An awful lot of bastards

I doubt if there’s anyone who can claim to have a family tree without any illegitimate births on it, but it’s clear that my north-east Aberdeenshire lot had the production of bastards down to a fine art. Having researched this to see if there’s an explanation for what was going on, I realise it was pretty normal for their place, time and occupation.

A lot of postings I’ve seen on family history forums assume their ancestors would have been ashamed and guilty of an illegitimate birth, and that it would have been deviant and abnormal behaviour. But often this may not have been the case. In particular, the illegitimacy rate was so high among the farming communities of north-east Aberdeenshire that it must have been seen as normal. And from what I’ve been able to extrapolate from baptism, birth and census data, there was no attempt to hide the fact of illegitimacy.

In nearly all cases, the young woman had been working and living on a farm as a resident servant, and not living with her parents. So had the father. Perhaps there was no opportunity to marry and set up home together or perhaps there hadn’t been any intention to marry. But the resulting child would most often live with its maternal grandparents, on the family croft, while the unmarried mother continued working as a farm servant. Such children can be spotted in the census described as grandchildren, usually carrying their father’s surname even though their parents weren’t married and their father probably wasn’t around. The vast majority of the unmarried mothers subsequently married, but not to the father of their illegitimate offspring. Their child or children from previous liaisons would then have a stepfather, in many cases ultimately taking his name, although sometimes the child stayed with its grandparents.

There’s a very good chapter by historian Andrew Blaikie in the book A History of Everyday Life in Scotland 1800 – 1900 that puts this phenomena into perspective. He also wrote the academic book Illegitimacy, Sex and Society: Northeast Scotland 1750 – 1900 which I’m currently re-reading to get a better understanding of what was going on. It’s not a light read but it’s very good.

One thing I’ve learned, through all this ancestor research, is that you have to resist making judgements about your ancestors based on your own, contemporary viewpoint. Ancestors were constructs of their own time, place and society, so trying to understand them means you need to develop an understanding of the political, economic and social history of their times.

6 responses to “An awful lot of bastards

  1. Yes, I found a whole family of bastards – 13 children in total. Their births were all registered under their mother’s name only, but they were listed on the censuses under their father’s name. Most used their father’s name throughout life, though some of the girls used their mother’s name when they married, and one boy (my ancestor) used his mother’s name on a census and when marrying, and when registering the births of his own children, before reverting back to his father’s name – which eventually came down through the generations and is my mother’s maiden name.

    • Gosh. Even my bastard-prone ancestors didn’t manage thirteen to one person. They tended to be more of the two or three to different fathers type.

      Then again, I only know about the ones born to female ancestors. I can only imagine what my male ancestors might have got up to. I do know my Aberdeenshire great-grandfather went by the nickname The Bull of Buchan due to his, err, liking for the ladies.

  2. Really interesting post; and I totally agree with your last paragraph. That’s part of what makes this process so interesting.

  3. Thanks for your comment Su. Researching my family history has motivated me into researching the social history of their times. Knowing your own ancestors were part of the story makes history all the more fascinating.

  4. Hilarious title and great post. I have reservations about using that word other than to yell at somebody as it can be really hurtful. What do you think?

  5. Yes, the use of the word has changed over time and I wouldn’t use it in anything but a historical context. Back then, though, it was regularly used in official records to describe someone who was illegitimate. If you read the Kirk Session Minutes from Scottish parishes you quickly realise that they called a spade a spade!

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