Saturday, 21 April 2012

19th century Lewis: Lunacy

The 1902 Report from the Crofters Commission touched something that tends to get overlooked: lunacy. The word lunacy has unpleasant connotations, but remains an inescapable fact of life in any community. I copy the relevant section from chapter 7, which touches on the care of the poor and of lunatics.

The question of pauper lunacy next falls to be considered. The statistics with regard to this matter furnished by the General Board of Lunacy for Scotland at first present an alarming appearance, but on examination in the light of the change which has been gradually taking place in the treatment of the insane and imbecile within the last fifty years, it will be seen that the growth of lunacy is not in any degree disproportionate to the growth of population. Formerly the harmless lunatic and the imbecile were maintained among their relatives. Occasionally they wandered through the country and became objects of mirth’, or of compassion, according to the form their mental defects assumed, or the disposition of the persons among whom they moved. They received food wherever they went, and a bed in a barn or other outhouse, for persons of this class, was considered a necessary feature of every farm. The humblest tenant provided for them according to his means when they visited his home. Whenever any such weakling remained in a house for an evening, numbers of youths allowed and teased him. His quaint remarks on hearing of some strange event narrated to tickle his fancy, or the expressive oaths to which he occasionally gave utterance, formed a theme for the amusement of the thoughtless in the locality long after the unfortunate individual had departed.

Sometimes these persons became dangerous, and caused alarm in their neighbourhood. When it became necessary to overpower them, care was taken lest they should scratch the skin of any of those engaged in overcoming them. If such an accident happened, it was believed that the person injured would himself become insane sooner or later!

For half a century or more the tendency has been to put persons mentally afflicted under restraint-—the more dangerous being confined in asylums and the less dangerous boarded in private houses ; and the result is that even in the most remote districts these unfortunates are rarely met with wandering at will; and the bed in the outhouse for the waifs and strays has become a custom of the past.

In the case of dangerous lunatics there was formerly a strong aversion on the part of relatives to send them to asylums. They had heard tales of cruelties practised on asylum patients ; and they endeavoured to tend their hapless relative at home rather than send him among strangers; and in the hope of effecting a cure they had recourse to some of the popular remedies which had for generations found faVour( throughout the country on the mainland there were Loch Maree in Ross—shire, Loch Monar in Strathnaver, Sutherlandshire, and St. Fillan’s Pool in Perthshire. At the first of these, the patient, after drinking out of the holy well on St. Maelrube’s Island in the lake, was thrown into the water and towed after the boat round the island.

Maelrube’s name appears to have been associated with the cure of insanity for centuries, for upwards of 250 years ago the Presbytery of Dingwall condemned superstitious practices at Loch Maree with regard to “ Mourie his derilans ” (Maelrube’s afflicted ones). Loch Monar is little more than a horse pond. It was resorted to on the first Monday of each quarter—February, May, August, and November—by parties not only from the northern Highland counties, but also from Orkney. Deranged and fatuous persons were conveyed 10 the side of the loch on the preceding Sunday. Each victim was kept bound and sparingly fed till midnight. After that hour he was unbound, and to quote the language of the Rev. Donald Sage “led forth to nearly the middle of the pool, and hurled head foremost under its dusky waters. Then he was dragged out, stripped, and dried, and conveyed home by his attendants, in the confident expectation of his recovery.” (Memorabilia Domestica p. 242.)

At Strath Fillan the patient was dipped in a pool in the River Fillan, and afterwards bound hand and foot and kept all night under watch in the old chapel of the Saint. The practice in connection with this place has not escaped the eye of Scott, for we read of the Palmer in “ Marmion ” about to visit

“St. Fillan’s Blessed well,
Whose spring can frenzied dreams dispel,
And the crazed brain restore.”

Lewis had its own shrine for the cure of the mentally deranged—viz., the temple of Maeldubh at Eoropie in Ness. There, the patient was brought to the holy well in the township, made to drink the water, and there- after led to the old chapel, and going three times round it sunwise was brought inside. He was then bound hand and foot, and with his head resting on the Saint’s stone pillow was left there for the night. If this drastic treatment did not effect a cure ere morning, the malady was regarded as incurable.

The Siloams of Maree, Monar, and Strathfillan have long ago ceased to be resorted to, but there is still a lingering belief in the eflicacy of the ceremony at the temple of Maeldubh in Lewis; and it is said that some unfortunate persons have been subjected to the ordeal we have described within comparatively recent times.

The old remedies for the cure of insanity having fallen into disrepute, recourse is now had to more modern treatment, and hence the seeming increase of insanity as indicated by statistics. In Lewis there were 35 pauper lunatics on the rolls of the Parochial Boarder 1881—17 of them being in asylums and 18 in private dwellings. In 1901 the number had increased to 97—42 in asylums and 55 in private dwellings. These figures represent a rise of from 6.7 to 14.5 of asylum patients, and of from 7.0 to 19.0 of patients in private dwellings, in proportion to every 10,000 of population. The numbers certainly look startling, but it has to be noted that in both cases they apply to the registered insane; and that while in 1901 it may reasonably be expected that all the insane paupers are registered, there must have been a considerable number in 1881 who were not registered, and therefore the figures do not afford a safe basis for comparison. The Lunacy Board believe that a great many persons were recognised as lunatics and sent to Asylums for private treatment in 1901 who would not have been so recognised in 1881. This change, though much less recent in most places than in Lewis, is common to all Scotland, and is believed to account for the general growth of lunacy as presented by the published statistics. Had a comparison been made between 1861 and 1881, it is believed that the increase in the latter year would be as striking as the apparent increase in 1901 when compared with 1881.

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