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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.