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On This Day... 10 December 1595: Give It a Rest, Ye Merry Gentlemen

By Alexander Clapperton, December 10, 2014 - 4:14pm
Portrait of James VI in 1595, looking suitably austere.

At this time of year, as we all start to bemoan the crowds out Christmas shopping (easily avoided by shopping online, by the way), we should perhaps reflect on how much better we have it than our ancestors did. Back on this day in 1595, Scotland was in the grip of severe famine, and starving people were flocking to the cities for shelter. Ever the man of action, King James VI wrote to his Parliament, commanding them to enact and enforce new laws in order to feed the people:

"The King and Council, being wonderfully moved at the present dearth of all sorts of victuals this season of the year, universal through all parts of this realm, and the great penury and indigence whereunto the poor handy-labourers, and others among his Highness' subjects of all estates, are reduced by that occasion, the same dearth still daily increasing, and fostered partly by the avaricious greediness of a great number of persons that have bought and [still] buy victuals before they come [out] of the ground, and that forestall and keep the same to a dearth, and partly by the shameless and indiscreet behaviour of the owners of the same victuals who refuse to thresh out and bring same to open markets.

"It is therefore declared, that after proclamation made, all forestallers, etc. shall be strictly punished, in terms of the statutes their victual escheated to his Majesty's use. All costly apparel, banqueting, etcetera are deprecated; and it is declared that the former Acts relative thereto shall be strictly enforced."

This was not the first such famine to afflict Scotland: the last quarter of the 16th Century saw several severe food shortages; in the winter of 1572, James had been forced to make a proclaimation in Leith commanding the emigration of a large number of the population overseas.

Continuous religious and political turmoil (combined with a rising urban population and interspersed with outbreaks of plague) throughout this period had diminished the productivity of Scottish farms, but the relatively low numbers of people actually killed by these misfortunes had not yet propotionately reduced the population, leading to serious shortages, particularly in the cities.

These shortages were themselves exacerbated by a relatively new phenomenon: that of trading in futures (or buying goods before they are actually produced). Increasing international trade encouraged Scotland's merchants to invest their wealth in buying up the coming harvest in advance, when demand (and therefore cost) was low. This meant that they would effectively control the food supply when winter came, and could name their price when selling. And, if the price were not met at home, the goods could be sold easily enough overseas.

Unfortunately for the Scottish people, the strife afflicting their country left too little opportunity for many of them to make enough money to meet the merchant's demands. They were forced to starve in rags as they watched well-fed and well-dressed merchants crate up their food for sale in countries they'd likely never see.

In order to prevent widespread starvation (and the rebellion which might be fostered thereby), King James ordered that the merchants and farmers involved in such dealings immediately take their goods to Scottish markets, there to be sold at prices dictated by the government, or face the consequences. Failure to comply would result in severe physical punishments, ranging from physical mutilations (such as having ones ears nailed to the Tron weighing machine in Edinburgh for dishonest merchants) to public execution, to the complete confiscation of all goods.

Further, James ordered what amounts to a ban on overt seasonal merriness. Arranging banquets or any other public display of wealth was forbidden under penalty of severe fines, and while those liable to fall foul of such restrictions would likely be able to pay, falling out of favour with the Royal Court during this period was only a short step from being declared outlaw.

The merchants, realising that a meagre profit was better than no profit followed by mutilation and death, by and large complied with the King's order, and very few persons were prosecuted as a result of the Act Against the Dearth. The people ate, not well but sufficiently, and so the Christmas of 1595 was, while not a joyful one, at least one which most of the people of Scotland survived.