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

Bessy and John, Part 5: The Truth will Out

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)