Sunday, 3 October 2010

Guest Post - Scottish Infanticide

Time for another guest post, and this time it is from the wonderful Evelyn McCulloch. Evelyn is a moderator on the ScotFamTree forum, and at the recent ScotFamTree forum AGM in Dumbarton, gave a talk on infanticide in Scotland, which was so impressive I asked if she wouldn't mind doing a guest post - and bless her cotton socks, she did!

If you can't find that elusive child, read on, but be warned - it isn't going to be pleasant...!


Many Scottish children who should be playing a part in our history were neither seen nor heard.

Infanticide is a gruesome subject, but one which cannot be ignored. Today's modern woman will be horrified at the mere thought, but, it was actually often interpreted as a primitive form of birth control - but who are we to judge? Many of these women were in desperate circumstances with nowhere else to turn. In Scotland, particularly in the 19th Century, there were more Scots mothers convicted of killing their children, than there were people convicted of murder.

Illegitimacy and infanticide - these subjects appear to go hand in hand with each other. That's not to say it didn't happen within a marriage, it did but to a much lesser extent. Unmarried women who got pregnant were socially excluded(but never the man who got them pregnant in the first place) abortion was illegal, backstreet abortions were dangerous, but it was either that or abandon your child - or worse...

There were many infanticide cases written about in the local rags. The Edinburgh Observer reported such a case in 1822 entitled 'HUMAN ATROCITY'. A young woman from Sunnybrae, Parish of Saline, had recently given birth to an illegitimate child. The newspaper reported that an old woman who lived through the wall from the young woman "was surprised on finding a very disagreeable smell issuing from the fire, and after repeatedly interrogating the sick female, without obtaining any satisfactory answer, turned up the coals, and to her unspeakable horror, found in the midst of them, the half-consumed remains of the unnatural parent's inhumanity."

The newspaper goes on to report that the young woman made good her escape, and "every exertion had been made to discover her, but as yet without success. Her parents are alive and respectable". The last sentence perhaps says it all.

The onset of motherhood without a source of regular financial support, must have been crippling for most of these women, but it was thought better for the parish to support the family, than incur the expense of prosecuting the parent who deserts his offspring, i.e. the father!

These women were mostly offered the poorhouse, but many refused to enter, or remain, which meant they were depriving themselves of all formal support. It was pointed out however, in 1877, by a Sheriff-substitute in Aberdeen, that putative fathers were enabled with impunity to neglect their children because Parochial Boards would not now prosecute them in terms of the poor law act. I say - GIVE THAT MAN A MEDAL FOR POINTING OUT THE OBVIOUS!

Evelyn McCulloch is a moderator on the ScotFamTree discussion forum at, and maintains her own family tree at

Many thanks Evelyn!


Anonymous said...

I think it is easy to look back at yesterday's World with today's eyes & condem.I must say that the men in my lineage were ones who accepted & supported their offspring.One of my GGGGreat-Grandmothers at the 1861 Census has the illegitimate off-spring of two of her daughters & two of her sons living with her & being supported by their parents(both).
I have many ancestors where the wife has died & they have not only cared for & kept their children but also step-children & nieces of the wife too.
Men were raised at that time to believe that they were superior to women.If women became pregnant it was because they had ensnared some poor innocent man as women's sex drive was supposedly driven by the need to procreate & not for any other reason.I have a GGGGGreat-Grandfather who fathers two sons to two different women.He chooses to marry my GGGGGreat-Grandmother but is "forced"? to support his other son who eventually ends up living with him & his wife.

Chris Paton said...

I don't think anonyone is saying that's not the case (the Irish side of my family is riddled with aunts who are really cousins etc!), but infanticide is certainly a horror that was much more prevalent in the 19th century. I've just written an article for a forthcoming Your Family Tree on orphanages, and describe the practice of 'baby farming' in this, and the use of 'killing nurses' - a very profitable scheme for some wet nurses who were paid to look after babies, and who killed them to receive a regular income - often feeding them opium and treacle based potions such as Godfrey’s Cordial.

The Foundling Hospital in London was founded in order "to prevent the frequent murder committed on poor miserable infants by their parents to hide their shame” (from Hospital minutes) - the practice was certainly equally common in Scotland. I think Evelyn's piece points out not always to view things in black and white - if you can't find a death it does not necessarily mean the person emigrated, there could be other options, and some we don't necessarily think of as being possible within our families.