The Statistical Accounts of Scotland

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The 1795 Statistical Accounts
The 1845 Statistical Accounts

A short introduction to the Statistical Accounts of Scotland

Many people today think of statistics as just figures and tables. In Scotland in the 1790s, 'statistics' was a fairly new word. Sir John Sinclair, Member of Parliament for Caithness at Westminster, had heard it from the Germans who used it to refer to a collection of facts about the political strength of a country. The new word was very close to the word 'state'. Sir John took the notion much further. He wanted a collection of information about the economic and social activities and the natural resources of Scotland.

Known as 'Agricultural Sir John' for his interests in estate improvement and work for the Board of Agriculture, Sinclair had two aims in mind. In 'Enlightenment' Scotland, the increase in well-ordered knowledge was quite simply a good thing in itself. This was also the age of the encyclopaedia. He was sure that his collection of well-ordered facts based on responses by ministers in each of the 938 parishes of Scotland to 166 queries would form an account of 'the quantum of happiness' of the communities of Scotland and also be a 'means of future improvement'. Sinclair did not aim to provide information to the government so that the Scotland's resources could be exploited in time of war. A copy of his queries can be found in Volume 20, Page 20 of the 'old' Statistical Account. Everything from changing fashions in dress to the different attitudes to smallpox inoculation and resulting high infant mortality between the north and south of Scotland can be studied in the Statistical Account.

The ministers' responses covered topics such as agriculture, antiquities, industrial production, population and natural history, and some were long in coming back. Sir John, however, was patient and eventually, after sending Statistical Missionaries' to hurry up late entries and a 'final demand' written in red ink, the 21 volumes were complete by 1799.

These books were part of a world of turnips and steam engines, of growing cities and expanding trade, of cotton mills and newly drained fields. It was no accident that 'statistics' was added to other new words and new meanings like 'science' and 'political economy'. The Statistical Account joined Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (published in 1776) and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (first published in Edinburgh between 1768 and 1771), on the bookshelf. Many other nations, from the Irish to the Swiss followed, but few could match the disciplined and engaging clarity of Sir John and his army of ministers. These detailed parish reports provided then and now quite extraordinary, even revolutionary, ways of looking at the world, hence their excitement as a source for historians.

In 1832, the clergy were once again asked to describe their parishes, this time by the Committee of the Society for the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy, who had benefited from sales of the first Statistical Account. It felt that the time was ripe for a new edition because of the great changes which had taken place in Scotland since the 1790s. The New Statistical Account was written mostly in the 1830s and published in parts from 1834, finally being issued as 15 volumes in 1845. So great were the changes that the Committee advertised 'in a great measure, the Statistical Account of a new country'. Used together, the two accounts make 'the close investigation of its actual state, industrial, social and moral' very rewarding.

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.

Professor R J Morris, Professor T C Smout, Professor C W J Withers

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The 1795 Statistical Accounts
The 1845 Statistical Accounts