The Women of Scotland Website

This week’s blog post is contributed by Alison McCall who is finishing off her PhD at the University of Dundee.  She has a particular interest in career women in Victorian Scotland and is part of the team which has created a fabulous interactive website about women in Scotland’s history.

Many interesting Scottish women have never been recorded in history books. Their stories might be fascinating on a number of levels but it can be hard to find out about them.  The Women of Scotland website aims to record the lives of the hundreds, probably thousands, of women who are memorialised in various ways throughout Scotland.

The project arose from the publication of the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women.  Many of the women listed in the Dictionary were known to have had memorials, but confirming the existence of these proved problematic. It was also realised that memorials could be a fruitful source for women’s history.  A collaborative project was started in 2011, when Girl Guides were encouraged to take part in the “Big Name Hunt” and discover memorials to women in their areas.  These memorials were logged onto a website.  A year later, the project was taken over by Women’s History Scotland and the Glasgow Women’s Library.

So far, the site records memorials to approximately 350 women, but there is no doubt that this number will continue to rise.   So little is known about the extent of memorials to women, that it is impossible to guess how many will eventually be recorded.

Each memorial recorded is linked to a biography of the relevant woman.  Some women have several memorials dedicated to them; St Margaret, Queen Victoria, Mary Slessor and Flora MacDonald being examples.  The site is searchable by name, by location and by keyword, such as “suffragette” or “poet.”   Where possible, photographs of the memorial and the woman are included.  However, the hidden nature of so many women’s lives means that the vast majority of women on the site have neither photograph nor picture.   Each entry may be edited to add more information.

So, what sort of memorials are recorded? A surprising statistic is that there are only twenty statues of women in the whole of Scotland, of which five are of Queen Victoria.  (One of the twenty is the statue of Flora MacDonald in front of Inverness Castle.)  By contrast, there are twelve statues of men in George Square, Glasgow, alone, and many hundreds of statues of men throughout the country.  However, whilst statues may be almost entirely confined to men, there are a huge variety of memorials to women, from place-names, to buildings, to plaques and stained glass windows.

In the Dornoch area, there is the village of Arabella and, slightly further away, Maryburgh, by Muir-of-Ord.  Golspie has Millicent Avenue, and Dornoch has Elizabeth Court and Elizabeth Crescent, both named after members of the Sutherland family. One of my personal favourites is Grannie’s Heilan’ Hame. The song was written by Sandy McFarlane, about his mother-in-law, Ann MacKay, of Embo. You can listen to it, sung by Kenneth McKellar, here: Historylinks has a photograph of Ann MacKay taken in approximately 1920.  She looks to be aged about eighty, but was in fact in her early sixties.


Image from Historylinks Image Library

The website is important because it records the stories of women, who were significant within their local communities, but who may have been otherwise unknown.  Elizabeth MacKay, for example, was the first female elder at Dornoch Cathedral. There is a magnificent stained glass window in her memory in the Cathedral, depicting St Margaret, which includes within its design the compass of Mary Slessor.  Many war memorials, such as those in Ardgay and Fearn, carry one or two female names amongst the rows of men: ordinary women caught up in the great events of history.

The Women of Scotland website gives everyone a chance to record the memorials to their  local women: heroines; nobility; witches; pioneers; authors; benefactors; sportswomen;  women of all types whose lives have contributed to, and been interwoven with, the histories of our communities and our country.  Have a look at the website, and if you know of another memorial then please add it!

Pipes, R., Ewan, E., Innes, S., and Reynolds, S. (eds) Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, (EUP, 2006)

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