Dr Rebecca Mason, our inaugural Alasdair Ross Prize winner, describes how the Prize enabled her to work on her ground-breaking research into women, property and law in early modern Scotland.
The Alasdair Ross Prize has enabled me to gather archival evidence on women’s access to law and rights to property in early modern Scotland by funding two archival trips to Inverness and St Andrews. My research to date has focused on the litigating activities and property rights of women in seventeenth-century Glasgow, with special attention paid to the lives and experiences of married women in particular. In Scottish legal handbooks, married women were denied an independent legal identity and lost control of much of their property upon marriage. A married woman needed her husband’s consent before registering a contract of initiating a legal suit. A husband gained ownership of all household goods and assumed administrative rights to his wife’s inherited property. However, when looking closely at how married women were recorded within the legal record, we can see that married women’s access to law and rights to property were framed around their family relationships, their marital careers, and their credit networks. Tracing married women’s interaction with the legal system in practice brings to light the varied nature of their legal activities. They denounced those who sought to deprive them of their property rights and actively negotiated their marital property alongside their husbands. Most importantly, married women compelled the law to listen to their voices and property concerns by hiring lawyers to act on their behalf, or by appearing before a judge as plaintiffs or defendants in property disputes.
Rather than appearing as perpetual victims at the mercy of a patriarchal legal system, Scottish women were active court users and litigants when asserting ownership of their inherited property, or when claiming their rights and interests to their marital property. In Inverness, for instance, I have found married women entangled in family litigation when asserting their rights to their marital property. In May 1682, Christine Fraser, the widow of Alexander Fraser, a bailie of Inverness, and the new wife of William Cumming, a lawyer, sued her stepson John Fraser before Inverness burgh court. Christine alleged before the town bailies that her late husband’s son was refusing to honour the property arrangements agreed in her first marriage contract, which was drawn up 11 years previously in 1671. She told the town bailies that her late husband had placed her in joint ownership of a house upon their marriage and that, as his lawful widow, she was legally entitled to collect the rents of the property until her own death. Even though she was a wife, Christine held existing interests to her previous marital property that circumvented her theoretically subjugated legal status. Like many other married women, Christine was successful in her legal action. In St Andrews burgh court, I have also encountered married women actively managing their inherited property. In June 1626, Elizabeth Balfour, the wife of Simon Ward, a mariner, mortgaged her inherited land to another merchant in return for an immediate cash payment. Elizabeth noted in the contract that she had received the land following the death of her father Duncan Balfour, a church elder in St Andrews, and that the land rightfully belonged to her and her future heirs. Elizabeth’s name appeared before her husband’s name in the legal record. Her husband Simon was simply named ‘for his interest’ in her legal action. Rather than hiding behind their fathers, husbands and sons, women were active court users and litigants in early modern Scotland, with their interests to land and goods recognised and upheld by the legal system.
As part of a postdoctoral project at the Institute of Historical Research in London, I am uncovering how women living across Scotland negotiated their access to law, and how their appearance before the courts varied in accordance to jurisdictional boundaries, language, confessional identity, and social status. The Alasdair Ross Prize has greatly assisted me in bringing Scottish women to the forefront of early modern Scottish court records.