Managing Criminal Women in Scotland: An Assessment of the Scarcity of Female Offenders in the Records of the High Court of Justiciary, 1524-1542

17th century map of ScotlandManaging Criminal Women in Scotland: An Assessment of the Scarcity of Female Offenders in the Records of the High Court of Justiciary, 1524-1542

By Chelsea D. M. Hartlen

Master’s Thesis, Dalhousie University, 2014

Abstract: The records of Scotland’s High Court of Justiciary that run from 1524 to 1542 contain a remarkably low number of women charged with felonies and pleas of the crown, and reveal the justiciar’s reluctance to convict or execute female offenders. Criminal procedure and jurisdiction afforded victims and kin opportunities to deal with deviant women before they attracted the attention of the king and his justiciar. Moreover, in the Borders, remote central governance, minority rulers and feuding encouraged a quasi-legal system of private justice that operated within the organising principal of kindred to maintain order. In Scotland, this manifested in a sorting process that kept women out of the justice court and under the management of local officials and kindred. This thesis examines these documents in order to understand better the experiences of women before the law and the efficacy of centralised governance and private justice in sixteenth-century Scotland.


Much of the current work on women and crime in Scotland remains of a recuperative nature, and historians such as Elizabeth Ewan and J. R. D. Falconer loom large in scholarly efforts to provide fundamental information about the legal agency and deviant behaviour of women in late medieval Scotland. The study of witchcraft has dominated the field of legal and gender history for a number of decades, but scholars have recently begun to make use also of kirk sessions and burgh, sheriff and regality court records to reconstruct female patterns of urban crime and ‘changing definitions of criminality’ in specific towns. The bulk of this research, however, focuses on the period after the Reformation in 1560. In 2002, Yvonne Galloway Brown and Rona Ferguson published Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland since 1400 in an attempt to provide the first cohesive view of female deviance and crime in Scotland. Although this was a welcome addition to the rather disparate and thin collection of publications then available on the subject, the section of that book that addresses crime fails to devote careful focus to the medieval period. Instead, it reflects the general state of Scottish women’s studies, which has concentrated on the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. There remains much to be uncovered about the perpetration and prosecution of crime in late medieval Scotland.

Click here to read this thesis from Dalhousie University


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