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Scotland Poor Laws

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POOR LAWS, SCOTLAND. The foundation of the Old Poor Law of Scotland, was the act of parliament 1579, c. 74, which in so many respects re sembled the celebrated English statute of the fourteenth of Elizabeth, passed a few years earlier, as to have been con sided a mere adaptation from it. The Scottish act, however, fell short of the English in the one important particular of not providing for the care of the able bodied. By this old act, a settlement was acquired by birth, and once so established could not be changed unless by a seven years' industrial residence in another parish. By the act 1672, c. 18, this period was shortened to three years. The method of administering the law, which arose partly out of the terms of the old acts, partly out of custom, and partly from the directions given to these sanctions by the judgments of the courts, was as follows :—In the rural parishes, the" kirk sessions," or lowest ecclesiasti cal judicatories, consisting of the parish clergyman and certain elders, shared the management with the " heritors," or rated landed proprietors ; but it became customary for the latter body to interest themselves solely in the voting and levying of the rate, leaving its dis tribution and the management of the poor to the former. In those municipal corporations holding rank as royal burghs, the assessment and management lay with the corporate authorities. The funds for the relief of the poor were of two kinds. The collections at church doors, along with certain fees and eleemosynary bequests, constituting the one department ; and rates assessed on the parish, or a substitute voluntarily paid instead of an assessment, the other. Of the sums collected at the church doors only a half went to the regular relief of those legally entitled to relief; the other became a fund for general charitable purposes at the command of the kirk session. In many cases there was no assessment, and the regular practice came to be, that if the miscel laneous sources were insufficient for the relief of the poor, the heritors and session in a country parish, or the magistrates in a town parish, might levy a rate. It became a common practice for the parties chiefly interested to agree to a "voluntary assessment," for the pur pose of postponing the imposition of a fixed legal rate. When an assessment was imposed, it became a rule that one half of it should be levied on the pro prietors of land, in respect of their land; the other on householders, in respect of their " means and substance," or their in comes so far as not derived from land.

The adjustment of the rating was the ground of much dispute, and different parishes followed very distinct methods in practice.

For a considerable period, the Scottish system was very favourably received by political economists, who saw the country m a comparatively sound moral con dition, with a parsimonious poor law while the lavish system of England seemed to promote profligacy and idle ness. But from the time when these doctrines were first promulgated, to the completion of the great change of the English poor law, a vast internal alters tion had taken place in the social economy of Scotland. The comparative low rate of wages, attracting manufacturing capital from England, had caused a more than average migration of the rural labourers to the manufacturing districts, and a pecu liarly rapid increase of the city popula tion. It was found that with these com plicated materials, the simple parochial system, adapted to a state of society where each man watched over the in terests and the conduct of his neighbour, was incapable of grappling. It was found that even for poor country di.. tricts the system was unsuitable, because, though still far behind the English system in profusion, the town administra tors were compelled by the voice of pub lic opinion to become more liberal in their dispensations, while the managers of the country parishes not subject to the same influence, kept down the allow ances, and thus gave the poor an induce ment to endeavour to obtain a settlement by three years' industrial residence in the cities. Dr. Chalmers was the great cham pion of the old system. With the assist ance of some enthusiastic followers, he organised the administration of a parish in the poorer parts of Glasgow, as a de monstration of the efficiency of which the system was capable. It was a very pleasing picture, but the public soon fflt that the success with which one energetic indivi dual and his enthusiastic followers might voluntarily perform the duties generally exacted by legal compulsion, was no sufficient ground for believing that the rest of the community can be at all times and in all places depended upon for the performance of onerous public services without the coercion of law.

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