In each community there are people who are ‘different’, in varying ways. Some are well known and people keep a friendly eye on them; others are looked at askance, with mistrust even. The phrase ‘black sheep’ seems to apply to those whose behaviour deviates from their family or society’s norms and who thus become outcasts from that group. One of my great great uncles was regarded as the black sheep of the family – you can read about him here and see if you agree. For several reasons I’m not sure it is a phrase we would still use much today if at all.

‘Black sheep’ in North Walls & Brims

When it comes to my one-place study area, my first thought was those whom the Kirk Session summoned to account for some aspect of their behaviour. They were certainly people whose life or actions departed from the Church’s code but were they ‘black sheep’? (I’ve indexed most of the Kirk Session minutes for Walls dealing with discipline cases, 1837- May 1875)

Some of the behaviours that were punished occurred fairly frequently, not least ante-nuptial fornication and children born out of wedlock. In most cases, after an investigation and varying forms of rebuke and contrition, the guilty parties were restored to church privileges. Some who came to attention were what could be termed pillars of the community in other respects. James Ross/Rossie is an example. The Session summoned him in June 1869 for “drunkenness, fighting and profane swearing” at the Walls market.1Walls Kirk Session. Minutes 1865-1984. 8 & 19 June 1869. CH2/1105/11. NRS, Edinburgh. Yet he was a local merchant who only two or so years earlier sometimes chaired the new school building committee, even hiring the Walls steamer to bring over lime for painting the building.2Walls Kirk Session. School Management Committee Minutes 1866-1876. North Walls. 11 January 1867 and other dates OCR28/5. Orkney Archives, Kirkwall. (Chair and subscription collector on other dates)

Vanishing fathers

If anyone from those minutes was a ‘black sheep’ then for me it is the men who refused to acknowledge (and presumably support) the children they had fathered. Though several initially denied any involvement, most usually owned up in the end. That admission, along with financial support for the child and mother, generally satisfied the Kirk Session.

Two cases were different. One of them was John Laird, from Reiss in the parish of Wick, who, despite having promised to marry Betty Gray, Brims, set off for Australia two months before the child was born leaving her a single parent.3Walls Kirk Session. Minutes 1837-1865. 9 October 1853; 28 May and 11 June 1854. CH2/1105/1. NRS, Edinburgh Their daughter was baptised Jean Laird Gray on 3 July 1854, with no father’s name in the record.4Baptisms (OPR) Scotland. Walls, Orkney. 032/ 40 161 To this day her former home is known as “Jeanie Laird’s”. A vindication of sorts.

Another was William Robertson, rope maker, Pulteneytown, Wick, father of Jessie Manson’s child born in April 1854. In this case however correspondence with the minister of Wick revealed that Jessie took William to court where he was proved to be the father.5Walls Kirk Session. Minutes 1837-1865. 8 October 1854. CH2/1105/1. NRS, Edinburgh Old Scottish’s Sheriff Court Paternity Decrees index bears this out; the decree given at Wick Sheriff Court on 19 April 1854.6 Name is Janet Manson, Billster, which matches the information from the Kirk Session record that she was working in Wick when she became pregnant. Jean Gun Robertson was subsequently baptised on 16 October 1854.7Baptisms (OPR) Scotland. Walls, Orkney. 032/ 40 165 I have much admiration for those women who resorted to the legal system to obtain support. It cannot have been easy.

A post following the Society for One-Place Studies’ January 2022 prompt #OnePlaceBlackSheep.

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