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Poverty, Charity and Welfare in Early Modern Scotland

Unit(s) of assessment: History

School: School of Arts and Humanities


Understanding of the historical contexts of poverty and welfare in the British Isles is hampered by a focus on English exceptionalism and the uniqueness of the Tudor poor Laws. The multifaceted nature of poverty, and of attempts to alleviate it, needs to be understood in historical context.

There has also been little understanding or awareness of the relationship between poor relief and the religious reformation which defined Scotland’s early modern history.

Addressing the Challenge

The research was based around the first analysis of the records of parochial records in pre-1650 Scotland for the purpose of assessing poor relief. This revealed that despite prior assumptions, a healthy system of welfare was delivered by the post-1560 Protestant Kirk, although it was not one which matched the normative ideal of a compulsory secular system as in England.

The research also contextualised the parish poor relief by considering mixed economies of welfare, including work on hospitals and almshouses, testamentary charity, begging and informal relief, and the international context of Scottish charitable collections.


The research was undertaken and disseminated by Dr John McCallum (History and Heritage, School of Arts and Humanities). Dr McCallum is a lecturer in History, and a specialist in early modern British religious history. He teaches a range of modules at undergraduate level, including Medieval and Early Modern Worlds, Age of Reformations, War and Society in Early Modern Britain and Historiography, as well as dissertations and contributing to the MA in History.

The principal output is a monograph (Poor Relief and the Church in Scotland, 1560-1650), as well as articles in major peer-reviewed journals (Journal of Social History, Scottish Historical Review, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies), and contributions to conferences and seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research, Universities of Edinburgh, Newman (Birmingham), Oxford, and Warwick.

It will conclude with a Symposium at NTU in September 2019, funded by the Royal Historical Society, on Charity, Welfare and the Emotions in the Early Modern British Isles.

Making a Difference

As well as transforming understandings of early modern poor relief and pre-Union Scottish History, the project also takes us closer than has previously been possible to the lives and worlds of marginalised poor people in sixteenth and seventeenth century Scotland.

It has therefore paved the way for richer and more human engagement with poverty and welfare in historical context, including an appreciation of the subtle and overlapping strategies in which they were able to make ends meet. It also suggests a need to be sceptical about an understanding of the modern welfare state which assumes its development as an easy story of progress from past to present.

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