Exhibition to chart role of Scots women in Greek revolution

It was envisioned by women in 19th century Edinburgh as a means of helping their Greek counterparts thrive as they threw off the shackles of their Ottoman rulers.

The exhibition will feature contemporary plans drawn up by architect Charles Robert Cockerell for the National Monument. Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty
The exhibition will feature contemporary plans drawn up by architect Charles Robert Cockerell for the National Monument. Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

Now, a new exhibition marking the influence of Scots in the Greek revolution is to shine a light on the little known role of the Edinburgh society which sought to bolster women’s education in the cradle of western civilization.

With the bicentenary of the start of the 1821 revolution taking place this week, the University of Edinburgh has unveiled plans for the exhibition which explores the close ties between the Scottish capital and the nation from which it drew so much inspiration.

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At its heart is the story of the grandly titled ‘Scottish Ladies’ Society for Promoting Education, Especially That of Females of Greece’ a philanthropic endeavour designed to improve the lives of Greek women.

Fired by educational zeal and a love of the classical world, the society was established by Agnes Renton, an Edinburgh woman who helped the poor in the city, while also campaigning for political reform and the abolition of the corn laws.

She enlisted Lady Carnegie as the society’s inaugural president and won the support of those involved in radical political causes.

Alasdair Grant, one of the curators of the new exhibition, said the society’s energy was derived from a romantic appreciation of ancient Greece.

“The idea that Edinburgh had taken on classical learning in its capacity as the so-called Athens of the North meant that it felt it had something it could give back.

“Plenty of Scots contributed to the cause of Greek independence - it was part of the whole ideal that classical education, art, and architecture had flourished here.”

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Indeed, the strength of feeling is evident in contemporaneous reports of a society meeting in the city’s Assembly Halls in 1825, attended by as many as 800 to 1,000 people.

“The Greek cause was in many respects a radical cause,” Mr Grant added. “A lot of people who were religious dissenters got involved with the movement.”

He pointed out that the only significant historical record of the women’s society came via Ms Renton’s own family memoir. While the society’s activities were reported in the press at the time, no women were mentioned by name.

The society’s goal was to send women educators to revolutionary Greece, and records suggest a handful were able to travel to the Ionian Islands, then under British rule.

Mr Grant said the society eventually “fizzled out,” but said that its legacy was realised through similar initiatives, such as the Hill School, founded in 1831, one of the first institutions devoted to the education of girls in Greece.

As well as featuring the work of the society, the new exhibition, ‘Edina/Athena: The Greek Revolution and the Athens of the North,’ reflects the pivotal role played by Scots in the conflict.

They include Thomas Gordon, an Aberdeenshire army officer who became a noted historian of the Greek revolution, and Edward Masson, a schoolmaster from Kincardineshire who worked in Greece as an educator, naval attaché, and attorney.

It also includes contemporary plans drawn up by architect Charles Robert Cockerell for the National Monument on Calton Hill.

The free exhibition will run from 29 October until 29 January 2022 in the university’s main library exhibition gallery.

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