By Tim Porteus

AGNES Blake (or Black) lived in Haddington in the early 1700s. She was regarded as an ‘incomer’, however, as she was born at Bolton, a couple of miles away, where she likely spent much of her childhood. When and how she came to Haddington I cannot say, or what her childhood was like, but it seems clear she was poor and for her, life was a struggle.

She seems to have found companionship with Elizabeth Golight, who was Haddington born and bred. Perhaps they were neighbours in Haddington. Whatever their circumstances, they drew the attention of others and found themselves in court.

This is how they came to the attention of another woman from another century: Ros Parkyn. She sadly died only a few weeks ago, but her life was full of stories and love for people, and she had an especially sharp eye for injustice and empathy for people unfairly treated or judged.

Ros was browsing in the John Gray Centre in 2016 and noticed a temporary display of mixed objects and records from their collections. There was a volume of court records laid open for perusal and Ros peered at the entries.

The entries hadn’t been transcribed but she could just make out that they were accounts of the trials of two women who lived in Haddington in 1737. The 18th-century handwriting, with its different spelling, was very difficult to read in the display case, and so Ros asked the staff if it was possible to take the document from the case.

A friendly and helpful staff member obliged, then sat down with Ros and assisted her to transcribe the writing. It wasn’t easy; sometimes they couldn’t decipher a word at all, while others seemed to be spelt differently at different times. But gradually, as Ros wrote the words down, she became introduced to Agnes and Elizabeth.

There were accounts of others too, but she was particularly taken with the account of these two women, the language used to describe them, and the cruel punishments they suffered.

In the account, Agnes’s name is spelt in three different ways, but was likely Blake or Black.

Here is the transcription Ros made:

January 1737

Agnes Blaik Indweller in Haddington born in the parish of Boulton and Elizabeth Golight, daughter to William Golight, born in this parish being both accused and imprisoned as guilty of lewdness and uncleanliness with many different persons. Elizabeth Golight confesses that since Michaelmas last she has been guilty of uncleanliness with several persons and Agnes Blaikie confesses she was formerly convict of uncleanliness and that she was a bad woman – But not of late. But acknowledges she lives in a house alone and that there has been dragoons with her in the house. Which being considered by the Magistrates they find Elizabeth Golight is a vicious strumpet and to their certain information Agnes Blaik is a vicious lewd woman. And therefore they ordain both the said Elizabeth Golight and Agnes Blaik be taken to the cross Friday next with the officers and Hangman and there to stand sometime with a paper or sack of their… donating their crime and thereafter be conveyed to… with beat of the drum and to be banished forever out of the borough with certification if ever they or either one of them return to or be seen in this burgh they shall be whipped by the hangman.

Signed Andrew Dixon, George Cunningham, Bailies.

But it seems the harsh punishment did not prevent them from returning to the town, for Ros came across another two entries:

9th May 1737

Appeared with Janet Golight her mother Elizabeth for repeating acts of lewdness and stealing from Robina Muckle’s shop. Both found guilty and sent to the House of Correction in Edinburgh to be kept at hard work for 2 years. Should be whipped by the hangman and burnt on the cheek.

17th June 1737

Agnes Black returned to buy a gown for herself and so was sentenced to be whipped through the town and banished.

Ros later sent me her transcriptions, saying: “I love the way Agnes confessed she ‘was a bad woman – but not of late’. It rings out over the centuries. And I have a definite dislike for the bailies pronouncing on the ‘vicious strumpet’ and the ‘vicious lewd woman’, particularly as there is no mention of any man being named, despite the men being ‘to their certain information’!”

Ros had emailed me the transcription in January 2017 and wrote to me: “I thought it was a tale worth telling and you could weave your magic on it and perhaps find a happy ending.”

To my regret, I only came across this email last week, as it had somehow remained unopened in my inbox for over two years. I admit to being technically useless on computer matters!

But a happy ending? It’s clear both Agnes and Elizabeth had very harsh lives, and on the surface there seems little scope for a truly happy ending.

The description of them is misogynistic and full of double standards, as Ros pointed out.

So what were these women really like? The writer tries to paint a picture of awful human beings, but the image of poor Agnes secretly creeping back into town, no doubt in a state of desperation, to “buy herself a gown” and then being whipped as a punishment gives a different story. The punishments for both women are barbaric and utterly unjust.

Then I realised that there was a happy ending. That happy ending was in late 2016, when Ros walked into the John Gray Centre and found out about Agnes and Elizabeth. She read the account with human understanding and saw through the prejudice to glimpse at the women themselves and understand just how wrongly they had been treated and judged. And so she spoke up for them and gave them a place in history, while turning the judgment on their accusers.

That’s a happy ending I know Ros would have liked.