Scottish heroines grow through the ages

Liz McColgan celebrates after winning the 10,000 metres at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1986. Picture: SNS
Liz McColgan celebrates after winning the 10,000 metres at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1986. Picture: SNS
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The Saltire Society is seeking nominations for Outstanding Women of Scotland and they will join an impressive list, says Susan Garnsworthy

As THE Saltire Society looks forward to celebrating International Women’s Day on Saturday, I am struck by how many Scottish women have made their own indelible mark on the cultural life of our country and far beyond. The contribution of Scotland’s women to the iconography of this nation runs through every age of our history and spans every possible walk of life.

Looking back 700 years to the Wars of Scottish Independence, many Scottish women actively took up arms. From the Countess of Ross who led her own troops alongside William Wallace to Isobel, Countess of Buchan who defied her husband to support Robert the Bruce and suffered four years of imprisonment in an iron cage in the walls of Berwick Castle. From Lady Bruce, sister of Robert I, who defended Kildrummy Castle against David of Strathbogie to Lady “Black Agnes” Randolph, who successfully held Dunbar Castle against the Earl of Salisbury during a five-month siege.

Through the centuries, Scottish women have been pioneers across many disciplines. In the 17th century, Mary Erskine was a highly successful businesswoman who amassed a considerable personal fortune in private banking and was the founding benefactor of Edinburgh’s Mary Erskine School For Girls which operates to this day.

Born in Jedburgh in 1780, Mary Somerville was a mathematician and astronomer, the first woman to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society and dubbed the “Queen of 19th Century Science”.

She also gave her name to Somerville College, established in 1879 as the first college giving women access to study at Oxford University.

In medicine, Elsie Inglis championed improved healthcare standards for female patients as well as working tirelessly to tackle epidemics such as typhus in Serbia and Russia, right up until her death in 1917.

Aberdonian Mary Slessor was a Christian missionary who spent much of her life in West Africa, adopting many local children who otherwise would have faced abandonment and death.

Born in Errol in 1894, Victoria Drummond was the first female member of the Institute of Marine Engineers and served as Britain’s first female Chief Engineer between 1959 and her retirement in 1962.

Born in Ayr in 1902, mathematician Marion Gray discovered the Gray Graph, a crucial component of network theory which is an important area of modern computer science.

In the modern era, it is as often women who carry the torch for Scotland on the global stage as their male counterparts. In popular music, there are few more iconic international artists than Annie Lennox, Sharleen Spiteri, Shirley Manson, Emeli Sandé or Lulu. Double Grammy award winner Dame Evelyn Glennie is the first person in classical music history to have successfully forged a full-time career as a solo percussionist. Solo violinist Nicola Benedetti has already collected many accolades, including an MBE for services to music.

In television and film, Ashley Jensen, Karen Gillan and Kelly MacDonald have transcended the small screen to achieve international recognition. Helensburgh-born Deborah Kerr was nominated six times for best actress at the Oscars but never won. In 1994, her outstanding contribution to the movie industry was recognised with an Academy Honorary Award. In broadcasting, Kirsty Wark, Kirsty Young, Carol Smillie, Sally Magnusson and Lorraine Kelly are all household names.

Scottish swimmer Ellen King won two silver medals at the 1928 Olympic Games. Runner Liz McColgan broke the British 10,000 metres record four times and claimed gold at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Ayrshire-born Rhona Martin skippered the British curling team to take gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In August 2009, professional golfer Catriona Matthew won the Women’s British Open just 11 weeks after giving birth to her second daughter.

During a landmark year for Scottish politics, it is encouraging to note that Scotland’s Deputy First Minister and the leaders of both Labour and the Conservatives at Holyrood are women.

From music to theatre and film, from sport to politics and current affairs, from medicine and science to business, this is but a small sample of the myriad achievements of Scottish women through the ages.

This year, the Saltire Society will celebrate those achievements by seeking public nominations for inclusion in a list of Outstanding Women of Scotland to be developed and held by the society as a permanent archive.

You can take part in this celebration by visiting and downloading a nomination form or by tweeting your nominations using #saltirewomen.

• Susan Garnsworthy is a member of the Saltire Society Council.

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