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Rhind Lectures 2024: Two ‘little’ ice ages and an anomaly: climate, environment and cultural change in medieval and early modern Scotland

Event information

Date: 31 May – 2 June

Organiser: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Venue: Augustine United Church & Online

The Society’s hybrid Rhind Lectures are taking place in Edinburgh (Augustine United Church) and live-streamed online. The lectures are free and open to all and will take place from 31 May to 2 June.

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The Rhind lectures are a series of six lectures which are delivered annually. They commemorate Alexander Henry Rhind of Sibster (1833-63) who left a bequest to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland to establish the lectures which are named after him.

Presented by Professor Richard Oram MA(Hons) PhD FSA FRSA FSAScot, University of Stirling

Richard Oram graduated MA (Hons) in Medieval History with Archaeology and PhD in Medieval History from the University of St Andrews. Appointed Lecturer in Scottish and Environmental History at the University of Stirling in 2002, Director of the Centre for Environmental History from 2005 and in 2007 becoming the first Chair in Environmental History in the UK, he has published extensively on the environmental histories of Scotland and the wider North Atlantic region, specialising in historic climate change, energy transitions and the impacts of epidemic disease.

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.

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