Plague! has arrived at the Library

I’m delighted to announce that our new exhibition is open! It’s free and will run until 29 May 2016.


Plague! showcases eight contagious diseases that ravaged Scotland over the last 700 years, and explores the cultural history of society’s responses to epidemic outbreaks. We’re focusing on infectious diseases because of their devastating consequences for society as a whole. In this sense, we’re bringing death to life to recreate people’s experience of fear, helplessness and claustrophobia in the face of these all-pervasive diseases. At the same time, the exhibition shows how different parts of Scottish society dealt with epidemic outbreaks in all sections of society.

Black Death epidemics occurred in Scotland between the 14th and 17th centuries, but people were completely in the dark about its cause. They could neither treat it nor cure it, but some prevention measures were very effective:


Government proclamations prevented trade and so stopped goods and people from infected towns and countries entering Scotland. The Great Plague of London of 1665 certainly did not make it to Scotland, and official measures like this probably played a part here.

But plague is only one of eight diseases we showcase in the exhibition. All of them were contagious and all appeared in Scotland in epidemic outbreaks before the middle of the 20th century. They are: smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, influenza, typhus, cholera and leprosy.

Here are images of a syphilis sufferer, a typhoid fever curve and microbes found in cholera patients:

syphilis back wee     typhoid fever curve wee  cholera tiniest

But the narrative of the exhibition concerns the responses to these diseases by different parts of society: not only governments, but ordinary people who left personal accounts in the form of diaries or letters, responses by religion such as fire and brimstone sermons and pastoral letters of thanksgiving like this one:

letter bigger

We are also showing elements from folk medicine, for instance a wheel charm from a 16th-century Gaelic manuscript owned by the Beatons or Macbeths, hereditary physicians to the Scottish kings, and a compendium of medical plants:

Adv.MS.72.1     foxglove small

The responses to diseases by medicine and science are also highlighted. They include publications charting the gradual discoveries of the real causes and effective treatments of these diseases. One key item in this case is a medicine chest from 1698, loaned to us by Sir Robert Clerk of Penicuik.

medicine chest

Apart from exhibits from across the Library’s collections, including two original 17th-century maps and a photographic album, we also show a variety of loan objects from the National Museums of Scotland, the National Records of Scotland, the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, Dundee University, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and the Science Museum in London. Some are gruesome: a leprosy hand in a jar, a syphilitic skull, a piece of intestine in typhoid fever, and a TB lung. Some are beautiful: a charm stone and a silver pomander. Some are unique: private letters and diaries.  But all of them greatly enhance Plague!

One of my star exhibits is a stuffed black rat, which we commissioned from a taxidermist. Rats and other rodents acted as hosts to infected fleas, which, when biting humans, would regurgitate the plague bacteria in a blood clot into the human and affect their lymph system. Looking at our cute little rat, one wouldn’t think they were capable of (indirectly) wiping out whole swathes of society!

rat cropped

To find out more about the new exhibition, visit our exhibition section of our website and follow us on Twitter.

Over the life of the exhibition I’ll blog in more detail about some of the items on show.