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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


THE oversight exercised by the Kirk Session, and the extent to which it felt bound to interfere for the regulation of morals and promotion of the material interests of the parishioners, were not a little remarkable. If the Session might not still go the length of "dealing" with women of rank and position, as had been done a century earlier, worrying them effectually because they failed. to appear duly at church, and were "suspect" of being "obstinate papists" and the like, they had, at any rate, little difficulty in getting an ordinary laird to submit to discipline; to pay the wonted fine for his incontinence, and probably a good round sum in addition for behoof of the poor—if on that footing he might obtain the privilege of taking his rebuke in private, and not in presence of the congregation, a concession not very infrequently made latterly. There were not wanting instances, moreover, of persons of the Episcopal persuasion coming voluntarily forward, and, for the quieting of their own consciences, presumably, entreating discipline to be exercised upon them. And while the sway of the Session received something like universal acknowledgment, the variety of things in which it intermeddled was great. Censure ‘would be threatened, or, if need were, passed upon "dishaunters of ordinances," upon women who indulged in idle "claik" about the kirk door on Sunday, or used their tongues in vulgar and scandalous "flyting" at other seasons, and so on. Special Acts were formulated to meet special evils; as that of vagrancy, when warning would be given that "contraveners" who chose to entertain improper people, who could not produce satisfactory "testificats" would be dealt with as "scandalous persons" themselves; and such occasions as penny bridals had to be legislated upon by Synod, Presbytery, and Session, with a view to restrain the undue jollities to which they led; or otherwise suppress the institution altogether.

When moral lapses, of the kind with which Kirk-Sessions have all along been but too familiar had to be dealt with, the discipline was proportioned to the gravity of the offence. A money penalty of four to six pounds Scots, equal to as many shillings sterling, was the current pecuniary mulct, and the "public appearances" of the defaulters for rebuke might be few or many, according to circumstances. For single offences that bore no special aggravation once or twice was deemed sufficient, if the parties "carried" themselves properly. In more complicated cases the Session studied the effects; and where due tokens of penitence seemed wanting, or merely in the incipient stage, they, like faithful men, could only exhort the defaulters to "continue the profession of their repentance" in a becoming spirit, they freely according them ample opportunity for so doing. And the end desired was often not attained very soon. Concerning a woman who was a "trelapser"in a country parish in 1720, we find this brief entry in the Session minute—"Compeared. in sacco. pro 7mo., and was rebuked;" that is, she appeared for the seventh Sunday in sackcloth. On her eighth appearance she is "examined coram, and, appearing to be weighted with a sense of her sin," the Session "gave it as their advice that absolution should be allowed her upon her next appearance. She payed four lib, penalty," and was then handed over to the Presbytery for final absolution. The case is an illustrative one, and such cases were by no means of exceptional occurrence.

In some instances the boundary line between the ecclesiastical and civil jurisdictions was curiously traversed. When a case of infanticide had occurred, and the deed had been discovered by the dead body of the murdered bairn being got, the Kirk-Session would occasionally set itself to find out who the unnatural mother was. The mode adopted was to order all the "free" or unmarried women to "compear" at the kirk; and there, for the honour of the parish, individually to satisfy a jury of midwives that none of them had given birth to the defunct infant, with certification that any "free woman" who chose to disobey the order would be held as taking guilt to herself. Reversing the maxim of law which says that every person shall he held innocent till proved guilty, the Session boldly announced the principle of holding those guilty who did not adopt the prescribed means to prove their innocence. And then in return for the Session thus, in its own way, taking up what was clearly the duty of the Civil Court, the Civil Court reciprocated at times by recognising the function of the Session in what would seem a rather odd fashion. At the Aberdeen Quarter Sessions in May, 1750, Adam lAnd, in Tarves, pleads guilty to giving insulting and abusive language to a county Justice of the Peace at a private Session. He is sent to jail for fourteen days, and fined £5; and also "to appear first Sunday after his liberation within the Kirk of Tarves immediately after divine service, and in presence of the congregation convened for the time, make acknowledgment of his insulting the said Justice, and to procure a report and certificate under the hand of the Session-clerk and two elders, of his having made such acknowledgment." Expenses were given against him too, and £10 demanded in security of performance.

The Session interested itself in such matters as the building of bridges, which, properly enough, it recognised as "a pious work," and would readily order a collection to be made to help on an undertaking of that kind. And if a farmer got his "steading" burnt down, not only the Session of his own parish, but those of other surrounding parishes would agree to render him aid in the same way. But indeed there was no interest, temporal or spiritual, in which the Session might not intermeddle. An illustration of this of a rather peculiar sort is found in the reoords of the Kirk-Session of Chapel of Garioch. It was in the autumn of 1737, about the time when John Skinner, as a youthful tutor at Monymusk House, in the neighbouring parish of that name, was inditing his " Christmas Ba’in." The well-to-do tenant in the pleasant farm of Bridgend, on the banks of the Ury, who had been among the first to build a pew for himself in the parish kirk in 1718, had died leaving a family of seven sons, still alive, for two of whom he had been able to provide separate farms, leaving the rest together in family at Bridgend. His widow had followed him to the grave in the bygone spring, and now it was noised through the parish that her ghost had been seen; and indeed was causing no little terror about Bridgend. The Session being convened on a certain date, the minister, Mr. Gilbert Gerard, rej~rted that he had something to lay before them concerning the " said pretended spirit." His statement, in substance, was that he, as minister of the parish, had been asked by George Watt from Bridgend, to come and " converse with the spirit, who, ever since about three or four weeks after the death of his mother in the preceding February, had frequently appeared and spoken to him and his brothers without the windows of the rooms where they lay, to their great terror and amazement." On being "posed" as to its identity by George Watt and his brothers, the ghost, with a superabundance of sanctions, "solemnly averred and swore" that "it was a good spirit; yea, the very spirit of their glorified mother," sent from heaven to "reveal several things to them for their temporal and eternal good, which they were to behove and do at their highest peril." But while the spirit—" which spoke always with a shrill and heavenly voice," making the beds and house where they lay to " shake and tremble again "— "gave them very good instructions and counsels," and even told them "the very secrets of their hearts," the main burden it had been charged to deliver was "that it was the will of the great God that Geordie Watt should marry Tibbie Mortimer (who then was the only woman-servant in that family), because that Tibbie was now in a gracious state, and had been predestinated to glory from all eternity."

This somewhat incongruous revelation had first been made to George Watt when he was lying in bed all alone; whereupon George, like a prudent man, objected, as he alleged, to a marriage so unequal in point of worldly circumstances, and so contrary to his inclination, until it should be made clear to him and others that what he was desired to do really was the will of God. The accommodating spirit undertook to satisfy him on that point; and the seven brothers having, according to compact settled beforehand, duly assembled in the same room, the ghost appeared at the window and repeated its commission, with the portentous threat that "unless Geordie Watt should marry Tibbie Mortimer, he and all his brothers, and all things belonging to them, should certainly be consumed with fire from heaven !" Geordie himself at least having, in addition, nothing to look for thereafter but everlasting punishment. By all this, and similar revelations and threats oft repeated, George Watt had, as he averred, got so "frightened and straitened" that he felt impelled to come to the minister, who, in following out George’s request, had gone to Bridgend on the previous Thursday evening, taking with him a member of the Session and his own servant. His first care was to pray with the family of seven sons, and the next to take what precautions he could with a view to prevent being imposed npon, and, if possible, to unravel the matter. After some hours waiting, a voice was heard at a little window of the bedroom in which Geordie Watt slept, " pronouncing with a very wild and vehement tone" that its owner was come in the name of the Trinity to speak to them all—" to men, minister, and all, ‘Speak, George Watt, speak, men and minister! Come here and I will discourse you all,’ " said the irrepressible ghost. On hearing the "bold and blasphemous expressions" used, the company were in "the greatest consternation ;" all but the wide-awake parson, who started to his feet and ran outside, making his way to the corner of the house nearest to where the ghost seemed to be. "The appearance which first presented to his view," says the Session minute, "was about the bulk of ane ordinary woman, covered with white clean linnen head and arms down to the middle of the body before, and som&what farther behind. Then, willing to unravel the matter whatever the event should be, he made such a trial of the apparition as he thought agreeable to the principles of the Christian revelation and true philosophy; and by its resistance to the end of a small rod which he had in his hand, he soon found it to be a material substance. And immediately the pretended spirit took itself to its heels, and he running after it a few paces, caught it by the neck, and his servant coming up at the same time on the other side, caught it by the ann. The apparition was brought fiat to the ground, and then, being charged as a base imposter to speak, it was silent till he pulled the white vail from its face, whereupon (it being a bright moonshine), he clearly saw that it was the above-named Isobel Mortimer."

Alas, poor Tibbie! What a collapse of her skilfully-devised plot She was remorselessly led into the "firehouse" in presence of the seven brothers Watt, where the minister held forth to her "at some length " on "the blasphemy, devilish tricks, and mischievous pranks" of which she had been guilty ; when, sad to say, in place of becoming penitence, Tibbie " discovered" such a surprising boldness and impudence, obdurateness, and obstinacy," that the minister was restrained from handing her over to the civil magistrate only by the entreaty of the family, whose servant she had been for a considerable time. He contented himself, however, with seeing her " march off, bag and baggage, before be left that place."

What the Session did was to pass a set of formal resolutions, wherein they found that " this vile, base, and impudent woman" had gone on "in a course of horrid blasphemy ;" had "prescribed charms and suspicious things," disturbing that " sober and orderly family" by her imposture, frightening them "to the great prejudice nf their healtb,-yea, to the endangering of their lives ;" doing what she could to set the brothers by the ears, and moreover, venting as revelations from God " most false, malicious, and black calumnies against several persons of an untainted character and reputation." In regard~-the case of "this wicked wretch" was "altogether very complex and of a singular nature," the Session reserved it as it stood for the advice of the Presbytery.

The lapse of a little time seems to have shed new light on the matter, and brought the demure Geordie Watt into the foreground in another guise. Some ten months thereafter it was recorded that Isobel Mortimer had been before the Presbytery, and by them convicted "of the sin and scandal of fornication with George Watt in Bridgend, as also of actthg the part of a ghost and blaspheming the holy name of God." She was ordered to appear in sackcloth hofore the congregation; and threatened at first to be contumacious; but by and by promised to satisfy discipline, and entered on the profession of her repentance by appeariiig " in .sacco" for the first time on 3rd December, 1738. Meanwhile there had been strenuous dealing with Geordie Watt. On account of "the several presumptions that lay against him of his being in less or more conscious of, or having a hand in ye abominable part yt Isa. Mortimer acted," Geordie had also been ordered to appear before the congregation in sackcloth; but he protested against the award, vowing that "lie would never satisfy in sackcloth for yt which he knew nothing about." He was willing to "satisfy" in the ordinary way for what we suppose we may, in his ease at least, call the major charge. Geordie, who had not been altogether a simpleton evidently, offered to pay 100 merks for behoof of the poor, on condition of being liberated from the sackcloth; and as the Session had got into the way of listening favourably to such proposals by defaulters of substance, his bribe obtained him that indulgence. He simply appeared three Sundays "in his own seat," and paid the statutory penalty of four pounds Scots. As for poor Tibbie Mortimer, she, in fulfilment of the Presbyterial order, had no choice but don the sackcloth and sit in public four Sundays at Chapel of Garioch. She was ~then called in "and exhorted to continue the profession of her repentance" at Monymusk, which probably had been her native parish. So long after as March, 1740, she is again remitted to the Chapel Session "to do with her as they shall see cause," and " as they were of opinion yt her oftener appearing there could be of little edification," they agreed that she should be dismissed "after sitting one Sabbath more in. sackcloth and paying one guinea for the use of the poor." Next month she appeared and paid 12 lb. 12 sh. penalty, and was absolved.

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