Bessy and John, Part 7: Consequences

Bessy and the two midwives eventually persuaded John MacKay to tell them where he had buried his dead child.  He confessed that, not knowing what to do with it, he first placed it in Bessy’s trunk.  He then buried it in the workshop at the end of the house.  ‘The members of Session repaired to the workshop and searched for the corpse.’  The body was found at the north wall of the work shop wrapped in Bessy’s lawn napkin.  Alexander Gray, a tenant at nearby Linseidmore and a county constable, ‘carefully put his hands under the earth and lifted up the body of the child and laid it upon the Side of the hole out of which it had been dug.  That the said Bessy MacKay who at this time was [at] the Door flew to the spot and in a frenzied state threw herself upon, embraced and lifted the Infant. And exclaimed “oh my Darling, this is the first sight I saw of you and had I seen you before all the World shod not have parted us” That she pressed the Dead Body to her Breast’.  Immediately ‘those present laid hold her and forced her to give up the child for fear of its being bruised by her and it was with difficulty it could be taken from her; but upon her being assured that she should have liberty to see and embrace the Body of the Infant when it was washed and cleaned she reluctantly parted with it – all that were present in consequence of the manner she embraced her child, were much affected and declared that it was more than probably she had not seen her child till then.  And the poor unfortunate mother has repeatedly declared she did not.  Upon the corpse being taken out of the workshop it was exposed to inspection and the Session finding that no medical man was at hand appointed Isobel Munro midwife at Invershin and Christy Ross midwife at Inveran to inspect the baby.’  The women took the tiny body through to the house, filled a container with cold water and minutely examined it.  They concluded that it was of ‘mature growth’ but there were no ‘marks of violence upon the body’.  ‘Isobel Munro observed that the child’s mouth was shut which is not the case with infants at their birth.’  Having determined that the child was not premature, they now had to decide whether it had been smothered at birth or stillborn.  Isobel ‘opened the Infant’s mouth with her finger and examined it, but found no part of it crushed or broken – only that the lower lip was a little pressed inwards which she conceived might be occasioned by the pressure of the earth over the child.  They were desired to examine the child’s head, jaw bone and sides they did so and found no part of the body crushed or broken.’  Young Mary also retracted her comment about hearing a child’s cry at the time of the birth, so suitable ambiguity was created which might help to protect the young people.


 The nearest building is the rebuilt Dornoch Castle in 1905.  Photo courtesy of Historylinks Image library.

There was, however, clearly a case to answer.  The constable presumably took charge at this point.  John was too sick to get to Dornoch jail on foot so a horse was obtained for him.  They were both imprisoned, probably in what is now the Castle Hotel, for the alleged crime of child murder.  The old tolbooth had been ‘thrown down’ in 1813 and the Duke of Sutherland had offered the use of ‘the Ancient Castle of Dornoch, lately repaired by his Lordship.’  Four years later the surgeons of Tain and Dornoch made an approving report on the jailhouse.  It consisted of ‘two rooms or cellars for the confinement of Criminals on the ground floor, which are roughly flagged, strongly arched above, and well ventilated’.  There were separate rooms for debtors.  All the ‘apartments are provided with good strong beds, necessary boxes and other suitable accommodation.’  We ‘consider the whole well adapted for a Prison.’  Despite these conditions, John was worried about his health.  ‘He is now very weak and in poor health and if confined for any length of time in a loathsome jail he is much afraid that his life shall fall a sacrifice.’  However Robert Mackid, Sheriff Substitute of Sutherland, felt he was the more guilty of the pair and should be kept a prisoner.  He felt that Bessy, partly because of her still-delicate health, was to be granted bail and called as a witness rather than as one of the accused.  Unfortunately the records of the Dornoch jail, although they begin in 1814, commence in April, a month or so after John and Bessy were imprisoned.  Their case was to be heard by the Crown Counsel at the spring circuit at Inverness but their names do not appear.  This, along with a note enclosed in the precognition written by the sheriff stating that he was unwilling to try the case, suggest that both were released without the case coming to court.  The Kirk Session records for Creich, assuming they were kept, no longer exist, so there is no more evidence.

Indeed here both John and Bessy slip out of reach.  There is no Bessy in the 1841 census for Creich.  Either she had died or no longer lived in the parish.  A 50 year old John MacKay worked at nearby Airdens as an agricultural labourer.  He could have been our man or one of the many other John MacKays in Sutherland.  Searches of death records and marriage records in the parish have also been unproductive.  All we know are negatives: neither died in the parish and neither were living at Inveran in 1841.  So what happened to young Bessy and John after their brush with romance, murder charges and imprisonment remains, like the lives of so many ordinary people two centuries ago, a mystery.  We have at least seen something.  Without this unhappy incident we might never have known of their existence, or that of Aunt Bessy, the midwives, or the little servant girl who all played their role in the melodrama at Inveran.

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

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