After a pregnancy rife with rumour, gossip and denial, Bessy had given birth with John fending off any outside interference. John had secreted away the body of the dead infant. The women of the township simultaneously cared for the young woman while sustaining a fiction of ignorance. Childbirth was usually a communal female event. Pooling expertise helped protect mother and baby, as well as providing moral and emotional support. Giving birth alone was highly unusual and it was dangerous, especially for a first time mother. Although Bessy had cut herself off from the community of women who would normally have offered help and advice, without speaking to her about what happened they nonetheless gathered around to look after her. A stream of women appeared at the door of the MacKay house: Aunt Bessy; Christian Ross the midwife, Janet, widow of Alexander Bethune the shopkeeper; and Aunt Margaret. As Margaret MacKay lived some twenty miles away at Lairg of Tain, her visit was not casual. It seems likely she had heard about her niece’s predicament and had come to render what assistance she could.
The wintry landscape through which Aunt Margaret would have travelled to get from Lairg of Tain to Inveran. Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.
Despite later claiming to know nothing about a pregnancy or a birth, ignorance which was perhaps wise in the case of a mysteriously disappeared infant, Aunt Bessy saw her niece twice after the delivery. During the first visit the girl was ill and in bed and did not confide in her aunt. The experienced eyes of Aunt Bessy were not reassured by what she saw and she called on Christian Ross, the Inveran midwife. Her aunt explained that young Bessy was ‘lying very ill a-bed’. The problem was that in order to treat her, Christian needed to know details about the birth or about how Bessy’s body had been responding since. That conversation could not happen without both women openly acknowledging that there had been a birth but that there was no baby. Christian was reluctant to attend the girl, ‘being apprehensive of after trouble’. ‘After trouble’ was very likely. While the ritual humiliation of Kirk Session discipline was deeply unpleasant, the mysterious disappearance of a baby could bring a more serious charge.
Since 1690 the Act Anent Child Murder presumed that a woman who concealed a pregnancy; who did not ask for help at birth; and whose child was missing or dead; was guilty of murder. If found guilty, she would be hanged. Bessy fell into all three categories. By the middle of the century extreme punishments, such as death, were very rare. Attitudes were changing, and gradually the public began to see such women as victims of circumstances rather than murdering monsters. In 1809 the statute was revoked, and the crime became concealment of pregnancy. This bore a punishment of a maximum of two years in jail. This is the law under which Bessy and John could be prosecuted. Understandably, Christian Ross did not want to be mixed up in a prosecution. She may also have been reluctant for Bessy to incriminate herself through talking to her. However, the girl became dangerously ill and Christian relented. She visited on Wednesday 16th February 1814, six days after the birth. Christian tied a napkin about Bessy’s middle and examined her breasts, concluding that she needed ‘to be taken care of’. Inspecting her breasts helped confirm that the girl had indeed given birth, but there was already little doubt about that in people’s minds. For the first time Bessy spoke to someone other than John about what had happened. Bessy talked, Christian treated her, and Bessy recovered. The conspiracy of silence continued, although it was perhaps now a desperate attempt to protect Bessy and John, and in the hope that the authorities might not find out. Soon gossip was to erupt, perhaps inevitably, into something more dangerous.
Thomas Munro was a missionary preacher living in Invershin. Missionaries were assigned to large Highland parishes to help the minister. As well as preaching, catechising and visiting the sick, part of their job was to supervise the behaviour of people in their district and report offenders to the Kirk Session. The Kirk Session dealt with church business, but it also operated as the lowest court in the land, referring more serious cases to the civil courts. This case potentially involved both the moral offence of fornication and the criminal offence of child murder. An active Kirk Session could be very powerful and controlling in a locality, and in some places this power appears to have developed into a puerile fascination with people’s sexual lives. However, it seems that Invershin’s missionary minister had steadfastly ignored the rumours of pregnancy for months. ‘A story had gone abroad and made some noise in that part of the Country that Bessy MacKay … had been with child some time before and that it was believed she had been delivered of the said child but that no trace was left of where it was or what had become of it.’ The shared surname and place of residence suggests that Thomas was brother to Isobel, Invershin’s midwife. Recognising that elders, missionary ministers and even ministers were often closely connected with parishioners, means church discipline starts to look less like straightforward, top-down institutional power, and more like community regulation with the authority of the church behind it. Sympathy for Bessy and John’s circumstances might have led Thomas Munro to ignore the illicit pregnancy but, after a month of thinking about it, he decided the possibility of murder could not 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)
Elizabeth Ritchie, ‘“A Palmful of Water for your Years”: Babies, Religion and Gender Identity among Crofting Families, 1800-1850’ in Jodi Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan and Heather Parker (eds) The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Family, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond (University of Guelph, Ontario, 2011)
Deborah A. Symonds, Weep not for Me: Women, Ballads and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland, (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)