Seventeenth-century “tumbling lassie” to raise cash for slavery charities

Faculty_of_Advocates_crestA chance discovery of a centuries-old Scottish court case about a child forced to work as a stage attraction, “the tumbling lassie”, has inspired a group of advocates to raise cash to help fight modern-day slavery.

The girl had been “bought” from her mother and used by a travelling showman as a performing gymnast until, physically worn out, she was taken in and given refuge by a warm-hearted couple.

The enraged showman demanded damages from the couple and produced a written contract to show he had paid for the girl and that she belonged to him.

However, the judges at the Court of Session dismissed his claim, with the report declaring: “But we have no slaves in Scotland, and mothers cannot sell their bairns.”

Alan McLean QC, found reference to the little-known case from 1687 in a footnote in a law book, and was struck by the trenchant rejection of slavery as an early vindication of human rights.

He and a committee of fellow members of the Faculty of Advocates have decided to honour the memory of “the tumbling lassie” through a fund-raising ball for charities involved in tackling the scourge of human trafficking and slavery at home and abroad.

“More than 325 years after Reid v Scot of Harden and his Lady, the ‘tumbling lassie’ case, was decided in the Court of Session, it is astonishing but true that some people still live in Scotland as effective slaves, trafficked here on false pretences, threatened, trapped in menial work or worse, with their earnings withheld and their passports taken away,” said Mr McLean.

“In other parts of the world, people languish in slavery because getting access to trained lawyers to uphold their rights – without which ‘the tumbling lassie’ could not have been declared free – can be almost impossible.”

Mr McLean first came across the case by chance a number of years ago while carrying out research in the area of contract law.

The simple but affecting story stayed with him. Earlier this year, when he was discussing the case with a group of colleagues who were concerned about modern people-trafficking, the idea of the Tumbling Lassie Ball was born.

The original handwritten notes of the case in the National Library of Scotland narrate that Reid sued the Scots of Harden, to whom Sir Walter Scott was proud to be related, for “stealing away from him a little girl, called the tumbling-lassie, that danced upon his stage”.

The unnamed girl had to dance “in all shapes” and her joints, in spite of attempts to keep them supple with daily administrations of oils, were “now grown stiff”.

The report added: “Physicians attested the employment of tumbling would kill her.”

Mr McLean said: “The Reid decision pre-dated by about nine decades a much more famous Scottish decision on the topic of slavery, Knight v Wedderburn.

“It was also many decades before the English case of Somersett v Stewart in which the Scots-born Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, found slavery to form no part of the law of England.

“We think it tells a story full of human interest, not to say pathos, with a happy ending.

“Lawyers, including the judges, are among the ‘heroes’ of the piece…at the end of the day, people need lawyers to make their rights real.”

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