17th century circus child could help slaves today

Relatives of noted author Sir Walter Scott rescued the girl. Picture: TSPL
Relatives of noted author Sir Walter Scott rescued the girl. Picture: TSPL
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A CHANCE discovery of a centuries-old court case about a child forced to work as a stage attraction 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 given refuge by a warm-hearted couple – who were related to Sir Walter Scott.

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

However, 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 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” by hosting a fundraising Ball for charities involved in tackling human trafficking and slavery at home and abroad.

Mr McLean said: “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.

“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 while carrying out research on contract law. Earlier this year, when he was discussing the case with a group of colleagues, the idea of the Tumbling Lassie Ball was born.

Original handwritten notes of the case in the National Library of Scotland tell how Reid sued the Scots of Harden 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 oils, were “now grown stiff”.

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

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

A half-day Tumbling Lassie Seminar will be held on October 10 in the Faculty’s Mackenzie Building, Old Assembly Close, High Street, before the ball that evening at the Sheraton Hotel

Proceeds will go to Tara, which works with victims of human trafficking in Scotland, and the International Justice Mission, which helps local lawyers in the developing world to rescue people from slavery.

• Ticket and sponsorship details are available by emailing tumblinglassie@gmail.com