Tales from the Sheriff Court of Linlithgow
In 2008, a Book of Enactment from Linlithgow Sherrif Court was deposited in West Lothian Archives; the father of the depositor had saved it from destruction during WW2. The book offers us an insight into the 18th century Scottish justice system and the nature of cases that were heard by the Sheriff Court.
The majority of records in the volume are “bonds of caution”. These contain details of “cautioners” who undertake to ensure that persons who stand accused of a crime or who are being taken to court by another party will attend court. Cautioners faced significant penalties if the individual in question absconded; fines were as high as £100 in the mid 1700s; equivalent to £8,516 in today’s money. Common offences included assault and battery (often domestic) and rioting, indicating perhaps that criminal behaviour was not much different two hundred years ago.
In a number of cases young women took the alleged father of their children to court ; in April 1786, Margaret Hardie of Beecraigs initiates proceedings against William Potter “for payment of inlying charges and aliment for upbringing of a female child of which she was delivered in the month of September last”. In these records we seem to see the very early roots of the Child Support Agency!
Some of the cases contained within in the volume did not proceed to trial. Instead, several prisoners “incarcerated” in the Tolbooth at Linlithgow apply to the court for sentence of banishment. In July 1803, James Brown acknowledges that he is guilty of housebreaking and theft and voluntarily banishes himself from the Burgh of Linlithgow for the rest of his days. The Sherriff Substitute ordains that should Brown return to the Burgh of Linlithgow he will be returned to the Tolbooth for 3 months before being led through the streets of Linlithgow on Market Day to be “publicly whipped on the naked back…by the hands of the Common Hangman”. Other prisoners, like Agnes Girdwood in 1723, go a step further and apply for banishment from the whole Kingdom of Scotland. One wonders how long it took for Agnes to become the focus of criminal proceedings south of the border.
To see some excepts from this volume, click on the images below