Scotland: Her Story
Rosemary Goring’s new book Scotland: Her Story explores the experiences of our country’s oftenforgotten heroines. Here, the author shares a few of the stories of the women who inspired her
Extracts: Inspiring women
Warrant for the Countess of Buchan’s capture, 1306
Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, was Robert the Bruce’s second cousin. She was determined to be present at Bruce’s coronation at Scone, on 25 March, at which by hereditary right she was to place the crown on his head.
In carrying out her clan duties she infuriated her husband, who had switched his allegiance to England, and had to be restrained from killing her by King Edward I. He, instead, wished her to be hung in public in a cage, as ‘a spectacle and eternal reproach’.
‘IT is ordained and commanded, by letters under the Privy Seal, to the Chamberlain of Scotland or to his Lieutenant at Berwick on Tweed, that in one of the turrets within the Castle in the same place, in the place where it seems to him most suitable, he shall make a cage of strong lattice, of bars, well strengthened with iron, in which he shall put the Countess of Buchan.
And that he cause her to be so well and surely guarded in that cage that she cannot get out. And that he appoint one woman, or two, of the said city of Berwick, English, who shall be free of suspicion, to serve the said Countess with food and drink and other things which are needful in that dwelling.
And that he has her so well and straitly guarded in that cage that she speak to no one, neither man nor woman, who is of the Scottish nation, nor to any other, nor shall they have access to here save only the woman or women assigned to her, and those who guard her.’’
Martyrs on the mudflats: an eyewitness report, 11 May 1685
The trial and execution of the Wigtown Covenanters Margaret McLachlan (or Lauchlison) who was 62, and Margaret Wilson, who was 18, was exceptionally cruel. To set an example to others, they were tied at the low water mark on the mudflats of Wigtown Bay. As one commentator wrote, “The old woman was bound furthest out, to bob like a fisher’s float on every advancing wave...”. This was intended to give the young woman time to renounce her convictions and save herself. But as Patrick Walker, who witnessed it, shows, she would not do so. Sir Robert Grierson of Lag was one of the Commissioners who condemned the women for “nonconformity”.
‘THE old woman was first tied to the stake, enemies saying, “Tis needless to speak to that old damn’d bitch, let her go to hell.” But say they, “Margaret, ye are young; if ye’ll pray for the King, we will give you your life.” She said, “I’ll pray for salvation for all the elect, but the damnation of none.” They dashed her under the water, and pulled her up again. People looking on said, “O Margaret, will ye say it?” She said, “Lord, give him repentance, forgiveness, and salvation, if it be Thy
holy will.” Lagg cry’d, “Damn’d bitch, we do not want such prayers; tender the oaths to her.” She said, “No, no sinful oaths for me.” They said, “To hell with them, to hell with them, it is o’er good for them.” Thus suffered they that extraordinary and unheard-of-death.’’
A Pioneer’s Account Susan Allison, August 1869
When she was 15, Susan Moir’s family emigrated for British Columbia where, eight years later, she married a cattle rancher, John Fall Allison. They settled in a log cabin he had built on Lake Okanaga. Like many pioneer wives she had to rely on her own wits to survive. Here she describes setting out with her husband on a business trip.
‘THE baby was now a month old and I got one of the women to make me a birchbark basket to pack him in. It was a very comfortable little nest and my husband said he would carry it himself. As we needed only take one pack horse with a tent and food for three days we thought we could make the journey without help. We were told that there were fires on the road when we started. My husband thought the fires might not be bad though the air was full of smoke. When we made the ‘Nine Miles’ it grew unpleasantly thick. As we neared Powder Camp we found the trees were blazing on both sides of us. My husband handed me the baby to carry and went on leading the pack horse. Poor pony he did not like the fire and had to be dragged along the road.
My husband wanted to turn back but I, not knowing what was ahead, said “go on” and we pushed on until it became clearer. Near Skagit we met a man on horseback who stopped to speak to us. He said “turn back while you can, no one can get through that fire, the Skagit is boiling.” But as the smoke and fire behind us looked far worse, we told him we would try it, and that he had better hurry if he wanted to get through. So we parted.
He had not exaggerated. When we got to the Skagit we found the timber on both sides of the creek on fire. The rocks were red hot and the water was boiling or at any rate it seemed like it. We dared not stop but hurried on thinking to get out of it. When we reached the Cedars, Pony and the other two horses had to be blinded [blind-folded]. The whole forest seemed to be on fire [and] the heat was almost unbearable. The smoke was suffocating and we kept a blanket wrapped around little Edgar’s basket. To add to our misery a huge cedar crashed across the trail. I held the three horses and baby while my husband tore the bark from some of the cedars lying near and made a bridge on to the top of the cedars over one side and down on the other, then led Nelly and Pony over this bridge with the third horse.
The bridge caught fire and his leg was badly burned, but we did get over, and a little farther we got beyond the fire. We were afraid to camp but too exhausted to go farther that night. We left our dangerous camp early next morning and reached Lake House where we camped and took our ease and rested till next day.’’
Cooking for Elsie Inglis’s Russian unit Mary Lee Milne
Mary Lee Milne was a 43-year-old widow from Selkirk, who became cook for Elsie Inglis’s medical unit on the RussoRomanian front. She recorded what she witnessed in diaries and in film, some of it taken at great personal risk.
Hospital A, Medgidia Saturday 4 October, 1916
‘THIS has been a terribly exciting day. I went out with Bell to get meat, and whilst we were on the way the railway was bombed. We had just left it when the first fell. Then they
I think in all the times in my life I could count how many times ever I’ve got anything out of sex, now that’s God’s truth
came thick and fast all round us – it was a terrible feeling, watching where the next would come. We drove for our lives along a road which was turned into pandemonium – horses and men flying, hay carts overturned, horses lying dead. We picked up one man and took him with us – he had nine holes in his back. The enemy was just over us all the time – quite awful. Bell was wonderful. She pacified the frightened men, told them to lie down, held terrified horses, and kept us all from feeling upset. I was not really afraid, but I just wanted to get back to William [her brother]. I felt I didn’t want to be killed, and it was just as likely to be me as anyone here. However, we got back to the hospital with the wounded man, and for the moment the enemy has gone off. But at lunch time they came back in double the number, and shelled the town afresh. They hovered over our camp for over an hour; then at tea time they were back again – guns firing and shells flying through the air... For the moment we are all safe, but how long will it last?’’
Sex – damned thing Maggie Fuller, 1930s
This interviewee, who had a really tough upbringing in Leith, spoke unusually frankly to an oral historian.
‘Ithink in all the times in my life I could count how many times ever I’ve got anything out of sex, now that’s God’s truth. I hate the ruddy thing, I’ll be very frank with you. I think it is a disgusting horrible thing, I really do, aha. I didn’t use to feel like that, I just did it, but I never got anything, except with my second son, and an odd time since – not now, mind … damned thing.
‘‘I’d rather do without it, it’s been left like that, you know what I mean.
‘‘My husband is older than me … as regards a stable man, you’ll not get better. I’ve been allowed to do exactly what I like, but as regards sex, it’s no use – if I hadn’t been a kind of stable person I am sure I’d have gone off my ruddy head.
“You know I’d rather not have it, all that carry on, you know. It’s maybe me that’s cold, I don’t know, I never talked about it – too late in life to talk about it now.’’
Letter from No 1 Catterline Joan Eardley
Famous for her rumpled Glasgow urchins and roaring seascapes, Joan Eardley’s work has been likened to Goya and Turner. Catterline, the name of the village near Stonehaven where she made her home, is now synonymous with her. Eardley had a long-standing love affair with Audrey Walker, whom she met in 1952, and who was married. She wrote to her often from her clifftop cottage.
14 February 1958
‘THE snow has been blizzarding down nearly all day – (What you had when you were here was just nuffink!) It is piled up against the door in great drifts, & even out of drifts it is easily a foot deep. Anyway in between
blizzards it has been so much just what I wanted for my painting – that stupidly I imagined I could rush out & in with my canvas – You know what a job it was setting up that canvas at the back of the house. Well I’ve had it 3 or 4 times to do – & undo in the teeth of the gale. I gave up after I think the 3rd time might have been the fourth – chiefly because of the length of time that I actually had in which to paint was so brief – mostly only about 1/4 hr at the most before the onset of the next blizzard... You really need to be tough for this game...
The snow will certainly lie over tomorrow – so I hope I shall get some more peaceful working times. Angus will help me out with my easel, etc., in the morning – but you see he won’t be here the rest of the time. This morning he anchored my easel with a real anchor [she adds a drawing of this]. Certainly effective – in fact I have left the easel outside anchored & half buried in the snow.
Stalked in the corridors of Westminster Winnie Ewing, 1967-8
Winifred Ewing’s return as SNP MP in the Hamilton by-election of 1967 was cause for celebration. Yet when she reached Westminster, and the noise of the pipe bands and cheering crowds faded, the reality was less thrilling.
‘Iwas interrupted whenever I spoke, I was regularly insulted and I was even defamed once or twice... I was even stalked by a Labour MP, though
as he is still alive I shall not name him. That memory is not one on which I want to dwell too much in any case, because the whole experience was very frightening.
The problem started following a speech I made at the Bannockburn Rally when I said the enemies of Scotland were not the English but “Scots traitors within the gate”.
This infuriated some Labour MPs who took the remark personally, though why they should I don’t know, unless they had a guilty conscience. One of them seemed to become unhinged by it.
I first noticed the problem in the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. Wherever I sat this MP sat opposite. If I changed seats, he did so also. Then I noticed that he had started to follow me along corridors, appearing behind me without saying anything. It got so bad that on one occasion I stopped dead in the corridor as an old Tory, Boyd Carpenter, went past and complained to him that this man – pointing behind me – was following me everywhere.
He was horrified and told the MP to clear off and not do it again. But later I had to complain again in the library, where he sat staring at me.
Emrys Hughes and Willie Baxter, in whom I confided, told me to complain to the Leader of the House, Fred Peart, as it was becoming very disquieting for me.
I spoke to Fred after a vote one night and he was very sympathetic and said he would have a word and make sure it stopped. Fred was also very hospitable and after I had told him about it invited me for a drink in his office behind the Speaker’s Chair, where he often entertained his staff. I declined as I wanted to go home.
Off I set through the dark Chamber and into the Public Lobby to go to the stairs leading to the Members’ Entrance, from where I could ring for a taxi. However, as I left the Public Lobby, I saw the door swinging in front of me. I felt afraid but I went on through the door and down the steps, with the sound of my high heels clicking loudly on the stone. As I turned a bend on the stair, there was my stalker right in front of me, looking very sinister indeed.
I tried to humour him as I wanted to reach the cloakroom – where there was an attendant – without having anything happening. He kept staring and following me, but I made it and breathlessly told the cloakroom attendant what was going on. Then I rushed back up the stairs to Fred Peart’s room, which I must have stumbled into, ashen faced. He just looked at me and immediately realised what had happened, saying sympathetically, “Not again?” The Leader of the House took prompt action and I got a written apology – and, equally importantly, the stalking stopped.’
As I turned a bend on the stair, there was my stalker right in front of me, looking very sinister indeed
From left: Isabella MacDuff at the coronation of Robert the Bruce at Scone in 1306, from a modern tableau at Edinburgh Castle (Photograph Kim Traynor). A depiction of Margaret Wilson, tied up on the mudflats of Wigtown Bay, painted by John Everett Millais; Winnie Ewing, victorious in the Hamilton by-election of 1967; Susan Allison, a pioneer wife who had to survive on her wits when the family emigrated to British Columbia in 1869
Far left: the artist Joan Eardley Left: Mary Lee Milne, who was on the front line with Elsie Inglis
Scotland: Her Story edited by Rosemary Goring, is published by Birlinn, £20
Author Rosemary Goring at Mary Queen of Scots’ Bathhouse at Holyrood in Edinburgh