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The life of working class women in rural nineteenth century Aberdeenshire

Researching McNaughton family history has also highlighted how the lives of many of the women were hard and often powerless. So I have tried to research how typical this was for women at the time, and gain more understanding of the conditions under which they lived.

On this page I outline what I have found out about poverty, life expectancy, education and literacy, family life, work, marriage and childbirth for these women, and show how the McNaughton family women fitted into the overall picture.

Social and historical background

Rural life in Aberdeenshire, as elsewhere, had continued with little change for centuries up until the 18th and 19th centuries when two great social changes made everything different.

Changes in land ownership

The highland clearances (mostly late 18th and early 19th centuries) changed rural land use and allowed the few rich land owners to “enclose” the land they formerly leased out to crofters and tenant farmers to create large areas of pasture for the more profitable sheep farming. The clearances didn’t affect lowlands too much, indeed some new crofting areas were established nearer the coast, but there was still a significant change in how the bulk of rural land was used. Land began to be seen as an asset to exploit via modernisation of farming practices, which required larger areas to be efficient – an individual crofter might subsist on 15 acres, but efficient ploughing required 50-100 acres.

So land “reform” was driven by the rich lairds in the highlands, but more by middle class tenant farmers in the lowlands. But in both cases, the result was the concentration of land ownership and use into a few privileged hands. Aberdeenshire, being on the border of the lowlands, experienced a little of both.

All of this meant that there was less work for agricultural labourers and less land for crofters, precipitating a move to the city of Aberdeen for many, including several of the McNaughton family forbears.

The industrial revolution

Probably even more important was the industrial revolution, which changed the face of farming and opened up new opportunities for skilled workers in city-based industries. It created great wealth for some, but left others in deep poverty. It provided a great incentive for poor or unemployed rural workers to move to the city in the hope of gaining work. But in the process it created pockets of poverty and squalor, as some remained unemployed while others were forced to work long hours in unhealthy conditions.

Scotland went in a few decades from one of the least industrialised areas in Europe to one of the most. Industrialisation dramatically changed the Scottish lowlands, from a more backward looking area to “one of the most industrialized and enlightened sectors of Europe” (Ref 6). Sections of Aberdeenshire were part of this change.


Life for crofters and agricultural labourers and their families was little more than subsistence. They worked long hours for meagre rewards, could only afford a poor diet (whatever they could grow – often potatoes, turnips, herbs, dairy products and cereals) with little meat, and suffered famine in years of poor harvest. They lived in small houses, often with several generations of large families.

In the early 19th century, the Old Poor Law defined who could receive assistance, which was provided by the local church, funded by wealthy landowners. But this system was unable to cope with the famines and population dislocation that was experienced mid-century.

The middle decades of the nineteenth century saw significant famine, caused primarily by the highland potato famine and rising unemployment, further exacerbating the endemic poverty of poorer families.

Destitution relief was initially organised by the Church of Scotland, but later several non-government relief committees were formed to raise money to provide emergency food for the destitute. But as low crop yields and poverty continued, though at a reduced level, the amount of relief available became less (much less than available in England) and harder to obtain, and those who qualified as paupers still struggled. In some areas, many left the land to emigrate overseas or within UK.

Single or widowed women were particularly affected and the records show that Ann Ross, mother of John Skinner and therefore Great Grandmother to Ron and Ian McNaughton, was listed as a pauper in the 1851 census, and her sister-in-law (also named Ann Ross) was listed as a pauper in the 1871 census after her husband died.

Life expectancy

Life expectancy at birth in Aberdeenshire in the middle of the nineteenth century was probably about 40-45 for women, slightly better than for men, and slightly better than in England. (Rural populations were less ravaged by disease than urban populations, and Aberdeenshire was probably more rural than the England average.)

But child mortality was high, so if a child survived the first five or ten years, they might reasonably expect to live to 50-60.

The McNaughton family did very well in this regard. Of course, women in the family line were, by definition, those who survived to have children, so you’d expect them to live longer than the average. But they did very well. Of the 16 women ancestors of Ron and Ian McNaughton whose birth and death dates I have found:

  • 2 died in their 50s;
  • 4 died in their 60s;
  • 6 died in their 70s;
  • 3 made it past 80; and
  • one lived to 93.

Education and literacy

Scotland was generally recognised as a leader in education for all classes of society in the nineteenth century. After the Reformation, parish schools were established to teach basic skills. Some claimed at the time that almost the entire population was educated and literate, but these claims are considered to be exaggerated.

Working class girls were generally taught reading and basic home skills (sewing, knitting, cooking) but not writing. At school, boys outnumbered girls, who received less, and lower level, teaching. Despite this, literacy rates (reading only) are reported in Ref 10 to have been generally high (approaching 90%) among women, but only 30-50% among men. However Ref 11 suggests that most men and women could read mid century. Whatever is the case, only a small proportion of these were able to write sufficiently well to communicate effectively.

Family life

Poor rural families were relatively large, generally somewhere between 5 and 12 children, and generally lived in small houses. In the McNaughton tree, George and Ann Moir, who married in 1813, had 13 children, 12 of whom appear to have survived past their first year. George grew up in a family of eight children.

If the male household head was a farm labourer, he would be often required to travel around to where the work was available. Hence it isn’t uncommon to find families in different locations at the regular censuses. For example, the Skinner family (John and Christian) were married in Skene, and later censuses show them living in Banchory Ternan, Ballater and Aberdeen.

However if the family was able to rent a croft, they would be able to stay in one place. Thus George Moir (1790-1881) was able to live all his 80 years in Methlick, and the last few decades at least (maybe longer) in the Little Ardo croft.

Working life

Girls would typically be required to help with home and farm work from an early age, and would likely be in full time work by their mid teens.

Work could consist of farm labouring (mainly reaping), domestic service, or both, and most women would also have some craft or skill such as dressmaking. In later years, many women worked in the growing textile industry as spinners and assistants to weavers. Like their parents, many single women would often be required to travel around to where the work was available. Thus Lizzie Skinner and her sister Jane travelled into Aberdeen in their teens to be domestic servants.

Once married, women would then likely have children every second year or so, and spend their time raising children, looking after the home as well as assisting their husbands with the “outside” work.

Betrothal and marriage

Poverty, and hence the difficulty of affording their own home, would often mean that couples wouldn’t marry until their mid twenties.

There were several forms of marriage in Scotland at this time (Ref 2, pp 50-63). Historians are not always agreed on the details, but it seems we can distinguish three forms at least:

  1. Regular marriage was solemnized by a minister of the church after due notice had been given. In the 17th century, this had to be a minister of the Church of Scotland, but by the middle of the 19th century, ministers of other churches could also conduct marriage ceremonies provided the banns were read in the parish kirk.
  2. Clandestine marriages were occasionally performed by minsters without conforming to all the legal requirements. I’m guessing that these mostly occurred before the 19th century when the rules were more stringent.
  3. Irregular marriages were those conducted without a clergyman. They could be of several slightly different forms:
    • Couples could simply give verbal consent to being married (“Per Verba do Praosenti”).
    • Couples who gave consent to being betrothed, and who subsequently had sexual relations, could be considered legally married (“Per Verba do Futuro, Subsequente Copula”). Some say this was in effect a “trial marriage”.
    • Marriage by ‘Cohabitation with and Repute’ occurred when a couple had been in a stable relationship for some time and considered themselves to be “man and wife”, and so they were considered to be legally married. Couples living together for a shorter time and without the intention to be considered husband and wife, were not considered to be legally married, though they may have been publicly accepted as being married.

Non-regular marriages were not required by law to register their marriage, and so genealogical records may not show them as married even though they may have been legally married.

Two other aspects are worth mentioning.

  1. It is sometimes said that many irregular marriages began with an informal betrothal and sexual relations, to see if the couple could produce children, and presumably the future wedding would be called off if children, especially a male heir, was not forthcoming.
  2. Handfasting came from a Norse or Germanic word meaning to make an agreement by joining hands, and was sometimes used in Scotland in this period to describe a betrothal ceremony. The term has come to denote a wedding ceremony, or part of one, where a ribbon is tied around the couple’s hands as a sign of commitment, sometimes in a neo-pagan context. However I think the 19th century handfasting betrothal was quite different to this modern ceremony.

Thus we can see that the situation was complex and a couple’s status could be ambiguous. There was considerable scope for men to not follow up a betrothal or an irregular marriage with a longer term commitment, and for poor women in particular to suffer or be taken advantage of:

  • Betrothed men might take years to attain even a modest degree of financial security required to support a family, thus delaying or even preventing a marriage.
  • Farm labourers were often forced to move around to obtain work, and apparently it wasn’t uncommon for a betrothal to be abandoned when the man didn’t return.
  • It may have been rare, but if a “trial marriage” didn’t produce children (which may not have been the woman’s “fault”), the marriage may not have proceeded.
  • Non-conformist or Catholic couples may have been unwilling to comply with the laws which were biased towards the Church of Scotland.
  • If through neglect or intent (e.g. to avoid the cost of registering), a couple didn’t register their marriage, they may not have been known to be legally married.
  • Young women in service, especially in more wealthy homes, were vulnerable to predatory men, coercion and even rape, often with little hope of their “suitor” proceeding to marriage.


It is not surprising then that many children were born, or conceived, outside of marriage. Estimates vary, but it appears that Aberdeenshire had one of the highest rates of illegitimacy and pre-marital conceptions. Here are some statistics (many of them based on a study (Ref 3) in a rural area just north of Aberdeenshire and presumed to be socially similar):

  • In rural Aberdeenshire, probably more than 20% of births were “illegitimate”, double the rate for Scotland overall.
  • Almost half the women probably “began their procreative careers before marriage” (Ref 3).
  • The majority of mothers of “illegitimate” children returned to their parents’ home to give birth and/or to receive help with bringing up the children. In many cases, the mothers went back out to work, and often lived elsewhere, leaving the children to be largely raised by their grandparents. In the McNaughton family, Lizzie and Jane Skinner had two and four illegitimate children respectively, and all six lived for a significant time with their grandparents, until their mothers eventually married.
  • Life expectancy was significantly reduced among “illegitimate” children, who were much more likely than “legitimate” children to die in their first year. It is likely that the generally greater poverty of mothers of illegitimate children meant the mothers had to work long hours and so care less for their children, and were too poor to afford good food, decent housing and medical care.

In summary, illegitimacy was on average higher in Scotland than in England and most of Europe; it was generally higher in the countryside than in the towns; and it was very much higher in some parts of the countryside, including Aberdeenshire. Life was hard for most working class women, but particularly for mothers of illegitimate children who didn’t subsequently marry.

Two women’s lives

Several women’s lives merit examination. I have outlined Elspet Moir’s life and Ann Ross’s life elsewhere. Here, I want to look a little further at Lizzie and Jane Skinner.

Lizzie and Jane were the grand-daughters of Ann Ross. Ann’s son, John Skinner, married Christian Ingram. Lizzie and Jane were their second and third children, born in 1853 and 1854.

Grandmother Ann had an unfortunate life, giving birth to her son, but the man she said was the father apparently refused to accept paternity, and she lived an impoverished life, raised her son John and died a pauper.

John is recorded as being a “farm servant” and an “agricultural labourer”, which were probably the most poorly paid and least secure rural occupations. As a consequence, John and his family moved around to find work.

John and Christian had 10 children, which must have strained their resources, so it is no surprise that the 1871 census shows Lizzie (18) and Jane (17) in domestic service in two different homes in Aberdeen, which was a couple of day’s journey from Ballater where their parents were. We don’t know how early they moved to the city, but we can imagine that young and poor country girls may have been vulnerable and impressionable.

By the time of the next census, in 1881, each of them had two children:

  • Lizzie had Charles Dickie Skinner, born 1877 (when Lizzie was about 24) and Maggie Ann Skinnner, born 1880
  • Jane had Ellen Tait Skinner, born 1876 (when Jane was about 22) and Jane Tait Skinner, born 1878.

All four children were at that time living with John and Christian in Ballater. Lizzie was there as well, presumably because Maggie had still not been weaned, but Jane was working as a cook in Aberdeen. Birth documentation for three of the children show them as “illegitimate”. Use of the middle names of Dickie and Tait may be a clue to the father’s names, but otherwise they cannot be identified.

Lizzie married Alexander McNaughton in 1882, and Jane Archibald was born 6 months later, illustrating the apparent flexibility of some betrothal and marriage arrangements at that time. The two of them went on to have 6 children in all, with Charles and Maggie included in the family. In the 1891 census the two of them are given the McNaughton surname. In 1901, Charles appears as simply Dickie Skinner and I haven’t yet been able to find any more about Maggie. Lizzie died in Aberdeen in 1911, aged 57 and Alexander lived another 5 years until 1916.

Jane’s life is more complex. In 1891 she was living with her mother (John died in 1888), and as well as Ellen and Jane, she apparently has two more children, William (born 1881) and James (born 1883). Again, it appears that they have no named father. However in 1901, Jane, now aged about 47, is married to William Webster, aged 39 and living in Aberdeen with three children. Stepsons William and James of the right age are living with them.

So far I have been unable to find further information about Jane’s daughter Ellen but daughter Jane turns up in the 1901 census as a kitchen maid in the enormous house of Rt Hon Charles Benson and his mother, Baroness Seconfield in faraway Petworth, Sussex. In 1911 she is the cook in a smaller but still wealthy home owned by Mary Henrietta Benson in Glamorgan, Wales. We can only speculate about the circumstances and aspirations that led to such a large move, and her employment by the same family (presumably) for more than a decade.

Lizzie’s and Jane’s lives illustrate many of the aspects of life at that time outlined on this page. They seem to have been strong women who were able to survive a poor upbringing and difficult life circumstances to raise their own families.

Read more

More information on this website on Life in Aberdeenshire, 18th & 19th centuries.


  1. Women in early modern Scotland. Wikipedia.
  2. Aspects of Illegitimacy in Victorian Dumfriesshire. RJM Paddock.
  3. Family formation, marriage and procreative careers in late nineteenth century Scotland. Alice Reid & Eilidh Garrett
  4. Health in Scotland, 1840-1940. WW Knox. In A History of the Scottish People.
  5. Poverty, Income and Wealth in Scotland, 1840-1940. WW Knox. In A History of the Scottish People.
  6. Agrarian Reform and Agricultural Improvement in Lowland Scotland, 1750-1850. JDC Haddix.
  7. Scottish Illegitimacy Rations in the early Modern Period. Leah Leneman & Rosalind Michison. In The Economic History Review.
  8. Mortality improvements and evolution of life expectancies. Adrian Gallop.
  9. Vulnerability among illegitimate children in nineteenth century Scotland. Alice Reid, Ros Davies, Eilidh Garrett & Andrew Blaikie.
  10. Literacy among the Working Classes in Nineteenth Century Scotland. RK Webb
  11. School Attendance in Nineteenth Century Scotland: A Reply. RD Anderson.
  12. Handfasting. Wikipedia.
  13. Highland Potato Famine. Wikipedia.