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Changing Pressures and Drinking Habits in the Scottish Lowlands

To the best of his ability (given his calling) Rev. John Mitchell described the drinking habits of Ayrshire folk in the closing decades of the eighteenth century:

An excessive use of ardent spirits, though not by any means always to intoxication, prevailed. Seldom was any bargain struck, even at a fair, without withdrawing to a public house (or tavern) and calling for a gill of liquor: warm punch was plentifully handed round in dancing apartments, kept open for the public in such places, and occupied by successive companies at these times... As no temperance societies then existed to restrain, as well as to expose excess, and to urge sobriety, by the combined influence of general example and powerful argument, can this consequence though greatly blameable be considered as either unnatural or unexpected...

A licentiousness intimately connected with drunkenness was not unknown. Besides the immoderate use of spirituous liquors at fairs, dining parties, and funerals, such excess took place also sometimes it was said by companies collected on occasion of public baptism, especially those from somewhat remote parts of the country. A train, sometimes a considerably long train, of females accompanied the child to Church, and after the dispensation of the ordinance and the dismission of the congregation it was customary at times, as we have heard, for all the attendants to adjourn to a neighbouring public house or tavern. There the jug (or cup as it might be) and the glass circled freely, and made the company occasionally, as Burns would say, "unco happy". Besides this when a neighbour called, or a servant came to deliver a message, or hand a present, or a friend was taking leave, or the master of the house was setting out upon a journey, or an artisan had finished a job, or the minister and elder came to visit, the bottle was brought out, and a glass of the nappy was presented.[i]

Examples of drinking in the course of everyday business may be found in the records. On June 4, 1818, John Lawson, the Judicial Factor of Stockbriggs estate in Lesmahagow, "repaid William Pate [the "country overseer"] -/17/6 disbursed by him for refreshment to Tenants at collection".[ii] That the overseer had dipped into his own pocket to supply the "refreshments" underscores the importance of this custom of providing drinks when the rents were collected.

In some instances -- in the executive suite -- there were evidently business advantages to be gained in providing drink. David Robertson, a merchant in Edinburgh, was one of the most persistent creditors of Stockbriggs Estate: "To various meetings with his [Robertson's] agents getting them loosed -/13/4".[iii]

The roup or auction of pasture land and farms was another occasion for providing alcohol: "To Factor's Expences from Edinburgh to Stockbriggs to roup the Grass parks and let the farm of Cleughbrae 3 days keep of self and horse for same period Whiskey for the roup 1/1 Auctioneer fee travelling expences 4/18/3".[iv]

We have seen that drinking was an integral component of community amusements and country life in late eighteenth century rural Scotland . Life was simple, demands upon individuals were modest and drinking was not considered a great problem. As the century turned, however, the industrial and agricultural revolutions threw society into turmoil and country folk into the urban slums and workhouses. Structured factory labour was completely new to the Scot who had been bred on the cooperative atmosphere of the fermtoun and rural togetherness. In Glasgow it was evidently claimed that the weavers took to "ardent spirits" because the long working hours deprived them of their "rational amusement with their families".[v] Drinking sprees became more and more regular and intense until:

Decency is too often the butt of scorn; and it is the best zest of a frolic, that it is attended with mischief to the inoffensive. Whisky, which inflames its votaries with fury, or debases them into the grossest stupidity, is become a common beverage; and people too often forget every sense of duty, when indulging the bewitching draught. Even women of the lower ranks are not ashamed, as often as they have an opportunity, to drink it to intoxication.[vi]

The worsening drinking problem was offset to some degree by the Temperance movement as the nineteenth century progressed. In 1899 Rev. John Warrick of Old Cumnock observed:

It is a pleasure to note one improvement which is steadily becoming more marked on such occasions [funerals]. Very seldom is wine or other drink offered to those who assemble in the house of mourning. Even the last ten years bear decided witness to the disappearance of the practice of offering refreshment. Certainly no excess was possible in recent times.[vii]

Like the Hogmanay tradition, it was still quite acceptable to drink at "creels" when the bridegroom would treat his pals to a dram or two. However, 75 or so years ago in Lesmahagow Parish:

I can remember many creels and not all of them involved the drinking of alcohol. For instance, when Nan 's cousin, Jimmy Reid, married Lizzie Lyle, Jimmy took us to the "Tali's" shop and stood us soft drinks. Admittedly, most of the creels were held at Coalburn store, the inns, or hotel bar but I was a strict teetotaller so only attended these early "stag" parties if soft drinks were being purveyed.[viii]

[i]               Scottish History Society, "Memories of Ayrshire" (p. 292-5) by Rev. John Mitchell.

[ii]               Scottish Record Office, CS96/1224, p. 52.

[iii]              Scottish Record Office, CS229/S/15/50, Dec. 9, 1817.

[iv]              Scottish Record Office, CS229/S/15/50, "State of Accompts ... Crop and Year 1817", p. 8, April 1, 1818.

[v]               Murray, Handloom Weavers, p. 125.

[vi]              Statistical Account, Hamilton Parish, Lanarkshire, 1791, p. 395.

[vii]             Warrick, Old Cumnock, p. 313-314. There has been a trend, at least in the Scarborough area, over the past several decades, to provide sandwiches and refreshments following funeral services. We can only hope that the trend does not lead us back to the excesses of the past.

[viii]             James Hamilton, Jimmie's Life in Coalburn (Booklet II, 1914-1923), p. 116-7.


The Scarboro Heights Record V13 #6


In the early-mid 19th century Scarborough had many taverns -- I won't get into just how many per hundred people, but... you can bet it was more than one! Along came the temperance movement, gradually, in the beginning...

The first Temperance Society in Scarborough seems to have been the one instituted by Rev. James George in 1834 in the west-central part of the Township. Among the members were: David Elliot; Walter Elliot; James A. Thomson; Adam Bell; Agnes McLevin; Margaret Reeve; Margaret Elliot; Thomas White; William Forfar Jun.; William Paterson; Mary Johnston; Margaret Glendinning; Catharine Bowes; Ellen Elliot; Agnes Bell: Teasdale Hall; Hugh Elliot; Thomas Paterson; Sophia Durham; Jane Reeve; Matilda Elliot; and Thomas Bell.

Here's our theory for the inspirational moment that led to creation of the first Temperance Society in Scarborough...

The Scarboro Heights Record V13 #1

And finally...


Entry of Prohibition --- Ontario woke up Monday morning to find prohibition in force. The bars that closed on Saturday night as purveyors of intoxicating beverages opened Monday morning as restaurants for temperance drinks. The shops stay closed. All day Saturday the two hotel bars in Markham did a rousing trade, but early in the afternoon stocks began to run low in liquors and towards six o’clock the thirsty ones had to be content with two percent beer. Good judgment was used by both the hotel proprietors and any symptoms of roughness was nipped in the bud, though both bars were crowded. Of course there were some drunks, but these were mostly taken care of by friends, and not many were seen on the streets, considering the occasion. What little odds and ends of hard stuff that was left over was cleared off the premises after the bars closed at seven o’clock. Mr. J. W. Graham, of the Tremont House, whose lease expired with the advent of prohibition, and who was unable to renew his lease at what he considered a fair price, had already moved his effects to his house at Mount Joy, handed over the keys to his successor, Mr. Brown of Toronto, who took possession Monday morning. Mr. R.A. Andrews, who owns the Franklin House, will continue to run it as a temperance hotel. Prohibition is here, and we believe it is here to stay, and the hotelkeeper who makes his house attractive and comfortable is still sure of a good living. This has been proved in many local option towns.

The Scarboro Heights Record V11 #8


More on Drinking and Temperance

The Church and Temperance Regulating Behaviour
Fairs and Frolics Scottish Communities at Work and Play
Drinking with men of bad characters Amusements at home