On 9th March Thomas Munro, missionary minister in the parish, rode from his home in Invershin to express his concerns about the gossip surrounding Bessy MacKay’s missing baby to Murdo Cameron, the parish minister of Creich. Five days after their meeting Murdo saddled up and set out for Invershin to make some enquiries. The situation was now out in the open. That evening Bessy called in on Isobel Munro. Having no mother, and an aunt and father who were in denial, the older, sensible, no-nonsense midwife was the best person to talk it out with. The next morning, the sixteenth, the minister called an extraordinary meeting of the Kirk Session in Inveran to investigate the case. Alexander Gray was sent for. He was a man of many parts who held land in tenancy at Wester Linseidmore, as well as being the Kirk Session officer and a Constable for the County of Sutherland. He was joined by two other elders, an Alexander Ross and an Andrew MacKay. MacKay was a fellow tenant at Inveran and probably Bessy’s uncle. Isobel Munro was asked to attend as a witness due to her midwife expertise. Isobel arrived in Inveran early and popped in to Aunt Bessy’s house. Young Bessy was there, ‘crying and in tears’. Aunt Bessy began declaring that she had ‘never heard anything of the story that was in circulation regarding her niece’s being with child or of her delivery’. Aunt Bessy had clearly foreseen this day, and all her ignoring of the gossip and of events was leading up to this protestation. Isobel was having none of this nonsense: ‘oh! Fie! Fie! woman shame and disgrace that [you] should pretend not to have heard what was currently reported in the place’. Knowing fine well that it had been Aunt Bessy who had organised most of the aftercare for young Bessy, Isobel added ‘it was impossible such a thing could have taken place without her knowledge.’ Isobel told young Bessy quite firmly, perhaps reminding her of the previous evening’s conversation, that it would be better for her to make a full confession to the Session. Isobel had decided that honesty was the best policy and perhaps also realised that confession and repentance through the Kirk Session had in the past allowed other women in Bessy’s situation, assuming they were not found guilty of child murder, to have their standing in the community restored.
Isobel walked across to the house where the Session was gathered. She was first to answer their questions and to give her expert opinion on stillbirth. Stillbirth was clearly going to be the line of defence, leaving Bessy only to face the much lesser crime of ‘concealment of pregnancy’. After Isobel’s examination came Bessy’s. She followed Isobel’s advice and acknowledged that she had been pregnant, that she had delivered a child, and that John was the father. They asked her why she concealed her pregnancy and, rather poignantly, she explained that no-one had asked her so she did not tell. Her defence was that she believed the child had died in utero. The Session then had to question John, but he was ill in bed.
The elders, Bessy and both midwives trooped across to the MacKay house. The minister and the elders went into the bedroom and closed the door behind them. John confessed that he was the father. They asked him when he first had ‘criminal connection’ with Bessy and when he said that it was the previous April. Bessy, who was listening at the door, realised her hastily cobbled-together defence of one sexual experience, a premature birth and a stillborn child was falling apart. She ‘burst into the Room where the Session sat and heaving seated herself on the side of the Bed in which MacKay was then lying she exclaimed “no no that is not true. I must not allow that. You must not murder me at once.”’ and she said that he had ‘no criminal connection with her till the week of the Kincardine Market’. Bessy ‘was in a rage and seemed much agitated.’ The minister ordered her to ‘quit the room’ but she refused so he ordered two of the men to remove her. She was promised that as soon as ‘they had finished John MacKay’s declaration she should be called in and made acquainted with everything he had mentioned regarding her.’ She reluctantly left just as John ‘stated in a low tone of voice, that whatever she said he would swear to’. John had taken charge at the birth but now, as he lay sick, Bessy took the lead. The Session was thorough in their questions, trying to find out if the baby was premature and therefore likely to have been stillborn. They asked about how fully formed it was; was it light or heavy; whether it had fingernails or hair; whether it was alive or dead. He insisted it was dead and that Bessy had been too faint to be aware of it. Then he stopped answering questions, said he was faintish and called for a drink of water. John was reluctant to be drawn on where the baby might be. Bessy knew the body had been a few days in the trunk but didn’t know what he had done with it after. So the two midwives and Bessy went in to the bedroom and tried to persuade him to tell them what he had done with it. Christian Ross used every argument she could concoct but all she got out of him was a claim that he ‘had thrown it into the River’ near where the ferry crosses. Bessy objected, exclaiming that he had not. Eventually he told them.
The river ‘near where the ferry crosses’. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.
National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814
Deborah A. Symonds, Weep not for Me: Women, Ballads and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland, (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)