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Selected research areas and preliminary conclusions

Selected research areas and preliminary conclusions

Infant mortality

Age patterns of infant mortality on the Isle of Skye suggest that some remote areas in the north of the island may suffer from neonatal tetanus. Otherwise infant mortality on the island reflects a benign regime with healthy mothers and low levels of contagious disease. Preliminary analysis indicates that infant mortality in Kilmarnock appears to have been higher, but urban-rural comparisons are hampered by wide differences in the proportions of deaths certified by a doctor. (see also illegitimacy and certification of deaths)


Comparisons of illegitimacy rates show startling differences between the low illegitimacy Hebridean island of Skye and the high rates in the parish of Rothiemay. Employment opportunities in the North-East of Scotland, where Rothiemay was situated, encouraged young people to move away from home to positions where they had considerable freedom, allowing behaviour which resulted in a high number of premarital conceptions. However, it is possible that the high population turnover engendered by local hiring practices, when coupled with a welfare system which encouraged pregnant women to return to their parish of settlement, may have led to them being painted almost twice as 'wayward' as they actually were. In other words young women in Rothiemay would be employed elsewhere, fall pregnant and return home to give birth to their infant, leaving the child with his or her grandmother or some other close relation again when they returned to work. The numbers of young women present on census night are therefore much lower than the numbers at risk of giving birth to the illegitimate infants born in the area, resulting in inflation of illegitimacy rates by migration of young women. Young women on Skye were apparently less likely to escape parental supervision, and the proportion observed leaving their parish of birth before marriage was lower than in Rothiemay. This relative immobility should mean, ceteris paribus, that when measures of illegitimacy were applied to Skye they were a more accurate reflection of behaviour patterns.

Unusually, illegitimate infants on Skye do not appear do have been subject to the high mortality penalty of infants born out of wedlock in most other places, possibly because unmarried mothers on Skye appear to have lived with their bastard children for most of the post-partum year before leaving them to find work on other parts of the island or on the mainland. During the 1880s, however, when times were particularly hard for the crofting community, illegitimate infants did suffer a mortality penalty, coinciding with more illegitimate children living without their mothers. The fact that illegitimate infants were only disadvantaged in terms of mortality during the period of economic crisis suggests that there was little popular stigma attached to extra-marital childbirth, or that any censor on the part of family, Kirk, or Parochial Authorities had few material consequences in good times. Nevertheless, mortality did rise sharply among such children during the crisis years, indicating that such children were still among the most marginal members of society.

Seasonality and registration practices

Work on the seasonality of births demonstrates that while Kilmarnock shows seasonal patterns very similar to those of late nineteenth-century Scottish births as a whole, the pattern for Skye was very different, with a big dip in April births, and a winter peak. Examination of who registered births and deaths provides the key to this pattern: in winter most births were registered by the father of the child; but in the summer months seamen, fishermen, crofters and labourers did not register births, being away at their trade or pursuing seasonal work opportunities off the island. Their absence also explains the low birth rates nine months later, each following spring. The census population, recorded in late March or early April, therefore probably reflects near to the population maximum - many of these individuals, however, particularly men, were away for substantial proportions of time at other times during the year, resulting in a much reduced summer population.

Certification of deaths

Although there were a number of doctors present on Skye in the nineteenth century, they did not seem to have been available to certify the deaths of the crofting community. In the urban are of Kilmarnock, in contrast, the vast majority of deaths were certified by doctors, and the resulting cause of death patterns are very different between the two places, doctors being more likely to have recorded causes such as 'diarrhoea', 'bronchitis' and 'pneumonia', while lay-people favoured causes such as 'bowels', 'consumption', or admitted that they did not know the cause of death. Doctors of different ages, trained when knowledge of disease processes was changing rapidly, also had very different certification practices. Combined with differences in the proportions of deaths medically certified by age for the different places, and the fact that death rates from each cause are likely to vary with age in different ways, this renders considerable complication to the interpretation of cause of death patterns.


The 1883 Royal Commission on the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland heard evidence from Angus Stewart, a crofter from Peinchorran, Skye, who stated that unless he and his neighbours could move to better land, poverty would 'not be got out of Skye forever'. They would 'always need a Joseph in the south to send us seed'. This comment reflects the perceived need for communities dependent on subsistence agriculture to have alternative means of raising cash by means of seasonal, temporary migration, or remittances from more permanent migrants. The 1881 census of the Isle of Skye, off Scotland's North West coast, enumerated just over 17,500 residents. Ten per cent were 'in-comers', persons who had not been born on the island. Now that individual level-data from the 1881 census for the whole of Scotland is available in electronic form it is possible to trace some 2,500 additional persons who had been born on Skye, but were no longer resident there.

This paper explores what can be revealed about the migration flows circulating to, from and around the parishes of Skye by linking families and individuals in the five censuses covering the period 1861-1901, to the civil registers of births, marriages and deaths occurring on the island over the four intervening decades. Information from birth certificates as to the place of the parent's marriage, as well as the birthplaces of children given in the census and the parish of residence of both bride and groom on marriage certificates are used. Comparisons are made between those leaving the island, and those arriving. There are also discussion of patterns of return migration, and of the destinations and situations of the emigrants to the mainland. Finally the question is asked: just how far south did the Josephs of Skye venture?

Age mis-statement

It is well known that reporting of ages is subject to error, particularly in circumstances where literacy levels are not high. Common problems include considerable age-misstatement in the form of digital preference and systematic over- or under-representation of ages in particular age- and gender-groups. Ongoing surveys are able to use corrective devices such as dating calendars to help respondents identify years in which events occurred, but this is obviously not available for historical studies, where overall patterns of actual age distributions can be compared to expected distributions, but which have little recourse for checking or confirming reported ages or dates.

This paper utilises linked census returns and civil registrations of births, marriages and deaths to compare patterns of age-misstatement in individuals and groups over a life-course perspective for four communities in late nineteenth century Scotland: the Island of Skye, the town of Kilmarnock and the rural communities of Tothorwald and Rothiemay. The linked data allow actual dates of birth to be compared to dates implied by ages given in the census and in the registrations of death and marriage. The tendency to over- or under-state age at different ages can be compared, and the influence on this of factors such as whether the person reporting the age is the individual or a third party (such as a parent), and the juxtaposition of external factors such as the relative age of spouses. For the reporting of age at marriage and death, where the informant either signs or makes a mark, the effect of literacy can also be gauged. The paper will end with an assessment of the implications for the use of age information derived from these sources.