Just drop dead? That's too easy

February 24, 2006

Scotland's men have long had a reputation for violence, but new research reveals just how fiery its women could be.

A St Andrews University historian has discovered that Scottish women in previous centuries killed themselves more violently than their English counterparts. Initial investigations by Rab Houston, a social historian, show that while English women often drowned themselves, Scots considered this too easy a way of dying.

"Scottish women drown themselves, but they also use violent means such as hanging, cutting their own throats or jumping out of windows," said Professor Houston, who has won a Leverhulme major research fellowship for a three-year study of suicide north and south of the border between 1500 and 1850.

His research also showed that in the 18th century, Scottish women were responsible for a higher proportion of violent crime than their English counterparts.

"There may be something about being a women in early modern Scotland that makes women more violent," he said. "English women seem to indulge in verbal abuse, while Scottish women are more likely to pick up a weapon."

Suicide was a criminal offence across the UK, and the most usual sanction was to forbid burial in hallowed ground. But Scottish authorities dealt more harshly with victims until the 18th century. "The English do it discreetly, but in Scotland, it's a shaming punishment to make an example of them," Professor Houston said. "The English like to bury some suicides with a stake through their heart. But for a period from the late 16th century to the early 18th century, in Scotland (the body) would be dragged through the streets and hanged in public."

Into the early 19th century, suicides were held up by Scottish newspapers as examples of what was wrong with society. "Studying things that seem really odd and aberrant tells you a lot about the norms of a society,"

Professor Houston said.

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