Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Scottish Women in Bygone Days
Social and Domestic Life


SCOTTISH women of the upper classes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries must have been adepts at killing time. When not actually engaged with their babies and children what did they do? Miss Elizabeth Mure [Family Papers at Caldwell. Vol. I. (1700-1790).], speaking of the times of her grandfather, says, "Domestic affairs and amusing her husband was the business of a good wife." But domestic affairs in that rude age cannot have accounted for much of her time. Furniture was scanty and cleanliness conspicuous by its absence. Much time could not have been spent in what is known as house-keeping, nor could her culinary efforts have occupied much time or thought, as all travellers to Scotland in these days lament the lack of good cooking. Not only was the cooking poor, but there was little variety, quite understandable in a country that produced so little in itself; wheat, potatoes, cabbages even, were unknown at that period. Nor had the Scots money to buy in foreign markets, and thus make up for the deficiencies of soil and climate. The standard in Scotland was low—and the people were themselves easily satisfied.

Women, in these centuries, could not fill up their leisure hours in reading, for books were rare and few women could do more than read and spell indifferently well. Nor were they supposed to have ideas. Sir Walter Scott, writing of the year 1710 or so, says that a young woman of that period was not permitted to offer her sentiments on any subjects of importance unless especially required to do so. [The Bride of Lammermoor.] She was to be seen, not heard. She was to honour her husband, not argue with him. She was to be a helpmate, not a companion.

The Reformation brought many changes; the position of women altered, and for the worse. The status of women, both in England and Scotland, was lowered by the revolt against Roman Catholicism. In the monastic days the unmarried woman often occupied a high position. She could be Lady Abbess, with many rights, duties and obligations. The head of a great religious house was a trained business woman and administrator, with the privilege of a seat upon the Ecclesiastical Councils. The nuns under her charge were the teachers of their day, and so filled an honourable place and followed an honourable calling. The convents were the seats of learning, and their suppression deprived girls of their chief means of education.

Her calling gave the nun an honourable and dignified position, and this the Reformation swept aside, while the subjection to father or husband remained.

Many of the punishments after the Reformation, as far as women were concerned, deal with ecclesiastical offences.

As girls were denied the rights of education, marriage became the only career open to them, and the introduction of child-marriages followed. This deprived the girl of any chance of education that remained to her, and launched her upon the responsibilities of motherhood and the cares of managing a household, when she should still have been in the nursery playing with her toys.

The eldest daughter of Charles I., Mary, was born in 1631, and married when she was ten, in 1641. Queen Mary II. was married when she was fourteen, and the Duchess of Monmouth when she was thirteen. Such marriages were common; Lady Capulet told her thirteen-year-old Juliet, "1 was your mother much upon those years that you are now a maid."

In 1600, it was ruled by the General Assembly that no minister should unite in matrimony any couple in which the male was under fourteen, and the female under twelve years of age. Yet deviation from this rule was not uncommon. Mary Countess of Buccleuch was on the 9th of February, 1659, when only eleven, married to Walter Scott of Highchester when he was fourteen. When women had no rights and marriage was their only portion, marriages were frequently celebrated, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of girls under the age of twelve, guardians pleading in defence that they apprehended the abduction of their wards, and of two evils they chose the lesser.

As recently as June 1st, 1859, there was married at 15 St. James’ Square, Edinburgh, a girl, who was entered by the Registrar as in her eleventh year. The official inspector, when he examined the entry, imagined that the girl’s age must have been put down in error, but when further enquiries were made the entry was found to be correct.

In the eighteenth century it was common to publish the supposed amount of the bride’s dowry in the Press, also a eulogy of her charms. The Edinburgh journals of September, 1720, announced that the Earl of Wemyss was "married to the only child of Colonel Charteris, with a fortune of five hundred thousand pounds sterling, English money, which probably in a short time may be double that sum." "But," adds the chronicler, "that is nothing at all in comparison of the young lady herself, who is truly for goodness, wit, beauty, and fine shape inferior to no lady of Great Britain."

"July 1st, 1731. Yesternight . . . Ferrier, Esq., late Provost of Dundee, was married to the heiress of Aidingknowe, a handsome young lady of a considerable fortune," and we hear that he was attended by "persons of distinction".

In the Glasgow Journal of the 24th March, 1746, is the following :—" On Monday last, James Dennistoun, Junior, of Colgraine, Esq., was married to Miss Jenny Baird, a beautiful young lady."

"May 4th, 1747. On Monday last, Dr. Robert Hamilton, Professor of Anatomy and Botany in the University of Glasgow, was married to Miss Mally Baird, a beautiful young lady with a handsome fortune."

"August 3rd, 1747. On Monday last, Mr. James Johnstone, merchant in this place, was married to Miss Peggy Newall, an agreeable young lady with £4,000."

A practice associated with marriage, styled "winning the broose ", was much in fashion in the eighteenth century in rural districts. Immediately after the marriage ceremony young persons amongst the guests, who prided themselves on their agility, set out on a foot race from the bride’s dwelling to the residence of the bridegroom. If the distance was great the company rode. In the Glasgow Courier we read that at a broose tournament which took place at Mauchline, one of the competitors, a female, after a ride of thirteen miles, the broose over four males who contested with her. The broose was a nominal prize, consisting simply of a dish of broose or soup. So the competition was fought for simply as sport. The winner, Jean Wyllie, lived to the age of 102.

The Scottish Reformers always insisted upon the non-sacramental character of the nuptial rite, but they recognised the idea of a religious ceremony with marriage. In 1570 they had ruled at the General Assembly "that all marriages be made solemnly in the face of the congregation." Sunday marriages were common, but so many disturbances took place at them that it was ruled "that none shall be married on the Sabbath except they pay to the use of the poor, 58/-, and oblige themselves to keep good order." Gradually the Church managed to prevent Sunday marriages and many of the festivities that had been connected with marriages.

It is safe to say that Scotland is the only country where a charge was ever regularly made for admission to a marriage ceremony. Penny weddings, as they were called, have, however, long since ceased to be a feature of Scottish rural life, although they were highly popular while they lasted, and served to start many a humble couple in life. The charge for admission to the penny wedding varied in different districts, but a limit of five shillings was imposed in an effort to suppress them, on the ground that they frequently ended in disorderliness.

Persons in financial difficulties might not marry. In the Presbytery of Glasgow, in 1594, it was decreed that "in respect that James Armour is in great debt, therefore cannot ordain Helen Barr to be married upon him."

Matrimonial alliances with England were discouraged. In 1639 an Overture was adopted by the General Assembly, "for restraining people from passing into England to marry," and Parliament was invoked to "appoint a pecunial sum to be paid by the contraveners." No Scottish person might wed an English spouse without rebuke. In the Presbytery of Lanark, on June 28th, 1655, baptism was refused to the child of Marian Somerell inasmuch that "contrarie to the Acts of the kirke of Scotland" she had "married ane Inglishman." Poor Marian, she shewed spirit and demanded that the rites of baptism should be performed, and accordingly the Presbytery at length agreed to baptise the child, on the woman making public satisfaction, and her husband giving promise that he would bring up the child according to the Confession of Faith.

Women of the working classes, if they had a hard life, had at least a busy one. It was the better-off women whose life was one dreary round of monotony. If they were rich they could occupy themselves in attending to their personal adornment, and that would agreeably pass some hours; they would keep an eye upon their servants and see that they did not waste time, but, if they were not rich and fashionable ladies, but just women of moderate means, their days must have been long, devoid of interest and incident. Even had they had an assured position, and had the law and Church upheld them, they would still have had a circumscribed life in a country as poor as Scotland, in a country where roads were few and far between, where women were prisoners from November to March, or if they got out it was only because some man would take them up behind him on his horse.

Men had a very different life. They were the breadwinners and were forced out of the narrow confInes of home. In town they had their clubs. In the country, they farmed, and they had, then as now, sport and games. They had golf, catchpole, archery, hawking and coursing to amuse them. They had their work, their amusements, and, moreover, were the lords of Creation and treated as such.

In an old poem called "A Gentillman" we learn his duties:

"First in the morning, get up with gud intent;
To do your God service be ye diligent;
To go to preiching ye do your bissy cure,
Syne to your sport ye pass with avanteur;
Exclude surfatt and spend with discretioun,
And luve your servand of gud condition;
Lak not your kin, suppois thair wit be rude,
But help your freind in to his quarrell guid..."

He is to love his own wife, and if in all things she give him satisfaction she is to be "cherisst well." His sons are to be taught wisely, while his daughters are to be held in subjection.

Teiche well your sons, and gif him your counsale; Bot hald your dochter ay in stret bensale (control)."

Poor little girls, controlled first by father, then controlled by husband, and, if unmarried, despised.

Miss Elizabeth Mure, [Family Papers at Caldwell. Vol. I.] in her recollections, tells us "Every master was revered by his family, honoured by his tenants, and awful to his domestics. His hours of eating, sleeping, and amusement, were carefully attended to by all his family and by all his guests. Even his hours of devotion was marked, that nothing might interrupt him. He kept his own seat by the fire or at table, with his hat on his head; and often particular dishes served up for himself, that nobody else shared of. Their children approached them with awe and never spoke with any degree of freedom before them."

In 1392, a Frenchman wrote a book of advice to his young wife, a girl of fifteen; in it he declares patience was the essential quality in a wife. " No matter how tried they may be," he writes, " they must never complain." "I pray you to be very loving and privy with your husband." The wife is further cautioned to be zealous in caring for her husband’s comfort, and he thoughtfully provides her with some excellent advice and much good counsel. In all countries men were fond of giving women good advice; when the women were married so young, they would doubtless require it. This wife was very young, but marriages in these days were early for women, and girls were earlier developed than is the case to-day. A well-known proverb says:

"A girl of fifteen is as old as a boy of twenty-one." Truly women had need of patience in these days.

The ideal of marriage was as low as the position of women. Bacon says, " Wives are young men’s mistresses; companions for middle age; and old men’s nurses." Smollett, the Scottish novelist, draws many pictures of his day, and coarse days they were. His heroine was always a young and inexperienced girl, often little more than a child. Her attraction was purely physical—her conversation a series of ineptitudes, the index to her empty, untrained mind. Women were, on the whole, held in poor repute.

In an early poem written of Womenkind about 1580, we find the poet, Alexander Scot, who is said to have stufied the sex, entertains a poor opinion of them.

"I muse and mervellis in my mynd,
Quhat way to wryt, or put in verss,
The quent consaitis of wemenkynd,
Or half thair havings to reherss:
I fynd thair haul affectioun
So contrair thair complexioun.

For quhy no leid unleill they leit
Untrcwth expressly thay expell;
Yit thay ar planeist and repleit
Of falset and dissait thair sell:
So find I thair affectioun
Contrair thair awin complexioun.

Thay favour no wayis fuliche men,
And verry few of thame ar wyiss;
All gredy personis thay misken,
And thay ar full of covettyiss:
So find I thair affectioun
Contrair thair awin complexioun."

Poor Alexander Scot must have been badly treated at some time by womenkind!

Another poet, Arbuthnot, born 1583, who was described by one of his contemporaries as one who was greatly loved of all men, hated by none—" pleasant and jocund in conversation, and in all science expert; a good poet, mathematician, philosopher, theologue, lawyer, and in medicine skilful; so as on every subject he could properly discourse and to good purpose," was of a different opinion. This poet wrote a gay production called "The Praises of Women." He blazoned forth the merits of the fair sex; it must have pleased them better than Scot’s strictures.

So much for women, their merits and demerits. What did they do all day, and how did they exist?

Their houses were small, the rooms low and dark with plastered walls. Such walls only made their appearance when James IV. wanted to make Stirling Castle comfortable for his English bride, the fifteen-years-old Margaret Tudor. Papered walls did not come into fashion until about the year 1800. Windows had neither sash nor pulleys, for our ancestors did not believe either in light or air. Floors were bare.

Several allusions in old Glasgow records are made to the "knocks," that is, clocks, set up for the public convenience. And old one is repaired, 1577, and James Scott gets a sum " for labour done by him in colouring of the knock, moon and horologe, and other common work of the town."

We have the opinions of many travellers who visited Scotland in early days, and indeed none of these worthies give Scotland a character of cleanliness; the habits of the day in all countries were coarse and dirty, but if they were bad on the Continent and in England they were much worse in Scotland.

From the pen of Sir William Brereton, who visited Scotland in 1636, we learn that pewter dishes were in daily use. Wooden dishes were used in the kitchens. Sir William has many complaints—lack of fresh air, bad cooking and lack of general cleanliness. He says:

"Their pewter, I am confident, is never scoured; they are afraid it should too much wear and consume thereby; only sometimes, and that but seldom, they do slightly rub them over with a filth dish-clout, dipped in most sluttish, greasy water." Pewter dishes were in daily use; table glass was almost unknown. Plates were none too plentiful and forks, such as we know them, did not make their appearance until the eighteenth century. Earlier, they had a single-pronged instrument, for fruit. Meat was handed round as in mediaeval times. In the early inventories the word "layer" occurs often, in connection with table outfit. The layer was a jug or ewer handed round after a meal with a basin from which water was poured over the hands into the basin. This would be very necessary.

Only the master of the house occupied a chair (the origin of taking the chair at a banquet or public gathering), the lady and guests and domestics sitting round the table on stools or benches. Such a feast is described in Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland. "The ladies and gentlemen above the salt ate elegantly with their fingers, each couple from the same plate, while the herd below the salt tore the viands with knife and claw." Drink was excessive. The writer goes on to describe the difficulty of "conveying each guest in safety to his or her own pigeon-hole."

A great feast was given in Edinburgh by the magistrates to the Danish gentlemen who had attended Queen the consort of James VI. The feast was celebrated in a room in the Cowgate belonging to the Master of the Mint. The walls of the room were hung with tapestry.

The tables were decorated with "elegant napery and flowers and chandlers," and there were fine dishes to the outward eye, but the feast was simple enough, "only bread and meat, with four tuns of beer, four gang of ale and four puncheons of wine." One writer, Moryson, is shocked by the prevalent drunkenness; gentlemen spent a large part of the night in drinking, "not only wine, but even beer." Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries drinking was protracted eight or nine hours.

Moryson, who writes that he is far travelled, having been to "Germany, Bohemia, Switzerland, Netherland, Denmark, Poland, Italy, France, England, Scotland and Ireland," has much to tell. He describes how he was entertained at a big house: "Myself was at a knight’s house, who had many servants to attend him, that brought in his meat with their heads covered with blue caps, the table being more than half furnished with great platters of porridge, each having a little piece of sodden meat; and when the table was served, the servants did sit down with us, but the upper mess instead of porridge, had a pullet with prunes in the broth. And I observed no art of cookery, or furniture of household stuff, but rather rude neglect of both, though myself and my companion, sent from the governor of Berwick about bordering affairs, were entertained after their best manner. . . . They drink pure wines, not with sugar as the English, yet at feasts they put comfits in their wine, after the French manner. . . . Their bedsteads were then like cupboards in the wall, with doors to be opened and shut at pleasure, so we climbed up to our beds."

These shut-in beds, raissit beds or box-beds as they came to be known in later days, were thus early in vogue in Scotland. No wonder, if consumption or other disease struck a member of a family, when the practice of those days was to shut doors, exclude draughts, and keep the patient warm. There, behind closed doors, under loads of fustian blankets, the patient lay, sharing the bed with several others. The beds were flock; this was an advance upon the days when beds were the skins of animals, spread upon heath or rushes.

In The Cottagers of Glenburnie, Mrs. Hamilton draws a picture of the discomforts and inconveniences of a box-bed to those unaccustomed to this mode of sleeping. Though it was written in the eighteenth century it was equally applicable, perhaps more so, to the preceding century. Mrs. Mason, a woman of cleanliness and refinement, has come to lodge with her cousin, Mrs. MacLarty, at the farm of Glenburnie; she begs to see the room which she is to occupy. "That you sall," said Mrs. MacLarty; "but, indeed, it’s no in sic order as I could wish, for it’s cram fou o’ woo; it was put in there the day o’ the sheep-shearing, and we have never ta’en the fash to put it by; for, as I said before, we didna expect my cusine till after the fair." She then opened the door that was placed in the middle, exactly between two beds, the recesses of which formed the entry of the dark passage, through which they groped their way to the spens, or inner apartment, which was nearly of the same size as the kitchen. Mrs. Mason was prepared for seeing the fleeces, which were piled up in the middle of the floor, but was struck with dismay at the fusty smell, which denoted the place to be without circulation of air. She immediately advanced to the window, in the intention of opening it for relief. But, alas! it was not made to open; and she heard for her comfort that it was the same with all the other windows in the house. The bed, which was opposite to it, was shut up on three sides. At the foot was a dark closet. Between the window and the fireplace was a large chest of drawers, of mahogany; and on the other side of the window, an eight-day clock in a mahogany case. Mrs. MacLarty tossed down the bed to show the fineness of her spinning. . . . Mrs. Mason praised her, but explained want of air would bring moths, and, sure enough, the blankets were full of them.

Moths! " repeated Mrs. MacLarty, " there never was sic a sight o’ moths as in this room; we are just eaten up wi’ them, and I’m sure I kenna how they can win in, for no a breath o’ wind ever blew here!"

Beds were, in the olden days, the chief article of furniture in a bedroom. Much attention was paid to the bed, and the lady of the house could occupy many hours in making and embroidering curtains and canopies for these.

Many women killed boredom by making and embroidering useful or useless objects, as the case might be. In "Felix Holt" we find Mrs. Transome seated at her daily embroidery, which George Eliot says "had been a constant element in Mrs. Transome’s life; that soothing occupation of taking stitches to produce what neither she nor any one else wanted, was then the resource of many a well-born and unhappy woman."

It was better to fill in the long hours productively than to sit with folded, idle hands, even if the work was of no great value. If a woman’s house was to have beautiful decorative embroideries, the work had to be done by her own hands, and she would feel a certain pride when she had achieved some object of art.

When Queen Mary of Scotland was in captivity she lightened the dreary hours by her handiwork and made several sets of bed-hangings. Some of her work is still in a good state of preservation, and to it is attached a melancholy interest. In a letter dated July, 1567, from Sir Nicholas Throgmorton to Elizabeth, whose emissary he was, he describes a visit to Queen Mary when she was a captive in Loch Leven; in the letter he says she had applied for an "embroiderer to draw forth such works as she would be occupied on." The embroiderer was a professional designer. The Queen depended upon others for her designs and apparently her embroiderer was long with her, only dismissed when the harsh Sir Amyas Paulet carried out the commands of Elizabeth to reduce Mary’s establishment.

Beds were stately, tamboured and canopied. The bed-pillows were covered with silk or fur or cloth of gold. The bed which Lord Darnley occupied at Kirk o’ Field in August, 1566, is described as "of violet brown velvet, passemented with passement made of gold and silver furnished with roof, head-piece and pands." It had curtains of violet damask . . . In the State Papers relating to Queen Mary, beds are described, some ornate, some simple.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, mourning began to be worn, and as the century advanced and merged into the seventeenth, the taste for mourning became more and more pronounced. It became the custom to drape the bed in sombre black if a death had occurred, and indeed all the furniture and hangings in the room were swathed in these symbols of woe. Black cloth beds, valances and curtains, chairs and stools shrouded in black. Horses’ liveries, church hangings; all in black, escutcheons above the door draped in black, all as gloomy as could be to match the garb of black in which the mourner was clad.

As early as 1542, James V. had his bed draped in deep black, to honour the passing of his dead French wife. Queen Mary had three mourning beds, two of violet and one of damask; the beds were black with heavy black curtains.

Heraldic ornaments often decorated beds in the shape of carved work or in embroidery. A great man would lend "his mourning couch" to the less well-off members of the family, and frequently old entries are to be found dealing with the sending round of this bed.

If the bed was the chief article of furniture in the bedroom, the hall was the principal room in the house. The hall was drawing-room, dining-room, reception-room and overflow sleeping apartment for such guests as could not otherwise be accommodated.

The dais was the only part of the hall which was floored with wood; the rest was bare earth, to which the tables were fixed. This part of the hall was strewed with rushes or straw, not too often renewed. Erasmus, in his travels in England, complains of the dirt and smells, as the floor was used, among other things, for dogs’ kennel.

Sir Thomas More, in his Utopia, visualizes large and beautiful houses, clean rooms, and space for the people, in contrast to the halls of England, where the bones from every dinner lay rotting on the dirty straw which strewed the floor, where the smoke curled about the rafters, and the wind whistled through the unglazed windows. What More described in England would certainly be true a century later in Scotland, where poverty kept the people from experimenting with modern improvements. Not only were the Scots poor, but apparently they liked no change, for various writers emphasize this, that they are satisfied with their conditions and "like not to be criticized."

Mary Stuart, coming from France, from a highly civilized court, would do something to raise the standard of comfort, though doubtless every improvement she suggested would be frowned upon. As trade increased, slowly new ideas did creep in. It was not until after the Union of the two countries that real prosperity came to Scotland, when, as money grew more plentiful, improvement came. Separate sleeping apartments, greater comfort in the kitchen premises, came to be accepted as everyday improvements. To the keeps wings were added, and in the numerous little wall-chambers, or closets hollowed out of the wall, came the separate bedrooms. Small they were, but large enough to hold a bed, and to have a window which served as ventilation.

The houses of the smaller people remained miserably poor. A writer in 1637 draws attention to the houses, which, he says, are very poor, and states that the only light comes from the door, as the houses have no windows. John Ray, the naturalist, corroborates this, as he, too, speaks of the unglazed windows and general dirt and signs of poverty—and, in addition, he declares the Scots unwilling to learn. He writes: "The Scots generally (that is the poorer sort) wear, the men blue bonnets on their heads and some russet; the women only white linen, which hangs down their backs as if a napkin were pinned about them. When they go abroad none of them wear hats, but a parti-coloured blanket, which they call a plaid, over their heads and shoulders. The women generally to us seemed none of the handsomest. They are not very cleanly in their houses, and but sluttish in dressing their meat. Their way of washing linen is to tuck up their coats, and tread them with their feet in a tub. They have a custom to make up the fronts of their houses, even in their principal towns, with fir boards nailed over one another, in which are often made many round holes, or windows to put out their heads. The Scots cannot endure to hear their country or countrymen spoken against. They have neither good bread, cheese or drink. They cannot make them nor will they learn. Their butter is very indifferent, and one would wonder how they could contrive to make it so bad. . The ordinary country-houses are pitiful cots, built of stone, and covered with turves, having in them but one room, many of them have no chimneys, the windows very small holes, and not glazed. . . They have rarely any bellows or warming-pans. . . . The people seem to be very lazy, at least the men, and may be frequently observed to plough in their cloaks. . . They lay out most they are worth on clothes, and a fellow that has scarce ten groats besides to help himself with, you shall see come out of his smoky cottage clad like a gentleman."

What an indictment! Lazy, sluggish and vain! Many travellers since the day of Ray have commented upon the well-dressed Scots emerging from little better  than a hovel. Practically all writers speak about the bare-footed lasses who tramp the clothes and sometimes walk bare-footed.

Thomas Morer (1689) was evidently a forerunner of the men who have desired sex-equality. He writes:

"Their ordinary women go barefoot, especially in the summer. Yet the husbands have shoes and therein seem unkind in letting their wives bear those hardships without partaking themselves."

The women themselves thought it no shame to go bare-footed.

"The lasses, skelpin’ bare-fit, thrang,
In silks and scarlets glitter,"

says Burns, in the " Holy Fair."

All the writers harp upon the same strain. Kirke, in 1679, complaining of the coarse fare, says, "To put one’s head into their kitchen doors, is little less than destructive; you enter Hell alive, where the black furies are busied in mangling dead carcases, and the fire or brimstone, or rather stew and stink, is ready to suffocate you."

The cottages were small and poor; they consisted of two apartments, a but end or kitchen, and a ben end or spence.

These cottages were dark and gloomy and often infested with rats and vermin.

A minister, rebuking a labouring man for sleeping in church, was told, "It’s because I canna sleep at hame for the rattans and the skiaters." Another story is told of a crazy woman listening to a preacher in Portsoy preaching from the text, "In my Father’s house are many mansions"; she astonished everyone by exclaiming in a loud voice, "My certe, your feether’s hoose, auld Baukie’s! I kent him weel—a but and a ben and that but ill redd up."

In Ramsay’s "Gentle Shepherd" he thus describes Glaud’s farmstead:

"A snug thack hoose, before the door a green,
Hens in the midden, ducks in dubs are seen;
On this side stands a barn, on that a byre,
A peat stack joins and forms a rural square;
The hoose is Glaud’s, there you may see him lean,
An’ to his divot seat invite his frien’."

In reading the impressions of these various writers, it is evident that had the women supervised their households with knowledge these households would have been cleaner and more comfortable, but it is only fair to remember that the standard of cleanliness was very low in all countries.

Manners were coarse and rude: quarrels, fightings and acts of personal violence form the most conspicuous entries in the old records. Men strike women, women "clapperclaw each other," and even the dignitaries of the town are assailed in the street and in their council-house.

One common sin is for one woman to attack another by "striking of her, scarting of her, and dinging her to the erd" (earth). [Chambers’s Domestic Annals of Scotland.] In one instance "shooting of her down in her own fire." Violent words often accompany these violent acts. Bartilmo Lawteth strikes "one poor wife to the effusion of her blood." Ninian Swan strikes Marion Simpson with "ane tangs" and knocks her down, she, however, having previously given some provocation, as she did "spit in his face." Elphinstone of Blythswood, one of the Glasgow baillies, suffered a violent attack in the Council House on August 24, 1574, from Robert Pirry, a tailor, who wounded him, striking one of the officers at the same time. For this, Pirry lost his freedom as a burgess.

In 1592, so the story goes, a young woman from Aberdeen was so disgusted with the manners of the day that she came to complain to King James, hoping that he would do something to improve matters.[Domestic Annals of Scotland.] Her hopes were not justified. The story is a quaint one. "There came from Aberdeen a young woman, called Helen Guthry, daughter to John Guthry, saddler, to admonish the king of his duty. She was so disquieted with the sins reigning in the country, swearing, filthy speaking, profanation of the Sabbath, etc., that she could find no rest till she came to the king. She presented a letter to him when he was going to see his hounds. After he had read a little of it, he fell a laughing that he could scarce stand on his feet, and swore so horribly that the woman could not spare to reprove him. He asked her if she were a prophetess. She answered she was a poor simple servant of God, that prayed to make him a servant of God also; that was desirous vice should be punished, and specially murder, which was chiefly craved at his hands; that she could find no rest till she put him in mind of his duty. After the king and courtiers had stormed a while, she was sent to the queen, whom she found more courteous and humane. So great and many were the enormities in the country, through impunity and want of justice, that the minds of simple and poor young women were disquieted, as ye may see; but the king and court had deaf ears to the crying sins."

In Aberdeen, the Council, in the same year, apparently tried "to put down swearing and blaspheming of God’s holy name, and swearing of horrible and execrable oaths." They ordained the same to be punished by fine. To make this the more effectual, masters were ordained to exact fines from their servants and deduct them from wages; husbands to do the same from their wives, keeping a box in which to keep the money, and punish their children for the like offence with palmers (an instrument for inflicting lashes on the open hand), according to the custom of other reformed towns and congregations. Then woe betide the wife, child or servant who was penniless, for in 1609 the Presbytery of Aberdeen improved this effort of the magistracy by an edict, ordering that, for the repression of oaths and blasphemous language, the master of every house should keep a palmer and therewith punish all offenders who had no money to pay fines.

Chambers tells us of a peculiar custom (1734) that prevailed against husbands who ill-used their wives. "The cruel man," he says, "was put by his neighbours across a tree or beam, and carried through the village so enthroned, while some one from time to time proclaimed his offence, the whole being designed as a means of deterring other men from being cruel to their spouses."

In pre-Reformation days, the uttering of slanderous aspersions against women met with stern reprehension. The women themselves, however, of these days seem to have been remarkably quick and proficient in the use of vituperative language and were able to look after them-selves. They were known on various occasions to have flyted the Judges on the bench. Two wives having had a gentle passage-at-arms were inhibit "that they neither flyte nor trouble one another in word nor deed under the pain of five merks till the Kirk week."

Janet Crag, for the wrongous mispersoning of Will Gibson’s wife, was ordained to pass to the Market Cross and say, on her knees and with the beads about her neck, "Tongue she lied," and then to pass with the beads through the town.

The tolbooth beads were a kind of feminine ornament in the shape of a rude and heavy rosary, which was derisively hung round the neck of a convicted termagant, while she made a promenade through the burgh to indicate the nature of her misdeeds. Here is a severe case. At Aberdeen the Magistrates and Council ordained (1544) Margaret Durthy, who had been twice before convicted, for troubling and slandering Janet Lesley, to come on Sunday next with a lighted candle of wax of two pounds in her hand and sit down on her knee and ask the said Janet’s forgiveness, and to request the goodmen of the town to cause the said Janet to forgive her; and if ever she commits the like faults again they ordain "her crag to be put into the gof, and to pay 15 merks."

It was not an uncommon thing to make husbands responsible for the language which might be used by their wives and daughters in time to come. Will Farquhar was taken bound for his wife, and John Bower for his wife and daughters, "if any of them provoked others in time to come to use ribald or slanderous language, to pay 20s. to our Lady licht for wives and bairns on both sides and 8s. unlaw or fine." On the other hand, a husband sometimes received amends due to his slandered wife. Ellen Bunsche blasphemed Alexander Alisin’s wife, and was adjudged to sit down on her knees before Alexander and ask his forgiveness, then to present to our Lady a wax candle of a pound weight, and threatened with banishment. At the same time a husband was sometimes unfortunate. A wife’s evil character might stick to him. When Will Ranald was about to leave Dundee the Council discerned that no character be given him, or if one be given him it be made conform to his wife’s demerits, and specify why she was banished this burgh for ever.

A husband, however, had frequently his amends. For in the laws of the Four Burghs there is the strange enactment that if the wife of a burgess trespass against her neighbour, and find a surety to stand to the law without his consent, then, if she be convicted by doom of Court, the husband is not bound to bear the penalty nor to pay more than 3d., and that only if he choose; but he shall chastise her as a bairn under age, in that she did wrong without his consent.

Flyting and other similar misdemeanours, indeed, seem to have caused the magistrates a good deal of trouble, and to suppress them the cuck-stool was invented. This was afterwards taken into the church, and became the stool of repentance; but, at first, it was placed beside the market cross in the most frequented part of the burgh. To be condemned to sit upon it was looked upon as equivalent to banishment; and at first the magistrates contented themselves with threatening scolds with it, in the hope that that would be sufficient to chasten their tongues. But familiarity often breeds contempt, and the magistrates were at last compelled to condemn offenders to sit upon it for four, six, twelve, and twenty-four hours, where they were exposed to the jeers and scoffs and contempt of the passengers. That it had a deterrent effect is very doubtful. Stocks were also in use as well as the gof (pillory).

At Stirling, we read of a curious mode of punishment. In April, 1547, Marion Ray was fined for troubling Agnes Henchman, calling her slanderous names and threatening to lay a pint stoup on her chaps, and it was further ordained respecting the said Marion that she be hung out from the head of the Tolbooth in a creel during the will of the Provost and baillies.

For troubling and slandering Marion Arkman, William Duckok was ordered by way of punishment to go down on his knees in full court and ask her forgiveness, and to say to himself, "Tongue, you lied on her." And because he was drunk when he miscalled her, he was further condemned to water for the next twenty-four hours, and warned that if he misconducted himself again he would have to hang in the creel for forty-eight hours without dispensation: an excellent plan to double the offence because the offender was drunk, and much more sensible than our modern method of allowing the plea of being drunk to be urged as an extenuating circumstance.

Men had chances denied to women; they went abroad to study, they saw how others lived; many were capable and clever and they could take advantage of their opportunities. Some of the early writers were impressed with the Scottish men. One of these, James Brome, greatly praised the high demeanour and stately bearing of the Scots, which he attributes to their good education and foreign travel—advantages totally denied to women. He writes : " Great care is taken to refine their nature and improve their knowledge, of which, when they have attained a competent measure in their own country, they betake themselves to foreign nations to make a further progress therein, where they do generally become so great proficients that at their return they are by this means fitted for all great services and honourable employments, which their king or country is pleased to commit to their care and fidelity, and are thereby enabled to discharge them with great honour and applause."

This was true; for centuries Scottish scholars had flocked to France, where they were courteously received. After the Reformation, those who adhered to the old faith sought refuge in France, while scholars of the reformed party were gladly welcomed by the French Protestants and found employment amongst them. Young Scotsmen of good family visited France with their governors, and studied at one or other of the great schools of learning. Unfortunately, while the sons travelled and studied, the daughters sat at home, neglected and little thought of.

Old records show plainly that Scotland was a dirty country. In rural districts roads were bad, drainage non-existent, the midden near the house was a constant eyesore and a source of stink and dirt. In the towns, conditions were equally disgusting. Ventilation was unpractised, sewage there was none, and heaps of offensive rubbish accumulated in every street.

In 1692, the magistrates of Edinburgh awoke to the sense that all was not well, and they arranged with several farmers for the employment of "muckmen." These were scavengers who were to cleanse the city from time to time; and to watch the streets and apprehend those who cast out rubbish.

A pleasing habit in Edinburgh long prevailed of opening the windows at night between ten and twelve o’clock, and discharging in the street below the liquid filth of the day, with a cry of "Gardyloo," which, being interpreted, was a warning to the passer-by, while such a passer, if wishing to stop the flow, cried, "Haud yer haund." Many people were soused in this pleasing manner; complaints were frequent; at last, in 1686, an Act was passed compelling magisterial interference.

Little progress, however, seems to have been made, for, in 1745, the Town Council enjoined that, "As the several Acts as to the throwing over foul water, filth, dirt and other nastiness in the High Streets, vennels and closes had not been put into due execution, each family should now provide vessels in their houses for holding their excrements and foul water."

Finally, by various Acts, cleanliness was imposed, and dirt gave way to it. The dirty habits were common to all towns. Epidemics swept the country; these were called "visitations" owing to the belief that they were sent as a Divine scourge and in direct punishment of sin. If they were a punishment, it was for the neglect of sanitation, ventilation and cleanliness.

People lived poorly and died young; the high deathrate was remarkable, nearly two-thirds of the population died in childhood, and the deaths of adult females doubled those of adult men.[ Social Life in Scotland. Rogers.] Possibly they died of boredom. Amusements and recreations, study and travel were not for them. Their life was dull and devoid of incident, beyond the incident of putting children into the world, and in many cases burying them in infancy, but of amusements or solid occupations they had none.

The Reformers in their zeal prohibited many innocent pleasures. In July, 1649, the General Assembly forbade promiscuous dancing and entreated the Presbyteries to censure it. These worthies were zealous in the discharge of their duty. But the people craved for pleasure, and at marriages and even funerals dancing was the fashion; the Presbyteries were vigilant and the offenders were hauled up and had to pay the penalty. When the punishment was public penance, it would enliven churchgoing and would provide a fillip of excitement for those suffering from the dull routine or narrow, uneventful, circumscribed lives.

For instance, the kirk-goers would be rewarded for their attendance at the ordinances at Ashkirk when they saw Adam Moffat, piper, standing "at the kirk door with ane pair of scheittis (sheets) about him, beirfutt, and after the Bybill was placed, the place of repentance so to continue during their wills." And what sin had Adam committed? The serious one of piping at bridals. John Wyat, in the parish of Mouswald, was "requiryet to stand in the public place of repentance "and to pay down a sum of money for a like offence.

There were other sins punished in a like manner, and the sinners and their punishments must have been a Godsend to the rest of the country. No wonder women became witches in an age in which they had no means of outlet for their energies. No wonder they became scolds and fighters in an age when they were thrown pell-mell together, and when they had no interests beyond their neighbours’ concerns.

A wedding, a funeral or a christening must have been welcome breaks in the monotony. The eagerness with which they ended the ceremony with a dance, shows how ardently they desired amusement.

A sermon in 1755 is addressed by a minister to his flock concerning the Practice of Dancing, in which he wishes to extend the power of the Presbytery to deal with abuses (of dancing) at burials, marriages, baptisms, etc. The stern school prevailed, and for long legitimate pleasure and recreation were looked upon as Satan’s wiles in Scotland.

Poor women, debarred from learning, travelling and pleasure, ignorant of the higher arts of house-keeping, without rights, forced to regard men only as possible husbands, or, having secured a husband, having then to rest content and having to submit to them as masters, not daring to contradict them An old pamphlet says, "A wise woman will not contradict her husband, even though she be right, as is frequently the case, and he wrong." Theirs was not a happy lot.

A woman was taught from her youth to her death, indirectly if not directly, that she was an inferior creature, made for the bearing of children and the gratification of men. What was her life? Nothing outside the home; and, within the home, what interest had she beyond sewing, knitting, embroidering and spinning? All good things in their place, but not enough to fill a woman’s life. No wonder they were, in the main, anaemic women, who left little mark upon the history of their time; the wonder is they survived at all, and that any were fit to lead or take a place in the world of art and letters. If an isolated woman had acquired some learning, she was instructed to conceal it. Their energies were thwarted and distorted; they were taught to be patient and endure patiently. Their great virtue was fidelity—which meant an endless capacity for condoning infidelity in their masters. It was well dinned into their ears that a woman’s duty was to forgive "seventy times seven."

It was only when women ceased to be patient, ceased to be mere killers of time, that the awakening of the sex began which ended in their emancipation; but many a year was to elapse before women had awakened to their wrongs, and a long period of work and thought passed by before they had redressed their wrongs and won their rights.

Domestic affairs and amusing her husband was the business of a good wife in the seventeenth century, says Miss Elizabeth Mure.

Nevertheless, this statement was out of date before the eighteenth century had dawned, and at the end of that century Mary Wollstonecraft in her " Vindication of the Rights of Women," definitely sounded the note that led to the final victory of women.

It was she who destroyed the cant of "indirect influence" as applied to women. "I do not want them to have power over men," she writes, "but over themselves."

She believed that, on the average, women were inferior, both mentally and physically, to men, but she urged that they should, nevertheless, be given every opportunity to develop themselves. Education, she believed, was necessary. No one could be virtuous, she declared, who was ignorant. No one could be happy who was empty-headed, no one could be useful who was denied an education. These views were accepted, slowly but surely, and women owe to Mary Wollstonecraft a debt of gratitude. She was courageous enough to affront public opinion with what were in those days bold and. revolutionary views.


Return to Book Index Page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast