Love, Care and the Illegitimate Child in Eighteenth-Century Scotland

By Joanne Low (Macquarie University)

In September 1742, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a girl named Jean was born. Her father, George Innes, was the son of an Aberdeenshire merchant and part of a rapidly upwardly mobile family. Her mother, Elizabeth Graham, the daughter of a school master, had a much humbler background. She was a maid within the household of Lady Whiteford of Blairquahan when she met George, a clerk for Lady Whiteford’s brother-in-law at the time. Upon her pregnancy, Elizabeth had fully expected George to marry her. Unfortunately for her, George chose instead to marry a woman whose family could more readily enable his ambition of social mobility.

Richard Redgrave, The Outcast
Richard Redgrave, The Outcast (1851), Royal Academy of Arts, Wikimedia Commons

In January 1762, at the age of twenty, Jean died after a long bout of illness. In her twenty years, Jean was cared for by a range of caregivers, each of whom, in their own way, contributed to ensuring her survival, education and general well-being. While Jean rarely saw her father, it was his financial provisioning that paid for the wet-nurse who would ensure her survival through infancy, and for the education and apprenticeship-training she received. For much of her childhood, Jean was raised and educated by her maternal uncle and grandfather, who sought to educate her as a member of her father’s class. Apart from her biological mother, whom she likely did not see very often given Elizabeth’s need to earn a living outside the home, Jean was also mothered by other women – her wet nurse, whom she formed an affective attachment to in her early years, and the mantua-maker she apprenticed with and in whose house she lived as a teenager.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Le Depart de la Nourrice
Jean-Baptiste Greuze (and Jean-Baptiste Blaise Simonet), Le Depart de la Nourrice (1780), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Jean’s story raises questions about the relationship between practices of caring and those of love in eighteenth-century Scotland. These questions highlight the historical contingency of ideas about love, its practices and its relationship to concepts of care. The ideas of maternal love and parental affection, for example, while seemingly natural categories of human relationship and emotion in the modern western world, have in fact varied over time and place. While early social historians argued that maternal love was a product of modernity, enabled by improved material conditions, a reduced child mortality rate and a softening of attitudes toward unwed mothers, others have pointed to evidence of a long history of parental affection toward children. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for example, the principles for inheritance in England and Scotland, influenced by natural law theory, were guided by the concept of natural affection, or the idea that parental love was an innate human instinct, designed to secure the survival of the human species.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Return From the Wet-Nurse
Jean-Baptiste Greuze (and François Hubert),
The Return From The Wet Nurse (1767), Minneapolis Institute of Art

In eighteenth-century Scotland and Europe, natural affection was arguably a form of parental love that both motivated and arose from the practical fulfilment of duties towards a child; through providing for, educating or training, and physically caring for him or her. Case studies such as Jean’s demonstrate that natural affection extended even to illegitimate children, but they also highlight that natural affection was relative, defined in large by a child’s gender, class, parentage and legitimacy. The duty owed to a child, and hence, his or her experience of love and care, was framed and shaped by and through the social, economic and legal networks that he or she was positioned in.

That the care and affection that illegitimate children were entitled to was shaped by larger legal and economic frameworks is clear from a study of legitimacy and alimony suits in eighteenth-century Scotland. In the eyes of the law, illegitimate children were considered worthy of protection and entitled to physical care and material provision. If filiation was proved, fathers were generally responsible for financially supporting the child, often bearing lying-in expenses and the cost of hiring a nurse. Mothers too, imagined their contribution to the care of their child in economic terms, if paid in bodily labour and practical care, rather than money.

Illegitimate children were not, however, entitled to inherit property from their father as, by law, they were not formally part of their paternal family. Legally therefore, illegitimate children were considered to be independent of the nuclear family unit. This made their social and economic positions extremely precarious, and greatly affected how they were cared for in practice. While the legal framework of care, which bound articulations of care tightly to household economies, was significant in shaping the discourse and practices of care of children in eighteenth-century Scotland, it was a framework that not only encompassed but downplayed caring practices that were considerably more complex, particularly in regard to illegitimate children.

For many poorer women, like Elizabeth Graham, having to return to work after the birth of their child meant leaving their child in the care of others, such as nurses, grandparents and family members. Although women were generally considered the appropriate custodians of illegitimate children, custodial arrangements were not always straightforward and children sometimes moved between parental homes, receiving care from a range of caregivers. There were also those children who, whether due to poverty, being constantly shuffled between carers, or ending up on the outskirts of the new conjugal unit of their parents, fell out of care altogether, becoming homeless or suffering abuse. In many of these cases, the parish or members of the community would step in to care for the child; for example, in 1801, Reverend McNeveson, on behalf of the Session of Penpont, sued Thomas Kirkpatrick for refusing to take custody of his daughter, Margaret, who had become homeless; and John Fee, who at the age of eight was either abandoned by or ran away from his father, was eventually taken in by a travelling merchant and her husband.

William Hogarth, Die Denunziation
William Hogarth, Die Denunziation. A Woman Swearing a Child to a Grave Citizen (c.1729), National Gallery of Ireland, Wikimedia Commons

The care of illegitimate children, therefore, provides insight into ideas about love and affection in eighteenth-century Scotland and Europe. It reveals an intimate association between affection and the practical fulfilment of duty, wherein love both arose from and motivated acts of care. The legal framework surrounding the care of illegitimate children also reveals that natural affection was a distinct obligation on its own; it was an emotion that parents were expected to feel, and so most accordingly did. Yet, natural affection was also relative, shaped as it was by a child’s status in society. Given that the eighteenth-century imagining of love and affection was so closely tied to economic provision, the care that illegitimate children received was also a statement of their worth. While the care of a legitimate child was provided largely via the nuclear family, the care of the illegitimate child was often dispersed through the community across caregivers, types of care and levels of affection, with implications, no doubt, for the experience of love. Within this context, parental love played only one part in the experience of love. Instead, loving the illegitimate child can be said to have been an ongoing social practice.

Joanne Low reports here on ARC Centre of Excellence in the History of Emotions Deputy-Director’s Katie Barclay’s new publication ‘Love, Care and the Illegitimate Child in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 29 (2019): 105–25. Low is an intern of the Adelaide node of the CHE and student at Macquarie University.

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