Dundee Society in the 19th Century


the Late Dr Leah Leneman gave the Friends an insight into her research of church court records at the April 1994 meeting.

The rates of illegitimacy, as revealed when civil registration started in Scotland, varied a lot in different parts of the country, in fact they were higher in the rural areas than urban areas. The question was whether it was just a 19th century phenomenon or were these illegitimacy rates long standing. How far back did these regional differences arise? Parish registers in the 18th century were an unreliable source as there was no compulsion to register. However, a completely different source, kirk session records, exists
After the Reformation in 1560, every single parish had a kirk session which was supposed to catch 'sin' Some sins may be pretty visible, but there is little invisible in a pregnant unmarried woman. As time went on a great deal of session business was with pregnant women, so a 'good efficient session' would have very good records of this and a good session clerk would write down what every person said. A lot of information of people's attitudes is available A book written on Sexuality and Social Control 1660-1780, was about rural Scotland as the writers did not think a city would have anything like the same control

To follow this up with a study of the city situation, the Dundee kirk session records were studied. Kirk elders each had their own part of a parish and they would report an unmarried pregnant woman to the session whereupon she would be called before the them, would appear and would name the father. The sessions were very keen to find the father because he would be required to pay a fine and, irrespective of whether he married the woman, he would be required to help maintain the child for the first three years. Because the discipline was not just punishment but to reclaim souls, it was intended that the couple would realise they had done wrong and this applied as much for men as women.
Besides the fine, they had to appear before the congregation publicly and be rebuked three times for the first child, six times if there was a second child and there is a case of as many as five children, so with adultery a much bigger sin, they might appear before a congregation for three quarters of a year. But at the end of all these appearances, the couple were cleared and they were no longer sinful persons, it was as if the 'sin' never happened

There was another category of anteĀ¬nuptial fornication, where there was anticipation of the wedding day. On the baptism of the first child, the dates of the marriage would be checked. There would still have to be an appearance and the payment of a fine.
One might wonder why people did not follow the obvious course of running away. There was, however, a system of certificates and a stranger arriving in a parish would be required to produce a certificate.
There are great differences between country and city parishes with a much more mobile population. It was found that Dundee had quite exceptional control to the end of the ISA into the 19th century Cities were often ports with sailors coming and going, or garrison towns with soldiers moving in and out. The Magistrates however, co-operated very much with the kirk session, but there was a disparity between the men and the women. In the country most of the women were in service and were associating with other servants or their masters, while in the cities more professional men were involved. Another difference being that in the city, there was prostitutes. In the country every women was considered suitable for discipline but in the city there were those who were considered not suitable objects for discipline and they would be handed over to the civil authorities to deal with.

One person was reported as a notorious strumpet and a very violent woman and not a suitable object for church discipline and it would not be for her edification to appear in public'. It was recommended to the magistrates to banish her. Another, 'the session considering that she was a notorious unclean wretch and had been formerly discharged from the town for her unclean practices, and was not a proper object for discipline, they recommended to the magistrates that she be put out of the town with diligence'.
That sort of language was very much reserved for professional prostitutes, and not used for most women, those who 'fell' and who had illegitimate children were censured but it was accepted as a fact of life as long as they expressed penitence In a session register of 1683 to 1690 there were 74 illegitimate children, 6 of which were repeats and 26 were ante-nuptial cases From 1691-1700 there were 109. 14 of which were repeats, 1761-70 there were 112, 1781-1790 there were 183 and 1791-1800 there were 284, though the numbers were probably largely related to population increases.
Why did a woman end up with an illegitimate child? Some said they were unwilling and were forced. In 1764 Margaret Glass insisted Captain Alex Fotheringham forced her and 'that she otherwise had a fair character from her infancy upwards, and received regular certificates from the hand of the Minister and clerk of several parishes wherein she resided'.

In 1768 Elizabeth Valentine said Mr. Blair 'had made several attacks on her in both the stables and the kitchen and in January, she being asleep in bed, awoke with surprise seeing a lighted candle in the kitchen, found the bedclothes rolled down to the foot of the bed and Mr Blair in bed with her'. In October 1758 Margaret Stewart said Thomas Brymer forced her. He denied it but 'as he did not know that at what time he was drunk he might have staggered into Margaret Stewart's bed instead of instead of into his wife's".
Another reason was the expectation of marriage. Looking at rural Scotland it was found that there were more cases where promises of marriage were alleged in Fife than anywhere else in Scotland, and this was also true of Dundee. Why this should be is not known.
Helen Keay admitted fornication naming James Ryan as the father. She said she was guilty over 4Ā½ months ago, and that 'she was debauched by him under the strongest promise of marriage that was given to any'. In September, Ryan acknowledged that he did debauch her on a promise of marriage and he being interrogated said he was willing to fulfil the promise given to the woman he had debauched. In October Ryan appeared again 'being asked if he was willing to keep by the promise of marriage made to Helen Keay, he declared he was not.

The Session asked Helen Keay if she insisted on the promise of marriage. She answered in regard that 'as he was unwilling to keep his promise, she was willing to part from it on his provision that if she was delivered of a live child he should entirely free her from maintenance and education of the child and in case she should be unable to give suck to the child and take care of it in its infant age, he should oblige himself to give the ordinary allowance given to others in such cases and also pay the penalty due to the poor by her and to pay the midwife during her lying-in and on no other condition would she free him of his responsibility to marry to her'

There were some cases of attempted abortion. In 1762 a housekeeper to a brewer declared that on a Thursday night after the Lammas Fair in September George Crammond, her master, came to her bedside in the kitchen when she was sleeping alone On her crying oul he carried her to the bed where they were guilty of uncleaness About a fortnight after, so far as she could recollect, he came again to the same bed where they were again together. What led to her compliance a second time was his promise to marry her which he continued afterwards to repeat. She further declared that about a month after the time when they were first guilty she fainted. The next day Crammond said he intended to call a doctor to ask his advice, desiring to give her something that would make her free. The doctor came to the house and Crammond went out and came back after an hour and asked the doctor what he thought of the case. The doctor replied that it would be a thousand pities to do the girl any harm and indeed did Crammond want to make her his wife?

Crammond replied he would give any money to make her free of the child she was with. Thereafter, Crammond took the doctor aside and they talked together for some time. Next morning Crammond brought her eight papers of herbs which he said he got from the doctor for her use and he took one of the herbs and healed it in hot water He was present when she drank the liquor and held the tankard As she declared her aversion to drinking it, the wife of a shoemaker coming in to the house told Crammond that what he did was very wrong He later forced her over a chair as he poured powder into her mouth and held her till she swallowed it This had a violent effect on her and she was extremely ill Crammond denied all that she had said to the Session and he said he would make ii up 10 her afterwards. Some of the papers were shown to her and she acknowledged these were the papers she had taken She thought herself being with child, and she parted with it by the said drugs She declared that if Crammond fulfilled his promise to her she would be a good wife to him and this would all die down. He agreed he had been guilty with her of fornication At the end of January she threatened to destroy herself


Iain D. McIntosh, 2022