Connecting individuals with the society in which they lived: the grandfather in the asylum

A recent photo of the former Kirkcaldy Combination Poorhouse. Photo credit: Kirkcaldy from the south-east, 2001. © Peter Higginbotham.

A few months ago I discovered that my 2nd great grandfather, Rankine Gourlay, was a patient at the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum at the time of the 1891 census.  With a wee bit of digging, I discovered that the asylum records had been kept – and were held in the archive at Fife Council. I emailed the very helpful archivist there, and dispatched my mother to have a look at the patient records for my great, great grandfather.

What we found was that Rankine had been admitted to the asylum in July 1889 with syphilis. He had been a merchant seaman, but lost his job because of the infection. According to his patient records, he was delusional and while in the asylum had a stroke and also attempted suicide.

Despite this, he was discharged from the asylum in October 1891. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but I do know that he was a resident at the Kirkcaldy Combination Poorhouse at the time of the 1901 census, and died there in July 1903 -aged 58.

It seems that few records remain of the poorhouse, and none relating to the period of my ancestor’s stay there, so it’s likely I’ll never find out what actually happened to him in the last 12 years of his life.

I had all but forgotten about Rankine until a couple of days ago when I listened to a podcast of the BBC Radio Scotland’s Digging up your Roots. This is a great radio programme specifically about family history research in Scotland. For those who don’t know it, each episode deals with a separate issue – records related to seafarers or excisemen for example – and one of the most recent was about asylums. I learned quite a lot about the role of these institutions in Scotland in the nineteenth century – including how prevalent it was for patients to be admitted because they suffered from syphilis.

I’m no closer to knowing more about my own ancestor, but at least after listening to the podcast I feel that I understand the context of his life a bit better.