Forgotten Scots

Forgotten Scots

The phonecall to Scotland from the south of England came out of the blue.  

The caller, a stranger to me, was trying to trace his family tree. He suspected that his grandparents and mine were neighbours on the Island of Mull in the early 1900s, and could I confirm that? I couldn't, but it seemed plausible. I offered to check the 1901 census in the “Scotland’s People” website and, sure enough, there they were. I called back with the news and mentioned in passing that his family had a ‘boarder’ living with them at the time. Did he know what that meant? He didn’t, so I explained.  I didn't stop to ask if he was interested, in case he wasn't.  

Scotland in 1901 was still engaged in a neat piece of social engineering, which began in 1845 with the Poor Law Amendment Act and ended only in 1968. As an alternative to the poorhouse, many ‘orphaned or abandoned’ children were sent to crofts and small farms in remote parts of Scotland. The idea was that there they would be brought up, well away from evil influences such as their parents. The new guardians received a small weekly payment and a handy source of farm labour, the children avoided the 'taint of pauperism' and it was 25% cheaper to fund, so it was win - win - win. One report from the Local Government Board for Scotland claimed triumphantly that, of the children orphaned or abandoned in 1894, 84% had been 'boarded out'. 

As with the similarly re-located ‘Forgotten Australians’ to whom British and Australian governments eventually apologised in 2009, the terms ‘orphaned and abandoned’ were elastic. They could stretch to include children who had been neither orphaned nor abandoned, but were children of destitute parents or unmarried mothers. A lie perhaps, but only a white one  - not as bad as the sin of poverty and definitely not as reprehensible as the double sin of being poor and a single mum - 'morally deficient', to use the nice phrase sometimes used to justify incarceration of such unhappy girls. 

 Unlike the Forgotten Australians, the Scots ‘boarders’ were neither institutionalised nor brutalised. Most did well in their new families and, in time, played a full and honourable part in their communities. Memory rightly faded into history, except perhaps for themselves and their mums, but that was a small price to pay for a  successful social experiment. 

 “Would you like me to read out the names on the census record?” I asked.

 “Yes please.” 

 “OK. There’s …" and I read out the list - name, age, relationship, profession, birthplace etc., finishing with ‘James Wright … boarder’.  

There was a gasp at the other end. 

 “James Wright? Good grief! These are my middle names!” 

 We hung up, unspoken thoughts reverberating like distant thunder. I have no intention of trying to find out the circumstances which led to someone's grandson being given the names of a boarder as his middle names. No doubt someone else will do that, but my eye scanned the census page with a new intensity. There were my father, my uncles and aunts, my grandparents and, still living with them, my great-grandmother - nine people packed into a house recorded in the census as having only three rooms with a window! I was already aware of all of these, but there was a tenth name on the list, which was new to me - Peter MacIntyre!  I followed the line along.... 'Boarder'!

 So ... my own family had a boarder I knew nothing about. Further along .... the usual information, then the second-last column, normally blank, had something scrawled in it - "Imbecile"!

 That column was recording disabilities - four categories: 'deaf and dumb', 'blind', 'lunatic', 'imbecile / feeble-minded'.  It would be difficult enough to allocate partially affected individuals to the first two, but who could disentangle the fine and probably mythical distinctions implied in the others and decide that someone, noted as bilingual in Gaelic and English, was 'imbecile' …… and why the silence?

 I gave up that disturbing line of thought, but family research becomes compulsive and the urge to find out more about Peter himself was irresistible.

 He turns up in the statutory birth records as the 'illegitimate' (no verbal squeamishness here!) son of 16-year-old Catherine MacIntyre, a domestic servant on a prosperous farm in mainland Argyllshire. Mysteriously, Catherine is named as both mother and father on the birth certificate. By the age of 7, he has already been 'boarded out' to another farm in a remote glen, but we know this only because the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) tracked him down there for their own version of the 1881 census. Mormons believe they can be baptized on behalf of distant and long deceased relatives and so are assiduous genealogical researchers. Official UK Censuses seem to be less diligent however, because Peter is 'forgotten' by them until 20 years later he appears as a boarder with the Blacks in 1901.

 Exactly when he was removed from his mother's care is unknown, but at a guess it would be conveniently early - long before aged 7.  When and why he moved from the mainland to Mull is another unknown. Not unknown, however, is that he was still with the Blacks when he died of pneumonia and heart failure aged 29 in 1903.

 What about his mum, Catherine? She remained in domestic service to the same household until the last few days of her life, when she was taken in by a married sister and cared for as she passed through the fire of what used to be called 'childbed fever' (puerperal pyrexia) in a final, fatal pregnancy. She died, aged only 25. Peter seems to have been her only child, however, searching through the records to confirm this, the terms 'domestic servant' and 'illegitimate' began to jump off the pages because of the regularity with which they appeared together on birth records. History repeats itself. One generation back to Peter's grandmother, the record tells the tale - Catherine McPhail is a 21-year-old 'domestic servant' in mainland Argyllshire. She dies in childbirth, her body too wasted by tuberculosis to cope with the birth, but the baby survives and is named Catherine after her mum and McIntyre after her dad, Donald McIntyre, ploughman. The certificate bears the mark, 'illegitimate'.

It is tempting and probably legitimate to speculate about who exactly was ‘morally deficient’ in this recurrent pattern of illegitimate births to domestic servants. 'Droit du Seigneur' is a tempting thought, but one fact should be borne in mind. To be in farm work (like Peter’s grandfather) or domestic service (like his mother and grandmother) was to be among the poorest. Falling in love, getting married and setting up home together was a luxury beyond the reach of most.

 When boarder Peter MacIntyre died, my father was only 6. Although he never mentioned Peter's name, as far as I recall, something sticks in my own memory. Our family knew several 'boarders' around that part of Mull in the 1950s. They were easily identified because they didn't share the same surname as the families with whom they lived. But in my boyhood eyes, they seemed just good friends of my family and today, I am proud of that. I cherish the hope that it means that Peter MacIntyre was not entirely forgotten, at least in my father's mind. 

Why am I writing this down? Simply because, however forgetful Bonny Scotland may be of some of her sons and daughters, I can do this one, belated, small thing on behalf of my family, to honour the memory of Peter MacIntyre, his mum Catherine, her Good Samaritan sister and  indirectly thousands of other forgotten Scots.

 Domhnal Dubh (Some personal details have been withheld for the sake of privacy.)

Chapter 1: Before Crofting (pre-1814)

Chapter 2: Mull's Triple Whammie (1814 - 1850)

Chapter 3: Ardtun (1850 – 1914)

Chapter 4: Crofting Life

Chapter 5: Educated Non-conformists

Chapter 6: A Second Clearance (1914 onwards)

Chapter 7: Deja Vue all over again


Forgotten Scots