Climate, environment and cultural change in medieval/early modern Scotland

Climate, environment and cultural change in medieval/early modern Scotland

2024 Rhind Lectures presented by Professor Richard Oram - Image Woodland
Friday 31 May 2024 - 17:00 to Sunday 2 June 2024 - 18:00

Augustine United Church

41 George IV Bridge Edinburgh EH1 1EL

Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Two 'little' ice ages and an anomaly: climate, environment and cultural change in medieval and early modern Scotland
Presented by Professor Richard Oram MA(Hons) PhD FSA FRSA FSAScot, University of Stirling

The Society’s hybrid Rhind Lectures are taking place in Edinburgh (Augustine United Church) and live-streamed online.

Please check the Society website, e-newsletters and your email inbox for the latest news and further information on Society events in case of any last minute changes to events.

This event is open and free to all.

With thanks to GUARD Archaeology Ltd for sponsoring the 2024 Rhind Lectures.

Please note by booking an in-person ticket, this gives you access to all six sessions of the 2024 Rhind Lectures, but due to limited capacity at the venue, we recommend you book early to avoid disappointment.

If you are unable to attend in-person, please let us know at your earliest convenience.

Rhind Lectures Outline

Our current climate emergency and its ecological and wider environmental consequences are concepts with which we are all familiar, but the impacts of historic climate change on the environment of Scotland and its people are little recognised or understood. Between the dawn of the ‘Late Antique little ice age’ in the 6th century CE to the waning of the ‘little ice age’ in the 19th century CE, climate change and how Scotland’s people responded to it was one of the most dynamic agents affecting environmental conditions and resources and a key stimulus of social and cultural transformation. From epidemic and epizootic disease to energy crises and transitions, ‘Golden Ages’ to ‘Ill Years’, this was an era where dearth, abundance, sustainability and resilience shaped Scotland.

Friday 31st May

5.00pm: An Age "Off wyne and wax, gamyn and gle"? ‘Slow’ and ‘fast’ violence in changeable times.

How has past climate change and its environmental effects been perceived and presented in respect of medieval and early modern Scotland? In this opening lecture we explore past and contemporary awareness of historic climate change and how understanding of its impacts has evolved over time. We look at sources of evidence and consider how different forms of written record and climate proxy data reveal the ‘slow violence’ of long-term environmental degradation and its effects on Scotland’s social hierarchies and the ‘fast violence’ of some of their responses.

6.30pm: A Drive for Growth: agricultural sustainability, resilience and failure.

Whiggish narratives of ‘Improvement’ and emphasis on the inefficiencies and ingrained conservatism of pre-Improvement agricultural practices have skewed discussion of cultivation and agricultural techniques in medieval Scotland. Expansion and contraction of the area under cultivation has long been explained in Malthusian terms, with the check on growth being delivered by recurrent epidemics from the 14th century onwards. But other factors affected agricultural viability or created opportunity, and we can see greater responsiveness to the challenges of climate and weather than our traditional narratives would suggest.

Followed by a reception. A selection of Society books, ties and scarves will be available to purchase.

Saturday 1st June

3pm: "The woods of Scotland are utterly destroyed": managing and imagining forest and woodland.

Woodland health is one of our greatest proxies for wider environmental health and features centrally in current debates. While the continued decline in woodland extent across this period is unquestionable, management practices and protections were far more sophisticated and successful than the myth of the destruction of the ‘Great Wood of Caledon’ in a free-for-all orgy of unregulated felling implies. From parliamentary legislation to land-owner strategies, we see efforts to sustain the woodland resource, while record evidence and surviving trees illustrate the practices that enabled the shrunken wooded areas still to satisfy the needs of most communities.

4.30pm: Fuelling Division? Conflicted histories of the peat-coal transition.

Denigrated since the 18th century as the fuel of the ignorant and culturally inferior, chiefly in the Highlands and Islands, peat was the primary source of thermal energy for most Scots in Lowland as much as Highland regions into the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Although coal has been presented as prevalent since the 16th century, it remained beyond the physical and financial reach of the majority. ‘Energy crisis’ and ‘fuel poverty’ seem very modern concepts but perceptions of a ‘peat crisis’ affected individuals and communities from the early 1500s and provoked legal challenges, fuel-raids and physical violence on the mosses. The legacies of this fuel fear and energy hunger can still be seen in landscapes across Scotland.

Sunday 2nd June

3.00pm: Gooding the Earth: soil erosion/soil enrichment and ecological change.

Building on our earlier exploration of agricultural expansion and practice, here we consider the investment in soil enrichment and protection that intensified through the extremes of the ‘little ice age’. ‘Gooding the earth’ of cultivated land, however, could involve practices that exposed other areas to catastrophic loss in times of climatic instability, as did the maintenance of strategies that had developed in better times. Beginning in the 1660s, theories of Improvement opened a prospect of food security, surplus and social advancement, but came with equally profound social and ecological costs.

4.30pm: A Change in the Air: reconceptualizing Scotland’s ‘dark and drublie’ days.

Revision of the meta-narratives of Scotland’s social and cultural development across these three major episodes of environmental transformation is opening new perspectives on the interplay of human and natural processes that shaped our national history. Climatic and environmental changes are not the determinants of human destiny; what mattered was how our ancestors chose to respond in the face of crises delivered by those processes. In a society on the European margins, often teetering on the knife-edge of sustainability, the ‘environmental turn’ enables us to see the narrowly escaped dependency and rigidity traps and the profundity of change that delivered survival – but at a cost whose legacy is still with us.

The RHIND LECTURES, a series of six lectures delivered annually on a subject pertaining to history or archaeology, by eminent authorities on the subject, have been given since 1876.

They commemorate Alexander Henry Rhind of Sibster (1833-63) who left a bequest to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland to endow the lectures which perpetuate his name.