Reconstituting Individual Agency and Intent Through the Family Network

In response to the recent conference ‘Living the Family’, I have been considering agency and intent, in relation to the decisions of past people. An exploration of agency and intent is essentially a consideration of the ability of each person to fashion their own destiny which would be regarded as a corner stone of a liberal democratic society.

The concept of agency simmered below the surface of the conference. Did women in various eras get to exercise agency in their own lives and in the lives of others; were there insights to be made into the agency of children and the poor; and even, could the agency of poor women been seen to have undermined and resisted the authority and objectives of powerful organisations and individuals.

By asking about and considering agency we are striving to understand who had the means, resources and skills to act independently, an underlying assumption being that, in the multitude of contexts covered in the conference papers, the agency of some people was explicit, obvious and taken for granted.

Within my study of 19th century rural craft families the assumption would be that the male exercise of agency as millers, smiths, fathers, brothers, sons and husbands could be explicitly assumed whereas the female execution of action ought to be explored for. For a deeper analytical level it is essential to consider what having agency, meant, felt like or caused to occur when someone was executing an action or social operation. It is for these reasons that Harriet Cardno 1813-1894 stands out as her life arc was profoundly different to her five sisters. Harriet without diaries, letters, or news clippings can be seen, through the enumerations, too have placed physical distance between herself and her birth family, a distance of less than 7 miles but in comparison to her siblings this was significant, but what was her intent in doing that?

Unfortunately with only government records of statutory events and enumerations it is impossible to build a probability methodology for discerning her intent; intent being the purpose behind and operating in combination with agency i.e., what was the desired outcome of taking an action. Harriet, as the daughter of a modest milling family, who worked in service before marriage to seaman in her 30s, is unlikely to have left other records from which intent can be drawn, but to just disregard the exploration would be to diminish an understanding of the intent of the vast bulk of past people.

Upon reflection of the conference as a whole and the questions that emerged, it becomes clear that without knowledge of her intent it is difficult to fathom out the purpose and consequence of her agency. Inconsequence it is important to explore a series of questions in conjunction with evidence to see what emerges regarding agency and intent.



Harriet’s father, Peter Cardno, the miller at Kinharrichie, Ellon until 1861 had managed to keep two sons and five daughters close by, the available evidence indicating that they were functioning and operating as a single economic unit. Two further sons like Harriet moved outside of this close orbit. The standard government records of the Kinharrichie area alongside an understanding of the Aberdeenshire rural economy in the mid third of the century strongly indicate that Peter Cardno was seeking to maximise the economic potential of the Mill of Kinharrichie by exploiting all available family labour, this exploitation can also be seen in the eldest son’s operation of nearby mills which involved other family members.

It would be a shortcoming not to ponder whether Peter’s intent of an economically viable milling enterprise lead him to act in a way that diminished his children’s independence? Did Harriet place distance between herself and an abusive father? Was Harriet therefore cut out of the family narrative or did she act as signal of possible alternatives to her sisters and nieces across the decades?

These queries have spill over questions that have to involve understanding Peter’s relationships with sons-in-law who were resident within the mill compound. As he and his wife Margaret were the nominally dominant couple in the compound and as the holder of the tenancy of the mill he was also the employer of all the family labour whether in the mill on the croft or in the house. Where all the younger adults, ages 29 – 43, sons and daughters by blood and marriage, all overwhelmed by Peter’s personality or fists; or alternative was he an inspiring miller content to share the resources generated by the business and happy for Harriet to exercise her agency to be different.

What is clear from the evidentiary record is that once Peter had died the kinship cluster in and around the mill compound dissolved. As Peter died shortly after the 1861 enumeration understanding the time span of the unravelling is difficult as the next data point would be the 1865 tax records followed more clearly by the 1871 enumeration. In the dispersal two of the daughters’ families remained within the milling industry, the Imray family moving onto what was probably a more prestigious mill at Peterculter, suggesting that skills and reputation were passed on. Peter’s eldest two sons retained the neighbouring mills at Kinharrichie and Nethermill of Turnerhall, the latter eventually, from 1894, being operated by a grandson in law of Peter’s.  But overall in the absence of diaries and letters what remains is an uncomfortable level of speculation as to the intent that spurred Harriet’s agency, and indeed her father’s.

Fortunately the querying to understand intent is not yet fully stymied as Harriet was not the only individual to experience a relationship with Peter Cardno in which Peter enjoyed an overwhelming level of social capital. There was of course a wife / mother and five daughters / sisters and a growing number of grand-daughters / nieces all within the active kinship cluster at the mill. This allows two further angles with which to see if intent and agency as a combination can be understood in the absence of diaries, letter and even family legend.

Firstly is there evidence within the statutory record that Harriet acted as a beacon of inspiration to her female relatives? This could be considered probable if the enumerations capture a younger sister or older niece visiting her in Newburgh, Foveran, or likely if Harriet or her children participate in the wedding records of the other nine siblings and their children; as it indicates that there is still an active relationship, a kinship connexion, in which whilst at a distance she is still apart.

The second angle is almost the obverse if there is no evidence of a kinship connexion does that mean Harriet was cut adrift so as not to be a lightning rod of disaffection amongst the younger Cardno kinship women?  A basic knowledge of human behaviour and family dynamics points to how this works despite the best efforts to ostracise and cast out, there are generally enough clues available to indicate that there is a family skeleton in the cupboard.

In conclusion to reflections emerging from the ‘Living the Family’ conference then a micro-project emerges to accumulate all the Scottish marriage certificates for the grand-children of Peter Cardno and Margaret Stott for clues of interactions between Harriet who removed herself  and her familial unit and those of her siblings. Not only will those records increase or decrease the probability of an active kinship connexion including Harriet and her descendants they will also help to build an understanding of whether Harriet departed, her proven agency, a violent household overseen by a powerful patriarchy, which would mark an incredibly powerful manifestation of her intent or whether she made a life for herself having been encouraged by her birth family, which speaks to a different formula of intent and character, within a patriarchally constructed social structure.


Iain Riddell, is a PGR with the Centre for Medical Humanities, University of Leicester, he blogs about his PhD study into British kinship behaviours at

His previous work has been with marginalised communities, specialising in community self-advocacy and leadership.

Contact Iain


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