Story of Scotland's suffragettes told to mark vote centenary

Two Scottish storytellers, inspired by Scottish suffragettes have written a piece to mark the centenary of some women's right to vote.

Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Both timely and compelling The Purple, White and Green focuses on the Scottish suffragette movement, known as The Guid Cause, which is lesser known in the narrative of the suffragette movement.

Nicola Wright and Lea Taylor passionately present this important document of social history with verve and vigour, where deeds and words come together, following their research into the historical facts. Here they explain what the suffragettes mean to them and how they came to tell the story of The Purple, White and Green.

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Nicola Wright

Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Nicola combines her passion for history with a love of dressing up to bring the characters and the stories of the past vividly to life. She delivers workshops to primary and secondary schools on subjects ranging from castle life and the cursed Stewarts to the Jacobites and the First World War. She has worked in museums and as a costumed interpreter in castles and palaces. As well as storytelling sessions for nursery children involving rhyme, songs and actions, she also delights in entertaining adults with dark tales over dinner. Working as a trainer and freelance learning consultant Nicola is a firm advocate of children as storytellers and provides voice workshops and storytelling skill sessions alongside her own storytelling.

“I’ve chained myself to a post at Preston Lodge High School and a pillar in the John Gray Centre in Haddington for International Women’s Day. I’ve been a feisty, bicycle riding, toffee hammer wielding suffragette for the National Museum of Scotland and I was determined not to let the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, where some women gained the right to vote, pass me by.

Sylvia Pankhurst is a hero of mine: her face along with an inspirational quote about equality adorn my favourite morning coffee cup. This was not simply an interesting work project. this was a moral obligation. And so, The Purple, White and Green, a collaborative storytelling performance about the Scottish suffragettes was born.

Much of the focus of research on the suffragette and non-militant suffragist movement has been on England and primarily London. In one sense it had to be as that was where Parliament was: the building and the men within it acted as the focus for the movement. What is interesting in terms of the Scottish connection is that many of the men wielding power, including the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Winston Churchill, had their seats in Scotland.

Picture: Miriam Morris

There was huge grassroots support for women’s suffrage. In Scotland, the movement was known as ‘The Guid Cause’ and it happened across the length and breadth of the country. The suffragettes and suffragists were everywhere and contrary to what I was taught at school over 30 years ago, they were in every class: farm workers, fishwives and factory workers. This was not simply a movement of middle and upper-class women with time on their hands. The fact that so many of the men in power had constituencies in Scotland led to acts of protest, demonstrations and, from 1912, escalating acts of militancy.

Behind all these actions are remarkable women with stories to tell like Flora Drummond (called the General because of her penchant for military uniform), and Catherine Blair who, because she was a mother of four small children did not take part in militant action but used her pen to defend deeds not words. She has given me one of my favourite quotes:

Is it right to quietly submit to a wrong or is it right to fight against it?

Nannie Brown walked 400 miles from Edinburgh to London to present a petition to the Prime Minister. The audacious and charismatic Ethel Moorhead, smashed a case at the Wallace Monument, to draw people’s attention to the fact that their liberty was won through fighting. She also threw an egg at Winston Churchill.

Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Janet Arthur’s harrowing testimony about her forcible feeding in Perth Prison is an integral part of our performance. Our aim with The Purple, White and Green is to show the sheer courage and determination of these women, many of whom faced intimidation, abuse and even torture.”

Lea Taylor

Lea is an experienced storyteller bringing a wealth of skills to any session, workshop, project or performance. Her background is in community education, specialising in literacies (especially pioneering work on parental engagement through literacy and storytelling). She is also a published author with Midlothian Folk Tales and another book Animals, Beasties and Monsters of Scotland: Folk Tales for Children is due out in 2019.

“When I reached 18, my grandmother impressed upon me the privilege and importance of voting – how it was hard won. She didn’t give details; the years of campaigning, lives ruined, the indignities suffered and the blatant ignorance and arrogance that pervaded those in power. I was to learn of that later.

Picture: Miriam Morris

My passion on this subject started as a curiosity, a need to know and understand. As the realities of the suffragettes’ struggle were revealed I found I was in awe of their unswerving faith, their resourcefulness, solidarity and strength. I was also outraged at how those steadfast women were so glibly dismissed and undermined – for years.

As a professional storyteller I felt compelled to do something to mark the centenary of the vote – an important piece of our history but celebrating in a way that made it relevant to Scotland. It seemed that a lot of the emphasis is and has been south of the border where little of the Scottish suffragettes is known or commemorated. That coupled with the fact that the struggle for equality is still prevalent today and not just here in Scotland but worldwide. We’ve all witnessed the recent campaigns of ‘Me Too’ etc, to know it’s there, like the elephant in the room.

So that is why I took up the banner with my colleague Nicola Wright, stopped people and buses in the street and made a lot of noise. That is why we wrote The Purple, White and Green. Now is the time to claim it back – educate our children to know, understand and appreciate what went before them and the sacrifices that were made.

Thanks to the support of the Traditional Arts Fund and the Scottish Storytelling Centre so far, we’ve been able to hold an event and pilot the show in schools. It was incredibly powerful to see the students’ dawning realisation that this was not simply a piece of history retold, but it has roots in issues that affect their lives today.

Our next stage is to obtain further funding to visit as many others as possible. Like our suffragette sisters we intend to take our event out there – tour it around the schools of Scotland to get the message across loud and clear. We end The Purple, White and Green with the words – the fight goes on. That is deliberate.

Further performances of The Purple, White and Green will take place as part of TradFest, 26 April- 6 May and The Scottish International Storytelling Festival, 19-31 October. For more, contact [email protected]