From tragic ‘1st blood’ to fire raising - the story of Scottish suffragettes

Frances Parker is escorted from Ayr Sheriff Court
Frances Parker is escorted from Ayr Sheriff Court
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Suffragette Frances Parker invoked lines from Scots Wha Hae and the freedom-fighting spirit of Robert the Bruce as she refused to enter the dock at Ayr Sheriff Court on trial for trying to bomb Burns’ Cottage in nearby Alloway.

Now the story of her fight in July 1914, along with those of other Scottish suffragettes and suffragists, is told in an exhibition run by the National Record of Scotland (NRS) in Edinburgh that opens today.

A flyer detailing the treatment of Frances Gordon in Perth

A flyer detailing the treatment of Frances Gordon in Perth

Details of protests, arrests and hunger strikes, as well as notes from prison attendants, doctors and “suppressed” letters not allowed to be sent by female prisoners, have gone on show to mark the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote.

The stories include those of some of the most militant suffragettes in Scotland such as Ethel Moorhead from Dundee, who was the first Scottish woman to be force-fed, and Frances Gordon and Arabella Scott, who were repeatedly imprisoned and torturously fed.

Perhaps the most iconic incident in the struggle – the death of Emily Wilding Davison after she threw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in June 1913 – is recounted in the diary of prominent suffragist Lady Frances Barbour, whose father was the 8th Duke of Argyll.

The diary reads: “Dined with Molly. Bols there. Derby day. Winner disqualified, Miss Davidson S.P.U. tried to destroy race. Touched King’s horse, she is dead. The 1st blood.”

A postcard found at the scene of an attempted fire-raising in Glasgow

A postcard found at the scene of an attempted fire-raising in Glasgow

NRS archivist Jocelyn Grant said the movement had involved much “evolution” rather than “revolution”.

She said: “The exhibition gives a wonderful insight into Scotland’s suffragettes and suffragists. I think people will be surprised not only by the courage shown, but also that the pursuit of the vote started in the 1800s.”

The Representation of the People Act in 1918 gave women over 30 the vote, but only if they already voted in local government elections or were married to men who did. The Act gave men over the age of 21 the vote or at age 19 if they had seen active service.

It was another decade until all women got the vote.

Culture secretary Fiona Hyslop said women had made great progress, but that more needed to be done to achieve gender equality.

“Celebrating the centenary of some women securing the right to vote in the UK is an opportunity to reflect on the actions of the suffragists and the suffragettes, whose campaign for the vote marks an important milestone in women’s history,” she said.

“This exhibition demonstrates how much commitment these remarkable women showed to their cause. “While we have come a long way since 1918, much still needs to be done to achieve gender equality and create a fairer country for all. This anniversary is a great occasion to inject new momentum into supporting women’s contribution to Scottish public, political and cultural life.” The Malicious Mischief? Women’s Suffrage in Scotland exhibition runs from 1-31 August at General Register House.