Marsali Taylor investigates a disturbing tale from nineteenth century Walls.
I was told the basis of this story many years ago by the late Geordie of the Mark, Aith, who used to cast my peats. It was at the time of the discovery of buried babies in an Orkney cottage.
“There was a case like that in Walls”, he told me. “It was an older sister and a younger sister living together, and the younger sister had a bairn, and the older one killed it and buried it in the kaleyard. My grandmidder remembered seeing the policeman coming for the sister in his gig, and she watched him driving away with the sister sitting up beside him.”
It was a vivid picture which stayed in my mind, and I asked a couple of Walls folk if they’d ever heard of the story, but nobody had, until one day I was sitting in Sumburgh airport with Freda Irvine, and I asked her. “Why,” she answered, “that’s our house! When we bought it we were told there’d been a baby buried there – it gave us the shivers.”
The story goes back to the 1870s. In 1871 there were seven houses at Bardister, just above the loch at Walls, with 37 people crowded into them: the Jarmesons, the Williamsons, the Hughsons, the Deyells, the Charlesons. The men were fishermen and crofters; all the adult children were listed as croft labourers, except for Thomas Jeromson, seaman.
Among them, at 2 and 3 Bardister, were the Twatt and Thomson families. Magnus Twatt, shoemaker, lived with his sister Isabella and their mother. The Thomson family was headed by Magnus and Isabella’s sister Janet. Her husband John had died in 1850, leaving her with five children aged between 12 and two. Her oldest daughter Mary was married, and her son Robert had gone to sea, leaving only Janet and her three single daughters, Janet, Margaret and Joan, in the household. All three gave their occupations as “croft labourer” on the 1871 census.
This small community was to be broken up when work began on the current Bardister House for William Ollason. Magnus and Isabella Twatt stayed close by, at Dykes, Bardister. Elspeth Jeromson was now a widow, staying with her son and sister at Lochside. The Charleson family went to Stove. The Williamson family went up the hill from the loch, to Clodisdale.
The Thomson family split up. Robert married their neighbour, Lilias Hughson, and they went north to Stennestwatt. Janet and her daughters went westwards along the Mid Walls road to Song. The residents of the house were Peter and Margaret Williamson, now both in their eighties; they lived in the ‘but’ room, and the Thomson family lived ‘ben’, with a door going into the byre, where there was an extra bed and a kiln for drying corn. One or other of the Thomson women regularly slept there. In 1877, Janet was 60; the younger Janet was 36, Margaret was 30 and Joan was 29.
Thanks to the prison records, still in the Shetland Archives, we have a description of Margaret at that time. She was of average height, 5’4”, and weighing 10 stone when she was arrested – by the time of her trial she had dropped to under nine stone, average to slim for her height. Her eyes were blue, her hair brown. She could read “a little”, but, like the rest of the household, she could not write. Her occupations were knitting and spinning, and she was not a church member.
The precognition statements are also preserved – two thick packets of yellowed foolscap paper folded across in four, bound like a book along one edge, and filled with copperplate writing in black ink. Fourteen witnesses gave their testimony, and I’ve reconstructed the story using their words as much as possible.
Around Christmas of 1876, Margaret had a cold and “a fright”, and she blamed those for “the cessation of her menses”. In a small croft house, surrounded by women, this was noticed, and when she complained of pains in the stomach and wind her older sister Janet went to Dr Murison in Walls, described her symptoms and was given some medicine for flatulence. She returned in April and the doctor gave her some tincture of iron.
Peter Williamson died on 7th May, leaving his widow to be looked after entirely by the Thomson family. She was now almost blind – “I cannot see your face just now” – she told the clerk taking down her statement, and grateful to them – “They have been very kind to me, they are in my room nearly every hour of the day”.
In May, Janet returned to Dr Murison, saying her sister was no better. The doctor asked if she was with child. When Janet replied, “No”, Dr Murison refused to prescribe for Margaret without seeing her.
By this time the village was starting to talk. Margaret Williamson heard the rumour that Margaret was pregnant in May, and “As soon as I heard it I spoke to her about it and asked her if it was true. She said to me, ‘You need not be frightened for that’ and made me think it was not true.”
Margaret’s mother and sisters also challenged her over the rumours, and again she denied the story, holding up her hand and saying she was ready to swear she was not in the family way. When she and Janet were alone in the fields together, shortly after, Janet said to her, “Now, if you are with child tell me, and it will make no difference on my part with you”.
In reply, Margaret sat down and loosened her petticoats, and putting her hand upon her stomach said, “It is there where any trouble is.” After that she caught her abdomen in her hands, and taking hold of it and squeezing it said, “See, there is no child there.”
Her younger sister, Joan, and her friend, Christina Fraser, from Quam, Setter, also questioned her about the rumours, and felt she was telling the truth when she said she was not with child. Margaret stopped going to church, saying that she could not suppress the wind for any length of time, although she still did her share of the work around the house and croft.
“Her family,” Margaret Williamson said, “wished her to stay at home while she was taking medicine.”
The rumours continued throughout the summer. Margaret was feeling increasingly unwell and spent a lot of time in bed, either in the ‘ben’ room or in the byre. Just after Lammas, she and Janet went to see the doctor in Scalloway, Dr Charles Macpherson. By this time Margaret was seven and a half months pregnant.
“She called on me on 15th August last complaining of dyspepsia and cessation of the menses,” Macpherson told the investigating officer. “I examined her and satisfied myself that there was no need of medical interference with the uterine complaint and asked her if she was married. She said no. I told her that I would treat her for her stomach complaint and that the enlargement of which she complained would cure itself in a few months. I did not directly ask if she was with child and she did not tell me she was.”
He gave Margaret a phial of medicine and two boxes of Holloway’s pills, a popular Victorian “cure-all”.
In mid-September, Margaret’s aunt Isabella, who had had two illegitimate children, came to talk to her, urging her to confide in her, and offering to break the news to her mother, if that was who she was afraid of. Isabella said she believed Margaret was telling the truth when she said she was not pregnant.
All the same, there’s a sense that the family weren’t totally convinced. In the third week of September, a local woman lost a child because she had delayed too long in calling for help. Mrs Williamson recalled, “We commenced to talk of this woman’s case and said it would be a warning to others in similar situations. The conversation was pointed at Margaret but she said we need not be frightened for her. That was all she said.”
On 6th October, Margaret did the housework as usual while the other women were outside shearing sheep. They had their dinner between two and three, then the others went back out and Mrs Williamson went to a neighbour for some milk. While she was out, Margaret went to bed in the byre. When the other women came in, her mother asked what ailed her, and she said her menstruation had come on.
Margaret’s friend, Christina Fraser from Quam, Setter, called in about nine o’ clock and stayed the night, sharing her bed. “We did not speak much after I went to bed and she never spoke about herself except to say that she thought she was getting better.”
The next day Margaret stayed in bed, but she rose on Monday, and worked as usual. She did not say to anyone that she had had a child.
The “inspector of the poor” for the parish was William Thomson, aged only 20 in 1877. Between the 5th and 7th there were rumours that Margaret was very ill, and on Monday 8th October he heard the rumour that Margaret had been confined, and that the child was not to be seen. He went to consult Dr Murison, who visited the household.
“Some believed this report and others said it was untrue”, Dr Murison said. “I thought it right to ascertain if possible the truth of the matter and accordingly on the forenoon of 13th October I called on Margaret at her house. When I entered she was sitting at the fireside with her mother and the other members of the family came in with me. Both the sisters and mothers said they were glad I had come to satisfy myself about the reports as they did not think there was any truth in them. The younger sister said she thought there was something weighing on her sister’s mind. Margaret was looking very pale and weakly and had the appearance of a woman recently confined. After some remarks about the weather I asked her if the reports current in the neighbourhood were true or not. She replied ‘No.’ I then asked her to go to bed that I might examine her and ascertain the truth of the report or clear her. Without saying a word she undressed and went to bed.”
The doctor’s examination left him in no doubt: Margaret had given birth to a child some days previously. “I told her so and asked her where the child was.”
The doctor’s account is the only one we have of Margaret’s own explanation: “She then told me that on the Friday night (5th October) she began to feel curious. She got up feeling pains in the inside, but after a short time she lay down again, the pains having gone away. On Saturday (6 October) she lay in bed till 9 am when she had a cup of tea and rose about 11 am. Then her mothers and sisters were out shearing. She went about the house for some time when she again felt curious. She then took a tub into the barn with a little hot water in it to ease the pains and sat over it, and the pains came on more violently and the child was born into the bucket or tub. She said the child did not cry, that she did not look at it and did not know there was a child till the Monday. I asked her if there was a cord and how she had separated it. She said she did not know but took her hand and broke it. She said she then rose and pushed the bucket to the side close to the kiln and covered it and went to bed. She said the child lay there till Monday about noon when she rose and looked into the bucket when she first knew it was a child. She then got a bit of linen, wrapped the child in it and took it through the back window and hid it between the corner of the hay stack and the yard dyke and covered it with some bundles of heather. She said her people knew nothing about it.”
Dr Murison took Margaret’s older sister, Janet, with him to look for the body. “She came to the side of the haystack with me and saw me lift the heather bundles but would not look at the child. The child was lying on its back but inclining to the left side wrapped in a linen rag. I did not lift the body there but went for the inspector of the poor. I covered it as I found it and on the Inspector coming I showed the body to him and asked him to take possession of it.”
Margaret was then visited by Peter Urquhart, the criminal investigator, on 15th October, and the precognition statements were taken from all the household. She was admitted to Lerwick prison on 16th October. Lawrence Robertson, the sheriff’s officer, took charge of the child’s body. It was taken to the burial ground in Lerwick, where a post-mortem was performed by Drs Skae and Murison. It was a girl. It had two wounds on its head, and a fractured skull. Both doctors were agreed that the wounds could not have been caused by the child falling on the edge of the tub as it was born, nor by it falling on the floor, “unless it fell upon some hard projectory edge with several projecting points such as a rugged stone or projecting nails or some such similar substance,” Dr Skae said, although he agreed that the fracture could have been caused by it falling.
Peter Urquhart returned to search the house on 19th October, along with J Kirkland Galloway, the procurator fiscal. In their search of the byre they found a number of pieces of wood on top of the kiln, for laying the corn on to dry. Some of them were black with smoke, others not. It was too dark to see them properly so Galloway opened one shutter and they saw what appeared to be blood on one piece of wood, “about two feet long from 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches broad and from 1 to 1 1/4 inches thick and of a ragged and uneven surface. There were a great many pieces of wood at the kiln – over 20 pieces – and none of them were stained but the one before referred to.”
They also took possession of the tub Margaret had said she had sat over. Wood and tub were shown to the doctors who had performed the post-mortem. Dr Skae said, “Blows with this piece of wood would have caused the wounds which we found on the child’s head”, and Dr Murison agreed: “Blows with that piece of wood would have caused the wounds on the child’s head referred to in my report. I have seen two buckets taken possession of by the police officer. If accused was sitting over either of these when the child was born and it fell from her into the bucket that could not have caused all the wounds.”
Dr Skae did add, “I would however have expected the wood to be more stained with blood than it is.”
Concealment of pregnancy was then a crime. Margaret’s hearing was on 20th November 1877 at 12 noon, in the presence of the sheriff, Andrew Mure. The Sheriff Court records give the procurator fiscal’s long, formal speech. The Shetland Times of 24th November 1877 reported:
“On Tuesday at the Sheriff Court, before Sheriff Mure, the first pleading diet was held in the case of the woman Margaret Thomson, Walls, who was suspected of having murdered her infant. The panel was charged with concealment of pregnancy merely, and having pleaded guilty as libeled was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment in the general prison at Perth.”
We can’t know now why the Procurator Fiscal didn’t try for the murder charge. The tale told by the Thomson women is very hard to believe. Margaret was a thirty year old woman in 1877 and there’s no suggestion anywhere in the statements that she was mentally impaired. She, and the mature women around her, had spent their lives in the child-filled township of Bardister. That her family should believe in her story of “wind” or periods stopped by a cold, is hard to credit; her family would have seen the truth – as it seems they did, by the number of people who questioned her.
The statements do suggest that Margaret herself was in denial. Her family knew she had no regular boyfriend; so who, then, was the father, and what was the “fright” she’d had around Christmas? Had she been assaulted during the Christmas festivities, or perhaps at her brother’s wedding in January? If the child was the result of rape, that could make her more determined not to believe she was pregnant.
The wounds on the baby’s head are not explained by Margaret’s account. Both doctors agreed that the blood-stained wood was likely to have caused them, and the conclusion is hard to resist: the baby was hit hard on the head, twice, with enough force to fracture its skull. The blood was only on that one piece of wood.
The women insisted there was no truth in the rumour that Margaret had just had a child, yet the doctor said she looked like a women who’d just given birth. He saw her a week later; her mother and sisters saw her within an hour of the birth.
It’s hard to believe that not one of her family noticed the baby was gone, or tried to investigate. The byre, where she’d been lying, would have been the first place to search.
Perhaps the Procurator Fiscal changed the charge because there was no evidence that the baby had been born living; or perhaps he gave Margaret the benefit of the doubt because he’d heard other, more sinister, rumours about how the baby had died. The first version of the story that I’d heard blamed the older sister for the death, and a another local version agreed. “She was very proud”, I was told by Tommy Jamieson, whose mother came from the house next door to Song, “and she wasn’t having her little sister having an illegitimate baby, so she killed it. But it was the baby’s mother who got the prison sentence, and she was never the same again.”
Was the story of ignorance agreed between the women to protect the actual murderer, Janet, who “would not look at the child”, and who, when confronted with the blood-stained wood, said first “I never saw that piece of wood to my knowledge before”, then changed that to, “It and a number of other pieces of wood were in the barn of our house when we came to it four years ago”? The sentence for concealment of pregnancy was a maximum of two years; the sentence for murder was death by hanging. But while Margaret and her family maintained that they knew nothing of the birth, Janet was safe.
I was also puzzled as to why the buried baby was at Bardister, rather than Song, but Tommy answered that too. “The baby at Song wasn’t the first – she’d had a baby earlier, and the sister killed that too.” If there was a baby killed at Bardister then there’s no record of it in the list of court cases; but the memory remains.
The Thomson family remained at Song after the death of Mrs Williamson a year later. Margaret returned there after her time in prison. Soon after, the youngest sister, Joan, now in her mid-thirties, had a baby boy; it died of “teething” aged only six months. Janet, the mother, died there in 1890; Joan followed her in 1895, dead of a brain tumour. Janet and Margaret, the two sisters implicated in the baby’s death, both lived until the 1930s. I can trace no living descendents of any of the older Janet’s children.
* * *
A couple of interesting things came out when I mentioned this story to other people. The first was rather horrifying: everyone I spoke to knew of another, similar case, a different case each time. If infanticide wasn’t exactly rife in Shetland, it does seem that it was not uncommon. One woman even told me that her mother had spoken of an unwanted baby – there were men who would come along and make sure the baby didn’t live after it was born. That sent a shiver down my spine.
The other surprising thing was the way the story was told to me as being far more recent than it actually was. Once I’d got the date of 1877 (as testified to by the Sheriff Court records) then there was no way that anyone alive now could personally remember the events, yet the horror felt by the community at the story had lived on so vividly that people remembered it as if it were recent.
* * *
Without further detail it’s impossible to know now why the charge was changed – presumably because it wasn’t felt to be strong enough. But was Margaret Thomson guilty of murder? Or was she merely naïve? Was her sister the one responsible for the baby’s death? Over 140 years later, we will surely never know.