Wildness, Ferocity and Gross Indulgence: Welcome to the Statistical Accounts Party

Stack of old books
Category: Writing

So, in 1790, the Church of Scotland sends out a questionnaire to each of its 900 ministers with a bunch of questions about their parishes. The exercise is repeated in the 1830s and the results become the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. I grant you, it doesn’t sound like much of a party, but here is the Reverend John Mackenzie of Lochcarron in 1840:

“Not farther back than the middle of the last century, the inhabitants of this district were involved in the most dissolute barbarity. The records of presbytery . . . are stained with an account of black and bloody crimes, exhibiting a picture of wildness, ferocity and gross indulgence, consistent only with a state of savagism.”

If you're contemplating writing a crime novel set in 19th-century Wester Ross, this is exactly the kind of party you want to be invited to

Now, if you happen to be contemplating writing a crime novel set in nineteenth-century Wester Ross, this is exactly the kind of party you want to be invited to.

It’s true that not all Reverend Mackenzie’s peers used the opportunity to indulge a penchant for lurid prose, but a set of bald statistics can be equally evocative. Mackenzie diligently records the ailments of the population: “Insane, 3; fatuous, 4; blind, 4; deaf and dumb, 4.” He further records the number of illegitimate births – four in three years (only half as many as the apparently more debauched neighbouring parish of Applecross), the number of inns, and the people’s church-going and leisure habits. The picture that emerges is neither that of the Highland idyll beloved of the Victorians, nor of the unremitting suffering contained in accounts of the clearances. People had sex. They drank and were late for church.

So when I set out to write His Bloody Project, dipping into the Statistical Accounts supplied me not only with a whole lot of invaluable information about what people ate (herring, potatoes and gruel, since you ask) and what they did for a living, but they also provided a more impressionistic snapshot of what life would actually have been like for the characters I wanted to create. Of course I supplemented my research with other resources, but for anyone interested in the history of where they come from, the Statistical Accounts are a wonderful resource – a kind of ecclesiastical fore-runner of the Mass Observation experiments of the twentieth century – and they deserve to be celebrated.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Graeme received a New Writers Award in 2012/13. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, was published by Saraband in 2014. His second novel, His Bloody Project, was published by Saraband in 2015 and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.

he Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau
he Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau