Six life stories of blind and partially sighted people who lived in Edwardian Edinburgh are told in a new book, published today at an event in Craigmillar library by RNIB Scotland.
The charity hopes 'Hearing Our History', an 80-page large-print book, will shed light on a little researched aspect of Edinburgh, and Scotland's, social history.
"If poor people were on the margins of society, those with sight loss were on the margins of the margins," said historian Dr Iain Hutchison, who supervised the research. "How they survived in an era before the welfare state or technological aids is a story of great hardship but also of resilience, isolation and sometimes tremendous family solidarity. It's a story that deserves to be told."
'Hearing our History' is the result of a Heritage Lottery-funded project by RNIB Scotland, using volunteer researchers to search the records of a turn-of-the-century sight loss society, the National Records of Scotland and Lothian Health Services Archive.
One story, William Finlay (1845-1906), was even discussed by his great-great-grand-daughter, Sheena Irving from Midlothian on RNIB's Insight Radio station.
Dr Hutchison said: "Several of our volunteers became quite attached to the people they studied as personal stories were revealed and voices reached out from the past.
"With no welfare support other than charity or the poorhouse, the lives of the blind and partially sighted over a century ago were usually bleak. Condemned to a barely subsistence living of selling matches or begging, a few managed to secure a slightly higher niche as music teachers or piano-tuners."
The starting point for the project was a register compiled by the Edinburgh Society for Promoting Reading Amongst the Outdoor Blind, explained Hutchison. Compiled between 1903 and 1911, this contains details of the people the Society tried to help, mainly by teaching tactile print such as the Moon system and later braille.
"At any one time, there were around 500 people on the register. Men and women classed as the ‘outdoor blind’, who constituted the largest proportion of Scotland’s then estimated 3-4,000 blind people, were not part of institutions such as the blind asylums."
Those who couldn't work and had no families to support them usually had only the poorhouse to turn to.
"The Edinburgh poorhouses in Craigleith, Craiglockhart, and Leith had a considerable number of blind inmates," said Dr Hutchison. "But life there was a frugal one. Poorhouse managers were always under pressure to keep costs down – the ratepayers demanded to know that their money was being used sparingly and that people were not being admitted if they had other options."
Victoria Ross, a research volunteer who has sight loss herself, said: "It’s been fascinating to learn about the lives of these individuals and it has often felt as though they have come to life through the telling of their stories. I hope that people who read these stories will find them as interesting as we have."
Lucy Casot of the Heritage Lottery Fund said: “Hearing our History is a great project as it shows clearly how local heritage can be a catalyst for lots of different activities and bring people together behind a common purpose. HLF is pleased to support RNIB Scotland in its plans tell this relatively untold story and thanks to National Lottery players, enable people to enjoy and learn about the history on their own doorstep.”
William Finlay was born in 1845. In his 30s, William was kicked on the forehead by a horse triggering the gradual loss of his sight. In later life, he was supported by his daughters, Annie and Marion, who worked in the print trade, then one of the few domains where women were welcome. Annie wrote that it was ‘with youthful enthusiasm and inherited Scottish independence’, that their father carried on.
Sheena Irving got in touch with RNIB Scotland after hearing the project mentioned on the radio. "William Finlay was in fact my great-great-grandfather," she said. "I wondered if he was on the register they'd mentioned and it turned out he was. I was then able to provide the project with further information about him, including a letter written in 1938 by his daughter, Annie, which gives an account of his life."
The story of Georgina McDonald was more tragic. Born in 1871, she was blind since 13. In her 40s she was living alone, prone to wandering the streets, claiming she was being persecuted by neighbours. Committed to an asylum, she was discharged after a few months. But now stigmatised as mentally unsound, she was sent back and died there in 1925 aged 54.
However Moira McMurchie, the volunteer researcher who narrated her case in the podcast, wonders how 'delusional' Georgina might really have been. "She may have been in genuine fear of tormentors whom she could not see," said Moira. "When she was sent to the asylum the second time, her diagnosis was ‘delusional insanity of persecution’. She was afraid of engine noises and felt a motor vehicle was going to be used to abduct her. But remember, Georgina had never actually seen a car. The sound may very well have frightened her. Being apprehended by the police in a ‘cab’ would, in her mind, have confirmed her premonition of abduction."
Moira questions whether Georgina should have been incarcerated. "At the time, the Inspector of Poor doubted this. And the asylum doctors initially felt that she should not be a long-term patient because they discharged her. But Georgina could not settle – nor live independently again. Probably her mental health did deteriorate, but after her first admission to a mental asylum, that was enough to label her as a lunatic."
But other blind people in this era were able to assert a degree of independence. Bella Wood (1868-1964), born in Aberdeen, was blind since infancy. When the family moved to Midlothian, Bella entered the newly open blind school in Craigmillar in Edinburgh and was kept on as a music teacher. However, at 21 she was dismissed for 'disobedience to the orders of the Headmaster and Lady Superintendent'.
She then worked from home as a music teacher, and later in life as a braille copyist. In her 60s she retired to the Thomas Burns Home for Blind Women, where she lived until her death in 1964 at the age of 95.
Veronica Bell was the volunteer researcher who studied Bella's life story. "Bella was lucky in that Edinburgh had a school dedicated to educating blind children. Her home city of Aberdeen did not. It may have been that her family moved for this reason. Bella developed a passion for music there and her talent sustained her for much of her life."
We don't know why she was dismissed from the school, although she was given a reference. "Bella was obviously not afraid to challenge authority and she didn't let her sacking hold her back," notes Veronica. "Bella seems to have thrived as an independent woman."