WHAT was the greatest disaster in Scottish history? Flodden? Culloden and the Highland Clearances? The disproportionate loss of lives suffered by Scotland in the Great War?

All of these were horrendous for this country, but nothing comes close to the utter disaster that was the Black Death.

Historians often prefer to write about wars, monarchs, battles and events, but it is only in recent decades that writers of history have begun to interpret facts according to how they involved ordinary people. Let’s face it, kings and queens and warriors are sexier than the common folk, but at times history simply cannot ignore what happened to the general populace as a whole, because accounts of certain mass occurrences shape our understanding of history, just as those events changed and modified nations at the time.

Apart from arguably the Reformation, nothing changed Europe and Scotland more than the Black Death. The pandemic transformed the known world beyond recognition and shaped the course of modern history from that day to this.

Principally the bubonic plague, but also other dread diseases such as pneumonic plague and possibly anthrax combined to devastate entire countries from the 14th century onwards. As many as 200 million people are thought to have died in Europe and Asia, with consequences that would last for centuries.

Scotland possibly got off more lightly than most because of our climate and the fact that the population was widespread and not concentrated in large urban areas where plague thrived.

Imagine, however, the population of two cities of the size of Glasgow and Edinburgh put together being wiped out by a disease that spread from house to house like a drifting fog. That’s not a bad analogy, because for a long time people believed the plague was carried in the air and you could not avoid breathing it in.

The loss of those two cities’ people is the equivalent of what happened in 1350 when the Black Death came to Scotland. Contemporary accounts say as much as a third of the Scottish population died, and while that was likely an exaggeration – mediaeval chroniclers were the tabloid headline writers of their day – there is no doubt that tens of thousands of people died in a very short space of time.

It arrived from England where bubonic plague entered the country in 1348 aboard the fleas of rats on ships trading between Bristol and continental Europe. No one knows where the outbreak originated – we tend to call such pandemics by the presumed country of origin, hence Spanish and Hong Kong flu, German measles, and Ebola virus in our own time, but no one could, or wanted to, claim the Black Death.

We now know that it was most probably the yersinia pestis bacterium that infected people through bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plague. Yersinia pestis thrived in the places where rats dwelt, and the fleas on the rodents became the carriers – not that anyone knew that at the time.

Archaeologists, historians and medical scientists have traced how the plague spread westwards from Asia around 1345 and quickly raced through southern and then central Europe, engulfing Italy, France, Spain, the Low Countries, Russia, all the Germanic states and Scandinavia. The sheer speed and scale of its spread is what made the Black Death so absolutely deadly, with some cities and towns recording mortality rates of 80-90 per cent and some villages ceasing to exist because everyone died.

They died quickly, too, with the medics of the day completely unable to do anything. Only a very small percentage of victims survived, and they were often left disabled, mentally and physically, for life.

As with any such disease, reports and rumours went ahead of it, but it is surprising how few nations mounted any sort of defence against its spread – a ban on sea trade, for example, might well have saved Britain from its ravages.

What it did to people was simply horrendous. The Italian writer Bocaccio left us a description of what happened to his fellow citizens in Florence when they were struck down.

“The first signs of the plague were lumps in the groin or armpits. After this, livid black spots appeared on the arms and thighs and other parts of the body. Few recovered. Almost all died within three days, usually without any fever.”

The lumps seen by Bocaccio were called buboes, which gave its name to the most common form of plague. Yet it may not have been bubonic plague which struck Scotland in 1350, and it was probably brought into the country by Scottish soldiers and not by sea.

For according to the contemporary English chronicler Henry Knighton, Scotland was invaded by plague because they had taken advantage of the fact that so many English towns and cities were succumbing to the Black Death to mount an armed assault on places like Durham.

Knighton wrote: “The Scots, hearing of the dreadful plague among the English, suspected that it had come about through the vengeance of God, and, according to the common report, they were accustomed to swear “be the foul deth (sic) of Engelond (sic)”. Believing that the wrath of God had befallen the English, they assembled in Selkirk forest with the intention of invading the kingdom, when the fierce mortality overtook them, and in a short time about 5,000 perished.

“As the rest, the strong and the feeble, were preparing to return to their own country, they were followed and attacked by the English, who slew countless numbers of them.”

Given that Knighton was biased against the Scots and was not known for the veracity of his statistics, we can still presume that it was some sort of aborted military raid on England that saw the Black Death imported into Scotland.

Knighton also gives an important clue about the nature of the plague which invaded Scotland – pneumonic rather than bubonic. For thousands of men gathered together in foul weather and dirty conditions is exactly where pneumonic plague thrives, while Scotland’s cold winters would be fatal to the bacteria that carried bubonic plaque, but not pneumonic or septicaemic plague.

Intriguingly, the Book of Pluscarden, the Liber Pluscardensis written at the abbey a century later, states that victims often became inflamed and succumbed within “barely four and twenty hours”, indicating pneumonic and septicaemic plague.

No matter its form or how it got here, Scotland duly joined the list of European nations rent asunder by the Black Death.

John of Fordun, the priest who in the latter half of the 14th century wrote a history of Scotland called Scotichronicon, was precise in his detailed account of what happened. Translated from the Latin, John of Fordun wrote: “In 1350, there was a great pestilence and mortality of men in the kingdom of Scotland, and this pestilence also raged for many years before and after in various parts of the world. So great a plague has never been heard of from the beginning of the world to the present day, or been recorded in books.

“For this plague vented its spite so thoroughly that fully a third of the human race was killed. At God’s command, moreover, the damage was done by an extraordinary and novel form of death.

“Those who fell sick of a kind of gross swelling of the flesh lasted for barely two days. This sickness befell people everywhere, but especially the middling and lower classes, rarely the great. It generated such horror that children did not dare to visit their dying parents, nor parents their children, but fled for fear of contagion as if from leprosy or a serpent.”

John of Fordun lived through that original 1350 outbreak, but even given his normal exaggeration we can be fairly certain that about a fifth to a quarter of Scotland’s people perished – equivalent to more than one million people today.

Things got worse – plague would return to Scotland several times over the next few centuries, and the last outbreak was recorded in the 1640s. The population did not reach pre-plague levels until well into the 17th century, and that only after the introduction of strict health controls whenever plague was suspected, with gatherings of people banned and quarantine compulsory – on pain of death – for anyone thought to be carrying the disease.

By the 17th century, Edinburgh and other towns had introduced the Foul Clengers, a body of men and women whose awful job was to take plague victims outside the boundaries, presumably to die there, and burn the homes, clothes and belongings of the dead.

SUCH rudimentary environmental health activities played their part in halting the plague, but at what cost?

Apart from the personal and family devastation it wrought, the Black Death all but destroyed the economic life of Scotland as well as affecting the politics and culture of the nation.

With so few people available to do jobs, wages rose, investment fell, and sometimes fields were simply left to rot. Scotland struggled to cope so much that it took until the late 15th century for economic prospects to recover after the initial outbreak. A whole way of life altered, and the trade and manufacturing progress that had been made after the Wars of Independence almost came to a halt.

There is a quite dreadful footnote to this tale of the Black Death. In 1900, Glasgow became the last city in Britain to be visited by bubonic plaque.

There were 36 confirmed cases and 16 people died, most of them in and around the Gorbals, swathes of which were already slums in which plaque-carrying rats thrived.

The Manchester Guardian reported in September 1900: “It may now safely be asserted that the authorities in Glasgow have successfully grappled with the bubonic plague, which has troubled the city for the last fortnight. No further cases have been admitted to the hospital since Monday, and of the 16 cases which were said to have been suffering from the plague, two patients have now been declared to be free from that disease. The number under observation in the reception houses has been increased to 111, but this very fact points to the carefulness with which the work of the medical and sanitary authorities is carried out.”

The slum conditions bred the disease and from that day, reformers became determined to rid the city of such dreadful places. That work still carries on.