Borders historian’s new book explores breach of promise

Fascinating insight...into life for women in 19th Century Scotland has been documented by Norrie McLeish, pictured in the 3rd Lanark shirt his grandson gave him for his 79th birthday.
Fascinating insight...into life for women in 19th Century Scotland has been documented by Norrie McLeish, pictured in the 3rd Lanark shirt his grandson gave him for his 79th birthday.

It was not until 1984 that suing for breach of promise of marriage disappeared from the Scottish courts.

If you’ve never heard of it before, you’re not alone – neither had I.

That is, until Jedburgh historian and author Norrie McLeish sent me his latest book, Promises, Promises.

His non-fiction page-turner brings to life cases from all over Scotland, telling stories of real people caught up in desperate and sometimes tragic events.

It also charts how women were viewed in 19th Century Scotland – and what happened after their hearts had been broken.

Their stories may well have remained forgotten chapters in history had Norrie not happened across one case while researching another book.

Intrigued, he started tracking down more at the National Library of Scotland and Registers House in Edinburgh, while also scouring newspapers for breach of promise reports.

What he discovered fuelled Norrie’s appetite for story-telling.

The 79-year-old explained: “I was writing a book about murders in the Borders when I came across some civil records in Registers House.

“Within them, there was a case about a farm servant who became pregnant thanks to the farmer’s son.

“His mother and father kicked her out of the house and the son claimed he was not the father.

“Unfortunately, for him, he had written the girl very, very passionate love letters – all of which were there in the civil records.

“He had promised her that they would get married if she gave herself to him so her father persuaded her to sue the lad.

“Those letters fascinated me so I decided to start researching breach of promise, with the aim of including some cases in future books.”

The task was by no means easy and it was a complicated process to find cases at Registers House.

Undeterred, Norrie – who was a lecturer in Scottish history at Borders College before he retired – searched old newspapers to help weed out cases.

What he unearthed were a series of incredible stories from all over Scotland where women, and even the occasional man, sued for breach of promise.

Initially, Norrie intended to use several cases in other books he had planned.

But his wife Isobel persuaded him to compile them for a fascinating work of non-fiction, stranger than any fiction.

Norrie said: “I was telling Isobel about some of the cases and she said it merited a book. She was right!

“There were a lot of really tragic cases which also spoke volumes about the lives women led in 19th Century Scotland.

“For 99.9 per cent of girls in Victorian Scotland, marriage was the only way out for them. If, for some reason, they were dumped, it really was a major blow to them.

“They were such human stories about social history in Scotland at that time.”

While newspaper reports were often salacious, reading like a Victorian version of the News of the World, it was the letters that really haunted Norrie and spurred him on.

He said: “In a lot of the cases, there were love letters from the male to the female.

“Of course, there were very few from the women to the men – because the guys had destroyed the evidence.

“Reading those letters which still existed, right there in the records, from people so many years before, I really got caught up in them.

“It struck me that those stories deserved to be told.”

And that’s exactly what Norrie has done in his latest book, Promises, Promises.

It features breach of promise cases from all over Scotland, including two from the Borders.

It also details how cases dwindled, and sympathy for the girls waned, moving into the 20th Century.

But perhaps one of the most surprising discoveries is that you could still be sued for breach of promise here, right up until 1984.

Norrie added: “I often slip that into my talks – and a few guys have looked a wee bit nervous. Very few people sued for breach of promise after World War Two though.

“Sadly, I’ve never been able to find the last case in Scotland.”

Promises, Promises, priced £7.50, is available in bookshops, from Amazon and the author’s website at www.norriemcleish.co.uk.

Norrie is now working on two new projects – stories from the Jed Valley in association with Jedforest Historical Society and a book about riots in the Borders to add to the nine he has already written.

A village scandal in Greenlaw

One of the cases featured in the book is from Greenlaw.

It had been the county town of Berwickshire from 1596 but from 1862 nearby Duns was made head burgh of the county.

Greenlaw in the 19th Century was a relatively quiet backwater but it had experienced two infamous episodes that resulted in High Court cases and attracted national attention.

A local innkeeper was charged with the murder of his wife and the other resulted in the public hanging in Greenlaw Square of a man who had murdered a toll keeper on the outskirts of the nearby town of Lauder.

In 1888, however, it was not murder that held the people of the small county town enthralled. It was scandal! And scandal of a nature that was only whispered about. A Greenlaw girl was suing a Greenlaw man in the Court of Session for breach of promise and seduction!

Such a thing had never been heard of – taking the alleged seducer to court.

For girls had been given false promises of marriage, and had allowed themselves to be seduced on such a promise, from time immemorial.

On the surface, rural Victorian Scotland took a very rigid and disapproving attitude to sex before marriage, but beneath the strictures of local clergy and the Kirk Session there was a broad stream of tolerance of the sexual behaviour of young people.

That, however, did not mean that the more salacious details of the case were not the subject of excited gossip.

As the years passed, the gossip faded and village life resumed. The two players in the great scandal of 1888 lived out the rest of their lives in the village, events of that year almost fading from memory....until Norrie uncovered them for Promises, Promises.

Buy the book to find out more!