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United Kingdom - Details of juvenile birching in Scotland

Glasgow Herald, 20 April 1994

Whip hand of the state

George Hume reports on how delinquent young Scots once ran the risk of the rod

In Scotland today are hundreds of men with vivid recall of the day, as boys, that they fell foul of the law and were punished, in a more than usually literal sense, by the strong arm of the law. They will bear the scars yet, thin white lines on the flesh of their buttocks [in fact I know of no evidence that the marks from that kind of birching were normally permanent - C.F.], that were put there with a birch rod when they were aged no more than eight to 16.

It is 46 years since judicial corporal punishment of juveniles was removed from the armoury of courts throughout the United Kingdom -- held to be ineffectual. But until that day in 1948 when sheriffs were no longer able to order up to 36 strokes with the birch or tawse, in Scotland corporal punishment was widely used.

Hoax calls to the fire brigade, the placing of obstacles on a railway line, cruelty to animals, the vandalism of public property -- all appear, from court records, to have made the perpetrators sure-fire candidates for a visit to the cells below the court, an examination by a police doctor, and a thrashing -- once stripped -- that left blood as well as tears.

The question of whether this was altogether a good idea was examined by the so-called Cadogan Committee which reported in the late 1930s that it was not, if for no other reason that when it came to curbing juvenile crime it did not. But the war intervened and the report was not acted on for a further decade.

Scottish courts in the 1930s believed in the birch. Four times as many boys in Scotland were whipped -- on the basis of percentages of convictions -- than south of the Border and the punishments permitted were considerably more severe.

In England and Wales boys aged eight to 14 were liable and the maximum penalty was 12 strokes of the birch. In Scotland the age group open to corporal punishment ran on a further two years -- to 16 -- and while 12 strokes of the birch was the limit under 14 those who were that age and above could receive up to 36 strokes with either a birch or a tawse ... the latter instrument being held to be more severe.

Birches were tailored to the size of the target -- the smallest for the eight to tens, a larger model for the 11 to thirteens, and a full-sized affair for their bigger brothers. They were well used.

In 1936, 70 birchings were ordered by the courts in Edinburgh; Glasgow ran a close second with 69 while Aberdeen came in at 26. Altogether there were 230 birchings in Scotland that year, well down on the 925 total of two decades earlier when the courts appear to have gone into a frenzy and scarce a birch tree in the land can have been left unstripped of its twigs. Through the years the average age of the victims appears to have been 12.

How severe was their punishment? Certainly a judicial birching was far removed from a parental spanking. Regulations required that the punishment should be "sufficiently severe to cause a repetition of it to be dreaded".

To give some idea of just how severe that might be it is worth noting that in almost every case of birching in Scotland the court ordered that the boy be medically examined before the execution of the sentence and that the doctor be present throughout its infliction.

The regulations stipulated that if the doctor considered that the prescribed number of strokes could not be inflicted consistent with the health of the boy he could fix a smaller number of strokes and the punishment would be modified accordingly. The doctor was also given the power to stop the punishment "on medical grounds" at any time during the course of it.

To ease the task of the police in carrying out co rporal punishment a number of courts and police stations were equipped with specially manufactured benches to which boys could be securely strapped down so that they could not move.

One such is to be seen at the People's Palace Museum on Glasgow Green. It was in use at Govan police station and has holes cut for the feet, straps for the ankles, thighs and waist, and others for the hands stretched out above the head. Any naked 12-year-old held in that position and then birched might, understandably, recall the event half a century later.

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