The Tumbling Lassie

The Parliament passed the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Bill on Thursday 1 October. It is:

An Act of the Scottish Parliament to make provision about human trafficking and slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour, including provision about offences and sentencing, provision for victim support and provision to reduce activity related to offences.

Defending an amendment to secure the appointment of a guardian for children in Scotland who are at risk of exploitation by their parents, Jenny Marra MSP mentioned the tumbling lassie case:

In 1687, our Court of Session heard the tumbling lassie case, which was about a little girl who was sold by her parents in this country into the circus. Our Court of Session just up the road deemed the sale of a person and child illegal in Scottish common law, but the awful situation in which parents are suspected of exploitation still exists.

The tumbling lassie was new to us so we dug around a bit and were moved by the story. The lassie in question, whose name does not seem to have survived, was sold by her mother to a travelling showman. She ran away and was given refuge by Scot of Harden and his wife, but the showman – Mr Reid – sued them, citing as proof of his ownership of the girl a contract that he had with the mother. The claim was dismissed by the Court of Session with the incisive observation that

we have no slaves in Scotland, and mothers cannot sell their bairns.

The case of the tumbling lassie cuts to the heart of what human trafficking and exploitation is about and is a vivid, rallying image. That fact has not escaped Alan McLean QC, who has organised a tumbling lassie seminar and a ball, both taking place on 10 October, to raise funds for charities that support victims of trafficking in Scotland and lawyers fighting slavery in the developing world.

Jenny Marra’s amendment was not supported, because the Government argued that existing child protection structures are sufficient for children who live in Scotland with their parents; the provision of a guardian is for unaccompanied children only. Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, argued:

I therefore want to make clear that through the existing mechanisms all children, including those who are not eligible to receive a guardian as provided for in the bill, will receive the support and protection that they require. No child will be excluded as we already have appropriate support in place through Scotland’s highly regarded and widely experienced child protection workforce. The services of a guardian, as provided for in the bill, are for children who do have anyone in the UK with parental rights and responsibilities. 

Children in Scotland are safe in the knowledge that mothers cannot sell their bairns, and all Scots should be proud inheritors of the judgment that we have no slaves in Scotland. May that statement very soon be shown to be true.

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