While a certain TV nanny may have popularised the act of punishing wayward children by imposing time-out on the “naughty step”, the origins of this concept are much older. Since the 1500’s, aberrant behaviour within the congregation of the Scottish Presbyterian church resulted in the minister publicly rebuking and shaming the perpetrator while they were seated on the cutty stool or creepie.

This low stool of repentance, often a small three-legged wooden stool with a simple round top, was placed aside from the rest of the congregation, and in a position where all could gawp at the offender. Only when the minister had delivered his full fire and brimstone tirade for an hour or two every Sunday, perhaps over weeks or months – and the recipient was suitably sheepish, shamed-faced, repentant and had coughed-up their fine – would the person be accepted back within the church fold.

The puritanical discipline advocated by John Knox and Andrew Melville ensured that the doing of fun things was curtailed and punishable by the church. Keen to be in control of the people and society in their charge, and rule with a firm hand, the ministers and their chosen church elders held great sway through Kirk Sessions. This was the local church court. This position of power allowed them to take decisions on all matters including pertaining to the style of dress, drunkenness, excesses, lewd behaviour and fornication.

Indeed, the most common cases heard at the Kirk Sessions involved fornication or adultery. If caught, it was an especially degrading experience since the offender/s had to stand at the church door dressed only in sackcloth, barefoot and bareheaded, as the congregation filed past them into the Kirk. Then they had to sit on the cutty stool every Sunday, perhaps for six months, to repent their actions. Fines and whippings occurred, and women could be ducked or banished.

Robert Burns, a man known to relish his opportunities to fornicate, was no stranger to the cutty stool. He first came into the censure of the church in 1784-85 at Tarbolton Kirk due to his libidinous liaisons with the young servant girl Elizabeth Paton, and mother of his first child. In his poem The Fornicator, which likely relates to the incident, he does not appear to be too concerned by the punishment or the wrath of the church. In fact, as he stands next to Elizabeth at the cutty stool, rather than taking his punishment and repenting, his roving eye acknowledges her lusty form next to him:

Before the Congregation wide
I pass’d the muster fairly,
My handsome Betsey by my side,
We gat our ditty rarely;
But my downcast eye by chance did spy
What made my lips to water,
Those limbs so clean where I, between,
Commenc’d a Fornicator.

Having then paid the fine for his fornications with his affected “rueful face”, he then leaves the kirk with Elizabeth only to re-offend almost immediately:

With rueful face and signs of grace
I pay’d the buttock-hire,
The night was dark and thro’ the park
I could not but convoy her;
A parting kiss, what could I less,
My vows began to scatter,
My Betsey fell-lal de dal lal lal,
I am a Fornicator.

As well as the usual fornication, non-attendance of church and general immorality, fines would be collected by the church elders for crimes such as the playing of bagpipes, whistling, non-fasting or for looking anything less than miserable on the Sabbath. While austere, the upside was that it generated juicy gossip within the community, and the coinage raked-in resulted in church coffers that could be redistributed to the needy of the parish. Assuming that they managed to keep their pants on…

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