Some time between the years 1780 and 1789 a Dundonian physician named Dr William Farquharson wrote to the eminent professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, William Cullen, describing a disease or condition which had lately afflicted some unfortunate people in the county town of Forfar. Several weeks previously a certain Dr Ogilvy had notified Dr Farquharson of a most unique condition which had afflicted some patients in the burgh. The symptoms were so strange that Farquharson went immediately to see some of the patients and was astonished at what he found in the first family. They had two children, aged 13 and 5, who had been ill with the condition for three weeks. The teenage girl was affected a few minutes after he entered the house:
[She]... immediately fell upon her knees; with her head bent back betwixt her shoulders, her neck projecting outwards and very turgid, her eyes not at all disordered nor fixed in this posture, she remained half a minute; after which she got up in great confusion, ran to a large table, leaped up to it at once, though three feet high; her tongue making a circle in her mouth and producing a confused, blubbering noise; - her upper lip the only part of her face any way distorted. When on the table, she tried to get off her shoes, after which she jumped three or four feet perpendicular for some minutes. By this time the other was seized in a like manner, and went through the same operation. Both ran to the table to the head of the bed; from this to the couple and joist of the house.
But an even stranger sight was to follow. A maid employed by the family, aged 19, who lived in a neighbouring town was struck with the same disorder. While Farquharson was present she appeared, having run in a frenzy for over half a mile, followed by her hapless uncle, a fit young man. In the house all three young people were contorted into a grotesque dance, leaping upon and tumbling over each other:
All this time they have their senses; answer, as well as the contraction of the mouth permits, you questions distinctly; but say, the disease, by them called It, forces them to do so and so, and they must obey it. ..These fits sometimes continue half an hour, sometimes longer; but when two of them meet, they leap hours together, mimicking one another, and going over the same process exactly... The people here believe it contagious... The tingling of bells... brings it on; or even the sight of any of their distressed neighbours.
Dr Farquharson had prescribed medicine for the sufferers to no effect and requested that Dr Cullen come and see the extraordinary malady for himself, but there seems to be no record that he ever did. Although there were several other places in Britain that had outbreaks of a similar kind, other authors also noted that the illness was especially prevalent in parts of Angus and linked it to the known condition called St Vitus’s Dance, now more properly known as Sydenham’s chorea or chorea minor. This infectious ailment is most common in children and is characterised by spasmodic jerking in the body. Chorea major, meanwhile, was a sort of hysteria which was widespread in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. This disorder affected crowds of people who literally danced throughout their communities and may have been a collective hysterical disorder, though the actual cause remains unknown.
Various writers in the 18th century noted the ‘louping ague’ in Angus, not least the local ministers who contributed notices of their parishes in the last decade of the century for the Old Statistical Account. Menmuir parish was supposed to be the place where the ague was first noticed and the Rev John Jamieson of Tannadice wrote:
Twenty or thirty years ago, what is commonly called the louping ague greatly prevailed... Those affected with it, when in a paroxysm, often leap or spring in a very surprising manner... They frequently leap from the floor to what, in cottages, are called the baulks, or those beams by which the rafters are joined together. Sometimes they spring from one to another with the agility of a cat, or whirl round one of them... At other times they run, with astonishing velocity, to some particular place out of doors, which they have fixed in their minds before... and then drop down exhausted. It is said, that the clattering of tongs, or any noise of a similar kind will bring on the fit. This melancholy disorder still makes its appearance; but it is far from being so common as formerly. Some consider it a nervous affection; others as the effect of worms...
The Rev John Taylor, in Lethnot, noted that the area had been periodically affected by this condition for more than sixty years and said that the condition appeared to be hereditary in some families. By the time of the New Statistical Account, in the mid 19th century, the minister of Craig, James Brewster, likewise noted its appearance there and stated the patients ‘have all the appearance of madness; their bodies are variously distorted; they run... with amazing swiftness and over dangerous passes...’ The contemporary minister of Kirriemuir, Thomas Easton, said that cold bathing was the only cure and thankfully noted there was only one person within his parish who was afflicted.
The writer and traveller Elizabeth Isabella Spence (author of Sketches of the Present manners, Customs and Scenery of Scotland, 2nd edition, 1811) said that she heard of the ailment while staying at Forfar:
About forty years ago it was remarkably prevalent in Brechin and its neighbourhood... The patient is never strongly affected. He is conscious of the approach of the fit, and under it suffers a temporary suspension of fear or a sense of danger; or attention to any thing except the strange gamboling operation to which he is, perhaps, after all, only instinctively impelled. He generally discovers a strong inclination to run, and to climb into situations at other times impracticable, or capable or exciting terror, but which at those times he performs with apparent ease and pleasure; and to interrupt him in it... is said to have distressing effects... I am told the person afflicted will scramble up the side of a wall with the rapidity of a cat, and leap over tables and chairs in a surprising manner... Though it is often tedious of cure, it is not known to have proved fatal...
Local author Andrew Jervise, advised the condition had once been found in Stracathro, where, 'As in many other marshy places, the disease of the “loupin’ ague”... was very common among the younger portion of the population, and those afflicted by it are said to have sometimes run a mile on end without being able to stop.’ (Epitaphs and Inscriptions from burial grounds and old buildings in the north-east of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1875, p. 245.) By his day, however, the mysterious illness seems to have nearly disappeared.
Even the appearance of an article in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal (‘On some Convulsive Diseases common in certain parts of Scotland’, vol. 3, 1807, 434-7.) did nothing to dispel the mystery surrounding this extraordinary condition, noting the possibility of the condition running in families, some of whom resorted to great lengths to cope with periodic outbreaks. One family near Brechin had to keep a horse always ready saddled, to follow the young ladies belonging it, when they were seized with a fit of running’. And, though the anonymous writer noted similar ailments from other parts of Scotland and beyond, the outbreak in Angus seems to have been a highly localised and bizarre phenomenon.