Saturday, 18 July 2009

Sex and the Scottish Ancestor

When I first began researching my Scottish ancestors and discovered that my great-grandfather, Hector McNeil (1886-1954), was born just one month after his parents married I was a bit surprised. Surely a hint of scandal here? Something that got the neighbours gossiping? I mean that just wasn’t the done thing back then, was it?

Further research revealed that not only did Hector follow this particular family tradition, his first child being born six months after he married, but that both Hector’s father and grandfather lived with and had children by women to whom they were not married.

Expanding my research to other family lines I discovered similar stories: a couple who married five months after the birth of their first child; a woman who had two children, probably by the same man, but never married.

Were my ancestors turning out to be the most immoral in Scotland or was there something else going on here? Was it just that my preconceptions were wrong?

As a teenager, I think I had the vague idea that pre-marital sex was ‘invented’ in the 1960s. Even then, as my mum was keen to point out, the ‘sexual revolution’ didn’t affect everyone, with many people continuing to live with their parents until they married and ‘baby’ arriving a respectable one year after the wedding.

Of course as a keen viewer of costume dramas I did know about illegitimacy. Some innocent young girl taken advantage of, usually by an employer, is thrown out and disowned by her family when her pregnancy is discovered. She usually comes to a sticky end and should the child survive the ‘shame’ of illegitimacy follows him or her throughout life.

No doubt such situations did happen, but in my family the majority of illegitimate children appear to have been born to parents in long-term relationships.

As I’ve researched more and more families I’ve discovered that mine are hardly unique. There do appear to have been some regional differences though and, as these particular ancestors of mine were all involved in coalmining, I suspected that sex before (or outside) marriage was particularly common in Scotland’s mining communities.

However, this week I’ve been researching two families from the north of Scotland, one from a fishing community, the other from an area that was largely agricultural, and I’ve been finding much the same thing.

This has got me thinking about the issue again. Firstly, was the apparently high rate of pre-marital sex in Scotland (or ante-nuptial fornication as it is often described in Kirk Session records) related to the law that legitimised children upon the subsequent marriage of their parents? (This applied only when both parents were free to marry, i.e. not married to someone else, at the time of the child’s birth.)

It is difficult to know how aware people were of this law but it may explain why some parents were content to wait until after the arrival of their child to get married, rather than rush to tie the knot before the birth. Legitimacy was generally only important with regards to inheritance and as most working-class Scots had little to pass on to their children the legal situation was perhaps of less importance than the attitudes of their neighbours.

The law doesn’t always seem to have been universally applied either, as I found recently. I came across a child who was born to parents who married a few days later but waited until after their marriage before registering the birth. The registrar, however, considered the birth to be illegitimate (the word is included on the birth record) although the date and place of the parents’ marriage was recorded, as is usual on Scottish birth certificates.

It has been suggested that pre-marital pregnancy was seen as an insurance against infertility, particularly in agricultural communities where a farm worker was expected to provide family labour. Personally though, I think the most convincing argument is simply that in some communities sex was an accepted part of the courtship process, just as it is for many people today.

But what I’ve really been thinking about is why all this pre-marital sex should come as such a surprise to me. Why did I think that the youth of great-granny’s day were so very different from my own generation? Was there a particular time when what was once common behaviour began to be seen as something to be ashamed of and to be hidden from later generations? Has there be a deliberate attempt to rewrite history?

If so, I’m sure our ancestors weren’t expecting all us genealogists to come snooping around uncovering their secrets!


  1. Thanks for an eye-opening post!

  2. As my husband the history buff says, "If they bothered to write a law against something, it was usually because so many people were doing it." As your posts demonstrates, doing family history can certainly give us a new perspective on the past!

  3. My Dehorty family in DE/MD in the early 1800's seemed to be a randy lot, but from your post, I guess they were more typical than I gave them credit for. And, they seemed to remember the "wrong side of the blanket" kids in their wills, and for that, as a family historian, I am grateful!

  4. I agree--this is an eye opener.

  5. Nice post. One of mine was fined for antenuptial fornication for each of his 3 wives. Made me chuckle.