During the mid to late 19th Century, Fife became an area of aggregation for lunatics in Scotland.
The word lunatic originates from the Latin word of ‘luna’ meaning moon. There was a belief that the changes in the cycle of the moon caused periodic or intermittent insanity, affecting people’s cognitive behaviour.
The Victorians identified two strands of lunacy, a) imbeciles born with an unsound mind and b) those who acquired a mental imbalance in adulthood. The Scottish Lunacy Act, 1857, defined lunacy in such a way that it included every person certified by two physicians to be a “lunatic, an insane person, an idiot, or a person of unsound mind’ regardless of when in life it originated. The use of the word lunatic reflects the language and the attitudes of society at the time and are now looked on as derogatory, offensive terms.
Society believed that insanity and lunacy were curable with the help of re-education to help restore the mind to a sound state. Victorians way of supporting lunatics was two-fold in Scotland. They had community support systems in place which enabled people to reside in special licensed private dwellings so long as support was in place, while also enabling admission in to an asylum with a formal institutional environment. From this belief stemmed the need to build Lunatic Asylums across the UK, offering institutional support to cure imbalanced minds. The Fife and Kinross District Asylum General Registers of Lunatics give us insights in to the lives of nearly 10,000 people who availed of the support offered by the asylum.
Life in Fife in late 1800s was tough, unemployment prevailed. Fife had previously been a highly industrial area but this changed drastically when the likes of handloom weaving died out and people were jobless. Economic hardships can leave a strain on peoples’ mental health and many sought help from the asylum.
As well as supporting local lunatics, Fife was recognised as a place of aggregation of lunacy’s from across Scotland. The cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow are known to have sent both adults and child lunatics to Fife for treatment.
Doors to the asylum opened on the 4th of July 1866. The first patient admitted on the registers was Jane Dickson, age 32, single, a weaver, a local lady from Collessie, who suffered a ‘hereditary taint’ and stayed in the asylum for over 2 years. Her family suffered a history of mental illness, with the records noting that a brother and sister of hers were also insane and had both passed away.
What began as a modest building accommodating 200 pauper patients in 1866, grew to facilitate over 600 patients by 1896. In 1905 two additional hospital wings were opened to accommodate even more. This is attributed to the increase in people seeing the benefit of time in an asylum could bring and the increased willingness of the system to admit more people rather than it being a rise in lunacy across Scotland.
The Registers give us an insight in to the assorted reasons that people were considered to be lunatics. The following brief descriptions are pulled from a sample of records:
Menopause; Religious excitement; Old age; Being divorced from husband; Brain disease; Is pregnant; Alcoholism; Child birth; Epilepsy; Anxiety caused by loss of money; A fall resulting in injury to the head; Religious insomnia; Dementia; Worry; Crossed in love.
The Registers also help us understand the demographics of the lunatics that availed of the asylum facilities.
Looking at a random sample of 100 people in the records, across a variety of years, we found that:
– The oldest person in the sample set was aged 79 while the youngest was 17.
– 58% of the patients were female versus 42% male;
– Irrespective of gender, 51% were single, 35% married and 14% widowed;
– Single Females accounted for nearly 1 third of the sample set;
– While Widowed Males represented only 2% of the sample.
Modern thinking suggests that the social context in which people live their lives affects their mental wellbeing. While mental imbalances can affect people of all walks of life, the occupations listed for the patients suggest a lower socio-economic standing.
Domestic servant; field worker; joiner; knitter; laundress; floor cloth pointer; outworker; mill worker; ex- solider; tailor; weaver; seamstress; governess; cooper; fisherman; nurse; housewife; mason.
Can we take the readings of our Ancestors from these records to be true representations of them as people as a whole? It is important to remember that these records represent our ancestor during one chapter in their life and the judgement on character is only representative of one strand of their personality. Take for example:
Sophia Birnie, Widowed by age 56, she was in the lunacy asylum for six years after finding it hard to cope following the drowning of her son, having already lost her husband. It is no wonder she was having a hard time and sought refuge in the asylum, but was she a lunatic all her life? Unlikely.
Are there any more learnings you can gleam from the records? Will you find one of your ancestors in here? Search the collection now using name, age, location, gender, admission date, discharge, date.
TIP: the observations column on the left hand side of the page often list a family member who looked after the patient upon discharge, noting their name and relationship to the patient.