‘statistical’ survey in Scotland before Sinclair’s work in the 1790s, notably of Sir Robert Sibbald’s efforts to undertake a geographical account in the later seventeenth century, see F. Emery, ‘A “geographical description” of Scotland prior to the statistical accounts’, Scottish Studies 3 (1959), 1-16 and C. W. J. Withers, ‘How Scotland came to know itself: geography, national identity and the making of a nation, 1680-1790’, Journal of Historical Geography 21 (1995), 371-397. The claim that Sinclair’s work on the ‘Old’ Statistical Account should be considered a ‘most remarkable manifestation of Enlightenment idealism at work’ is made by D. Withrington, ‘What was distinctive about the Scottish Enlightenment?’, in J. Carter and J. Pittock (eds.), Aberdeen and the Enlightenment (Aberdeen, 1987), 9-19. For Sinclair’s view of his own purpose in compiling the Statistical Account, see J. Sinclair, Analysis of the Statistical Account of Scotland (London, 1826). Sir John Sinclair’s life and work is summarised in the Dictionary of National Biography (Vol. Xvii, 301-305), and discussed in detail in R. Mitchison, Agricultural Sir John: the life of Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, 1754-1835 (London, 1962). A summary of the publication history of the New Statistical Account is provided by J. A. Gibson, ‘The New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-1845: correct publication dates of the parish accounts’, The Scottish Naturalist 107 (1995), 3-52.