The History of Leith

March 21, 2012

NOTES ON THE PLAGUE. (Church Magazine 1910)

The Records of the Plague now being published in our
Magazine, have awakened an interest in this well-known
subject, and caused, naturally enough, some speculations
as to the precise meaning of some of the Minutes, and
also some criticism upon our notes. There exists little or
no direct authority upon the Plague of 1645, and as it
happens, the Minutes of the Edinburgh Town Council are
not printed down to this date, so that this source of
information is not available; but the Edinburgh Minutes
of some previous visitations have been published, and
from these, and the numerous accounts which exist of
the great Plague of London in 1665, we are able to
follow the course of events and the treatment observed
in Leith. The following references will be found to be
of interest.
From the Encyclop&dia Britannica and Chambers’
Encylopcedia, *we glean the following information:—
The Plague was a very malignant kind of contagious
fever prevailing at certain times and places epidemically,
and was characterised by buboes or swellings usually in
the neck, armpits or groins. Death often occurred
before any characteristic symptoms were developed. In
all epidemics it has been observed that the unhealthy
conditions produced by the poverty and filth of squalid
dirty neighbourhoods, and among the poor (so as to be
called the ” Poor’s Plague “} are extremely favourable to
the disease.
Of all the co-operative causes of the plague, uncleanliness
is the most powerful, especially the accumulation
of decaying animal matter around human bodies or
dwellings. The saturation of the soil with filth is
perhaps the most important point.
Of social conditions, poverty has by far the most
powerful influence on the spread and development of
Plague. Many Plague epidemics” have followed on
years of famine, and the races among which the disease
is endemic are under nourished, if not destitute.
The uncleanliness of the city (i.e., London at time of
1665 plague) was comparable to that of Oriental cities^,,
at present day.
Our Minutes make frequent reference to heather,
whins and straw, but do not say exactly the use to
which these were put in cleansing, although it is obvious
that they were necessary and important elements.
However, these matters are made plain by a reference
to the Minutes of the Edinburgh Town Council, of
which the following may be taken as specimens :—
\f)th February 1499.—The Provost, Bailies and
Council have statute, and ordained, that yet as before for
the common weal and profit of the Town, that all the
parts of the Town be cleansed of all infect goods and
presumed to be infect in this wise, that every person
inhabitant within this town presumed dangerous, within
eight days next following this day, they and ilk one of
them purge and cleanse their said house and all manner
of stuff being thereuntil by water and fire, as has been
used in time bygone, under the pain of destruction and
tynning (i.e., forfeiting) of their goods infect or suspect,
and this cleansing to be made at the running water of
Leith, and no other place, neither wells not yet at the
south loch nor yet the north loch, under the said pain.
9/A October 1504.—The Bailies to search, seek, and see
the cleansing of the said infect goods at the water, and
that they lie furth a certain space while the said goods be
purged and cleansed by fire and water and well dryed by
the space of eight or ten days, and, after they come
again, to remain in their house for the space of five or
six days, provided alway that their houses be first singed
and fired with heather ere they enter thereinto, after the
form of the old Statutes under the pains contained in
This cleansing by fire and water was of course attended
with serious risks, at a time when the houses, for the
most part, were constructed of wood. One of the best
known fires in border history was that which consumed
the town of Kelso, but the origin of the conflagration is
not to be found in ordinary Histories. However, it is
made sufficiently clear from an entry by Sir Thomas
Hope, in his diary, which is in the following terms:—
April ist, 1645.—”This day Kelso, with the whole
houses, corn barns, barn yards burned by fire caused by
cleansing of one of the houses thereof, which was infected
with Plague.”
To give the modern reader some notion of the subiect
from another point of view, we take the following
quotation from Defoe’s History of the Plague of London.
” The distemper itself was indeed very horrible in itself,
and in some more than others. The swellings, which
were generally in the neck or groin, when they grew
hard and would not break, grew so painful that it was
equal to the most exquisite torture, and some not able to
bear the torment, threw themselves out at windows, or
shot themselves, or otherwise made themselves away ;
others, unable to coti’tain themselves, vented their pain
by incessant roarings and loud and lamentable cries
that would pierce the very heart to think of, especially
when it was to be considered that the same dreadful
scourge might be expected every moment to seize upon
ourselves. Sometimes a man or woman dropt down
dead in the very markets, for many people that had the
plague upon them knew nothing of it. This caused
that many died frequently in the streets suddenly without
any warning. Others perhaps had time to go to the
next door or porch aud just sit down and die.”
The foregoing gloomy account may justly be followed
by this somewhat humorous medical recipe for the cure
of the Plague:—”Take three mutchkins of malvoisie.
and ane handful of red sage, and a handfull of rue, and
boil them till a mutchkin be wasted. Then strain it and
sit it on the fire again ; then put thereinto ane pennyworth
of strong pepper, half ane of” ginger and ane
quarter of ane unce of mustard all beaten together, and
let it boil a little and put thereto five pennyworth of
nittiridate and two of treacle and a quarter of a mutchkin
of best angelic water. Keep this all your life above all
bodily treasures. Tak it always warm, both morning
and evening, ane halfspoonful if ye be in health, and one
or two if ye be infected ; and sweat thereupon. In all
your plague-time under God trust to this, for there was
never man, woman nor child that this deceived. This
is not only for the common plague, which is called the
sickness, but also for the small-pox, missies, surfeit and
divers other diseases.”

source-South Leith Church

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