Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Mad, bad, or dangerous to know?

Large grey castle on a rocky outcrop above Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens
Edinburgh Castle

I’m always up for a free day out, especially when it involves a trip to the festival capital Edinburgh.  Today my friend Pauline and I had the chance to go there to learn more about an aspect of Scottish social history we were both interested in.

Three floors of bookshelves containing genealogical records, under a domed roof
Dome Room, New Register House
The venue was a place we were both very familiar with but which no longer serves as a research office, as it did when we were fledgling family historians.  Today, New Register House’s Dome room (my natural habitat for many years) serves as a meeting and conference centre, and the topic of today’s event* was “Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland”.  Fun, eh?  That’s how we genealogists roll.  First up was a visit to the small exhibition, in next-door General Register House, which introduced us to the sad stories of some “criminal lunatics” and how their lives unfolded.

The curator of this exhibition, Dr Rab Houston of St Andrews University, then addressed the subject in more detail in his presentation in the Dome (his area of expertise is the history of psychiatry; see his podcast page here). I was surprised to learn that before the 19th century, imprisonment itself wasn’t used as a penalty; rather, it was just a short-term holding arrangement before trial or punishment - usually fines or transportation (or worse). 

Dr Houston explained who would have been likely to be committed to the Criminal Lunatic Department of the oldest prison in Scotland, at Perth, and how they would have been dealt with.  He talked about some of the cases from the exhibition and it was sobering to compare how those individuals would have been treated nowadays.  What was considered madness then would be seen as mental illness in our times, and while some of the causes aren't common now, there were some conditions described which were all too familiar.

Were some of your ancestors mad, bad, or just simply dangerous to know?  Honestly, if they were any of the above, you're much more likely to find them in court documents, newspaper reports, and prison records, so don't knock it.  And reading about their struggles will probably give you a greater appreciation for them.

* New Register House regularly hosts talks and exhibitions on a variety of subjects, and they’re free to attend.  I’ve already booked for one of the future talks!

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