Little Ice Age

Climate Change: Not a New Phenomenon*

Bruce B. Bishop, FSA Scot, ASGRA

To me as a current genealogist and a former meteorologist, it becomes obvious that climate change is nothing new, and we need to consider its effects on our ancestors and their social environment when we look at their lives.  In a paper by K. Jan Oesthoek in 2015 for the Environmental History Resources podcasts, the climate of northern Europe is considered in some detail.  To paraphrase: “The ‘Little Ice Age’ was a period of regionally cold conditions between roughly AD 1300 and 1850.  There were two phases of the Little Ice Age, the first beginning around 1290 and continuing until the late 1400s.  There was a slightly warmer period in the 1500s, after which the climate deteriorated substantially, with the coldest period between 1645 and 1715.”  These are the changes which would have really affected the lives of our earliest recorded ancestors.

“During this coldest phase of the Little Ice Age, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, there are indications that average winter temperatures in Europe were as much as 2°C lower than at present.  The Baltic Sea froze over, as did many rivers and lakes.  Pack ice expanded far south into the Atlantic, making shipping to Iceland impossible for months on end. … Winters were bitterly cold and prolonged, reducing the growing season by several weeks, and summers were often cool and wet.  Storminess and flooding increased, and these conditions led to widespread crop failure, famine, and population decline.”  There were increased levels of social unrest as large portions of the population were reduced to starvation and poverty.

The prices of grain increased rapidly.  Wine became difficult to produce in many areas, and commercial vineyards vanished from England and Scotland.  Fishing in northern Europe was also badly affected as cod migrated south to find warmer waters.

In Moray and Banffshire in 1694, for example, we see some of the effects of this “Little Ice Age”.  During the following seven years, the climate showed a marked deterioration.  In addition to the more general climate change, the effects were exacerbated by increased volcanic activity in Iceland and the consequent atmospheric dust clouds.

In Elgin, it was recorded that the food shortages between 1694 and 1700 were very severe but were even worse (although probably less well documented) in more isolated upland areas of Moray and Banffshire.  The crops failed totally in four of these seven years, and there were extensive food shortages throughout the area, with prices more than doubling during the period.  The fiars prices in Moray rose from £4 3s 4d Scots per boll to £8 per boll by 1698, after which they showed a gradual decline.  Mr Dunbar of Burgie, who lived at the North College of Elgin Cathedral, a very charitable man who gave aid to the poor people, noted that corpses of the starving were often found in the lane leading to his house, the ones “who were too far gone to make it”.  He personally paid for the interment of these poor souls in Elgin Cathedral churchyard – and, although no memorial stone was ever raised, investigations by the Moray Burial Ground Research Group (www.mbgrg.org) have revealed that to the north-west of the cathedral’s main door there seems to have been an area of the churchyard which was maintained for interment of the poor.

In 1696, the Session Minutes of the parish of Ardclach noted that “The victual this year being so scarce on all countreys within this kingdom … a 20-shilling boll of barley before Lammas was now 29 merks and forty pennies”, and the landowners were asked to give any surplus in their granaries for the use of the poor.  The final year of the 17th century saw roving bands of Gipsies in Elgin, attracted to the town by the thought of food.  After 1700, this period of hardship ended as the harvests gradually returned closer to those of the past.

The relief was short-lived, and by 1st February 1741 it was announced from the various pulpits in Moray and Banffshire that a fast was to be held, partly on account of the war with Spain, but more pressingly due to the scarcity of victual.  There “were several persons who just now cannot find meal to purchase though they have the money, the Gentlemen’s girnals [granaries] being not yet opened”.  They then offered to sell the meal at a reduced price for the benefit of the people.  John Scot in Balnoon in Inverkeithny parish “craved of the Session seven pounds Scots to buy a horse, which would be of use to him for providing for his family in the scarcity of summer”.  Many other people, not on the poor list, were now asking for short-term loans from the Session to get them through this time of hardship, most of which were granted.  In November a thanksgiving was held for the recent favourable harvest, which reduced some of the pressure on the population.

Deteriorating climatic conditions were now becoming more apparent, with many years of poor harvests.  On 18th February 1741, the Session of the parish of Forglen, “considering the miserable condition of the poor in the parish by reason of the scarcity of victual and the dearth, resolved to buy some meal for their use and accordingly bought ten bolls three firlots and two pecks of meal at £8 Scots per boll and ordered it to be distributed in small parcels to them as their necessity required”.  This cost the Session £87; and food shortages continued throughout the year.  These poor harvests which were such a common feature of life were now starting to bite harder, and the general population were suffering hardships.  In the same year, due to the dearth of victuals, the Kirk Session of Fordyce was obliged to buy in oatmeal to provide for the poor – a pattern which would be repeated at regular intervals for much of the following quarter-century.

These mid-18th century food shortages were now beginning to be felt widely across the north of Scotland.  The records of Banff in 1757 note that “the poor being at present in great straits on account of the dearth and scarcity of meal” the Session used all the money in the box, which totalled £2 18s 6d, to buy meal for the poor.  By 1758, the price of meal had risen to 8s 6d per boll.

Such problems were recorded all across the North-East.  In 1763 in the parish of Marnoch, for example, this was the start of almost 20 years of diminishing harvests.  A gradual climatic deterioration meant that agriculture was suffering, and the spectre of more serious food shortages was looming.  Common to many parishes in the North-East, the food shortages were beginning to bite by 1765 – and in Fordyce, for example, “Session considering that the poor people are in considerable straits on the account of the dearth of meal, which was now ten pence the peck, agreed that £20 Scots might be given out at the time to the most necessitous”.

The shortages continued to increase, as did the deaths, and this was to continue until the major famines of 1781 and 1782, which were to affect almost everyone in the parish and the general area.  In Banff in 1782, the price of meal had gradually risen over the last 14 years to 11s 7d per boll.  That year saw what was probably the worst of the food shortages which had been going on with varying degrees of severity for much of that century.  The town was also visited by an infectious fever, of unusual violence, probably made more serious by the weakened state of the people.  This was almost certainly smallpox, which encouraged many local people to accept the new inoculation.

In Fordyce parish, 1782 was a year of very poor harvests.  “Considering the difficulty the labouring poor had in providing, the Minister advised that he had purchased 20 bolls of the Earl of Findlater’s farm barley, to be turned into meal for the poor.”  The records at this time were all about how to feed the poor during this period of poor harvests.  In Ordiquhill on 31st May 1783, it was noted that “Having taken under their consideration the present distressed state of the Poor, and that many were making application to be put upon the Poor List who had never before made application to the Session”, the Kirk Session was finding itself in a difficult financial position.  The food shortages which had been so severe all across northern Scotland since the start of the previous year were now beginning to be an increasing financial problem, and the Session could not fund all of these on a regular basis.  Each claimant was told to supply an inventory of their effects, so that the Session could assess their needs.  The problems continued until at least 1785, but gradually the demands on the Session’s funds began to decline as the harvests improved.

Further food shortages occurred in 1816.  The minutes of Ordiquhill Kirk Session show meal being purchased at 14s 6d per boll; and James Huet agreed to sell meal to the poor at a reduced price.  In the spring, the number of deaths increased considerably.  Throughout much of 1817, the Kirk Sessions across the North-East were very busy dealing with the allocation of meal to the poor.  On 13th March, Colonel Gordon of Park gave three bolls of oatmeal and two bolls of bear** to be distributed among the poor of his parish.  Only in 1830 did the pressures on the Kirk to provide additional support for the people finally relax.

After this, we begin to see a gradual improvement in the climate, and consequently also in the harvests.  By 1850, the climate had returned to a pattern similar to that known almost 600 years previously.  As is now well known, the climate has continued to warm, taking us back to temperature levels not seen since the eighth and ninth centuries AD.

We have to hope that all of our efforts to reduce “global warming” don’t rebound on us when the next cyclical “Little Ice Age” comes around, as surely it must.  Just think of the gas and electricity bills! – but we can leave that for future generations to worry about.

Bruce B. Bishop, FSA Scot, ASGRA 

*From ANESFHS Journal 163 (May 2022), pages 28–31, by kind permission of the author and of the Aberdeen & North-East Scotland Family History Society.
** Bear or bere was a very specific crop of four eared grain, mostly grown in Scotland.
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Bruce Bishop is a Professional  Genealogist, Member of the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives, Vice President Aberdeen and North East Scotland Family History Society and Vice President Aberdeen and North East Scotland Family History Society

Posted by Christopher S. Lobban,  17 Oct. 2022.