Sara Sheridan’s new book, Where Are The Women?, is based on a wonderful idea – creating an alternative atlas of Scotland with placenames based on women, rather than men, writes Brian Ferguson.
Like all the best ideas, it is one so obvious it is a bit of mystery why no-one has thought of it before.
The level of research undertaken by historical author Sara Sheridan for her alternative atlas of Scotland – Where Are The Women? – is one good reason.
Setting out to record areas of Scotland with links to notable women from the annuals of history has proved no minor task, given the hundreds of individuals individually highlighted.
Sheridan’s book, released next month, is both long overdue and perfectly timed.
The impact of the global #metoo movement, triggered by the allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017, and the centenary of women winning the right to vote last year, are obvious touch-stones for the debates on modern-day male misogyny which have raged online over the last few years.
Interest in Scottish history has soared over the last decade, yet a visit to a high street bookshop is enough to confirm that the contribution of women is largely overlooked in the numerous titles currently on sale. Yet there has been a notable increase in profile for a number of significant women in recent years.
The centenary of the birth of the author Dame Muriel Spark, including a landmark exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, the campaign to honour Elsie Inglis, founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, with a statue in her home city of Edinburgh, and this year’s 150th anniversary of the Edinburgh Seven campaign to allow women to study at Edinburgh University have all generated significant interest.
All of the above are rightly highlighted in Sheridan’s book, which envisages the renaming some of Scotland’s best-known landmarks, attractions and memorials.
The author has also highlighted all the existing tributes that do exist and suggested dozens of brand new ones.
Historic Environment Scotland, the Scottish Government agency which is publishing the book, has pledged that the book will highlight the “often untold or unknown stories” of real women. It certainly lives up to the billing,
The most remarkable thing about Sheridan’s book, which is also described as an “unflinching” look at the women who “have been sidelined, if not silenced, by men”, is how many new discoveries I made on almost every page.
I have to admit I had no previous knowledge of Susan Ferrier, the 19th century author who chose to publish her books anonymously, but had her first novel attributed to Walter Scott, Edith Hughes, Britain’s first practising female architect, the risqué music hall star Doris Droy, Maggie McIver, the founder of the Barrowland market in Glasgow, or Elizabeth Tollemache, the creator of Campbeltown’s original seaport.
Sheridan’s book is bound to trigger debate and discussion when it does hit the bookshops.
But will it actually lead to any of unsung heroines from Scotland’s history books actually being properly recognised?
Sheridan’s research should certainly provide food for thought for villages, towns and cities that have, accidentally or otherwise, overlooked notable women on their doorsteps.
The book should be on the radar of anyone planning a major new development or regeneration project, particularly those keen to embrace arts and culture.
Lastly, Sheridan’s work should hopefully inspire the current generation of artists – male and female – to bring forward their own ideas and ambitions for fitting tributes.