PERCHED on her grand rooftop eyrie on top of the Royal Scottish Academy at The Mound, Queen Victoria’s statue occupies one of the most prominent positions in Edinburgh.
She also sits proudly at the foot of Leith Walk. But other than an anonymous mother and child at Festival Square, the statues of the queen are, perhaps surprisingly, the only proper monuments to women in Edinburgh.
But now a new website is hoping to shed light on the many Scottish women who played their own remarkable role in forging the nation, women whose achievements may not have earned them a fabulous rooftop statue but, nevertheless, are still remembered.
Launched earlier this year, Women of Scotland already has nearly 100 entries with details of memorial buildings, plaques, monuments and even stained-glass-window tributes to women around the country. And it’s hoped many more will soon be traced, helping to complete a comprehensive guide to Scottish women’s impact on the nation.
Next month, a hands-on advice session at Edinburgh Central Library will aim to show how we can all take part by suggesting tips for tracking down long-forgotten or well-hidden tributes to women and advice on how to research and share their details. Eventually, the website will provide a guide to where to find plaques and memorial sites alongside details of just who these female powerhouses were – some with brilliant minds that helped forge scientific understanding, some whose determination provoked dramatic social change, others whose thirst for discovery and adventure took them around the globe.
In other cases, they will be simply women who strove to create better communities or – in the tragic case of young art student Catherine Watson – who gave their lives for others. Catherine drowned in the East Bay, North Berwick, on July 27 1889, while rescuing a drowning child. Her sacrifice is honoured with a stone cross, with a bronze portrait panel at Anchor Green in the town.
Another poignant tribute to a life tragically cut short can be found at the Lawnmarket, where a garden seat featuring a sculpture of a parakeet and garden trug makes a lasting tribute to Susannah ‘Zannah’ Stephen, a landscape architect who helped found the Scottish Society of Garden Designers and who died in a diving accident in the Galapagos Islands in 1997.
They are just two of the inspirational women who so touched others that people felt they had to leave some tribute to honour their achievements.
Few can lay claim to Queen Victoria’s prestigious spot overlooking Princes Street, but who else was considered worthy of, at the very least, a plaque of their own?
• Sharp-eyed visitors to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children may have spotted a plaque declaring they are within the Lady Caroline Charteris Wing with the words inscribed: “Erected in loving memory of a beautiful and beneficent life by her sister Lady Jane Dundas 1892-1895”.
So who exactly was this inspirational Lady Caroline?
She was born in January 1816 at Aberlady, East Lothian, daughter of Francis Charteris-Wemyss-Douglas, Earl of Wemyss and his countess wife, Margaret, whose home was the East Lothian family pile Gosford House, near Longniddry.
One of nine children, she mingled in the highest society – there are records of her and sister Lady Jane having attended the Queen’s Drawing Room in May 1835 and meeting Queen Victoria. She shared her riches with the Bishop of London’s Mission Fund, giving a guinea a year to help aid missionary work in London, and provide soup and blankets for the poor of the parish of Vauxhall in 1886. But while her donation in 1889 to a leper colony in the Hawaian Islands may have been kind-hearted, it’s unclear just what they made of an ariston – a organette-type disc player that serenaded them with 40 tunes as they turned a handle.
When she died in 1891, Lady Jane donated £6500 to build and furnish the Lady Caroline Charteris Memorial Wing at the children’s hospital along with £12,083 to create The Lady Caroline Charteris Endowment Fund.
• Students at Heriot-Watt University’s Riccarton Campus will be familiar with The Mary Burton Centre Museum and Archive. Female students, in particular, may want to pause at the threshold to remember the woman who helped make further education possible for a generation of women.
Burton was born in 1819 and was educated by her mother. Yet she persuaded the Watt Institution and School of Arts – the forerunner of today’s university – to open its classes to female students in 1869. She became its first woman director in 1874. In her will she left legacies for prizes and money for the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage to campaign for women MPs. She died on March 19 1909.
• A few lines of lettering on a stone lintel at the former Deaconess Hospital building at The Pleasance pay tribute to Lady Grisell Baillie (1822-1891). She was the youngest daughter of the ninth Earl of Haddington but scorned status and wealth to opt for a life of prayer, caring for the sick and raising funds for community improvements and better water to the Borders village of St Boswells. When Rev Dr Archibald Charteris established the order of deaconesses in the Church of Scotland, she trained to became the first deaconess. She presided at the first conference of the Church of Scotland’s Woman’s Guild in 1891, urging members to launch a campaign for temperance. The Deaconess Hospital, on which the memorial to Lady Grisell appears, was opened in Edinburgh in 1894 to provide practical training in nursing for deaconesses.
• A trio of women are remembered in Grey- friars Kirk. Among them, Margaret, Lady Yester (1572-1647) whose generosity helped create an Edinburgh landmark – the Tron Kirk. She contributed 1000 merks towards its construction and also funds to build Lady Yester’s Kirk in Infirmary Street.
• Mary S Hill (1842-1918) showed such devotion to serving the Women’s Guild that she was deemed worthy of a shining brass plaque in recognition of her 17 years as its secretary.
• Likewise, Helen S Oman (1875-1964) earned a stone plaque for her bequest which helped renovate part of the church.
• Edinburgh University’s Chrystal MacMillan Building in Teviot Square pays tribute to the first woman to graduate with a science degree in 1896. She later became a barrister and was
an active member of the suffragette movement. She was the first woman to argue a case in the House of Lords in 1908, when she argued for voting rights of Scottish female students.
• Mary Erskine (1629-1707) is a familiar name in Edinburgh, and her memorial stone can be found not at the school that bears her name but at Greyfriars Kirkyard, where she lies. Resilient and determined, she refused to allow widowhood to crush her. Erskine became a shopkeeper after her first husband’s death and later, after the loss of her second, a successful businesswoman, renting out property and lending money as a private banker, often to other widows to help them continue their husband’s businesses.
In 1694, she helped establish a foundation in the Cowgate for the schooling of the daughters of Edinburgh burgesses. She bequeathed a large sum to found the Trades’ Maiden Hospital, later Edinburgh Ladies’ College and finally renamed Mary Erskine School in 1944 – one of the oldest girls’ schools in the world.
• Social reformer Mary Crudelius (1839-1877) may have been driven to provide a better future for her two daughters Maud and Mary, as she drove forward advances in education for women in the 1860s. She founded the higher education for women’s movement in Scotland through the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association (ELEA), which she set up in 1867. The group aimed to open up university education to women rather than setting up a separate women’s college.
She also supported women’s suffrage, signing the first suffrage petition and later concentrating on improving women’s prospects for higher education. She died aged 38. Two years later, Edinburgh University recognised ELEA courses. Her determination to provide a better future for her children – and their children too – bore fruit when her granddaughter, Edith Burnet (1888–1971), became Britain’s first qualified woman architect. A memorial plaque to Crudelius can be found in Bristo Square
• Within a garden at Edinburgh University Day Nursery, in Dalkeith Road, can be found a plaque to feminist human rights and child welfare campaigner Ruth Margaret Adler (1944-1994). She helped found Scottish Women’s Aid and helped establish the Scottish Child Law Centre.
• And a tapestry within St Paul’s and St George’s Church, in Broughton Street, commemorates the life of Charlotte Cheverton (1960-1991). Known as Lottie, she studied at Slade School of Art and went on to teach at Fettes College. She married artist and teacher Mark Cheverton, head of art at Edinburgh Academy, and encouraged artists to donate work to alleviate Third World poverty. The couple founded the Leith School of Art in 1988. Both died in a road accident in 1991.
• A gothic stone spire sits at the corner of North Charlotte Street and St Colme Street in praise of philanthropist and writer Catherine Sinclair (1800-1864). Born the sixth of 13 children, she was the JK Rowling of her day when she won fame with children’s novel Holiday House, which recounted the hi-jinks of a household of lively children. It remained in print for 100 years. She was also a respected philanthropist in Edinburgh, establishing soup kitchens, drinking fountains and street benches. The inscription on the stone spire reads: “She was a friend of all children and through her book, Holiday House, speaks to them still.”
• A plaque at the Royal Botanic Garden’s Balfour Building reflects upon the life of Nora Alcock (1874- 1972), one of the British pioneers in plant pathology. A mother of four, she worked with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland from 1924 on programmes aimed at increasing the level of food production through healthy seeds. She retired in 1937 but during the Second World War, she taught botany to prisoners of war.
• Another writer is remembered in a wall plaque at the corner of Chapel Street and Windmill Street – Alison Cockburn (1712-1794). She was a poet, socialite and acclaimed wit of her times – a kind of 18th-century It girl – who surrounded herself with leading Enlightenment figures, including Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and David Hume. Her most notable literary achievement was to write the lyrics to the ballad Flowers of the Forest.
• They say behind every good man is a better woman. And that could well be said for Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801-1886) – wife of essayist Thomas Carlyle and regarded as the driving force behind his fame and wealth. A prolific letter writer and diarist, the sometimes romantic, often scathing missives she sent to her husband were published after her death, driving up his own profile. A plaque can be found at her Haddington birthplace in Lodge Street.
• Mapping Memorials to Women in Scotland: Edinburgh is at Edinburgh Central Library, 2pm-4pm, Tuesday, August 7. Book online at www.womenofscotland.org.uk or phone Morag Smith on 0141-248 9969 for more information.
Magic and medicine
These other well known ladies of note may not command a towering statue like Queen Victoria, but at least their achievements have been recognised.
On the ground on the north side of the quadrangle at the City Chambers, is a stone plaque in recognition of Harry Potter author JK Rowliong.
Sophia Jex-Blake (1840- 1912), the first female medical undergraduate in Britain, is remembered in a plaque at the main entrance to Edinburgh University’s medical school in Teviot Place.
Health pioneer Dr Elsie Inglis (1864-1917) founder of the Scottish Women’s Suffrage Federation and Scottish Women’s Hospitals has a plaque is on the facade of Old Surgeons’ Hall, Old Surgeons’ Square.
Mary Queen of Scots is referred to in a plaque at the entrance to the City Chambers’ quadrangle. It marks the lodgings of Sir Simon Preston of Craigmillar, the Provost of Edinburgh in 1567, where Mary spent her last night in Edinburgh before being taken state prisoner.
A wooden stool with a metal plaque in St Giles’ Cathedral recalls 17th century firecracker Jenny Geddes. Born in 1600, she was the city stall holder whose staggering and solitary act of defiance rocked the establishment when she threw a stool at the Bishop of St Giles in fury at the introduction of an English prayerbook to the service.
The prayerbook, regarded as Roman Catholic, enraged Scottish Presbyterians and Jenny’s protest prompted a riot.