Bessy and John, Part 3: Gossip and Secrets

Today’s thin scatter of houses down the upper Firth mean a stretch of the imagination is required to recreate the busyness of farming, dairying, trading and socializing that characterised life in the series of townships edging the river in the early nineteenth century.  There were lots of people, and they pretty much all knew each other.  It would have been difficult to keep an affair like Bessy and John’s private.  It would have been difficult even to keep an attraction private.  Even before the Kincardine Market in November 1813, a rumour that Bessy was pregnant was flying around.  Somebody told Isobel Munro, the midwife and she passed it to on Christian Ross from Inveran, another midwife, who had already heard the gossip.  This might have been idle gossip between friends, or Isobel might have been ensuring that the person best placed to help was aware of a delicate situation.  The midwives might have been wondering if Bessy would approach them for help.  It is likely that they had some knowledge of abortifacient plants or herbs.  Perhaps Bessy did not know about this possibility or perhaps her embarrassment, denial or worry prevented her from approaching them.  A month or two later, when Bessy’s pregnancy was probably showing, Isobel Munro mentioned the situation to Bessy’s aunt, also called Bessy.  Aunt Bessy was married to John Bethune, tenant at Inveran and the township’s ferryman.  She later said that at ‘the latter end of last winter she heard a report of her niece Bessy MacKay being with child but as such reports are often circulated without foundation [she] paid no attention to it.  Nor did she ever speak to Bessy MacKay upon the subject.  Nor did she ever suspect that such was the case.’  Whatever Isobel Munro’s motivation in discussing the case with her, Aunt Bessy decided to treat it as idle gossip.  The women of Inveran and Invershin watched and talked about Bessy’s changing body but none initiated a conversation with her.  Bessy knew that they knew, having ‘reason to believe that the said Isobel Munro as well as other women in the neighbourhood suspected her being with child although none of them ever spoke to [her] upon the subject’.  Her aunt’s deliberate ignorance and local women’s reticence left the young couple isolated.

ImageInveran, taken from the raised ground where the houses were and looking across the arable land famred by the MacKays.  From the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Perhaps waiting until there could be no doubt about the matter, it was a long time before she told John.  He had already figured it out.  Bessy was probably hoping that her growing signs of pregnancy could be attributed to something else.  This was not unreasonable.  Women often did hard manual labour which, combined with seasonal food shortages, could cause amenorrhea.  Medical conditions such as boils or swellings in the stomach might go unchecked for a long time, also producing symptoms of pregnancy.  Lynn Abrams’ study of Shetland showed that some unmarried women who failed to acknowledge their pregnancy did so because the father had abandoned them or because they had been sexually assaulted.  These were not the case for Bessy.  But other reasons Shetland women concealed their pregnancy may have been motivations for Bessy: if John didn’t marry her, as a single mother she was less likely to marry.  A hasty wedding early in the pregnancy was the obvious solution.  She was perhaps unsure whether he would marry her, or perhaps did not really want to marry him.  She may simply have been in denial, hoping the whole situation would resolve itself.  Or she may have realised that a fully developed child born six months or so after the wedding would not necessarily offer a solution to the second problem that she faced: church discipline.

In 1814 the Church of Scotland still had a role in community regulation.  The Kirk Session, made up of the minister and of elders drawn from the local community, functioned as a small court.  They sometimes prosecuted cases such as theft, but more often they focused on issues of sexual morality: usually fornication and adultery.  The Kirk Session did this to ensure that fathers provided financially, but they were also concerned to punish people found guilty of sex outside of marriage.  Sometimes this involved a fine which went into the Poor Relief fund for the parish, but it often also involved ritual humiliation.  Offenders, male and female, were required to sit at the front of the church for a certain number of Sundays.  The thought of sitting at the front of Creich church in front of family, friends and strangers was a fearful thought, perhaps especially for a young person like Bessy.

Whether due to denial, fear or confusing symptoms, Bessy didn’t tell John until ‘some weeks before her delivery’.  After that she then ‘repeatedly mentioned her situation’ to him.  Whatever they discussed together, they did nothing.  On the morning of 11th February 1814, a Friday, the problem could no longer be ignored.

To be continued…

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

Lynn Abrams, ‘From Demon to Victim: The Infanticidal Mother in Shetland, 1699-1899’ in Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland since 1400, Yvonne Galloway Brown and Rona Ferguson, eds, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002)

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