Friday, 25 August 2017

Baby Booze

We have written before about Orkney's strong temperance movement and described the central part that alcohol played in a traditional Orkney wedding.

We were also amused recently when we discovered from the 2nd Statistical Account of Scotland that the island of South Ronaldsay had 16 inns in the 1840s, although "seven would be sufficient" according to the disapproving author.

So we knew that Orcadians of yore enjoyed their drink. It was with great horror, however, that we read Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish by John Firth which was published in 1920.

The enquiry which occasioned our perusal of this book was an enquiry about pregnancy in 19th century Orkney. We turned to the chapter entitled 'Birth' which begins:

"It was no uncommon occurrence at an accouchement for the mother and all her attendants to be the worse for drink",

and continues:

" One does not wonder that the Orcadian of the time possessed an inherent craving for strong drink, for the first thing given to a baby was a spoonful of toddy, and a dose of the same stimulant was believed to be an infallible cure for all his infantile ailments."

This is then followed by a story of 'groggy' midwives laying a baby thought to be stillborn on a cupboard shelf before more sober visitors discover that the baby is just feeling the effects of their mother's imbibing.

 We are then told of a  drunken baby falling out of their coverings on the way to their own christening (they have been given some toddy to keep them quiet in the church) and being discovered in a ditch by passers-by who then have to chase the inebriated family members who are still merrily marching up to the kirk with their empty shawl, none the wiser.

As Firth says earlier on in the book:

 "the need for some stimulant was much felt by the Orcadian peasant, whose lot forbade him tasting freely even the few pleasures and comforts obtainable in those days"

...and it is later pointed out that home-brewed ale was really the only available substitute for milk during the winter months. Still though... drunk babies.

No wonder these folk were so convinced they were seeing ghosts and witches and elves all the time... they were all just really drunk. All the time.


  1. Oh, my! Well, you know, I suspect this was more general practice than we like to think it was.

    I was glad to come here and see a new post. It has been a horrible week in my part of Texas, as we went through Hurricane Harvey. I am blessed that my family did not flood, but so many around us have lost everything. It's heartbreaking. But we are Houston Strong, and Texas Strong. We will get through this, and we will be stronger at the end of it.


  2. We are very glad to hear that you are okay Sue, we have all had Texas in our mind this last week. Sending love across the ocean to you and yours from Orkney Archive!

  3. Thank you! we need all the love and prayers we can get.


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