Academic journal article Genders

From Croft to Campus: Extra-Marital Pregnancy and the Scottish Literary Renaissance

Academic journal article Genders

From Croft to Campus: Extra-Marital Pregnancy and the Scottish Literary Renaissance

Article excerpt

[1] Teaching in rural Ohio, I have been surprised by the number of students who become pregnant, defying the current trend towards delaying motherhood. It is easy for those of us educating these students to shake our heads sadly, reflecting on the premature responsibilities and lost opportunities we imagine they will experience. Yet I am also impressed by how many of them, with or without the support of the father, choose to have their babies, return to the classroom within days, and graduate on time, posing for photographs with the baby nestled in one arm and the diploma tucked under the other. Relying on a supportive family network, they scarcely seem to skip a beat. Scotland in the 1920s and '30s may seem to be worlds away from southwest Ohio, but an examination of the literary treatment of single motherhood by avant garde writers of the Scottish Renaissance provides an alternate way to understand the choices and experiences of these young women. Nan Shepherd, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and Neil Gunn portray unmarried mothers unsentimentally but sympathetically, denouncing the cruelty of an institutionally imposed moral stigma.

[2] Early twentieth-century Scottish attitudes towards unmarried mothers developed over centuries. According to Leah Leneman and Rosalind Mitchison, the disciplinary arm of the Church of Scotland, the Kirk Sessions, used both civil and church laws during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to punish "sexual irregularities," such as illegitimacy (41). Until dissent and a more mobile population undermined its authority, the Kirk was a "more or less monolithic structure," and a reduced illegitimacy rate in the 1780s suggests that it "was able to contain sexual expression" (45, 49). Following the Act of Union in 1707, Scottish women were also subject to the 1624 "Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children," which presumed that a mother who concealed the death of an illegitimate child must have murdered it. Josephine McDonagh writes that by the late eighteenth century, the law was increasingly considered ineffective and inhumane, but it had shaped attitudes: concealing not only a death but the pregnancy itself was now seen as "evidence of an intention to murder the child" (3). The repeal of the law in 1803 was followed by a series of acts ameliorating the legal vulnerability of single mothers. However, the prevailing moral code, administered from the pulpit, still left women with few choices. Concealed or not, pregnancy before marriage led to shame, scorn, and suspicion.

[3] In 1858, the Registrar General released the results of a study measuring illegitimacy rates in Scotland. According to Andrew Blaikie, two aspects of the "regional bastardy indices" jolted bourgeois complacency. Firstly, the revelation that Scotland's rate exceeded England's suggested that Scottish morality was not as unimpeachable as previously thought. Secondly, the indices showed that "bastardy was predominantly a rural phenomenon," shaking the comfortable belief in urban immorality and rural rectitude (11). Nineteenth-century Scots reacted with typical Victorian vigor. Their "impulse to measure," to understand the nature of rapidly changing social conditions, combined with an "infusion of moral judgement" to make illegitimacy a central concern (10). A solution to the perceived moral decay had to be found, and the Kirk was again willing to assume the task. Blaikie argues, however, that in encouraging a "traditional family, a well-constructed myth of a past that never existed ... their social policies [were] subsequently doomed" (61-62). While urban rates of children born to unmarried mothers fell, rural illegitimacy continued to rise into the twentieth century, resulting in only a slow overall decline (16).

[4] What bourgeois Scotland saw as a problem may not have been seen as such within rural communities. While the middle class made a public ritual of courtship, delaying or hiding sexual activity and illegitimacy, the rural working class did the opposite (Blaikie 41). …

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