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.