Thinking geographically about poor relief, this paper argues that mechanisms for care in 18th-century Scotland reflected the socio-economic concerns of so-called ‘improvers’, whilst simultaneously being enmeshed in traditional networks of patronage and gratitude. Scotland lacked the more formalised care systems established in England and caring for the poor was reserved to localised networks of charity and parish redistribution of resources. This has traditionally led historians to believe the Scottish system to be an underdeveloped version of its English counterpart, overlooking its very distinct character and independent genesis from its southern neighbour. This paper takes a close look at the Scottish care economy and its changing, taking as a point of departure its structuring around principles of overlordship, patronage and charity on one hand, and accentuated familialism on the other. In the course of the long 18th century, however, this model was being reshaped by the emergence of commercial attitudes to space and people. The poor increasingly became a resource to ‘improve’ both in a moral and commercial sense. These new attitudes to space and people driven by a production oriented ‘moral’ code shaped the ways ‘care’ became conceptualised in language and formalised through spatial planning, in both urban and rural areas. Eighteenth-century ‘improvers’ sought to transform the poor into productive members of society by teaching them self-sufficiency and individualism on one hand, or utilising and managing them within increasingly constrictive institutionalised spaces of public hospitals and workhouses. Conversely, these values were embedded in the very spaces inhabited by the poor.
In the Scottish Highlands, landowners attempted to create more contiguous farmstead by clearing poor cottars and subtenants while they tried to prevent an increase in the vagrant poor and emigration. The creation of ‘colonies’ and settlements on ‘improvable spaces’ such as a mosses and muirs were to literally put the poor ‘in place’ while preserving a key work force. In urban spaces such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, the spaces occupied by the poor, both voluntarily and through superimposition, were being redefined in the course of the long eighteenth century in line with the bourgeoning discourse linking moral reform with hygiene, living conditions and public health. This paper draws on two independent case studies that will help enlighten the practical implications of the 'improvements' discourse in the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands. Presenting a work in progress resulting from two originally separate projects, this paper hopes to reignite the debate about Scottish poor relief in the long 18th century. Informed by the new scholarship on Scotland’s socio-economic and intellectual history, it identifies the ways in which the Scottish climate of ‘improvement’, economic laissez-faire and socio-spatial engineering became manifest in the provision of poor relief in landed estates, charitable hospitals and through the public health movement.
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