Writing women back into history books

JOHN KNOX would not be amused.

However, this gentlemen’s club is now being challenged by a group of female historians who have drawn up a list of more than 800 Scottish women overdue for a place in history.

Since the opening of the new Scottish Parliament there has been a rash of books cashing in on Scots’ new-found interest in their country’s history. But when members of the Scottish Women’s History Network (SWHN) read these epic tales of a nation, they started to get angry. Why, they asked, did only one half of the population appear to be solely responsible for the past? What happened to the other half - the women?

Over the next year their responses - in the form of the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, and an accompanying book called Gender in Scottish History - are due to be published, bringing to life the stories of the real Lady Macbeth, Black Agnes of Dunbar - who successfully defended her castle against an English army in 1338 - and the Jacobite heroine Lady Anne Mackintosh, who rallied her clan for Bonnie Prince Charlie even though her husband was an officer in the Hanoverian army. Her story and those of more modern women covered in the books are included opposite.

Lynn Abrams, professor of gender history at Glasgow University and convener of the SWHN, hopes acknowledging such figures will help a new generation of women finally throw off the chains of Scotland’s "macho" culture, which was fuelled by Knox’s infamous book, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women and the influence of the once highly patriarchal Kirk.

"I think Scotland has a masculine style. Despite the fact there are a large proportion of female MSPs, it’s still quite a macho country. I would say often the story told of Scottish history is very much man-made," she says.

"But there’s an alternative story to be told and there’s also a much more inclusive story to be told."

Abrams argues the history books born out of devolution failed to explain the story of women down the ages: "The one that got the most press was Tom Devine’s Scottish Nation and there were a number of others. We felt unhappy that women’s history was marginalised in these books, despite the fact there had been 20 years or so of research into women’s history."

Some 200 experts were commissioned to write entries for the dictionary, which includes the Scottish women who are well known - such as Mary Queen of Scots, St Margaret and Flora MacDonald - alongside those whose achievements have gone largely unrecognised.

Professor Sin Reynolds, of Stirling University, who is one of the editors of the dictionary, says: "In any history book, the index will contain very few women’s names, because so little is often known about them - although historians have sometimes been myopic, too."

Professor Tom Devine, one of Scotland’s leading historians, admits Scottish histories written in the late 1990s might not have included enough about women of the past, but counters that any large-scale history is open to attack, especially by those with "a particular axe to grind".

"Colleagues who wrote these books can to some extent be excused, as ‘women’s history’ in Scotland is relatively under-developed and therefore it’s impossible for authors of these texts to give full focus to the female experience simply because the research had not been done," he says.

"If the material had been available they would have done their damnedest to incorporate it.

"There’s no doubt that in the past, up until the 1980s and 1990s, women were marginalised in professional academic history.

"But there’s been a revolution since then and women’s history is in fact what you would call pass. It seems to me there’s always a danger of continuing to ghettoise the female experience if you produce books which are concerned almost exclusively with the historical role of women alone."

Devine says he tried in his book, Scottish Nation, which has sold more than 80,000 copies, to include women’s experience throughout as part of a histoire totale that deals with everyone in society, and also included a specific chapter on women.

But he believes there is bound to be a certain degree of concentration on men in any history of a country that was dominated by them until the mid-20th century: "It’s almost inevitable there will be a male emphasis, but it cannot be to the exclusion of half the population."


Wendy Wood (n Gwendolen Meacham) 1892-1981, Campaigner for Scottish home rule

ORIGINALLY an artist and radio presenter, she left her home and her job in 1927 to enlist with the Scottish National Movement (1927) and the National Party of Scotland (1928).

When she replaced a Union Flag with the Lion Rampant at Stirling Castle on a Bannockburn Day rally (1932), she was accused of discrediting the cause.

Hanging an effigy of the secretary of state for Scotland in Glasgow (1950), unrolling a Home Rule banner at the Highland Games (1950) and - most dramatically - going on hunger strike (1972) to press the secretary of state for a Green Paper on a Scottish Assembly, Wood used direct action repeatedly to gain media attention. An unsuccessful parliamentary candidate both locally (Edinburgh 1935) and in the general election (Bridgeton 1945), she founded the Scottish Patriots in August 1949 and became a familiar media figure. Author Compton Mackenzie praised Wood’s integrity, dedicating his book On Moral Courage (1960) to her. Sadly, she did not live to see the current Scottish Parliament.


Lady Anne Mackintosh, [Colonel Anne] 1723-1787. Jacobite

AT THE time of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, Anne’s husband Aeneas (Angus), the chief of the clan Mackintosh and a captain in the Black Watch, was absent from home, meeting his military commitments to the Hanoverian government.

His wife raised his relatives and tenants in support of Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

She never actually led men into battle but, in February 1746, while giving hospitality to Prince Charles and his retinue at Moy Hall, Inverness-shire, she played a pivotal role in the Rout of Moy, a ruse which enabled five men to see off 1,500 Hanoverian troops.

Tradition has it that Anne Mackintosh’s greeting to her husband when he was captured by the Jacobites and given into her custody in February 1746 was a polite: "Your servant, Captain." He is alleged to have replied: "Your servant, Colonel," the nickname which her raising of the clan had earned her. After Culloden, she was imprisoned in Inverness for six weeks, then released without charge into her husband’s custody.


Mary Somerville, ne Fairfax, 1780-1872 "The Queen of Science"

BROUGHT UP in Burntisland, Mary Somerville became a largely self-taught writer on science who was universally admired. Her most ambitious work On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) ran to nine British editions, covering astronomy, physics, meteorology and geography.

It reached a non-specialist audience, but also assisted specialist research - the astronomer John Couch Adams said that the work inspired him to calculate the orbit of Neptune. James Clerk Maxwell said it was one of those "suggestive books, which put into definite, intelligible and communicable form, the guiding ideas that are clearly already working in the minds of men of science, so as to lead them to discoveries, but which they cannot yet shape into a definite statement". When she died, in Naples, obituaries were published throughout Europe and the US.

Somerville College, the first women’s college in Oxford, was named after her. Tragically, three of her six children died in childhood.


Flora Drummond, 1879-1949. Suffragette

FLORA Drummond grew up on the Isle of Arran. She qualified as a postmistress, but was refused entry as her height was below the regulation five-foot-two, a rejection that "always rankled".

She married Joseph Drummond in 1898 and she became an organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union - or suffragettes - led by the Pankhursts; first in Manchester, then in London.

Perhaps her greatest contribution to the suffrage movement were the processions and pageants she organised and led.

Known as "The General", she rode astride a huge charger dressed in quasi-military uniform with golden epaulettes and peaked cap of purple, white and green. The London crowds nicknamed her "Bluebell" after the Scottish match of that name - as she was "more than a match for cabinet ministers". She was imprisoned nine times and taught other suffragettes Morse code, to allow them to communicate with each other in jail.


Elsie Maude Inglis 1864-1917 Doctor and pioneer of Scottish Women’s Hospitals abroad

HAVING trained as a doctor in Edinburgh, she approached the authorities on the outbreak of the First World War with plans for incorporating women in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The offer was rejected and she was told: "My good lady, go home and sit still." She then proposed setting up hospitals staffed fully by women, a project supported by the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Home and Foreign Service movement played a key role in wartime medical services.

Lacking support at home, the women offered their services to other Allies and hospitals were quickly established in France, Greece and Serbia, eventually gaining support from the Admiralty and Foreign Office. She worked in Serbia and Romania and died in Newcastle in 1917. Her body lay in state in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, and British and Serbian royalty attended the funeral.

• Based on the forthcoming Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women