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'Besting' and Domestic Violence

After I wrote my first book on domestic violence counselling my Dad, then aged 88, decided to read it. Later, he mentioned how complicated it seemed to be to sort out the issues, how complex it was with the number of agencies involved, “It was different in the olden days”, he said.

As a family our roots are in rural farming areas, from the East Coast of Scotland and Shetland. As my Dad explained, such communities had very little in the way of wealth or legal or government services, but they did live and work together in close cooperation with each other. Whilst the menfolk were out in the fields doing very hard, manual work, the womenfolk were in the home doing equally hard, but different, manual work. For the community to thrive it was important that all contributed to the best of their ability and that all were recognised for their contribution. That is not to say that life in the community was perfect, but there was a common view of living the best life you could, in the circumstances. He went on to say that, occasionally, domestic violence would occur within some families but it was dealt with very differently in those days.

Where someone in the community found out/strongly suspected domestic abuse, yet there was denial from the abuser, a ‘besting’ was planned. Here, the menfolk of the village would meet to agree a plan of campaign where small groups would take it in turns to walk around the outside of the home of the abuser during sleeping hours, beating (‘besting’) on metal pots and pans with metal utensils to keep the abuser awake all night. This was effective, as it was difficult to maintain employment without a good night’s sleep and employment meant survival. This would continue each night until there was some sign that the violence inside the home would stop. There was also an underlying message that if the ‘besting’ inside the home continued, it would not be pots and pans that were the target for the next ‘besting’.

The story was of its time and does not translate too easily into the life we know today. Now, we have fragmented communities with workplaces many miles away from where we live. We have come to rely on the police or other agencies to provide support to our neighbours in times of need. Perhaps most telling is our reluctance these days to get involved with anything that we sense might become dangerous, as most people today are not equipped to deal with violence in our society.

However, what we seem to have lost in all of that is the moral judgement of a community against domestic abuse. In olden times, the abuser was seen very publicly to have crossed a line and the community was clearly saying to the abuser “enough”! Not only that, but “we know what is happening and we have our eye on you”, not in a way that would lead to criminal prosecution or legal sanctions, but in a way that would affect their day to day lives and their place in their community. Potentially the guilt and the shame associated with the abuse now sat with the abuser rather than the abused.

These days, people will agree that domestic abuse is wrong and that those abused deserve support, but there is less clarity about the wrongdoing of the abuser, beyond the court system. There is always another story from the abuser about what really happened from their perspective. In fragmented communities, each fragment may have a part of the story, but the whole story as seen within a community which lived and worked together is missing.

One of the things that I feel most passionately about is the reintegration of the abused person within their community as part of their recovery process. In olden times, the acceptance and support shown by the community facilitated that. There is still power today in having community. Having a range of people who know you and know each other provides some protection from abuse, but only if those people are prepared to share their thoughts, feelings and observations about the relationship in a constructive way. If there is relational abuse, it is about acceptance, non-judgement and honesty in interactions with them. How this might be done may be different in each culture or community but requires the action of one or more people.

Of course, this puts more onus on us as individuals to be proactive in some way. When you think about this, how might you help someone you believe is being, or has been, abused by their partner?

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