On the centenary of the granting of votes for women in the United Kingdom it is probably a good time to examined the treatment of women in the more remote past. Fornication was one of the sins for which women were more blamed than men as a matter of course. In the burgh records of Dundee one can almost taste the seething rage of the authorities when, in October 1564, they wrote that:
'the women, quhilk are the principal occasions of fornication,' sometimes escape' unpunishit because they are with bairn the time of their apprehending,' devised an ingenious method both severe and safe for chastising delinquents, and enacted 'that the woman apprehendit, of quhat estate that ever she be, sail be brocht to the Merkat Croce openly, and there her hair sail be cuttit oft', and the samin naiht upon the cuck-stule, and [she shall besides] mak her public repentance in the kirk, and this for the first fault. And for the second fault, she sail be had to the Merkat Croce, her hair cuttit oft' and nailit up as said is, and her self carryit in ane cart throw all the pairts of the town, and twa shillings tane of her fee to pay the carter for his lawbours; and sail also forfeit the pain contenit in the auld acts.' The punishment awarded to the male offender, who, by the narrow reasoning of the time, was reckoned the least culpable, was administered with much laxity. During the two days of imprisonment, his companions appear to have had access to him, and there being no stint of food or drink, they would probably spend the time in carousing. Restrictions were, however, now imposed upon this, and it was decreed that the man 'sail remain forty-eight hours in the steeple upon bread and water, and nane to enter in the steeple to bear him company except the officer, under the pain of forty shillings, to be taken of ilk ane of them and distribute to the puir.' The man's friends were to be fined if they found their way in to him, which is a curious illustration of the system of prison discipline then observed. [Maxwell, History of Dundee, p. 83.]
Again, in July 1580, it was:
'statute and ordained that gif it sail happen ony young woman to commit fornication, and efter she be conceivit with bairn sail be fund ganging with her bare hair as ane shameless [person], then incontinent she sail be had to the cuck-stule, and upon the skaffet thereof her hair sail be cut off, and there nailit, to the example of uthers.' [Maxwell, History of Dundee, pp. 83-84.]
In October 1580 the loose, scolding tongues of women were enacted against:
Gif it sail happen ony men's wyiffs or uther women to be heard openly in shameful flyting, reproaching, sclandering, cursing, banning, or making ony horrible imprecations or fearful blasphemies of the name of God betwix them and ony uther persons, then the offenders having money to pay sail stand in ward till they pay forty shillings to the reparation of the common warks, and also sail pass to the Market Croce, or to the place quhair they offendit their neighbours, and upon their knees ask forgiveness. And the person that hes na money to pay, sail be put in the cuckstule be the space of three hours in maist patent time of day, and theirefter satisfie the pairtie in manner foresaid.[Maxwell, History of Dundee, p. 233.]
'Scolding' as a particularly female crime was targeted by church and burgh officials in all areas as a perennial menace to mankind. In Arbroath in 1732 a woman was imprisoned for scolding two male neighbours, John Anderson and John Wilson. Her husband and sister-in-law bailed her out on condition she led a more peaceable life thenceforth.
Early the following year, also in Arbroath, there was a case of a woman offender sent by the kirk-session to the presbytery, who promptly sent her case back to the session:
The Session, considering that the said Agnes had appeared twelve times before the congregation without any visible signs of repentance, found also that she had been guilty four times of fornication, and had not give a true account of the father of her child, the person she had accused being exculpate by the Presbytery, and that more public appearances would tend to no edification, agreed to this sentence: That she must lie under a scandal unabsolved, and remove out of town peremptorily at Whitsunday next [History of Arbroath, Hay, p. 241.]
George Hay wonders that the woman had not received the usual punishment of being ordered to sit for twelve sabbaths before the congregation dressed in sackcloth. But then again Agnes does not perhaps seem the type who would have countenanced such a sentence.
George Hay, The History of Arbroath to the Present Time (Arbroath, 1876).
Alexander Maxwell, The History of Old Dundee (Dundee, 1884).