‘Policing domestic abuse in late twentieth century Scotland.

Just a domestic’ or a working patriarchy?

Content warning: this essay contains descriptions of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Please read with care – information on where to find support is listed at the end of this blog.

The conviction of a serving Metropolitan police officer for the brutal abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard has sickened everyone and created much handwringing, cries for lessons to be learned by the Metropolitan Police and as well as a slew of mixed messages being sent to women from police forces around the country.  Police Scotland too has jumped to reassure women approached by their officers that they will be able to verify that officers are who they say they are.  Checking in with a call centre however will not wipe out the depth and width of this particular problem – what we need is a trip back in time.

My research into men’s violence against their wives and girlfriends in late twentieth century Scotland can perhaps put today’s concerns about the relationship between the police, women and their experiences of male violence into a wider historical perspective.  Back then, Scottish police forces were effectively  working patriarchies which simply did not take male violence against women, such as domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, seriously.  

Police Scotland recorded almost 63,000 incidents of domestic abuse in 2019/2020 with women making up the majority of victims – the highest figure in twenty years. However experts reckon it is still under-reported and the true extent unknown. 

The under-reporting of domestic abuse is not new. Even back in 1988, the Scottish Crime Survey of crimes not known to the police, found that domestic abuse was common and likely to be widely under-reported. It also found that  women were the victims in a third of all violent incidents, a quarter of which happened in the home; 80% of offenders were male; with 40% of offenders either husband/ex-husband, current/former boyfriend, a male relative or other male member of the household.[i]   Why didn’t women tell the police about the violence they were experiencing from the men in their lives? Women survivors, police and other professionals gave me some answers.  Women’s reluctance and fear of approaching the police and the authorities almost exactly reflected in the hostile environment which would confront them.  Moreover, nothing much changed between the 1960s and the 1990s especially in Scottish communities with a long-standing mistrust of the police.

Even that night when I did fear for my life…I never thought about phoning the police.

(Woman survivor 1980s)

 Nobody calls the police. Nobody ever called the police.

(Woman describing 1970s)

Late twentieth century Scotland was still a highly patriarchal society in its laws, religion, education, social and economic policy, employment, and social norms.  The patriarchal family of male provider/female homemaker was woven into the British post-war welfare state. The two-parent, heterosexual nuclear family was the bedrock of Scottish society and its economy.

Customs protecting family privacy remained strong. Women ‘made their beds’ and what went on between couples behind closed doors was no one else’s business. Police were reluctant to intervene when men were violent towards their wives/partners; the attitudes of the authorities were also characterised by anti-women bias and blame with violence ‘a rational, if not legitimate, aggression, when it is used to chastise a wayward wife’. [ii]  Interventions aimed to keep couples together, maintain the family as an economic unit and to prevent lone mothers from becoming a financial burden on the state. Investigations into violence in the family were reserved for cases of severe violence, murder or where children were being harmed.

R. E. Dobash and R. Dobash (1979), Violence against wives – a case against the patriarchy.

Policing domestic abuse

Police forces in Scotland turn a blind eye to wife beating. Police attitudes to domestic violence were very unfortunate, both from the point of view of the women involved and for society as a whole. It seemed that Scots lived in a society which accepted the use of violence by a husband against his wife.

Dr Rebecca Dobash quoted in The Scotsman 6/11/77.

The Parliamentary Select Committee on Violence in Marriage – 1975, recommended that ‘Chief Constables review the police approach to domestic violence’.  However, I found evidence that the police response to violence against wives remained minimal, consistent and unchanged from the 1960s until the late 1980s.

Domestic abuse lacked the recognition of the serious nature of what it was at that time. It was an epidemic.

(Police officer 1980s).

In the 1980s, police non-interference in so-called ‘domestics’ was standard training for new officers.

 “See before we go in here son? This is between a man and a woman and we’re no’ getting involved in this.”  That was actually before we arrived at the front door. Aye keep it in your own house, keep it private, this is what you do

(Police officer 1980s).

The preservation of family privacy in front-line policing reflected policy and practice in the criminal justice system more widely.

Leave it alone, it’s a private family matter.”…it was kind of “better not, it was up to them to sort it out”.

(Civil Servant, Scottish Office Justice Dept. 1970s)

Causal links were also drawn between alcohol and ‘wife beating’ with repeat visits considered a tiresome and timewasting feature of working class life.  One criminal justice social worker recalled being told by police officers in the 1980s,

“We’re fed up going to this address every Saturday night.  He comes home, she calls the police, we go, both drunk and then Monday morning she comes and says she wants to change her mind or we take him away and keep him in the cells overnight…what good are we doing and how much good public money is being wasted here?” 

The attitudes of individual officers were also important,

We have observed the unhelpfulness of police when called into a battering situation. Things seem to hinge on the attitude of the officer involved, and the way he [sic] chooses to make use of the power he [sic] has.  It would help if women were recommended to WA by police on the spot, but this seldom occurs.

(Scottish Women’s Aid Annual Report 1980)

Police officers rarely investigated ‘domestics’ and focussed instead on stopping couples fighting, reducing the impact of drinking and restoring calm. Men were verbally reprimanded, may be removed temporarily, and released without charge.  Some particularly violent husbands could be  provoked into assaulting the officers then charged with breach of the peace in a ‘stairheid breach’[iii].

I was fighting with this guy and him lying on top of me and I’ve got his hands behind his back and I’m saying to my neighbour “Cuff him!”.  That was a domestic incident an’ he was getting arrested in effect because he lashed out at us when we arrived.

(Police officer 1980s)

Sexist attitudes towards women by police officers were noted in a report by the Women’s National Commission published in 1985.

There is evidence that police tended to judge the behaviour of women victims.  If they thought a woman was ‘nagging, hysterical, or a sluttish housewife, ‘they considered that this contributed to a man’s violence.   .

(Guardian 11 December 1985)

Domestic abuse cases were not regarded as ‘real’ crime and remained a low priority for police in Scotland until the late 1980s

[Police] didn’t take something that happened in someone’s home as anything to do with them “It’s just a domestic and not real police business… Our job is catching burglars and dealing with real crime”.

(Criminal justice worker 1980s)

In the eighties, we were chasing drug dealers and guns and robbers and Starsky and Hutch an’ a’ that stuff…  I was in the CID pretty young…I didnae want tae go tae domestics.  .

(Police officer 1980s)

For women, reporting to the police made their experiences public and was also regarded as shameful, a waste of time and could lead to violent reprisals by aggrieved husbands.

They’d lock him up for the night but he was always back in the morning, fighting furious because I’d shopped him.

(Woman survivor 1960s)

Women’s lack of knowledge of the Scots legal system and the requirement for corroboration, made prosecution difficult while successful convictions, fines and imprisonment could leave women financially disadvantaged and stigmatised. Women often withdrew their complaints.

A particularly violent case, which included medical evidence of severe injury, did not proceed further because the accused’s wife had to identify her assailant in court. She never spoke up and it got kicked into touch.  He waved tae us in the court.  I always remember him waving to us.

(Police officer 1980s)

Police workplace culture

The police remained a male-dominated professions into the late 20th century despite the provisions of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act.

There were still calendars up on the wall… it was quite misogynist there’s no doubt about that aw aye. 

(Police officer 1980s)

Sexist attitudes permeated all levels of the criminal justice system and often trivialised male violence against women.

Some of these women might well deserve the batterings they get from their husbands.

Nicholas Fairbairn Scotland’s Solicitor General 1979-1982

Formal mechanisms for dealing with male officers who assaulted their own wives did not exist at that time but my narrators described some informal strategies.  In one case, a woman officer reported abuse by her officer husband and the attending officers suggested that taking further action would jeopardise her husband’s job and their home which was tied to it.  In another case,  a different approach was taken:

Male colleagues of a woman officer whose officer husband was violent towards her took matters into their own hands and four of the senior cops went up and leathered him.

(Police officer 1970s)

While the former response was aimed at non-interference and preserving the male officer’s job, the latter took a chivalrous, hyper-masculine approach in defence of a female colleague.   Although no formal action was taken in either case, they are examples of a predominantly male police culture aiming to keep the abuse hidden from the wider police workforce.  However by avoiding taking action, the violence was also kept hidden from public view by avoiding court proceedings. Dealing with domestic abuse internally in these waysalmost exactly replicated the approach taken to domestic abuse incidents in the community: don’t get involved, it’s a private matter, it’s no one else’s business.

Signs of change in policing violence against women

Two cases in the early 1980s marked a turning point in the way Scottish police and courts responded to rape, sexual violence and domestic abuse.   

In the ‘Glasgow Rape Case’, criminal proceedings against three youths were dropped on the grounds that the mental health of the complainer ‘Miss X’ rendered her incapable of appearing and giving evidence in court. Miss X went on to pursue a successful civil case against the men.[1]   

The prosecution of a man for raping his estranged wife was allowed in a case heard by Lord McCluskey and rape in marriage was criminalised in Scotland in 1989. Following press and public controversy over police behaviour toward Miss X and their handling of the case, research was carried out [iv]  into the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. The research found that,

Police treatment of rape victims was highly unsatisfactory, that their cases were not prioritised, and that there was a lack of police training on the ‘meaning and impact of sexual violence’ on victims

The report recommended the creation of specialised teams of detectives with women officers playing ‘a more active role’ in enquiries.  One Scottish Office insider I spoke to recalled the hostility from Strathclyde Police to the report’s findings of the inadequacies of their sexual offences investigations.   However, in 1987, Female & Child Units (FACU) were established in every police division in Strathclyde Police to deal with incidents of rape and sexual assault, indecent exposure, cot deaths, wife assaults, child cruelty, missing persons and absconders. In a radical departure, the units were: ‘staffed by specially trained female officers who assist both CID and uniform personnel in the investigation of crime and incidents involving women and children and emphasised the support needs of women and child victims’.

Sexism and misogyny were rife in the highly patriarchal workplace culture and practices of Scottish police forces in the late twentieth century. The women officers who started work in the late 1970s  entered a hyper-masculine domain.  The male officers I spoke to were honest in their portrayal of workplace cultures, familiar to us now from crime dramas like ‘Life on Mars’ and, sadly, from reports of more widespread misogyny and sexism in the Metropolitan Police today.  Women and the male violence they experienced were simply not important to them. This reflected and was reflective of attitudes prevalent at the time.  Continuity and change is a central theme in any historical enquiry. These insights into late twentieth century Scottish policing show us what it was like in the past but beg the question: how much of the past still lingers today?    

A version of this essay first appeared as part of a series of six blogs about my oral history research on domestic abuse in post war Scotland on the Scottish Women’s Aid website in the spring/summer 2021. Click here to read the full series.

 If you feel scared of your partner or ex-partner, or if you are worried about someone you know, get in touch with Scotland’s 24-hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline on 0800 027 1234 for support and information. You can also email and web chat from www.sdafmh.org.uk. There are translation and interpreting services available.


[1] http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1982/jan/21/rape-case-glasgow


[i] Kinsey, R. (1992). Crime and the quality of life : public perceptions and experiences of crime in Scotland : findings from the 1988 British Crime Survey. Edinburgh], Edinburgh : Scottish Office, Central Research Unit.

[ii] Maynard, M. (1985). “The response of social workers to domestic violence.” In Pahl, J. (1985), Private Violence and Public Policy: The Needs of Battered Women and the Response of the Public Services.

[iii] ‘Stairheid’ – colloquial pronunciation of ‘stair-head’ in the west of Scotland, the landing outside flats in tenement properties.  ‘Breach’ – short for ‘Breach of the peace’ an offence in Scots law.

[iv] Chambers, G. A. and Millar, A. R. (1983). Investigating sexual assault. Edinburgh, Edinburgh Scottish Office, Central Research Unit.

Chambers, G. A. and Millar, A. R. (1986). Prosecuting sexual assault. Edinburgh, H.M.S.O. for the Scottish Office Central Research Unit.

Leave a comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: