‘A Most Distressing Case’: Writing about Deaf Culture in Early 19th Century Scotland

Novelist Sarah Smith reflects on Deaf history in Scotland and the challenges of capturing sign language in literature.

September 24th, 1817. The High Court, Edinburgh. Jean Campbell stands accused of killing her child by throwing it from the Old Bridge in Glasgow.

Jean was one of thousands of people who poured into the second city of the Empire during the 19th Century. Glasgow was in the process of changing from a merchant town to an industrial powerhouse. Jean was female and desperately poor. She was also, in the parlance of the day, deaf and dumb; the first such person to be tried in a Scottish court.

A largely fictional account of this crime forms the basis of my work-in-progress, a novel with the working title, Hear No Evil.

I first came across Jean’s story when I was working at Deaf Connections, an organisation in Glasgow whose roots stretch back to 1819. I got to know local historian and author, Robert J Smith, who was researching the charity’s archive for his book, The City Silent[i]. Robert included two newspaper articles about the case. In The Glasgow Herald of 26th September 1817, the proceedings of the trial are summarised in a few, short paragraphs. Over seventy years later, on the 11th March 1890, the Herald’s sister paper, the Evening Times, carried a short piece referencing the trial; by this period Jean is referred to as a deaf mute.

Instrumental in Jean’s trial was Robert Kinniburgh, the teacher/proprietor of the capital’s Deaf and Dumb Institution, a building that still exists today in Chessel’s Court, just off the Canongait in Edinburgh. He was drafted in by the authorities who were at a loss as to how to interrogate a Deaf person. Kinniburgh taught Deaf children to understand written English but he also knew how they used signs to communicate between themselves. He had taken over the running of the school from Thomas Braidwood, who was influential in the development of British Sign Language (BSL).

Sign language, in the early nineteenth century, was in its infancy and certainly not accepted or afforded any status within society. Deaf people were often pitied or misunderstood. Much of the reporting around this case represents signing as an anomaly, something weird and freakish to entertain a readership or be analysed by the authorities. For a modern audience, it seems antiquated and discriminatory but it’s interesting to remember that British Sign Language was only officially recognised by the UK Government in 2003. Up until late last century, signing by Deaf children was discouraged, sometimes punished, certainly seen as inferior.

The City Silent pointed me in the direction of court records but, despite reading through the documentation held by the National Records of Scotland, I found little to enlighten me as to what had happened to Jean that resulted in that terrible event on a dark November’s evening at the Old Bridge. What I did find were confusing and conflicting views on how the establishment perceived Deaf people in the early nineteenth century. There are copious pages of reports on Jean’s intellectual and emotional capacities but little curiosity as to her circumstances and what led her to commit the crime. The few scraps of personal information are limited to her status of common-law wife in a relationship across Glasgow’s religious divide and the fact that both her children were born to different fathers. Despite her unique legal status, she was clearly looked down upon by the men who examined her. I felt frustrated; I wanted to get to know Jean Campbell and learn about the life of a Deaf person living at that time, but the legal establishment of 1817 treated her more like a laboratory experiment than a real woman.

I began writing the novel because I couldn’t find the story in the surviving documents. Additionally, I wanted to see if I could represent signed communication on the page. There have been surprisingly few characters in literature who are Deaf users of BSL, and depictions can range from the patronising to the absurd; child-like victims who are ‘rescued’ by the hearing protagonist, or one-dimensional characters whose lack of hearing is used simply as a device to move the plot forward. Encouragingly, some breakthroughs have been made recently – for example, Yoshitoki Ōima’s YA manga series, A Silent Voice, has a strong female lead who communicates using sign language. Dark Pines by Will Dean has a deaf female reporter who investigates a Swedish cold case; it’s a great book but Tuva Moodyson uses hearing aids not BSL to communicate. I’ve searched high and low for a novel where modes of communication like BSL, Sign Supported English and lip-speaking/reading are an integral part of the dialogue, but I haven’t been able to find any. There are good examples on stage and screen, where the visual medium lends itself to signed communication and where Deaf people can see themselves and their life experiences reflected.

I began to suspect that one of the reasons that sign language doesn’t often turn up in written dialogue might be because it’s really difficult to do! Initially, I came up with a YA concept that involved a teenage girl time-travelling to solve historic crimes. It wasn’t a bad idea, but I soon realised that I was writing around the story and avoiding Jean because I didn’t have a clue how to make her speak on the page. I was also wary of speaking for her or falling into the trap of cultural appropriation. However, I remained fascinated by the history and richness of Deaf peoples’ modes of communication and continued to experiment with ways in which to tell the story.

While I was studying for an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, I was lucky enough to discuss my project and get feedback on the initial chapters that I’d written. With the support of my tutor and fellow students, I realised that a potential way in to Jean’s story was through Robert Kinniburgh, who interpreted at her trial. More than just another ‘expert’ in this case, my character of Kinniburgh could become someone who befriends Jean in prison and uncovers a tangle of dark secrets obscured by philanthropy and respectability.

I began to stratify dialogue between characters. When Kinniburgh speaks to another hearing person, the dialogue looks like that in the average novel but, when he meets Jean, he begins to sign in order to assess her understanding. Eventually, I hit upon using italics to convey their conversations, and suggest the idioms and vocabulary used in sign language. In the novel, Jean has been brought up on Islay, a Hebridean island. When she moves to Glasgow, she joins a deaf church and learns the signs used by the congregation.

Sign language developed in pockets, where numbers of Deaf people gathered. There was no internet, no television, most people didn’t have the means to travel from place to place and, often, the accumulating of nascent sign languages was complicated by vested interests. For instance, Thomas Braidwood, Kinniburgh’s predecessor at the Edinburgh Institution, refused to share them with an American minister, Gallaudet. Rebuffed, Gallaudet travelled to France, learnt the method used there and took it home with him. Deaf languages don’t necessarily follow a similar pattern of development to those that are spoken.

Other types of exchanges became necessary to tell the story. What is now referred to as Sign Supported English, a kind of amalgam of signs and the grammatical structure of spoken or written language, was likely to be heavily relied upon. And, in Jean’s exchanges with hearing characters such as her Aunt Nancy and the housemaid, Martha, I’ve used a mixture of lip-reading/speaking, mime, and drawing. Glaswegian Deaf slang also makes the occasional appearance, often to the mortification of some of the hearing characters.

The writing of this novel has been a complex and frustrating task at times, but it’s also been a joy. As a hearing person on the fringes of the Deaf community, fascinated but hindered by only a tenuous grasp of BSL, I’ve been helped by a lot of Deaf and hearing people who have an interest in Deaf History and have patiently given me valuable advice about how to convey the Deaf experience. Ella Leith and Lilian Lawson of Deaf History Scotland, in particular, have given me invaluable advice and encouragement. I hope, by the end of this process, that I’ll have produced a book that both entertains and does justice to the development of the Deaf community in Scotland.

[Note: The title of this piece, ‘A Most Distressing Case’, comes from an article that describes the case in The Glasgow Herald, 26th September, 1817]

[i] The City Silent: A History of Deaf Connections, Robert J. Smith, Deaf Connections, 2001


Sarah Smith’s writing has been published in New Writing Scotland 30 & 34, 50GS, Flashback Fiction, Leaf Books, Duality, Gilded Dirt and From Glasgow to Saturn. She has an MLitt (Distinction) in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and a New Writers Award (2019) from The Scottish Book Trust. Follow her on Twitter @truesarahsmith or read more of her work at sarahsmithwriter.wordpress.com

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