Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Understanding Our "Lunatic" Ancestors

Lunatic, Imbecile or Feebleminded

It can be quite a shock for many people when they first see the column on census pages headed: “If any person in this Schedule is:- … Lunatic, Imbecile or Feebleminded”. Variations on this question were asked from 1871, when the question was “Whether: 1. Deaf-and-Dumb 2. Blind 3. Imbecile or Idiot 4. Lunatic.” What can come as a greater shock than the phrasing of the question is when we discover that our ancestor is listed as an “Imbecile” or a “Lunatic”!

Greater Understanding

As time has passed a greater understanding of mental health has led to kinder and more specific terminology as well as huge improvements in the help available for sufferers. When we see such a reference we may immediately want to know more about the condition our ancestors had.

The Archives

In Scotland there is a fabulous resource held by the National Records of Scotland (NRS). Whilst these politically incorrect terms are used in the records there is also a description of the facts as seen by the doctor at the time, and as related to the doctor by other individuals. This means we can move beyond the words “lunatic” or “idiot” and understand more about the people behind the terms and how they were suffering”.

The documents are recorded under the reference ‘MC’ in the NRS. The most informative series is MC2 which is entitled “Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of the Mental Institutions”. These notices of admissions start in 1858. There is also a register, containing less detail. The register begins in 1858 but includes all those already within the system at that point in time. So if somebody entered an asylum in 1820 and was still there in 1858 they are in the register but a person committed in 1850 but who left in 1856 will not be in the register. The references for these registers begin MC7 (see the NRS catalogue for years and full references).


Let’s say then we have been doing some research and we have come across Marjory Methven in the 1861 census, who is listed as a patient in the Royal Lunatic Asylum. We may want to learn more about poor Marjory.

I have found her in the “Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of the Mental Institutions”. The record begins:

“I herby give you notice, That Marjory Spence or Burrell or Methven, a pauper lunatic of the Parish of Edinburgh was received into the Eastern Division of the  Poorhouse Edinburgh as an Insane person on the Twenty-third day of February and I herewith transmit a Copy of the Order and Medical Certificates and Statement on which she was received…” [this notice was signed by a doctor in March 1858].

On the next page is a form to be filled out, asking again for name, age, marital status etc. It also asks:
8 - Length of Time Insane
9 - Whether first attack
10 - Age (if known) on first Attack
14 - Whether subject to Epilepsy
15 - Whether Suicidal
16 - Whether Dangerous to others
17 - Parish or Union to which the Lunatic is Chargeable
18 - Christian Name and Surname, and Place of Abode, of nearest known Relative of the Patient, and degree of Relationship (if known), and whether any Member of his Family known to be or have been Insane

In our case questions 8-13 are answered as “Not Known”, and questions 14-16 are answered as “No”. Number 18 gives the detail: “Miller Methven, her husband, 203 Cannongate. Not known whether any of the family are or have been insane.” [this page is again signed, this time by the Inspector of the Poor].

Next we have a notice from the Sheriff-Clerks Office saying that Marjory Spence or Methven can be admitted.

The Facts of the Case

On the following page we have the medical certificate, which is where we begin to find out some real detail about poor Marjory.

“I, the undersigned John Smith M.D., being a Physician and being in actual practice as a Physician do hereby certify, on soul and conscience, that I have this day at the Eastern Division of the Edinburgh Poor House in the County of Mid-Lothian separately from any other Medical Practitioner, visited and personally examined Marjory Spence or Birrell or Methven, and that the said Marjory Spence or Birrell or Methven is a Lunatic and a proper Person to be detained in a Poorhouse under care and treatment, and that I have formed this opinion upon the following grounds, viz: -

  1. Facts observed by myself: She says she has just come over from Kirkcaldy to be crowned Queen, that she received papers telling her to do so, that the papers were given by Soldiers, but she does not know who sent the papers. - Was taken up by the Police, having a crowd about her calling out Victoria.

(Signed) John Smith M.D. Physician, 20 Charlotte Square.

We have a second physician, completing the same form:

. . . I have formed this opinion upon the following grounds viz: -

  1. Her fantastic dress & incoherent language. She labours under delusions, for example that she is Queen of England, and that she is about to be married to a Nobleman.

(Signed) William D. Adams M.D., 5 Argyle Square

And there you have it, that’s the sort of thing you can find in the MC records held by the National Records of Scotland. These records can certainly help us to have an insight into our ancestors.


If you need help to access these records please get in touch. Records under 100 years old are not available to the public but earlier records can be consulted. There was an index created but at the time the closure on the records was only 75 years. This means that the index itself is now closed as some of the material indexed is from less than 100 years ago. The best finding aid at the present time is therefore the register of lunatics, NRS reference  MC7. This gives date(s) of admission and a number. This number stays with the same individual throughout their admissions.

What we really need is an index, as in the case of so many valuable records at the NRS. If you would like to volunteer to help please get in touch with me.

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