- Women and Violent Crime in Enlightenment Scotland
Female serial killers, women suicide bombers and the increasing number, and escalating violence, of girl gangs in the late twentieth century force us to question powerful cultural stereotypes that women are inherently non-aggressive. Women are more commonly cast as the victim of violent behaviour, not the aggressor, and yet female violence, which is still regarded as an aberration, is not a recent phenomenon as Kilday’s book on lowland women’s violent criminality between 1750 and 1815 makes clear. Using the records of the Scottish Justiciary Court, which indicted the most violent offenders and a disproportionate number of female criminals, Kilday argues that in contrast to popular belief, women’s violent behaviour was not marginal. Of the 1990 Scots who were brought before this supreme court indicted for violent offences in the sixty–five year period, 696 were women. Their involvement in violent homicide, infanticide, assault, popular disturbances, such as food riots and anti-patronage riots, and robbery are examined, along with the judicial response. Each chapter provides the legal context and is followed by defining characteristics of the women indicted. Statistics are used liberally to provide compelling evidence that lowland women were more belligerent than popular understandings of women as the ‘fair’ or ‘gentle’ sex would have us believe. In addition to the inclusion of quantitative data, individual cases for each crime are described. We hear about the gory antics of Isobel McLean who attacked her husband and ‘cutt off his private member to the great effusion of his blood’ (p.48), midwife Jean Inglis’ disembowelling of a woman in labour with a broken bottle and Catherine MacDonald’s spade attack on her newborn baby whose mangled corpse was fed to a dog.
Evidence from the Justiciary Court leads Kilday to suggest that the levels of violence employed by lowland women were unmatched in their brutality and ferocity. Those who committed infanticide did so in a very brutal and bloody way, much more than their English and Irish sisters, who rarely used violence and seldom shed blood. Female robbers participated actively, dispensing violence liberally and with evident pleasure, rather than playing subsidiary roles, acting as decoys for male associates as research has shown for Surrey, Essex and Cheshire. Lowland women were indicted for attacking men as well as women, which was uncommon, and during food riots they were violent towards people and not just property as studies of England and France have shown. Kilday also demonstrates that the judicial response to the unique excessiveness of lowland women’s violent criminality was much harsher than experienced by women in other areas. Scottish women were much more likely to be convicted and hanged and their corpses publicly dissected and anatomised. It is this comparative analysis emphasising regional specificities that is a key strength of Kilday’s book. [End Page 356]
Such findings lead Kilday to assert that indicted lowland women were more aggressive than their European counterparts. They seemingly rejected feminine ideals and normalised the violence they witnessed around them. She suggests that possible explanations for the belligerence of Scottish women was their greater access to the public sphere, more frequent interaction with men and Calvinist teachings of pre-destination, which may have led some women to believe that they were already damned. And yet having asserted throughout that lowland women were more violent than other European women, her final four pages undertake a ‘U-turn’. The assertive voice Kilday speaks with throughout is suddenly tempered with the repeated inclusion of the word ‘perhaps’. Applying Norbert Elias’ concept of the ‘civilising process’, she puts forward an alternative suggestion: ‘instead of it being the case that lowland women were distinctively more violent than women elsewhere... perhaps it dawned upon Scotland’s ruler that in order to promote and emphasise the “enlightened” nature of the Scottish nation after 1750, the lingering “dark side” of the pre-Enlightenment had to be publicly exposed and eradicated’ (p. 154). Thus the apparent excess of lowland women’s violence was more a...