The Politics of Inebriety – Alcoholism Treatment in Scotland since 1800

Historical Geography Reading Group, 26/09/12

Session 1, Semester 1

The Politics of Inebriety
Alcoholism Treatment in Scotland since 1800
Dr Iain Smith

The reading group kicked off its third year today with invited speaker Dr Iain Smith, a psychiatrist at Gartnavel Royal Hospital, who has a particular interest in the history of his area of expertise, alcohol dependencies. Dr Smith spoke to us for about an hour about the changing methods of alcohol treatment over the last 200 years, outlining various places, acts, ideas and reforms which were to have an influence on the ideas and management of ‘alcoholism’ in Scotland.

Dr Smith was quick to highlight Scotland’s difficult relationship with alcohol, exampling higher consumption and related diseases than in England and Wales, but also noting that Scotland was the seminal place in conceiving alcohol problems as being medical problems (although also recognising the difficulties of labelling ‘alcoholism’ as a disease). Comparisons can be drawn between the work of Dr Smith and David Beckingham, who has written on the history of inebriety in England and Wales.

Different spaces of treatment were discussed, the first being the use of “Island therapy”. Evidence from Luss parish records showed that as early as the 1830s, habitual drunkards were sent to ‘dry’ islands on Loch Lomond and boarded with local families, purely to keep them away from drink. Towards the mid to late 19th century, psychiatry inevitably became involved, and there was shown to be a link between increased alcohol consumption and increasing asylum numbers. Dr Yellowlees of Gartnavel Royal argued in 1872 that half the cases of insanity in Scotland were due to intemperance.

With growing numbers, inevitably there was an increase in the number of laws, inquiries and ‘solutions’. One such experiment was the use of inebriate reformatories, which, like many asylums at the time, were based on moral rather than medical therapy, removing the drunk from the drink. The Scottish inebriate estate was not large. Other solutions included the temperance movement, a shift towards Draconian taxation and restrictions on alcohol sale, particularly during the inter-war years, which saw a massive fall in alcohol consumption.

In our whistle-stop tour of alcohol treatment, Dr Smith took us up to contemporary views on alcohol treatment, arguing for the resurgence of alcohol as a medical concern: increased consumption, increased harm and thus increased treatment. In way of conclusion, it was suggested that throughout Dr Smith’s study period, history had a habit of repeating itself, either through levels of consumption, spaces of treatment, or modes of legislation.

Many thanks to Dr Smith for squeezing us in to his busy timetable and for presenting such a fascinating presentation, to the participants who came along, and to Hazel, Paul and Mhairi for supplying the cakes.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Politics of Inebriety – Alcoholism Treatment in Scotland since 1800

  1. james gillespie

    only thanks to this man god knows where a would have ended up. one big problem that he has his time is precious

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