Friday, 18 June 2010

Rant For A Reverend

Whilst perusing our D10 collection, which is a box full of miscellaneous papers collected by a Kirkwall cabinet maker James Tait (yet another example of a useful collection pulled together by an amateur historian), I found a letter addressed to the Procurator Fiscal by a South Ronaldsay minister named John Gerard regarding the way that unwanted pregnancies were being dealt with in his parish.

Some of the ministers who we read about were very kind and understanding to unwed mothers in their Parish. Thomas Kay of North Ronaldsay, for example, allowed a young mother to baptise her illegitimate child in 1873 and persuaded the rest of the session that she was to be treated decently. Gerard, or "Old Gerard" as he was known begins his letter "Queen Anne put unmarried women to death who concealed their pregnancy - What is now the punishment, if any?"

Gerard was described as a passionate man, or, as my boss put it when I showed her the letter, 'crazy.' There is a lot of underlining and exclamation marks in the letter as he lists examples of abortions and illegitimate births in his Parish and tells of the young couples whom he has forced to marry, one girl whom he has dragged "politely"straight from her birthing bed.

There is one somewhat amusing tale of a girl who, Sonia-Eastenders-style did not realise that she was pregnant, took to her bed with pains, got up when the "curmurring in her guts" had stopped and then angrily demanded to know who had put a baby in her bed.

There are some very horrible tales within his letter, however, of infanticide and children being abandoned which I shall not share as they really are distressing. Gerard seems to have no sympathy for these girls who must have been terrified to find themselves in such a situation and whose fear of exposure drove them to terrible, previously unthinkable acts.

I took a look at Goodfellow's Two Old Pulpit Worthies of Orkney which contains a biography of Gerard. Chapter titles include 'His Hasty Temper and Passionate Nature', 'His Ideas of Women', 'His Strange Antics',and 'His Scathing Rebukes.'

Goodfellow claims that Gerard "had a warm and kindly heart." Examples of his kindness include, warning men to marry a woman who is not "an old hag as ugly as sin", who has a good inheritance but to choose Prudence over Piety as, although a pious woman is ideal, you don't want to be stuck with a "regular Tartarean" (OED definition: 'a vixen or shrew.')

Gerard further demonstrated his warmth of heart when a neighbour's pig wandered onto his lands. Gerard shot it with his gun and then demanded that his neighbour collect his pig. He did not tell the poor man that he had shot the animal, however, and the farmer was confronted with a carcass when he was expecting to pick up a live animal.

When Gerard found the sheep of another neighbour grazing upon his lawn what do you suppose he did? Why what any reasonable man would do, of course; he whipped out his pocket knife, slit the poor sheep's throat and hung the livid remains upon his fence to warn others against repeating the neighbour's mistake. Sensible, measured and not at all weird.

He also congratulated a woman of his acquaintance for having a big mouth saying " I dinna like wee bits o' prim prinket mouths. Commend me to a leddy wi' a mouth could swallow a cod." Charm personified. She must have been thrilled.

The only thing I like about Gerard is that his funeral addresses used to have "Greet here" in the margin at sections where he wished to move his audience with a well-timed tear.

Information taken from Two Old Pulpit Worthies of Orkney by Alexander Goodfellow, 1925 and Orkney Archive Reference D10/20.

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