A unique but unsettling glimpse into the harsh lives of blind adults and children in turn-of-the-century Edinburgh will be made public today on World Sight Day.
Sight loss charity RNIB Scotland is launching a new book entitled 'Feeling Our History', based on a year-long research project by volunteers and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The book, and a series of podcasts based on their findings, paints an often grim picture of the existence people with sight loss endured. Most were dependent on subsistence work or welfare relief that was strictly conditional on religious conformity.
To trace their stories more fully, RNIB Scotland recruited a team of eight volunteer researchers who scoured the ten-yearly censuses and valuation rolls as well as birth, marriage and death records to build up individual life-stories.
Historian Dr Iain Hutchison, who collated the research, explains: "Our starting point was The Register of the Edinburgh Society for Promoting Reading Amongst the Outdoor Blind. Compiled between 1903 and 1911, this contains details of the people the Society tried to help through training in reading raised type, by providing tactile books, and later by offering limited welfare support. At any one time, there were around 500 people on The Register.
"Men and women classed as the ‘outdoor blind’, who constituted the largest proportion of Scotland’s then estimated 3-4,000 blind people, were not part of institutions such as the blind asylums," explains Iain. "Their lives were therefore hidden from the incarcerating gaze of guardians, philanthropists, superintendents and matrons.
"Our project has tried to restore flesh and blood to otherwise anonymous names on a dusty register. Causes of blindness include from birth, accident and a range of illnesses. And the people in Edinburgh were born as far apart as Shetland, Portsmouth and Ireland."
Founded in 1857, the Edinburgh Society worked as far afield as Midlothian, East Lothian, Peebles, Selkirk, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, funded entirely by charitable donations. Typical donations ranged from half a crown to five shillings.
The Society’s original aim was teaching blind people to read - primarily so that they could access religious texts. However, a bequest by the Jamieson family latterly enabled it to offer welfare grants as well.
"This might consist of help with clothing or bedding, provision of basic food items, perhaps some coal to heat the home, or help with rent," says Iain.
"But there were cases where people were so destitute that they were judged unable to survive in their own homes. This might be because of the frailty that often accompanied old age, or through other physical, sensory or mental impairment. Under such circumstances, they might be sent to a poorhouse. The Edinburgh poorhouses in Craigleith, Craiglockhart, and Leith had a considerable number of blind inmates.
"Some blind and partially sighted people, however, made a modest living through work such as hawking, knitting, playing music or selling tea. One distinct group, classified in the register as ‘on the street’, consisted of beggars, readers, and musicians. These were looked upon with some disdain, in contrast to those singled out as music teachers, organists and tuners, all of whom were held in high regard for their skills. However, it is apparent that poverty prevailed among many."
The Jamieson Fund continued to make payments until it was finally exhausted only a decade ago.
'Feeling Our History' is being launched at an event this evening in the National Records Office of Scotland on Princes Street, where much of the book's painstaking research took place. Included on the programme will be music from Sarah Caltieri, who composed a period music-hall song as background to the podcasts. She will be accompanied by Sally Clay on piano and Seonaid Aitken on violin. Both Sarah and Sally are professional musicians living with sight loss.
Iain Hutchison hopes the project will shed more light on a little researched aspect of Edinburgh, and Scotland's, social history. "The people whose histories we pieced together represent diverse life stories. Every one of them was an individual and their life courses embraced varied experiences of dependence and independence, vigour and ill-health, assertive willpower or deteriorating mental well-being."
Lucy Casot, head of HLF Scotland, said "Thanks to National Lottery players, HLF is able to help communities learn about their local heritage. Learning about history can be rewarding, fascinating and fun, and ‘Seeing our History – Living with Sight Loss in Edwardian Edinburgh and Lothians‘ is no exception.”