Suffrage in East Sutherland and Easter Ross

Susan Kruse is a long-time tutor with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in the Highlands. Over the last seven years she has been working with WEA classes to uncover the story of Highland Suffrage, including most recently a focus on eastern Sutherland. She also runs community heritage courses with Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH). Last month she lectured on this topic to the Dornoch Heritage Society.

The story of the women’s suffrage campaign in the Highlands deserves to be better known! A Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) project has shown how active and vibrant the campaign was throughout the Highlands, using the evidence of suffrage newsletters and local newspapers.

There were two main phases: the first from 1868-1874 and then again between 1907 and 1914. In the first period, Jane Taylour and Agnes McLaren from Edinburgh made two Highland tours, speaking at Dingwall, Inverness, Wick, Thurso, Invergordon and possibly Tain. In their wake local committees formed to gather petitions in support of suffrage.

This activity seems short-lived. There is no evidence of suffrage activity between 1874 and 1907 in the Highlands. From 1909 there were frequent tours, most from speakers of the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), but also the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

In September 1909 Emmeline Pankhurst of the WSPU toured the southern Highlands, where the NUWSS, especially Helen Fraser, inspired the formation of a number of affiliated local societies. Mrs Pankhurst countered with the militant message, speaking at Tain amongst other places. This was followed a year later by a tour of the northern Highlands, with a stop at Dornoch. According to Votes for Women, the WSPU newsletter, the hall in Dornoch was overflowing – but the Northern Times did not bother to report the meeting. Here, as in the rest of the Highlands, the militant message did not appeal, and no WSPU societies formed in the Highlands, although there were individual members.

lady francis balfour on tour

Lady Frances Balfour ‘on tour’ in Dornoch. Published in Common Cause 19 September 1913. (Used with permission of WEA.)

Far more influential were NUWSS speakers. In September 1909 after an NUWSS tour, a society formed in Tain and was active until World War I. In October 1909 Chrystal Macmillan and Miss Campbell Smith toured on behalf of the Scottish University Women’s Suffrage Society, including Dornoch, Golspie, Brora and Helmsdale. After their talk in Dornoch a local NUWSS society formed with Miss J. Gibson as secretary.

This Dornoch society appears to have fizzled out. When we next hear of a suffrage tour, by Mrs Abbott in May 1912, the talk at Dornoch led to the formation of a new society, with Mrs Arthur as president, as well as a short-lived society in Bonar Bridge. The tours and work of Mary Bury of the NUWSS led to the formation of more in summer 1913, at Golspie, Brora and Helmsdale. These, as well as Dornoch, were active until World War I.

There was real support for suffrage in the area. The Dornoch Society alone in May 1914 had 63 paid up members (Northern Times 28 May 1914). The colourful Mrs Hacon was involved, as well as Margaret Davidson, both featuring in previous HistoryLinks blogs. But most accounts stress the non-militant nature of the Highland suffrage movement. Despite extensive research the only militant activity we have discovered was the disruption of the Prime Minister’s golf at Dornoch. Strangely he was staying at Oversteps, the home of Mrs Hacon, a committed suffragist. Thanks to research by Ellen Lindsay we know several women in the area protested in a  less violent way either refusing to give their name during the 1911 census, or providing false information.

As elsewhere, suffrage campaigning ceased with the start of World War I. Many societies threw their energies into war work, including volunteering at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

The research is still in progress, but has identified a number of activities and people involved in the area. Information can be found in binders of research submitted to Dornoch, Golspie, Helmsdale and Brora libraries. Thanks to the WEA course members Morag Black, Anne Coombs, Ellen Lindsay, Nick Lindsay, Penny Paterson and Morag Sutherland, with additional information from Sue Higgins and members of Gospie Heritage Society, and to the HLF for funding the project. New information, photographs or memories are always welcome – please send to Susan Kruse at

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