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The effectiveness of public rebuke?

The Kirk Session of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland played a major role in policing the behaviour of parishioners in past times. Fornicators, adulterers, drunkards, sabbath-breakers, quarrelsome characters and the like (see  Walls Kirk Session records for examples) could be called to account for their behaviour, fined and eventually readmitted to communion. Public rebuke, chiefly for fornicators and adulterers, meant standing outside the kirk door in penitence for several Sundays as the congregation arrived or sitting on the ‘stool of repentance’ during public worship as an object of shame. The Black Stool (also known as Presbyterian Penance)  a painting by David Allen (1744-1796) illustrates this.

Did it work? In 1791 James Scott, minister of Benholm, Kincardineshire, considered that “the rebuking of persons guilty of fornication in public was not only hurtful to the feelings of many of the Hearers; but in his opinion had often been the occasion of child murder and had a tendency to root out the remains of shame in the culprit rather than to deter others from the like fault”.1 The Kirk Session agreed with him and it was decided that “persons guilty of fornication should in future be rebuked only before the Session & pay twenty shillings of penalty… for behalf of the Poor of the Parish”. (Scott also stated that the practice was falling into disuse; I’d be interested in examples from other parishes.) Robert Burns’ poem, The Fornicator, provides anecdotal evidence that public shaming was ineffective in amending behaviour.

But the fear of public shaming could lead not only to child murder, as James Scott claimed, but also to suicide. That may be part of the background to Betty Corrigall’s lonely grave, a well-known landmark on the island of Hoy, Orkney.

Photo of Betty Corrigall's grave

Betty Corrigall’s grave

Betty was a young woman, aged 17 or 27, from Little Cletts or Greengears (details vary) in the parish of Walls, Orkney, who found herself pregnant and abandoned by the father who had gone off to sea. After a failed first attempt to take her own life by drowning, she hanged herself, so great was her desperation. As a suicide she could not be buried on consecrated ground so her grave is on the border of the parishes of Walls and Hoy. These events are said to have taken place in the late 1770s. There are no extant Kirk Session or burial records from the parish of Walls at this time but the terrible events were clearly deeply etched in community memory. Betty’s coffin was discovered by peat cutters in the 1930s and eventually, in 1976, a fibreglass gravestone erected. The fuller story is told in many places.3

General disapproval may have been as significant as the fear of public rebuke in poor Betty Corrigall’s case of course.

1 Benholm Kirk Session Minutes. 5 March 1791. CH2/33/2. National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh
2 ibid.
3 Three slightly different accounts of Betty Corrigall’s story:  Orkneyjar.com (slightly wrong – Greengears still exists as a ruin) Cantickhead.com and Women of Scotland

Grandma’s elderflower wine

Jessie Sclater, my grandma, and her sisters, “the aunties o Kebro”, were all very competent women: working on the farm, managing the house, baking, cooking, brewing and, in grandma’s case, making elderflower wine. Nothing evokes the long, light, summer days of my Orkney childhood like the fragrant, sparkling taste of grandma’s elderflower wine. Food and drink are very much part of the meat of family history, if you will excuse the pun.

Jessie Sclater as a young woman

Jessie Sclater (1887-1970) as a young woman

Grandma began making elderflower wine in the early 1940s after the family moved from Hogarth, Rendall, to take up the tenancy of Yarpha, home farm of the Smoogro estate in Orphir, the parish where both my grandparents were born and grew up. James, my grandfather, bought the farm after owner and author J Storer Clouston’s death.

Conditions were perfect for elderflower wine: many boor trees, as they are called in Orkney, (sambucus nigra is the botanical name) grew around Yarpha; there was a cool dairy for storage of the maturing drink; and above all the presence of a thrifty and industrious woman. “Thee faither wurked haird but thee mither wurked even hairder”, as another Orcadian said to my mother.

An elderflower head or two

Elderflower heads

In later years my mother and two aunts made the drink and I have been making it for some time too. I hope my nephew and niece will follow suit, maintaining the tradition. I should say that it is a not an alcoholic drink, at least not at the stage where we drank it as children, though it can become rather explosive, bursting glass bottles on occasion, particularly in hot weather.

Until yesterday it had been a poor summer so far this year in Scotland, not least in Orkney, so the elderflowers are late. Here is grandma’s recipe is you want to give it a try. All in imperial measures.

Grandma’s elderflower wine recipe

2 gallons of cold water (16 imperial pints)
3 pounds of white sugar
3 lemons
3 tablespoons of white vinegar
4 elderflower heads (I usually add more – 6 or even 8 depending on size)

Wash the lemons and cut in half, squeeze the juice, add the juice and lemon halves to the water along with the sugar and vinegar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Give the elderflower heads a good shake to remove any wildlife(!) but do not wash, add to the mix and stir again. Cover with a cloth and leave to steep for a day (24 hours). Give the lemon halves a final squeeze and stir the mixture again then strain through muslin (cheesecloth) and bottle. Plastic bottles are OK, glass bottles are better; screw tops or well fitting push-in tops are essential. Store in a cool place though some heat is needed in the first few weeks to get the fizzy going. [Update:  for some reason, the “fizz” is very slow to work this year and I’m having to keep the bottles in the kitchen for several weeks. You will need to see how things go for you.} Once the drink is fizzy,  I store half in fridge and half in the house for a week and then swap over. Might be ready to drink after about a fortnight; taking much longer this year. It is sweet and slightly fizzy but not at all alcoholic at this stage. It probably does become alcoholic with long keeping. Enjoy.

The black sheep of the family?

My great great uncle Nicol Slater was the black sheep of the family. He left his young family in Orkney, went off to Canada and never returned. The name Nicol, shared with his father and grandfather, was not used again for two generations.

I’d assumed that he left and never contacted his family again so I was astonished, and very pleased, to see him listed, with his siblings, in a series of sasines (property transactions) from 1920, almost 30 years after he emigrated. And not just his name, but also where he lived: Ceylon, Martin County, Minnesota, USA. So he was still in contact with the family after all. My research antennae were really twitching now and I had to know more.

Born in 1861, Nicol was the seventh child of Nicol and Barbara S(c)later. His grandfather, Nicol, who died in 1875, left him the small farm of Nether Scows, Orphir, as he was his ‘name son’, but Nicol became a carpenter and then farmed at the Glebe, Orphir, before he emigrated. He married Margaret Stevenson in 1885 and by the time he left Glasgow, bound for Winnipeg, Manitoba, on 13 June 1891, she was pregnant with their fourth child. Far from ideal, but was he going to find a better life for them all?

If that was the aim, it is certainly not how it was conveyed to later generations. Margaret, Nicol’s wife, died in 1907. On her death registration ‘phthisis exhaustion’ (TB) was noted as the cause of death; family lore attributed it to a broken heart. Late in 1908, the two sons, aged 17 and 19, set off for New Zealand. Thomas, the older son, was a rifleman in the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade and died at Passchendaele (3rd battle of Ypres) on 12 October 1917. The two sisters, Barbara and Maggie, remained in Orkney.

Nicol himself moved from Canada to the USA in 1892 (1894 or 1900 according to two censuses) and had his own business as a carpenter and contractor in Minnesota as early as 1900. By the 1910 census his status had changed from married to widower, again evidence of contact with family in Orkney. And where was he in both the 1910 and 1920 censuses? Ceylon, Martin County, Minnesota of course. Curiously, in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses, his first name was recorded as Nickolas or Nicklas, but taking all the information I was collecting together, it definitely was him.

In 1921, aged 60, he married Martha Harris (née Fecker), a German widow, at Waterloo, Black Hawk, Iowa. Nicol in 1925 Directory LAThere is an entry for him and Martha in a 1925 directory of the Santa Monica area, California. In the 1930 US census, they were listed in Los Angeles, California, where he died in August 1942.

With greater knowledge of his story, was he really a black sheep? Leaving a young family with one unborn child does not reflect well on him and I also wonder why his sons went to New Zealand rather than joining him in the States. On the other hand, it was not unusual for the husband emigrate first and then come back for his wife and family. Rightly or wrongly, part of me warms to him in the hard, lonely task of establishing himself in a new country. Perhaps there was a restlessness too, farmer’s son, carpenter, farmer, needing more than 1890s Orkney could offer? Did he ever wonder about Robert, the son he’d never known, and the other three children who were so young when he left?

As someone said, there are three sides to any story: what he said, what she said and the truth.

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