What skeletons are in your closet? - the Statistical Accounts of Scotland

Written by Nicola Osborne & Helen Aiton on . Posted in History of Stats & Science

We collect and analyse data so routinely in 2014 that we now take it for granted. Statistics track almost every commercial and public service along with the quantification and gamification of our daily lives. This in turn fuels the myriad of polling data and statistics at the heart of the Scottish independence referendum debate raging at the moment.

However, when we think of a nation and its people through official or independently produced statistics what, and who, do we risk missing out? This notion of outsiders will be the subject of ‘What skeletons are in your closet?’ - our one-off Edinburgh Festival Fringe event on August 19, which draws on the seminal ‘Statistical Accounts of Scotland’ for inspiration.

It is hard to imagine the state of play less than 250 years ago, when understanding the number of people in a country was a huge challenge for policy and decision makers. In 1791, a decade before the first modern census, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, Member of Parliament for Caithness at Westminster (pictured), had a grand statistical vision: he wanted to capture the lives, the work, the morals, and the ‘quantum of happiness’ for all parishes in Scotland.

Conducting a survey at national scale is an ambitious and expensive undertaking even now – part of the reluctance to continue the UK census beyond 2021 - so to even imagine such a wide-ranging process of data collection was enormously ambitious. It was a process inspired by, but very different from, work Sir John had witnessed on a trip to Europe in 1786, as he recounts in the appendix to the Account of 1791-99 (vol. 20, p. 13): 

‘I found that in Germany they were engaged in a species of political enquiry to which they had given the name "statistics”, and though I apply a different meaning to that word - for by "statistical" is meant in Germany an inquiry for the purposes of ascertaining the political strength of a country or questions respecting matters of state - whereas the idea I annex to the term is an inquiry into the state of a country, for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants, and the means of its future improvement; but as I thought that a new word might attract more public attention, I resolved on adopting it, and I hope it is now completely naturalised and incorporated with our language.’

As he compiled his questions for this sweeping snapshot of life in Scotland, Sir John’s question list took on epic proportions. The 2011 UK Census (in Scotland) included 55 questions, some of them optional and most were multiple choice.

Sir John’s 1791 survey, which he distributed to 938 parish ministers to complete on behalf of their entire parish and community, contained 160 questions and 6 other questions, many of which were open questions requiring descriptive answers. It is worth remembering, these questions had to be answered in long hand-written returns, by daylight or candlelight. They included many straightforward but extensive questions on agriculture such as:

19. What sorts of fish are caught on the coast? In what quantity? At what prices sold? When most in season? How taken? And to what markets sent?

However, there were also more complex, and rather subjective, queries on the people of the parish including:

132. What is the number of the poor in the parish receiving alms?

133. What is the annual amount of the contributions for their relief, and the produce of alms, legacies, or of any other fund destined for that purpose?

137. What, at an average, may be the expense of a common labourer, when married? and is the wages he receives sufficient to enable him to bring up a family?

157. Are the people economical, or expensive and luxurious for their circumstances? Is property, particularly in land, often changing? And at what prices is it in general sold?

158. Are the people disposed to humane and generous actions; to protect and relieve the shipwrecked, and are there any events which have happened in the parish, which do honour to human nature?

159. Do the people, on the whole, enjoy, in a reasonable degree, the comforts and advantages of society? And are they contented with their situation and circumstances?

160. Are there any means by which their condition could be ameliorated?

Despite some delays and a number of initially non-compliant ministers (chased through Sir John’s well healed land owning friends as well as increasingly outraged reminder letters penned in red ink), the surveys were eventually completed and collated as ‘The Statistical Accounts of Scotland’ in 1799. Whilst agricultural pricing data may have been less useful after such an extensive time delay, the expansive questions on employment, the poor, ‘lunatics’ and (perceived) morals of the people of Scotland reveal - in sometimes richly detailed terms – those not usually recorded in other historical texts.

Sir John Sinclair’s work on the Statistical Accounts of Scotland - both the 1791-99 Accounts and the Second Accounts (1834-45) - was hugely significant, gaining particular praise for its unusual scale. Sir John went on to become one of the original members of the Statistical Society of London (now better known as the Royal Statistical Society) when it was founded in 1834, but the legacy of the Accounts has continued far beyond his lifetime.

In capturing life in Scotland both prior to and during the Industrial Revolution, Sir John had recorded vast social and economic changes that formed modern Scotland. That work enabled many of the outsiders of their day to be counted, visible, and (to some extent) have their own ‘quantum of happiness’ considered, albeit through the lens of their parish minister. For instance the lives of deaf people, often hidden or undescribed in other historical texts, are described across both Accounts - see Ella Smith’s excellent article in Deaf History Journal for more on this.

In an era of increased use of statistical data in policy and commercial decision making, we want to consider who are we not capturing in our own modern data and statistics. How might we better represent our own outsiders - and who are they? Could we record our own moral standards, our taboos, and what might a quantum of happiness look like? So that our own current policy makers might ‘ameliorate’ our condition?

 

Join us at the Stand in the Square in Edinburgh on August 19, to hear more about the Accounts and share your own thoughts on how we might better represent our own outsiders if we were to create our own modern version of Sir John’s survey.

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