With the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic set to become the defining global event of 2020, it is perhaps an apposite time to reflect on previous times when illness and death stalked the streets of Edinburgh.
Between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth century the city was struck by bubonic plague - the Black Death as it became known - at frighteningly regular intervals. On most occasions the disease was eradicated in the city within a matter of months, but there was one period of over 16 years when the illness became endemic and circulated within the community pretty constantly.
And beyond the plague, other illnesses such as smallpox, typhus and tuberculosis circulated fairly freely before the age of effective medical intervention. But here are ten instances of Edinburgh dealing with a pretty persistent pestilence...
The first recorded instance of plague to affect Edinburgh occurred nearly 700 years ago, having spread around the globe via the shipping and trade routes which had begun to link what had previously been disparate continents and countries. Nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea had recorded a wave of deaths occurring very rapidly - often within two or three days after infection - and a year later such deaths were being recorded in Edinburgh itself.
It is thought that around two-thirds of the city's population (of around 10,00 people) died in this first round of illness.
A second wave of plague hits Edinburgh, this time killing around one-third of the population - and unlike the first infection, this time it is predominantly wealthier and higher status figures who are affected, perhaps because of their direct connection to infected imported goods and people bringing the disease into the country from overseas (not yet recognised as the route of transmission).
Throughout the fourteenth century, it's thought the plague killed approximately 20% of the population.
A wet summer and autumn is blamed for the illness, with the prevailing medical view about a balance of 'humours' in the human body - each of them being affected by environmental factors such as excessive heat or damp - still not recognising the presence of physical transmitters of the infection through viruses.
1498 - 1514
The longest period in which plague was rampant through Edinburgh, occasioning Edinburgh's city council to take actions to try to guard against infection, recognising the spread of disease in communities outside of the city and seeking to limit contact between those infected communities and Edinburgh itself.
A series of laws and city ordnances are put in place, including:
Teams of cleansers were employed by the city to clean and decontaminate properties where infection had been detected, using smoke and harsh chemicals. These people were housed separately from the rest of the community at the convent on St Mary Street, and paid as little as sixpence a day.
1529 - 1530
New cases of the plague saw even stronger measures taken to protect the city of Edinburgh.
The Burgh Muir, an extent of common land to the south of the Old Town (where Bruntsfield and Morningside are today) was designated as a kind of quarantine zone, and wooden huts were built to accommodate infected victims who would be taken out of the city and kept apart to prevent the spread of infection. Mass burials of plague victims also took place in this area, at a significant distance from the city centre.
During this time there are several recorded instances of punishments being meted out to residents of the city who had contravened the plague laws. One woman, Isobell Cattall, was both branded and banished from the city for not reporting that her daughter had been sick with the plague.
Patrick Gowanlock and his servant, Janet Cowan, were punished for harbouring outsiders in his property, with Gowanlock being banished from the city and Cowan branded on both cheeks for 'conniving' in the crime. An unnamed man was hanged for attending church whilst his wife was dying with the plague, and a woman named Katryne Heriot was drowned for bringing stolen goods into the city, and thereby bringing plague into the town.
After nearly a quarter of a century without incident, plague arrived back in Edinburgh, and the Burgh Muir was once again commissioned as a quarantine zone. The man in charge of looking after the patients dispatched here to die painful deaths was named John Forrest, and the terms of his contract stipulated that if any of the infected people released into his care should be deemed to have spread the disease to others, Forrest would be executed for dereliction of duty.
Thankfully this episode only lasted a year, and by 1575 the city was again disease-free.
A decade later, John Forrest was back in the Burgh Muir with more patients, and the area of infection was fenced off from the rest of the common moorland to prevent the mixing of infected and uninfected communities.
Beggars were forcibly removed from the city and people were instructed to isolate in their households if infection was suspected. A register was kept of such households, and food and drink was provided for them to prevent them needing to leave their homes. Anyone returning from the Burgh Muir was to remain in their homes for 15 days, on pain of death for anyone found breaking the rules.
At least two people were executed for contravening the regulations.
Another outbreak of the plague, arriving through the port of Leith from London, saw people being confined to their homes again, with 16 pence per person provided for those who were constrained from working.
So many people died during this outbreak - which lasted only four months - that Edinburgh's cemeteries were quickly at capacity, and a regulation was passed banning burials in coffins (which took up extra space in the grave).
1602 - 1607
Plague circulated intermittently through this period, with the Burgh Muir being utilised once again as a quarantine and burial zone.
1644 - 1645
The last, and worst, period of plague affecting Edinburgh came at the height of the English Civil War, and nearly three hundred years after the first recorded wave of infections. At this time the population of Edinburgh was approximately 30,000 people, with as many as 50% of them dying of plague.
This was the first time any dedicated medical and surgical support was provided to the city - prior to this treatment had focused on isolation and decontamination of property and materials after a death had occurred.
The medical treatment administered at this time was almost worse than the illness itself. The bubonic boils which formed on a victim within a day or so of becoming infected would be lanced with a red-hot instrument, allowing the filthy pus to be released, with the wound then cauterised to seal the flesh of the patient.
Generally patients would die anyway.
The doctor appointed to treat plague victims in Edinburgh in 1645 was a man named George Rae. He would go from house to house administering the treatment of lancing and cauterising the boils, and wore a heavy mask filled with sweet smelling herbs as a way of trying to avoid some of the stench of burned and poisoned flesh. He had been promised a hefty salary for his work (and his risk) treating patients, and it seems that the city authorities at that time anticipated that Rae would himself become infected with plague and die, since it transpired that they had no intention of paying the promised fee.
In the decade after the last incidence of plague in Edinburgh, Rae battled the council to get the money he had been promised, but is believed to have eventually died without receiving his dues.
One notable victim of the plague from this period was John Livingston, an apothecary or chemist who worked to treat those diagnosed with plague, and whose home had been built in 1639 at the edge of the Burgh Muir area where many plague victims were sent. He died in 1645, having contracted plague from the people he was treating.
He was buried in a tomb on his property which stands to this day and can be visited just off Chamberlain Road in Bruntsfield.
What is interesting about these events as we read them with a modern eye is the similarity in the attitudes to treatment, protection and prevention of the spread of disease. Social distancing, isolation, 10pm curfews and the closure of businesses are all features of the modern approach to tackling Covid-19, and whilst the comparisons with the plague aren't all entirely accurate (or appropriate) the similarities in our attitudes from those of 400 years ago are curious!
Explore more of Edinburgh's history with death and disease on my private city walking tours!
This article was inspired and informed by THE ELEVEN PLAGUES OF EDINBURGH by W. J. MacLennan.
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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