This blogThis blog is called A Few Kind Words because the word kindness originally meant being kin, or kindred, or of the same kind. And since we are all humankind, we should remember to be kinder to one another when we communicate. The alternative is to be unkind, to use language which fails to connect or even alienates. The choice isn't hard.
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Alone in a glass case in the Church section at the back of level three of the National Museum of Scotland stand two objects which, at first glance, seem quite unexceptional. One is a square wooden chair. The other, draped on a display dummy, is a dull-looking gown.
On closer inspection, the chair reveals nothing. It is simply dark and polished with use. The gown is odd, though. It is not made of any fine stuff, but rather sackcloth, now worn and threadbare. It is not a garment for grand occasions.
But this is the Church section, remember, and the church in question is an unforgiving kirk where questing nostrils were constantly alert to the stench of moral turpitude, and the salvation of souls was prosecuted with much energy, zeal and inventiveness. The chair and garment are two of the great seventeenth and eighteenth century instruments of ecclesiastical discipline. Otherwise known as the Stool and Gown of Repentance, they were to be sat upon, or worn, in front of the congregation, by fornicators, adulterers, slanderers and other wrongdoers.
Jonet Gothskirk was one such. Between July and November 1677 she appeared before the congregation of West Calder kirk on thirteen successive Sundays for her adultery with a certain William Murdoch. ‘Because of her stupidity and that she could discover no sense or feeling of her sin, nor sorrow for ye same,’ she continued to wear the gown each Sunday, week after week, while the minister fulminated at her wickedness. Nature eventually intervened and she was released on account of the imminent arrival of her child.
But what did she feel, what did she think to herself while she stood there, Sunday after Sunday, her belly swelling, her legs aching, the sackcloth scratching at her skin? Did she look out at the congregation and read behind the pursed lips, the solemn faces, ‘There but by the grace of God go I’? Did she glance at the minister and rage at the hypocrisy that the Bard would immortalise a century later in Holy Willie’s Prayer? Was she so cowed by the collective opprobrium that she simply stood there and hung her head in misery? Did she long to be back in the arms of William Murdoch for whom no punishment was recorded? Was she simply resigned to her fate? Or was she too fearful for her own future, and that of her child, to think of anything but what she would do when her present ordeal ended?
I don’t know, but I have to find out. The Gown of Repentance is my 26 Treasures object. This is the repeat of last year’s 26 project with the V&A, which we’re running this year with the National Museum of Scotland, the National Library of Wales and the Royal Ulster Museum. I have to find out because now that I’ve been to see the gown, it’s Jonet’s voice I’m beginning to hear. I don’t yet know her well enough to know what she’s saying, but I will. By the end of July, the project deadline, Jonet will have spoken.