Autism in History
Bill Long 8/18/06
The 18th Century Case of Hugh Blair of Borgue (Scotland)
A movement matures when it is becomes capable of considering its own history critically. A field develops a new self-understanding when it can view its past and say, "My this is what we did! This is the way that concepts developed, that language accreted, that ideas took wing." Though this was not the principal aim of the delightful book, Autism in History (Oxford, 2000) by Rab Houston and Uta Frith, the book serves a vital function in helping us ascertain if and to what extent the phenomenon we now call autism existed before there was any specific term to denominate it. Houston & Frith conclude, after rich historical chapters (Houston) and well-presented neurological chapters (Frith) that the 18th century Scottish landowner of fairly prosperous means, Hugh Blair, was probably afflicted with a form of autism. But rather than this conclusion being the end of the story, it becomes the basis for me to tell the story of Hugh Blair and to probe the fascinating way that Frith and Houston mined the historical data to come to their conclusion. Though I am not so interested in trying to ascertain if Blair "fit" the criteria, I am interested in the rich human template that led to a legal case in 1747 (Blair v. Blair), which is the source of the records that enabled Houston & Frith ("H & F") to come to their conclusions.
The "Case" of Hugh Blair
The major methodological breakthrough for H & F was the realization that 18th century court documents (in this case deposition and interrogatory testimony) were similar enough in kind to modern psychological "verbatims" that a full and consistent view of the mental world of Hugh Blair could be gleaned from these documents. The "documents" in question were nearly 100,000 words of testimony of 29 witnesses (21 men and 8 women) in the 1747 divorce trial of Hugh Blair. The case is called Blair v. Blair because Hugh's younger brother John brought suit against his mother to disallow his brother's recent (1746) marriage to the daughter of a neighboring surgeon (not as prestigious then as it is now). The mother had arranged the marriage. John wanted to annul the marriage not primarily because of personal pique, though that might have played a role, but as a means of disinheriting his brother and his brother's family, since a valid marriage would allow some of the family assets to flow through Hugh to his wife and children. The basis on which John wanted to annul Hugh's marriage was the idea of mental incapacity: that Hugh Blair lacked what we in law call the proper legal competence to enter into a marriage contract. If we keep in mind that John had already, in 1737, applied to the court and been granted a trusteeship over Hugh and his sister (who suffered from severe mental defects), one can see that John's effort in 1747 didn't just come out of "the blue."
The Process and the Person of Hugh Blair
If there is a weakness in this wonderfully rich book, rich in its description of 18th century Scotland and in Hugh's case specifically, it is that there is no effort to lay out what would have been considered "the law" at the time with respect to mental competency to enter into a marriage. That is, what was the "burden" on the initiator of the case (called the "pursuer") in order to make his case that the subject (i.e., Hugh) lacked the mental capacity to enter into a marriage? John certainly put on an impressive array of eyewitness testimony, of those who had known Hugh for most of his nearly 40 years at the time, though the book doesn't tell us what the ultimate legal rationale of the court was in granting the dissolution of the marriage.
Here is what you should know in order to understand much of the trial. You should know that Borgue in the 18th century was a small township of about 600 people in the extreme SW of Scotland, a few miles distant from the larger town of Kirkcudbrightshire. The Blair family had been semi-prosperous landholders in that area for generations. Hugh, born in 1708 or 1709, was the second oldest of four children, two boys and two girls. In 1737, when his younger brother John had attained the age of 25, a court awarded John a trusteeship over Hugh (there are technical differences between various kinds of trusteeship, but I will pass over them here). Suffice it to say that John was to act for Hugh's benefit, but Hugh had limited opportunities to enter into his own affairs.
In 1745 there appeared to be a major falling out in the family due to a conflict between John and their mother (the father had died in the 1710s). The allegations that H & F bring are that John and Lady Borgue had an altercation which led to John's physically attacking his mother. Hugh intervened on his mother's behalf to try to stop the violence. Then, "out of pique or practicality" (p. 28) the mother managed to get her son Hugh married to a girl who lived nearby, Nicholas Mitchell.
However, the marriage was not an "approved" marriage. The Presbytery of Kirkcudbright, the ecclesiastical entity which oversaw the marriages of its members, refused to "proclaim the banns" (i.e., announce an upcoming marriage) because it concluded that Hugh was "quite incapable of giving consent or of taking marriage vows." Then, early in 1747 John Blair took the case to the Commissaries of Edinburgh, whose Consistory Court was officially charged with the responsiblity of annulling marriages. The Court annnuled the marriage in March 1747, and this ruling was upheld by the Court of Session, the supreme civil couirt in the land, in June 1747.
But now the fun begins. Who was the Hugh Blair whose brother so eagerly sought to get "unmarried" from Nicholas Mitchell? The next essay gives some description of him, as well as his testimony at his own trial in 1747.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long