The residents of both Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire have a chequered past, but thanks to the burghs and institutions which kept records of wrong-doers, we can now cast an eye over some of the more unsavoury characters who lived in days gone by.
More than a source of historical shame, these are the stories which can light up a family’s history and provide a fuller picture of lives.
Witchcraft needs an article to itself. 1597 was the year in Aberdeen which saw many women – as well as men – accused of practising witchcraft, with 24 being hanged and then burnt at the stake. The ‘crimes’ they were accused of committing include making love potions, curing sick animals, killing sick animals, murder, dancing with the devil, and many more.
Some of the charges brought against Janet Lucas of Pitmurchie involved an incident alleged to have occurred on Halloween in 1596. It was said that she was with a group of around eight people assembled at a stone at the foot of Cragleuch and were under the control of the Devil. The group were dancing in a ring while he was ‘playing melodiously upone ane instruments’. Not content with just dancing, however, it was said that the Devil ‘beand in liknes of ane beist’ had influence over the people present, and was thus able to have his way with them.
Janet, though found guilty of witchcraft, was not sentenced to death. She was instead banished from the Sherrifdom of Aberdeen and told that if she was found within 12 miles of the boundary following her sentencing, she would be executed as a witch.
There are less serious crimes littered throughout the Archives which show that people’s behaviour has not really changed much over the centuries. Many people were arrested for being drunk and disorderly, such as Edward Goodwin from Inverurie. The Inverurie magistrates recorded that they had ‘heard complaints from several of the inhabitants […] against John Smith, blacksmith & Edward Goodwin, son of Samuel Goodwin, innkeeper […] for a breach of the public peace and a gross prophination of the Sabbath day’. They were said to have been ‘cursing and quarrelling’ and putting ‘several of said inhabitants in fear’.
The following day Edward Goodwin appeared before the magistrates for his punishment. He was fined £5 Sterling and ordered to ‘keep the peace for twelve months’, much like the suspended sentences of today.
The burgh of Old Aberdeen also appears to have been a hotbed of nuisances, and disagreements between residents are often recorded. Eavesdropping, for example, was not looked kindly upon.
In 1751 a complaint was made by Isobell Chalmers against Katherine Ross. Isobell had left her house, leaving her husband and her mother at home while she ran an errand. On her return, she could see Katherine Ross leaning in at her window listening to what was being said inside. Isobell told Katherine that it was ‘not honest like fashion to use such behaviour’ to which Katherine responded by calling Isobell a ‘nasty slute’.
The disagreement continued over to the following day, when Katherine again verbally abused Isobell. Isobell was told that ‘the name of Chalmers was never lucky for they come in at the end of the town & would go out very soon at the other to their little credit’. Thinking then that Katherine was going to strike her with a tea kettle she was carrying, Isobell ‘in a passion flew upon her & tore her much but neither struck nor blooded her’.
Isobell’s husband, George Fraser, also made statements against Katherine to the magistrates, saying that he had told her not to use such language, to which Katherine told him ‘ye neasty like knave, I would not fash myself with the choise of your kin, D’eill speed the fall of you’.
Katherine was found guilty by the magistrates, though what grudge she held against the Chalmers may never be known!
Crimes such as fornication or to give it its dictionary definition, having sexual intercourse with someone one is not married to, appears frequently in the records. In the 17th century the St Nicholas Kirk Session Accounts record those fined for this practice, though none were perhaps as blatant as Thomas Fraser, an apprentice mason. He will forever be recorded as being fined 2 shillings and 8 pence ‘for sclander of fornicatione committit…in the south door of the kirk’ – perhaps not the most inconspicuous of places.
Though Aberdeen City Archives do not hold the records of the Church of Scotland for Aberdeenshire parishes, there is a project in place by the National Archives of Scotland to digitise these records and make them available online. Kirk session records are a goldmine of information – the church was involved in many aspects of people’s lives, and if they misbehaved there is a good chance they would appear before the session for punishment.
Vandalism, while perhaps seen as a more modern crime, nonetheless appears throughout the ages. For example, the Register of Cases tried in the Police Court of Turriff show that schoolboys Colin McRae and Alexander Edward Barclay, both living at Mains Building, Backhill, Turriff, were lucky to simply be ‘admonished and dismissed’ when they appeared on 25 February 1901.
They were accused of ‘Placing [an] obstruction on [the] Railway’, something which still goes on today, sometimes with serious consequences. Also included in the register are people who are charged with being drunk in charge of a horse, tobogganing in the street, and riding a bike without a light. r
It is records such as these which show how little behaviour in North-East towns has changed over the last century.
Teenage pregnancy is also nothing new, as the archives show. One example from the Logie Buchan General Register of the Poor involves 19-year-old Elspeth Helen Thomas Philip, who began receiving poor relief from Logie Buchan in August 1898. She was a domestic servant, recorded as living at 20 Whitehouse Street in Aberdeen. She was able to claim from the Logie Buchan Parochial Board as she had been born in the parish. Her notes record that by December 1898 she was ‘in the East Poorhouse in Aberdeen – she had an illegitimate child about the middle of August to a married man, who had a wife and 3 children. Told her to book a situation [i.e. get a job] and board out her child’. Her record states she was no longer entitled to any help from May 1899.
There is no mention of the father in Elspeth’s case being asked to contribute to the upkeep of the child, unlike entries in a series of records for Aberdeen called the Enactment Books. For example, in 1706 a John Jeans is recorded as being ordered to ‘maintain & educat ane child given in uncleanness’ with Chrystian Chrystie. He also had to pay for ‘her board and maintain her work cloathes’ – the forerunner to the Child Support Agency perhaps?
These records also contain a more sobering event involving two women, Anna Durward and Margaret Campbell. They are recorded in 1742 as having ‘been for these severall years past in the Tolbooth of Aberdeen for being accused of murdering their own Children’.
The entry does not say where they were from or exactly how long they had been in the Tolbooth, but it was decided that they were ‘to depart furth of Scotland and transport themselves to some of his Majestys Plantations in America and that they shall never return therfrom or be found in Scotland after the first day of November Next under the pain of being again apprehended and imprisoned […] and therto be detained for the space of three monthes and publickly scourged upon a Market day’.
Murder can also appear in records which are not generally related to crime. In December of 1800 Strathdon was gripped by a murder hunt following ‘a most atrocious and cruel murder [which] was committed upon the body of Finlay Farquharson, servant to Donald Stewart in Mains of Skellater on the night between the 14th and 15th current’.
The Aberdeen County Commissioners of Supply – who were mainly concerned with collecting tax at that time – recorded at their meeting on 20 December that ‘Paul Michie in Coriehoul in the Parish of Strathdon is strongly suspected of being guilty thereof’ and agreed that a reward of 100 guineas should be given to ‘any person or persons who will apprehend the said Paul Michie or give such information to the Sherriff or Procurator Fiscall of this county as may enable them to cause him to be apprehended and lodged in any jail’.
The Aberdeen Journal published a description of Paul Michie, and he next appears in a record held at the National Archives for Scotland where there is a note of his trial which took place on 10 April 1801. He was found guilty in his absence, was outlawed and denounced as a rebel.
It is not, therefore, just the great and the good who can be found within the archives; it is people who by some circumstance have had the misfortune to forever be recorded for either committing a wrongdoing or having a wrongdoing committed against them.
This is just a brief glimpse of what the different types of records can show and how they can open a window into how people lived their lives. Stories such as these make family and local history utterly fascinating, and the North-East is lucky to have such a rich source of information on its doorstep.
Fiona Musk is an archivist with Aberdeen City Archives. She has worked in the archives since 2005 and is always amazed at the different types of stories uncovered in the records.Tweet
This is an article from the October 2009 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.