"Kirstie's Witnesses" is a novel about a real person, Christina (Kirstie) Jamieson, who lived in Lerwick, Shetland, in the 1840s and 50s. Kirstie is a young widow trying to feed two children in lean times. Having already begged for them and done a month in prison for stealing baby clothes from washing lines, she is now trying, with the help of a young clerk, to fill in an application form for parish relief. The real Kirstie's application form still exists, in the Shetland Archive.
T hey were a strange pair at the desk, the young Sheriff Officer, neatly dressed, his brow furrowed as he pored over the form, and the woman, her clothes holed, smelling damp, looking as if they had been slept in for some time, her face lined and hollow-cheeked but the eyes still clear and peaceful. He could not have put an age to her; when he asked her, in order to fill in the relevant space on the form, and she said thirty-three, he would have been equally unsurprised had she been ten years older.
He scanned the next question, raised an eyebrow and muttered "Now whatever is that to do with anything? God, they ask some daft questions. What was your husband's father's name and trade, Mrs Jamieson?"
"James Peterson, fisherman," she said softly, and he wrote it down. She watched his quick fingers admiringly; it was a mystery to her how writing could come so easily to anyone's hands, as if it were something as natural as knitting. She could hardly read the long, complex form, never mind answer it. It was the application form for poor relief and it was designed to ensure the Board's money was not wasted. It occurred to Peter Williamson, as he went on down the list, that it might also have been designed to deter prospective applicants from bothering.
It demanded, more or less, a potted biography: where you were born, who your parents and parents-in-law were, what they did, why you had come to Lerwick. Had you any trade or skill, any source of income from family, charity, savings, anywhere else to go, in short, but the Board? It added up to an overwhelming document; people like Peter were spending a lot of time filling them in for people like Kirstie.
Most of the time, he got the information he needed from her and then used his own clerkly phrases, as when, detailing what marketable skills she had learned at home, he translated "spinning and knitting" into "the common avocations of a Zetland girl". But when she answered the question "have you ever lived by begging?", he wrote her words down straight: "I have had to beg for my children, or they could not have been alive".
The little one was on her mother's lap, dark-haired and dark-eyed, a smaller version of the mother but somewhat better clothed and, by the look of it, fed. Peter glanced across at the boy leaning against the far wall, not looking about him or trying to invent a game out of his surroundings, just waiting. According to the form he was eight, but he looked smaller and slighter. The form also claimed he was sickly, and he looked that too. But, like the girl, he was better clothed than Kirstie. Peter decided he probably believed what she said, that she had begged only for the children and not for herself. He hoped for her sake that the Board would believe it; if they thought she had lived by begging, she probably would not get on to the poor roll.
They were strong on morality; the form also demanded to know if the applicant was a churchgoer. Kirstie looked, for the first time, conscious of her clothes; her actual reply was a keenly embarrassed glance at them and the comment "I canna ging laek dis". Peter filled in the space, translating instinctively: being unable to obtain decent clothes I have not for some time back attended the church, as I wished to do.
When they were done, he gave her back the completed form to take to David Burns. She gazed, fascinated, at the mass of close writing.
"Will dey gie wis da room rent, d'ye tink?"
"I cudna say. They've let a good few on, but they're turning folk away in numbers too, I ken that. There's ower mony in need... Still, ye've nae roof, they'll surely do something."
"I cud dae fine, if I just had da rent. I cud wirk an' feed me bairns, but a body canna spin without a room."
"Have ye still got your furniture?"
"Aye, dere's a neebir keepin' da tings fir me till we get a room again."
Peter nodded. Landlords were getting warier, in these hard times; people who had fallen behind with the rent once too often were finding it difficult to get in anywhere else. But they always clung on to their bits of furniture if they could. That way, they could tell themselves they were just between rooms; they still had a space to call their own, even if it didn't have four walls around it just then.
The boy leaning on the wall was taken with a fit of coughing, rasping and hollow. She called him over and eased the little girl off her lap while she rubbed his back. Peter noticed that the boy's fingers were tracing letters on the form.
"D'ye go to the school?" he asked. The boy was shy of him and looked down, but Kirstie nodded proudly. "Aye, he's lernin' ta read. He's no' dere da day, becaas o' da bit o' a cough he has. If we had da room back, instead o' sleepin' ida rain, he'd be fine."
"Aye, like enough." On an impulse he asked "Does the neighbour let ye in sometimes?"
"Aye, we get a warm at her fire an' mak tea, whin I've got any."
"Go and get some then; it'll maybe help him." He handed her some change; she smiled and thanked him, with a remnant of country shyness that looked oddly like dignity.
He watched them go, wondering if she would get what she wanted out of the Board. She seemed so convinced that all would be well, if only she had a room to be sure of. It might be; despite her passive face and mild manner, the story on the form was that of a fighter. All the luck had gone against her so far and she was still there, between rooms admittedly but still keeping her family together. I have had to beg for my children, or they could not have been alive. He loved the way she had said that; neither passionately nor apologetically but quite simply, as a statement of fact, as a man might say he had done some heroic action because he had no other choice. He guessed it was in the same spirit that she had stolen for them.
He wondered why he had broken his own rule and given her money. He saw such people every day and felt tempted to do the same, but mostly he managed not to, telling himself that once he started he would never stop. Maybe because she hadn't asked for it; maybe because he felt more admiration than pity for her. Or maybe because he suspected she wouldn't get it from the Board.
Kirstie's Witnesses is published by the Shetland Times Publishing Company, 71-79 Commercial Street, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0AJ
Phone 01595 695531 Fax 01595 692897