- Girls in Trouble: Sexuality and Social Control in Rural Scotland, 1660–1780
Fortunately for historians, if not for the Scots themselves, the Church of Scotland was rigorously, not to say obsessively, concerned with the sexual conduct of [End Page 474] its flock. One consequence of this concern was public penance for those who offended its restrictive moral code. Happily for us, however, this concern also resulted in the production and survival of a remarkable, and remarkably detailed, set of kirk session records which expose the “deviant” sex lives of early modern rural Scots.
Rosalind Mitchison and Leah Leneman, two distinguished social historians, carefully examined these records. Of the 900 or so parishes which existed in Scotland, they selected 78 for analysis, which they grouped into five general regions. The 78 were selected because of the quality and duration of surviving records. Altogether, they cover the major rural regions of Scotland. The time frame was very much a consequence of the material itself: too much social disruption prior to 1660 renders the Civil War years relatively impervious to such a careful study, while the decline of church discipline after 1780 would render it less meaningful.
But for the 120 years studied, the force of Church discipline appears to have been the dominant feature of Scottish life. Indeed, one is tempted to remark that if contemporary Prussia resembled a state attached to an army, Scotland resembled a state attached to a church. Big brother (or John Knox) was always watching: one could not even move to another parish without bringing a certificate of good behavior. Church spies regularly returned pregnant girls and their hapless or irresponsible lovers to the parish where the “original sin” had been committed. A concealed pregnancy was considered tantamount to the crime of infanticide.
Quite sensibly, and much to our benefit, Mitchison and Leneman chose to situate their study within a larger context. The first two chapters explore the structure of the Scottish Church and the changing economic and social settings which existed in these 78 parishes over the 120 years under study. The next two chapters explore both the regular and the irregular marriages of the time. It was of the utmost importance for the kirk to identify real, but irregular or clandestine, marriages through documentation. Only then could habitual fornication be safely distinguished from marital sexuality. These chapters also illustrate the continued existence of a rowdy popular folk culture sometimes at odds with the kirk. Finally we are treated to two chapters which present first the quantitative, and then, the qualitative, evidence gleaned from the session records. Finally we look at the response of the Scots to the kirk’s authority in these situations.
For such a slender volume, the reader is occasionally overwhelmed by the wealth of facts presented. The two authors remain cautious in their interpretations, which means they have given us a rich field for futher exploration. Still, we learn that Scottish illegitimacy during this period of rigourous church discipline was considerably lower than what was revealed in the nineteenth century when civil registration began. Prenuptial conceptions also appear to have been remarkably low. We also learn that the penalties enforced on men ameliorated to some degree the harshness for women of the sexual double standard. One of the remarkable findings of this book was the frequency with which men confessed to their sins, even though that might mean the paying of both public penance and child support. But even the Church had trouble with issues of class supremacy. Lairds and aristocrats, already disaffected, were the only identifiable group to resist church discipline. [End Page 475]
A few minor caveats remain. Regional variations could have benefitted from further explanation. Most readers would have appreciated a map of Scotland identifiying the parishs, counties and regions so familiar to the authors. And because the preponderance of evidence comes from those who sinned, the reader has to exercise a discipline of her own to remember that all these couplings in the haystacks, alehouses, highways and biways of...