Saturday, May 10, 2014

Idiotic From Birth Part B

How I felt about researching this story

There is something ‘moving’ about the story of the family of James and Margaret Dunbar of Mains of Forse. I have to admit that each piece of information I located left me wanting to know more. What an extraordinary turn of events for one family to have four children having a disability since birth. There is no clue what the disabilities were.

From the Badbea monument
I really wanted to talk to Margaret Sutherland - my great great aunt who was just a name on the Badbea monument when I started this story. She had no mother to turn to for help but I am glad she had her sister Esther also living in Forse (see previous blog). There were other Dunbars living at Forse so they may have been related to James and may have been supportive..

Not Abandoned
While the Dunbar story seemed tragic to me at first, as I found more records I was struck with, and very relieved by, the fact that the Dunbar’s were not abandoned as they got older, but were looked after by the Parish Council, and in fact lived into old age – Mary to 85. Someone must have been doing something right. The Dunbar siblings had some years after their father died living in a household of their own, plus had support from their brother John who was married and still living in Mains of Forse. I was especially moved to see his signature on the death records of his father and sister Catherine.
Death James Dunbar 1891
Good parents
Here and there I got the feeling the parents James and Margaret Dunbar were protective of their children. In one census they hold back from identifying their daughters’ disabilities yet declared the sons. In another they declared Catherine, George & James 'Idiotic' but not Mary. In another, after Margaret's death, father James showed each of his daughters as having a regular Occupation as a General Servant, and son James as an Ag Lab (Agricultural Labourer) despite them being ‘Imbecile’. One record says they could speak both Gaelic and English – which. if correct, they must have learned from their parents. James was with son George when he died and signed his death certificate.
G & E meaning Gaelic and English. From the 1891 census
Census of 1851 with the whole family present. 
Words and Labels
 I found problematic the range of words used to describe Catherine, George, James and Mary. They were called Idiots, Idiotic from Birth, Imbecile, Lunatic, Imbecile from Childhood, Pauper and Imbecile, Pauper and Lunatic. These days they would be described as having a congenital disorder (not necessarily genetic) but to replace the language used at the time with terms considered polite today would be to deny the historical specificity of the time and place the censuses were taken.

The Genuki website suggests the following meanings for the words used on census returns but they don’t really fit in this case. The meanings for these words are clearly all fluid.
  • Lunatic - a mentally ill person with periods of lucidity.
  • Imbecile - persons who have fallen in later life into a state of chronic dementia.
  • Idiot - persons who suffer from congenital mental deficiency.
Sometimes the census records give more than the census asked, for example the 1871 census asks whether Imbecile or Idiot but the census record says ‘Idiotic from Birth’. I wonder if this indicates that folks, including the census takers, didn’t really understand the meanings of the options they were asked to choose or the purpose of the census category for disability? The census form didn’t explain.

125 years of the Dunbar family of Forse
This short record of the life of one family spans over 125 years from 1804 when Margaret was born, her marriage to James Dunbar in 1831, to 1929 when their youngest daughter Mary died. Catherine, George, James and Mary remained single. Son John was not shown as having any children. It is possible son William did and I have not located them. The family clearly stuck together and supported each other in various ways despite what must have been very difficult times. Well done Dunbars of Mains of Forse.

Source: Geikie's Etchings

The Idiot Boy - William Wordworth
I am imagining love and support in the Dunbar family for the four sons and daughters ’Idiotic from Birth’ so to close I am including one verse from William Wordsworth’s poem The Idiot Boy published in 1798 which tells the story of Betty Foy and the ‘Idiot’ son she loses, then finds, and is overjoyed.

                                             She kisses o'er and o'er again
                                             Him whom she loves, her Idiot Boy;
                                             She's happy here, is happy there,
                                             She is uneasy every where;
                                             Her limbs are all alive with joy.

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