'Plague! A cultural history of contagious diseases in Scotland'
The only known copy of Scotland's first printed medical book will be among the highlights on show in a new exhibition that looks at how plague and other deadly diseases devastated Scotland down the centuries.
More Scots have been killed by contagious diseases than have ever died in a multitude of wars and the exhibition at the National Library of Scotland will examine how the country coped in the face of a terrifying enemy they could neither see nor properly understand.
'Plague! A cultural history of contagious diseases in Scotland' features some of the worst outbreaks to affect Scotland from around 1350 to the beginning of the National Health Service in the mid-20th century. Along the way it reveals surprising facts that have mostly faded from memory such as plague carried by rats gripping Glasgow as recently as 1900.
Scotland's first printed medical book was inspired by the plague that broke out in 1564-1569 and was published at the time. 'Ane breve descriptioun of the pest [plague]' was written by Gilbert Skeyne, Medicinar to His Majesty James IV. It was written in Scots to be read out to people in infected towns where the sick had often been abandoned to care for themselves. It provides advice on avoiding infection and on possible treatment. Although there are references to hygiene, Skeyne concluded that 'the principal preseruatiue [preservative] cure of the pest is, to returne to God.'
Up to a third of the Scottish population is estimated to have died in the worst outbreaks. 'In today's medically sophisticated world, it is very hard to imagine the fear and helplessness that people felt when death was perhaps only a few doors away,' said Dr Anette Hagan, Curator of Rare Books, who has put the exhibition together.
At its heart is an area that resembles a narrow, cramped and cobbled Edinburgh close which has been designed to create a claustrophobic and unsettling environment as visitors learn about the main epidemic diseases that ravaged through the land in times gone by.
In addition to plague, these included cholera, typhus, smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis. Cholera was particularly feared because of its high death rate. Half of all those who contracted the disease died from it in 1832, resulting in mass burials in towns across Scotland. Later epidemics led to dramatic improvements in public health which helped with both the control and prevention of outbreaks of disease.
The exhibition tells the story using the Library's collections of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, maps, photographs, newspapers and moving images. It will also feature objects loaned from major collections around the UK: including a skull showing the classic symptoms of syphilis; a hand in a glass jar from an individual who died from leprosy; various medical items such as a gauge to measure smallpox pustules; and a field testing kit for typhoid. A stuffed black rat will also feature to represent one of the principal sources of plague infection.
Plague has also made an unexpected contribution to Scottish literature. A 16th-century anthology which has preserved some otherwise unknown works of Scotland's medieval poets may not have been completed but for the plague. It was compiled by Edinburgh merchant George Bannatyne who fled the city to his country estate in 1568 trying to avoid the plague. Visitors to the exhibition will get a rare chance to see Bannatyne's 400-year-old manuscript.
Various solutions were sought by the authorities to control the spread of infection. Laws were passed to enforce quarantine arrangements. This included banishing sufferers of syphilis to Inchkeith Island in the Firth of Forth in 1497 and establishing leprosy hospitals or houses from Shetland to Ayrshire to segregate sufferers who were left to fend for themselves.
Outbreaks of disease were often seen as a punishment from God, resulting during the plague year of 1665 in an official proclamation for a national fast to 'implore the goodness and protection of Almighty God that, in his infinite mercy, may preserve this Kingdom from [that] contagion.'
Dr Hagan added: 'None of the knowledge and medicines that we have today were available to our ancestors who faced wave after wave of infectious diseases. We hope people who visit the exhibition get a real sense of how fragile and perilous life was like in the days before clean water and modern medicine.'
'Plague! A cultural history of contagious diseases in Scotland' runs from 11 December until May 29 at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. Entry is free.
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10 December 2015