Dundee and ‘the Great Plague’ of 1644-8

Dundee and 'the Great Plague' of 1644-8

‘Between Sidlaw and the Sea,
Pest or plague shall never be.’

The last great plague epidemic to hit Scotland erupted during the 1640s, with the country already struggling to cope with the chaos and loss sustained by war and catastrophic harvest failures. It came north concealed in the knapsacks and on the breath of Scottish soldiers returning home from their capture of Newcastle in November 1644. Within weeks, it was circulating in the wynds and closes of Edinburgh, and had crossed the Forth into Fife.

In early 1645, many Dundonians were growing increasingly anxious. Not only was the pest advancing on them from the south, but their gaze was also being drawn to the north, where the Royalist insurgent Montrose and his rag-tag army of Irish and Gordon highlanders had cut down every Covenanter army sent against them. Large areas between the Tay and the Great Glen were left as wastelands by Montrose’s ‘scorched earth’ tactics leading to an ‘unparalleled season’ of dearth when the crops were ‘frosted and blasted’ in the ground.[2] Then, at mid-morning on the 4th April, the worst fears of many Dundonians were realised when Montrose suddenly appeared before the town’s western walls. The ensuing siege left substantial parts of Dundee as smoking ruins – just as an even more deadly enemy was approaching from the south.

‘Dundee from the East’ by John Slezer

By late spring of 1645 the plague was in full spate in Edinburgh, and the Committee of Estates[3] was forced into a hurried and unceremonious flight to Perth, where the Scottish army had also been sent to avoid the oncoming pandemic. With 40% of its population concentrated in towns and villages, Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth was Scotland’s most densely populated region, and quickly became the epi-centre of the Scottish plague.[4]  When it had finally burnt itself out in 1646, the pest left 12,000 corpses strewn across the region, and in Leith alone over half the port’s population, amounting to 2,736 lives, had been taken.[5]

Hans Holbein’s ‘Danse Macabre’ (The Dance of Death) (1523–5). A reminder of the inevitability of death for all, no matter one’s station in life.

As the plague continued its steady advance on Dundee from the south through June 1645, alarming reports were received that it had also reached Meigle, not far to the west of Dundee, and by September it had advanced even further into Fife. [6] The Dundee magistrates responded by immediately closing the Tay crossing, and despatched the town’s captain of artillery to seize ‘all boats from the Fife shore’, and to bring them over to the north shore.[7]

Every ship entering the Tay estuary was barred from the harbour, whilst ‘the merchants, skipper and sailors’ were subjected to quarantine for forty days. Townsfolk were strictly forbidden from boarding any quarantined vessel, and crews were directed to ‘handle their lint[8] and open their packs each day in the presence of certain of the Council’, in order to ‘test whether there was infection amongst it, by exposing all on board to risk’.[9]    

These measures, though harsh, proved timely and so effective that when the pest finally reached the Tay it found all ways to ‘cross over the water’ barred to it, and instead was forced to creep ‘westward to Perth and beyond.’[10] It now appeared to be readying for a final advance on Dundee along the Carse of Gowrie from Perth, but actually moved further west before turning back on itself and eventually ‘descending the valley of the Tay by the Braes of Gowrie’. To many Dundonians, the pest seemed, like a cat with prey, to be stalking them, as it advanced on their town from the west, only to suddenly circle ‘round to swoop upon the burgh from the other side.’[11] Dundee was, though, spared on this occasion as the pest’s advance seemed to grind to a halt in the very shadows of the town walls.

Plague symptoms

The respite proved all too brief, as, within a year, the pest had returned: in October 1646, the burgh was ‘much alarmed be the sudden death of twa children in John Fithie’s house, who….was found [to have] some blue spots upon their corpses.’[12] The discovery of the Fithie bairns acted like an electric shock on the town authorities, who hurriedly enacted emergency measures to prevent a full-blown epidemic. These measures, which all Scottish burghs adopted, were based on legislation first enacted by the Scottish parliament in 1456, sixty years before similar legislation was first passed in England.[13]

Scottish plague legislation was based on best practice from Italy and France, and included policies that aimed to control the movement of people, and particularly to stop or to apprehend those attempting to flee the towns during the plague lockdown. Other policies aimed to provide support for poor folk who were placed in quarantine with few means of support, whilst another clause sought to control the practice of ‘clenging’, or burning of a plague victim’s housing and the fumigation of their belongings.[14]

The Wishart Arch in St Roques Lane, Dundee

Once plague was within the town walls, Dundee’s plague regulations aimed at complete suppression, principally through separating the infected from the healthy by sending them to the ‘Sick Men’s Yards’: the name given to the town’s quarantine area that stretched from the Cowgate Port to the so-called ‘sklaitheughs’ (slate quarry). Perched on the raised shore, around two miles distant from the town’s eastern walls, the sklaitheughs supplied stone slates for export to Edinburgh and Fife, as well as providing for Dundee’s needs.[15] Here also, at the ‘Sick Men’s Yards’, was the town’s Leper House (close by the Wishart Arch in St Roques Lane), and the ‘lodges to sick folks in time of pest’.[16] At the eastern end of Sick Men’s Yards was the Roodyards[17], the former medieval chapel of St John’s, which now served as a plague cemetery. It would later inspire Mary Shelley, who drew on adolescent memories of summers spent on ‘the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay near Dundee’ when she later came to write Frankenstein.[18] It still exists today as a picturesque and atmospheric cemetery on the Broughty Ferry Road.[19]

Roodyards Road

In the cemetery on Roodyards Road

Whilst anti-plague measures recommended practices such as quarantining and cleansing, the importance of contact tracing was also well understood, as demonstrated by the response to the discovery of the Fithie bairns, when the;

Council having considered this “late accident”…. thocht fit that there be some honest men nominat to oversee every quarter of the town…. and if they find any appearance of danger or sickness, to close up the houses and put sentries thereto….’[20]

Despite showing no signs of plague, John Fithie was still ‘sent to a shed at the Sickman’s Yards’, and with other households becoming infected it was also ‘found necessary ‘to cause build ane other lodge apairt from it, and to appoint ane watch to stay there’ to prevent communication with the town.[21] The town also engaged John Dickson, a man of some substance and described as a Baillie of Potter Row in Edinburgh, who had gained extensive experience in fighting the plague: he was representative of a certain class of men who, in the absence of any national systems of public health administration, made their skills available to towns and cities throughout Europe. Dickson acted immediately, ordering his servants to take ‘the gear’ from John Fithie’s house to cleanse in the meadows, whilst Fithie, himself, was granted ‘liberty in respect of the sufficient trial he hes suffered’, and was admitted back into the town.[22]

By Spring 1647, John Dickson’s efforts had effectively stopped the pest in its tracks, but constant vigilance was required to prevent a second wave of infection: three watchmen were permanently stationed at the ports to inspect all goods brought into the town, whilst those found guilty of trading in infected goods were ‘unlawed’[23], fined or put ‘in ward’[24], and could even face permanent banishment.[25] These measures, though deeply resented and ignored by some traders, ensured that Dundee remained free of plague when it was devastating many other Scottish burghs. But, the pest still lurked around the edges of the town and in its hinterland, and whilst many Dundonians were, no doubt, offering up prayers of thanks for their continued survival, some would also have been aware of the probable trials that still lay in wait for them and their town.  

PPE 17th Century Style! – The uniform of the plague doctors; the beak-like mask was filled with aromatic items and designed to protect them from putrid air.


In April 1647, the plague epidemic reached Aberdeen, and by the end of the year had claimed 1760 lives, or around a quarter of the combined population of Aberdeen and the neighbouring villages of Torry and Futty (present day Footdee). As the epidemic escalated, the Aberdeen magistrates grew so alarmed that they erected a gibbet at the Castlegate, as a grim warning to any townsfolk tempted to flout the plague regulations.[26] Brechin fared even worse, with around 600 folk, comprising two thirds of the population, carried away within four months, and the local ministers were, as in many other places, forced to ‘preach in the fields’.[27] In mid to late 1648, as the epidemic was burning itself out in Brechin, nearby Montrose was suddenly pitched into battling a new and serious outbreak, a situation the town authorities only succeeded in making much worse when they reduced a large portion of the burgh’s poor quarter to ashes, following a disastrous attempt to ‘clenge’ or fumigate plague affected housing.[28] Meanwhile, Perth lost 3,000, or nearly half its population between 1645-8; and in Fife, Crail, Dunfermline and St Andrews were also seriously affected.[29]

Despite being increasingly surrounded by towns and villages that were being devastated by the pest, Dundee, through a combination of luck and good judgement, had managed to avoid the worst of the now nearly four year old pandemic. In August 1648, however, the town’s luck finally ran out ‘when there came a visitation – the last happily, which it had to undergo’, in the shape of a footman recently arrived from Aberdeen, who was lodging in the house of Andro Nicol, stabler, when he sickened and, like the Fithie bairns, suddenly expired.[30]

Faced with this new threat, the Council’s response, was, as during the previous year’s outbreak, prompt and decisive: Andro Nicol was ordered to be ‘put furth with his family in the fields to abide ane trial’, and the town treasurer was instructed to ensure payment for a lodge to be put up for him and his family. After a few days, a further death within the Nicol family confirmed that the town was now dealing with a new epidemic, and the quartermasters were ordered to ‘visit the haill houses and families of the town daily.’ And, as more new cases appeared, ‘it was ordained that the ports and lodges be continually watched’, to prevent intercourse between the infected and the healthy.[31]

When large towns and cities were put in lockdown, families with suspected plague cases were commonly, as with the infamous example of Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh[32], shut up in, often unhealthy and unhygienic, single room dwellings. Dundee, with around 11,000 inhabitants, was, despite being Scotland’s ‘second city’, relatively small and less congested when compared with Edinburgh, and its population of around 35,000, which allowed infected Dundonians to more commonly be sent to the Sick Man’s Yards.[33]  Council officers were also acutely aware of the great hardships that quarantine caused for the poor, as well as the danger that these measures might collapse if folk were left without food, and so a voluntary financial contribution was organised ‘from the neighbours’, and enough was collected ‘to meet these pressing wants and leave something over.’[34]

Sick Men’s Yard (through the Wishart Arch)

Despite these wide-ranging measures, the pest, which was now ominously described as being ‘very fatal’, raged through the town. In response, panic broke out, many townsfolk fled, taxes could not be collected, and trade ground to a halt;

‘From the twenty twa day of August to the end of November, the merchants booths were closed up, and no mercats were keiped or fleshes bocht’.[35]

The fate of the town appeared ominous as the ‘fearful pest’ was reported as hanging ‘heavy upon Dundee, and the burgesses themselves could not cope with it’.[36] At this critical juncture, John Dickson again stepped forward ‘to grapple with the enemy and give them effective aid.’ He threw himself into the work of overseeing ‘the cleansing of the houses and the ordering of the sick people, and ordained that the quartermasters shall attend, assist, and obey his instructions’. He organised the ‘separation between the sick and the whole’, whilst also ‘enforcing sanitary measures, and generally [reduced] chaos into order.’[37] The quartermasters were instructed to remove all those they suspected of being infected ‘to the fields’, whilst an inventory was taken of their household goods, which were returned when the all clear was given. If, however, they succumbed to plague, their household goods were often ‘taken furth and burnt without any favour’.[38]

Headstones in the plague cemetery on Roodyards Road

These measures, as drastic as they may appear, saved thousands of Dundonians who were either not able to flee the town or who had nowhere to flee to. In October 1648, even Andro Nicol, patient zero of the current epidemic, was removed from Sick Men’s Yards to the top of the Law, where his health was further tested before being allowed to fully return to the town when ‘the height of the moon – “that time of occult influence” – was passed over’.[39]

By the end of November 1648, the pest had finally spent itself, which led to the cautious re-opening of the merchant booths. It still lingered in the surrounding villages and towns, and in the following months new cases were discovered, but these proved to be isolated cases. During the plague outbreaks of 1647 and 1648 John Dickson had demonstrated vast reserves of knowledge, courage and determination, and, in the process, ensured that the town probably sustained losses in the low hundreds rather than the thousands of deaths experienced by some other Scottish towns.[40] Dundee gratefully acknowledged their debt to their saviour with a specially commissioned ‘sylver mayser’ as ‘ane token of the town’s kindness’.[41]

By the time the plague had completely burnt itself out, in December 1648, it had claimed somewhere around 3% of the Scottish population, of just over one million, which barely registers when set alongside the devastation experienced by many other European countries.[42] With its relatively smaller and more dispersed population, and lower rate of urbanisation, Scotland was better placed than other larger and more urbanised countries to weather the worst of the 1644-8 outbreak. But, whilst the national death toll was, indeed, relatively modest, some local areas and particularly the towns were much more severely impacted, with around 20% of the urban population succumbing to the plague.[43]

Collecting the dead for burial in London during the plague in 1665

It is also important to underline that the Scottish death toll would undoubtedly have been much worse without the prompt and decisive decision making of countless administrators and activist citizens such as John Dickson.  In the decades that followed, the pest continued to ravage large parts of Europe, but Scotland was spared any further major outbreaks, most notably during 1665-6, when successful quarantine measures again saved the nation from an English plague epidemic that claimed upwards of 75,000 lives in London alone.

Plague burial – London – 1665


Article written by Dr. Anthony Cox, a lecturer with Life Long Learning Dundee.

I would like to thank Sarah Glynn, Duncan Neill and Neil Robertson for their invaluable comments and suggestions during the writing of this article.


[1] Seventeenth century rhyme. Quoted in Alexander Maxwell, The History of Old Dundee: narrated out of the town council register with additions from contemporary annals, Dundee, 1884, p. 505.

[2] David Stevenson, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 41.

[3] The Committee of Estates were extra-parliamentary bodies that were established to aid the Covenanters.

[4] Ian D. Whyte, Scotland’s Society and Economy in Transition, c.1500-c.1700, London, 1997, p. 117.

[5] Ian D. Whyte, Scotland before the Industrial Revolution, Edinburgh, Harlow, 1995, p. 123.

[6] A. Maxwell, Old Dundee, p. 504.

[7] Ibid.

[8] ‘Lint’ is old Scots, referring to scraped linen cloth or flax waste.

[9] A. Maxwell, op. cit., p. 509-10.

[10] Ibid., p. 505.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 504. The distinctive ‘blue spots’ on the Fithie corpses rules out bubonic plague as the cause of death, and points more to pneumonic plague as being the possible culprit.

[13] Richard Oram, ‘Disease Control: halting the spread of plague in fifteenth century Scotland’, p. 2. See, http://www.kingjames1ofscotland.co.uk/publications/disease-control-halting-the-spread-of-plague-in-fifteenth-century-scotland/

[14] Ibid.

[15] See McKean, Harris, Whatley (eds), Dundee: Renaissance to Enlightenment, Bodmin, 2009, p. 4.

[16] A. Maxwell, op. cit., p. 240.

[17] A rood is a cross.

[18] Quote from, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus, London, 1982, p. 223.

[19] See the accompanying image of the Roodyards cemetery.

[20] A. Maxwell, op. cit., pp. 505-506.

[21] Ibid., p. 506.

[22] Ibid.

[23] From old Scots, meaning outlawed.

[24] Imprisonment

[25] A. Maxwell, op. cit., pp. 506-7.

[26] Alexander Keith, A thousand years of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, 1972, p. 262.

[27] David D. Black, The History of Brechin to 1864, Edinburgh, 1867, p. 70.

[28] M. Lynch, Early Medieval Town, p. 182.

[29] Ian D. Whyte, Scotland before the Industrial Revolution, p. 123.

[30] A. Maxwell, op. cit., p. 507.

[31] Ibid.

[32] For further details, see https://www.realmarykingsclose.com/

[33] For population figures, see Robert Chambers, Domestic Annals of Scotland, vol. II, Edinburgh, 1859, p. 163.

[34] A. Maxwell, op. cit., p. 506.

[35] Ibid., p. 508.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., pp. 508-509.

[38] Ibid., p. 509.

[39] Ibid.

[40] I could trace no details of the total death toll for Dundee.

[41] Or mazer – an ornamental cup or bowl.

[42] ‘From the Black Death of 1348 until the beginning of the eighteenth century, outbreaks of the plague occurred every ten or fifteen years in the larger European towns, often killing between one-tenth and one-fifth of the urban population.’ See, Robert Jutte, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, 1996, p. 22.

[43] The plague did make a fleeting but still deadly re-appearance in Dundee and Montrose the following year. See, Iain Whyte, op. cit., p. 123.