Researching Aberdeenshire family history has given me a greater understanding of living conditions at the time (as well as allowing me to develop a family tree back to about 1700).
It is clear that it was a time of great inequality, as rich landowners controlled most of what happened in rural areas, leaving the mass of working men and women with a life of poverty and hard work.
In many ways women had the more difficult life. Physically they were required to work hard, both inside the home and outside on the farm or in the garden, as well as give birth to many children (as many as 13 in the McNaughton tree) with minimal medical help.
But it must have been difficult emotionally too.
The records of the McNaughton family show several women who had children outside of marriage and raised them without fathers, for a time at least. Several entered marriage pregnant or with children from a previous non-marriage relationship.
We must recognise that there were many reasons why these situations might arise. Poverty made it difficult for men to earn enough money to rent a home to get married. Irregular marriages (those not conducted by clergy) were legal, but it wasn’t always clear whether a couple was betrothed or married.
Some women, especially single or widowed mothers, were left with fewer options to support their children, and sometimes entered into relationships to survive.
And young girls working as servants on farms or in city households were vulnerable to predatory men.
Lizzie and Jane Skinner, who I have been researching recently, are examples of this. They went away from their family to enter domestic service in Aberdeen while in their middle teens. Both had two “illegitimate” children in their early twenties. Jane later had two more. In none of these births is the father named, and it is unlikely they could ever be identified now.
Both Lizzie and Jane went on to get married and raise families that included the step-children as well as those born to their husbands.
And so I decided to investigate what life was like for working class women in nineteenth century rural Aberdeenshire. There is a lot of good information about, and it well illustrates the difficulties facing women at that time.