Home » Primary Source Analyses » Society and the Penal System in 18th Century Scotland

Society and the Penal System in 18th Century Scotland

by Malenie Reyes

Source: “Law Intelligence”[1]

“Law Intelligence” is an article written by an unnamed editor for the Aberdeen Journal in February of 1798. As the name suggests, the location of publication of this newspaper is Aberdeen, Scotland. Newspapers dominated print culture in Great Britain in the 18th century[2], allowing them to become the best form to report on various aspects of society. Since newspapers’ rise in popularity coincided with an increase in literacy rates[3], the audience for the Aberdeen Journal was likely the general public in Aberdeen as a means to report on recent crime. This may be especially true considering that this was an important time for changes in the penal system in Great Britain as well.[4] Since newspapers can also be read aloud, many people of various ages were likely able to gain insight on the happenings within their community during this period of great change. What may have once been a luxury was a means to now share stories with people beyond those with highest education and the greatest amount of resources. The combination of a rise in the newspaper popularity, growing literary rates and the newspaper as an auditory and literary medium allowed for more crime reporting to occur in Great Britain.

As noted above, since the 18th century was a vital time for penal system developments in Great Britain, this source may have served to report crime in the newspaper in order to track these developments over time in everyday life. Newspapers could thus be an accessible way to track history in current time in the 18th century. Since the article itself is not biased and only speaks on the indictment and the judge’s rationale for the given sentence, it may focus on allowing the public to develop their own opinions on the state of the community and how crime was being dealt with. As a result, public access to reports may have been a popular means to keep the government accountable for the changes they implemented, especially since lower crime rates within society are favorable.

One thing to consider, however, is the use of language in the source, which describes the horrors of gaming. Although reported in an unbiased manner through the judge’s rationale, this inclusion of details may further the purpose of the publication by warning the public against participating in gaming themselves. Gaming is painted as causing a rise in suicides and ruining “innocent families”[5], which may have simultaneously spread fear into the community, especially within families themselves. This could assist in curtailing overall participation in gaming, as the article also cites gaming as being “evil”[6].

The trend illuminated by this source is the role of gambling in society in the 18th century. Gambling had once been seen as an activity that the elite would engage in, but the 18th century saw a widening availability of gambling. As gambling became a new way for the poor to accumulate wealth, it became a new way to criticize the lower classes. Gambling, which had at first been an activity of leisure, was now a new way to avoid active work in a capitalist and industrialist economy[7], putting the greater society at risk. In fact, Great Britain illegalized private games, and thus gaming houses, in light of these developments.[8] The replacement of exclusive games with public gaming houses caused society to begin to view gaming as “tyrannous houses of ruin”[9] whose only goal was to bankrupt all classes of society. This shift in public opinions made gambling into a largescale problem, increasing the need to get rid of it. Resulting trends replaced a once beloved cultural space with what this source now classifies as a vice, revealing a time where many aspects of society were changing at once.

The actual sentencing for the crime of gaming itself is an especially interesting one. The judge states that gaming is an evil that sends many to the gallows and, yet, he does not send the defendant to them himself. This may serve to draw a distinction between Scottish and English practices. In the 18th century, Scotland and England had their own legal systems.[10] In fact, Scotland sent “far fewer” convicts to the gallows in the 18th century than did England[11], which is seen in an almost threatening way in the judge’s rationale. By mentioning the gallows and forgoing the usage of them as punishment, he may be highlighting the lenience present in the Scottish system during this period.

The move away from the gallows as a distinction between the English and Scottish legal systems shows Scotland’s efforts in the 18th century to move away from harsh, corporal punishment. The defendant’s sentence of a year to a house of correction shows the focus on short sentences and minor offenses, rather than putting together every class of criminal in the same institution. Although it can be speculated that the conditions within the house of correction were likely not the most favorable, the judge makes the statement that many have exited from the house of correction healthier than they entered.[12] This focuses on a need for the Scottish penal system to at least appear benevolent, especially with a crime so negatively associated with evil as gaming. The desire for more available workers within a capitalist system can also be seen. By entering into a recognizance that expects seven years of no gaming by the defendant[13], the reader can assume that this is a way for the defendant to find a new way to make money. Given the time period of its publication, it can thus be assumed that this includes work that instills values of capitalism and industrialism, as noted earlier.

As such, this newspaper article, although short in length, is packed with various aspects of Scottish society. The reader can see a shift in gambling culture, the importance that capitalist work holds, and a move away from the English penal system. By evaluating all of these changes, the reader gets a real glimpse into both everyday life and the penal system in Scottish communities.


[1] “Law Intelligence.” Aberdeen Journal, February 6, 1798. British Library Newspapers (accessed August 6, 2020). https://link-gale-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/apps/doc/BA3205609238/BNCN?u=duke_perkins&sid=BNCN&xid=cc1a1210.

[2] Elizabeth Foyster, “Introduction: Newspaper Reporting of Crime and Justice.” Continuity and Change 22, no. 1 (2007): 9. doi:10.1017/S0268416007006224.

[3] Foyster, “Introduction: Newspaper Reporting of Crime and Justice,” 9.

[4] Foyster, “Introduction: Newspaper Reporting of Crime and Justice,” 9.

[5] “Law Intelligence.”

[6] “Law Intelligence.”

[7] Arthur Pitt, “A Study Of Gamblers And Gaming Culture In London, c. 1780-1844: emerging strategic reasoning in a culture of conspicuous consumption” (MA diss., University of York, 2012), 139.

[8] Pitt, “A Study Of Gamblers And Gaming Culture In London, c. 1780-1844,” 119.

[9] Pitt, “A Study Of Gamblers And Gaming Culture In London, c. 1780-1844,” 124.

[10] Rachel Bennett, “An Awful and Impressive Spectacle: Crime Scene Executions in Scotland, 1801-1841.” Crime, History & Societies 21, no. 1 (2017): 3. doi:10.4000/chs.1720.

[11] Bennett, “An Awful and Impressive Spectacle,” 3.

[12] “Law Intelligence.”

[13] “Law Intelligence.”

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