Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Strange Sleep of Margaret Lyall

In the early 19th century there was nothing to mark out Mary Lyall as different from other young women of her age.  She was the daughter of a cobbler, John Lyall, in the parish of Maryton.  She was in service until 1815 with Peter Arkley (1786-1825), the owner of Dunninald Castle, and then went to work for the Rev Foote at Logie, being about twenty-one year old at the time.  Soon after she started the new job she caught a slow fever which made her bed-ridden for a fortnight, during the latter part of which she was taken to recover at her father’s house.  She was up and about in June and on the 23rd of that month she returned to work, accompanying Mrs Foote to Budden on the coast of Craig parish where she had gone to bathe in the sea.  It was noticed that Margaret performed her duties in a rather hurried manner.  But on Tuesday, 27th June, Margaret did not appear and she was found unconscious in her bed.  There were signs of blood around her nose and a pool of blood at the bedside.  When all attempts to wake her failed she was transported to her father’s house, half a mile away, and Dr Gibson was brought from Montrose.  He withdrew blood from her, but Margaret continued in her lethargic state until the afternoon of Friday, 30th June, when she woke naturally and asked for food.  She was able to say that on Tuesday morning around 2 a.m., she woke up with a nose bleed and put her head over the side of the bed until it stopped.  But she remembered no more.  On Saturday she was found back in her coma.  Although she looked peaceful , her jaws could not be opened to give her water, and during the space of the first seven days when she was unconscious she passed neither urine nor faeces. 

Dunninald Castle a 19th century mansion built to replace an earlier building.
   At the end of a week her left hand twitched, then pointed to her mouth, indicating that she wanted food.  The right side of her body was paralysed.  But food was placed in her left hand and lifted to her mouth.  She was able to consume it, ‘munching like a rabbit’.  The doctor gave her medicine and laxatives to move her bowels.  When her eyes were forced open, they showed only the whites.  Various treatments were tried to rouse her, despite the reluctance of her family and friends, but all failed.  The coma continued and Margaret was anxiously watched.  Sometimes she seemed flushed, at other times pale, and when se was lifted from the bed she became unnaturally cold.  At the start of August she made some response to repeated questions about whether she could hear, slightly moving her left hand.  On the morning of Tuesday, 4th August, the hand movement recommenced, though Margaret seemed insensible again through the afternoon.  Around eight o’clock her father sat by her and said she should be removed to Montrose Infirmary and asked whether she wanted family worship to be held in her room.  Margaret showed some signs of understanding and was lifted into a chair.  John Lyall held his daughter’s hand and urged her to make an effort to move it.  Her thumb twitched, then the rest of her fingers, then her toes.  John opened her eyes and brought a candle towards her face, asking if she saw it, and Margaret feebly answered  ‘yes’.  In the next few minutes all her senses seemed to recover, but she was too weak to move much.  She had been away from the world for a solid six weeks.

Upon being interrogated respecting her extraordinary state, she mentioned, that she had no knowledge of any thing that had happened;  that she remembered, indeed, having conversed with her friends at her former awakening (Friday afternoon 30th of June)...that she had  never been conscious of having either needed or received food...She continued in a very feeble state for a few days, but took her food nearly as usual, and improved in strength so rapidly, that on the last day of August she began to work as a reaper in the service of Mr Arkley of Dunninald; and continued to perform the regular labour of the harvest for three weeks, without any inconvenience, except being extremely fatigued the first day.

   But the story was not over.  When the harvest was gathered she continued at Dunninald as a house servant, but on 27th September she was discovered unconscious again and once more carried to her father’s house.  For fifty hours she was asleep, then she awoke and went back to her job at Dunninald.  Precisely the same thing happened on 11th October; following another fifty hours’ unconsciousness she again returned to Dunninald.  A Dr Henderson who was visiting the Arkleys prescribed some medicine and the Rev  James Brewster of Craig, who wrote the report , which was published in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (vol VIII, 1817, 250-6.  Reprints of this article occur in other contemporary journals), said that ever since she had been in good health and able to continue in service.  But there was a bitter footnote:

On the morning of September 21, 1816 Margaret Lyall...was found in an out-house at Dunninald hanged by her own hands.  No cause could be assigned for this unhappy act...It was thought by the family, that, a day or two preceding her death, her eyes had the appearance of rolling rather wildly; but she had assisted the day before in serving the table, and had been in good spirits that evening.  On the following morning, she was seen to bring in the milk as usual, and was heard to say in passing rather hurriedly through a room...that something had gone wrong about her dairy; but was not seen again till she was found dead about half an hour after.  She is known to have had a strong abhorrence of the idea of her former distress recurring; and to have occasionally manifested, especially before her first long sleep, the greatest depression of spirits, and even disgust of life.

The medical cause of Margaret’s illness and suicide can probably never be recovered.  The Rev Brewster had ruled out the theory that she had been faking her condition.  Perhaps though, there was a family predilection to strange ailments.  One of Margaret’s sisters had been afflicted many years before with St Vitus’s Dance and was ‘almost instantaneously cured by the application of terror’.  We would love to know the story of that case.  Strangely, a very odd, localised form of St Vitus’s Dance, known as the louping ague, spread through parts of Angus like an epidemic in the 18th century, and we’ll look at the evidence of this soon.

Rev Dr James Brewster, Minister of Craig (1777-1847).  He was the brother of Sir David Brewster.

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