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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

III. Religion

13. Childmurder, 1766

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1The Scots Magazine, edited and printed in Edinburgh, was first published in January 1739. It not only published news and reviews that were of interest to a Scottish audience (among such was an account of the defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746) but also foreign and domestic news. It was immensely popular in the eighteenth century. Between 1759 and 1765 it was edited by William Smellie. In 1801 it was amalgamated with the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany. The following is an extract of the preface of the first issue of January 1739:

2“As our study is to instruct and entertain, in such manner as is most agreeable to our readers, we shall cheerfully comply with any hints given for the improvement of our design […] whatever concerns the interest of this kingdom, shall always be preferred; for as our labours, so are our wishes employed on the prosperity of scotland”.

3“Letter from Francis Douglas, 7 October 1766” in The Scots Magazine, Edinburgh: 1766, p. 579.

To the author of the Scots Magazine. SIR, p. 579.

A Scheme for Putting a Stop to Childmurder

As Some crimes are in their own nature more atrocious than others, and may be highly aggravated by the circumstances under which they are committed, every penalty should bear a proportion to the crime to which it is annexed; and therefore it would be a dangerous and blameable partiality in the legislature to affix a severe penalty to this or that crime and but slightly to check others equally repugnant to the laws of God and equally pernicious to society. If we could not help blaming this conduct we would have still greater cause of complaint were ecclesiastical courts to single out one or a few crimes as the particular objects of their displeasure, while others were altogether overlooked or but slightly regarded. And yet, if I mistake not, this is pretty much the case, with regard to the crime of fornication, in the established church of this kingdom. A man or a woman may be a habitual liar, a common swearer, get drunk three or four times a-week, undutiful to parents, uncharitable to the poor, a whisperer, a tale-bearer, envious, proud, malicious, covetous, etc.; yet shall never once be questioned, in the spiritual courts; but if one commits fornication, the whole artillery of the church is pointed against him. The clergy, in other respects humane and benevolent, act frequently in this case with the zeal and the fury of inquisitors. I admit there are many exceptions; the best men are always most sensible of their own imperfections, and therefore most compassionate to the frailties and infirmities of others.

It is generally thought that to avoid these prosecutions, and the public penance consequent upon them, many unhappy mothers destroy their own children. And indeed the fact being admitted, that such murders are more frequent in Scotland than in any other part of Christendom, can in no other way be accounted for.

We are not surprised to find men of libertine principles and disorderly lives, guilty of the grossest crimes; as we know that a criminal indulgence of their passions, for any length of time, must have, in a great degree, set them loose from moral restraints; without which society would soon be dissolved and penal laws become totally ineffectual. But when women, naturally modest, tender-hearted, and timorous, rush all at once upon so bold a crime as murder, the murder too of their innocent helpless offspring, we are struck with horror, our soul shudders at the daring impiety!–Malice forethought, which in other murders is the very essence of the crime, can have no place here: the trembling hand which consigns the poor infant to oblivion, stabs the wretched mother to the heart!–To what cause then shall we ascribe this unnatural crime, but to a disorder of mind, occasioned by an excess of that moral feeling called shame?

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