Women’s History Month
Women’s History Month 2023
Challenging Gendered Expectations: Women, Work and War
The Strange Transition of the Daughters of Cellach Cualann
Blog post by Dr Alex Woolf
Two female saints who appear to have been considered important foci of cults in the west of Scotland in the Viking period, but who are almost unknown today, were Muirenn and Caintigern, daughters of Cellach king of Leinster (a provincial kingdom stretching south from the Dublin region). He ruled from 693-715 and is best known to students of Scottish history as one of the guarantors of Cáin Adomnáin (also known as Lex Innocentium). Cellach had many children but this blog focuses on two of his daughters. Muirenn married Loingsech mac Óengusso, the king of Ireland (695-703), by whom she had a son Flaithbertach. After Loingsech’s death she then married Cináed mac Írgalaig, king of Brega in the Irish east midlands, who went on to become King of Ireland (722-728), before being killed and replaced by Flaithbertach mac Loingsig, his stepson and Muirenn’s son. Muirenn’s own death is recorded in the Irish annals under the year 748. Caintigern’s marital history is less clear. The sixteenth century Aberdeen Breviary claims she was married to one Feriacus of regulus of ‘Monchestre’, but who precisely this was is unclear. Feriacus appears to be a corrupted form of the Irish name Feradach but the place-name may represent Monkchester (the old name of Newcastle-upon-Tyne) or Muncaster (in the English Lake District), neither of which will have been the seats of Gaelic kings. The Aberdeen Breviary is a poor source at the best of times, and in this case best ignored. Caintigern’s death is record in 734.
Nothing in their lives seems to link Muirenn and Caintigern to Scotland (though it remains possible that the latter had a marital home here), but at some point they did become the focus of cults on Loch Lomond and thereabouts. The Island of Inchcailloch, ‘Isle of the Nun (caillech)’, contained a shrine dedicated to Caintigern who was also culted on the nearby loch shore at Balmaha, with nearby Inchmurrin commemorating Muirenn. The Loch Lomond centre of the cult suggests that reverence for these women, who may well have become nuns in widowhood, related to the rulers of the local polity. Here we have to choose between either the British (i.e. Welsh-speaking) dynasty that ruled from Dumbarton until the 870s or the Gaelic-speaking dynasty that emerge in the light of history in the twelfth century as the earls of Lennox. The territorial name ‘Lennox’ is an anglicised form of the Middle Irish/Gaelic work Lemnach meaning ‘of the people of the Leven (Lemen)’ (originally the name of both the loch and the river that drains it). The Lennox seems to have emerged at some point in the Viking Age on the ruins of the kingdom of Dumbarton.
What happens to these two Irish princess in or around the twelfth century is most remarkable. The reformed clergy moving into the area as part of what has been termed the Davidian revolution appear to have reassigned their gender. The establishment at Glasgow of a bishopric for the region required the legend of an episcopal founder in the deep past. The local church may already have been dedicated to Caintigern, or her relics may have been translated from Inchcailloch as a premier regional saint, but in the prudish twelfth century, when anxiety about gender and sexuality was pressuring secular clergy to become celibate, it was probably felt that an episcopal cathedral needed to be a male-only safe space! Hagiographers working for the bishop identified a Welsh saint with a similar sounding name, Conthigirn, who was the supposed founder of the episcopal see at Llanelwy in northeast Wales, was claimed to be of ‘northern’ ancestry, and therefore had his identity and life history appropriated. At about the same time Benedictine monks from Much Wenlock in Shropshire were brought in by Walter FitzAlan (ancestor of the Stewart family) to reform the church of Paisley. These monks brought with them the cult of the Virgin Mary, a woman acceptable to the church, but they found the local cult to have been that of Muirenn. Like their colleagues at Glasgow, they transformed her into a male ‘Saint Mirren’ – now most famous as the eponym of Paisley’s soccer team.
The extent to which these apparent examples of gender re-assignment were active misogyny and anxiety, as suggested above, rather than genuine confusion when encountering unfamiliar saints with strange names in languages with different ways of signalling grammatical gender is unclear. Equally, why and when an eighth century Queen of Ireland and her sister came to be culted in the environs of Loch Lomond and the middle Clyde, remains a mystery. Like so much of Scottish history before the twelfth century, it is likely to remain so.
‘A boy’s love of adventure… and a girl’s body’: Lady Constance Stewart-Richardson, 1883-1932 (1)
Blog post by PhD student Ruadhan Scrivener-Anderson
Lady Constance Stewart-Richardson (nee MacKenzie) was born in 1883. The daughter of Francis MacKenzie Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl of Cromartie, she was indoctrinated in the lifestyle of the Scottish aristocracy and rebelled against it from an early age. She was educated in Belgium during the 1890s and returned to Scotland in 1899, whereupon she was presented at court and entered British high society. Immediately she began to pursue activities which were the antithesis of what was expected of a titled woman in the period.
She first rose to prominence as a swimmer, winning her first prize at the age of seventeen, and holding the Royal Bath Club Ladies Challenge Shield for several years. She also developed a passion for classical dance, frequently performing publicly in what the media of the time described as a ‘semi-clad’ state. (2)
In 1902, aged nineteen, she made her first trip to America, where she spent her time dancing, fencing, boxing, and hunting. In 1903 she visited Texas on a hunting trip in the company of William Frederick Cody, also known as ‘Buffalo Bill’. Here her skill in riding and shooting astonished many cowboys, from whom she learned to use a lasso and stock whip. Throughout the early 1900s she travelled, often alone, in North Africa and India, reaching places where she believed no white woman had ever been before, and in 1908 crossed the African continent from Mombasa to the west coast.
In May 1903, while on a shooting expedition in India, Lady Constance was engaged to marry Captain Fitzgerald, an army officer serving in the 11th Hussars, prompting one newspaper to comment ‘It is difficult to imagine that this very restless girl is going to settle down to married life’. (3) This concern proved to be well-founded, and when she did marry it was not without controversy and unconventionality. In 1904 she met Captain Sir Edward Stewart-Richardson of The Black Watch and almost immediately broke off her engagement to Fitzgerald. Contrary to the usually reserved and traditional nature of aristocratic courtship in the period, Lady Constance and Sir Edward met every day for two weeks in order to ‘see if they found themselves suited to one another’. (4) At the end of this period they were married in a small ceremony which was the polar opposite of the grand society wedding which might have been expected. While many members of the aristocracy disapproved of the marriage, she was very popular amongst the lower classes, and in particular the local community around their home at Pitfour Castle, Perthshire, who subscribed to present her with several expensive gifts. (5)
True to form, the couple spent their honeymoon hunting lion in Somalia. (6) Constance Stewart-Richardson believed that big game hunting should be a fair test of man (or woman) against beast, and that if one didn’t risk one’s life in the process then it was not a respectable pursuit. (7) They hunted on foot with few servants, trekking for miles each day, and Lady Constance wore only men’s clothing. The story of their honeymoon featured in Scottish newspapers for several weeks, drawing both positive and negative commentary.
By 1910 her career as a dancer had become her main focus, and she performed classical dances across Europe and the United States, with many of her performances raising money for the establishment of a school for orphaned boys. Her activities divided opinion in British high society with many fellow aristocrats viewing her performances, often in revealing costumes or men’s clothing, as unbecoming. This public disapproval reached its height in 1910 when, after a private performance of a Salome dance, King Edward VII decided to bar her from court due to her semi-clad dancing for ‘shilling seats’. (8) This effectively made her an outcast from society, shunned by her peers and with limited means. Undaunted, she simply continued to pursue her career as a dancer, travelling the world raising money for educational schemes. In 1916 she stated: ‘I do not take my shoes and stockings off and trip about the stage merely to create a sensation…. People have said that if I am sincere in my art and have a firm belief in myself that I should drop my title and dance under a stage name. Well, I have done so… and the only real difference I have noticed has been a rather less critical attitude on the part of the audience.’ (9)
The First World War cut short the Stewart-Richardsons’ unconventional marriage, as Sir Edward was killed with The Black Watch during the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. Though devastated, Lady Constance redoubled her support of charitable causes, performing in aide of the Russian War Orphans Relief Fund and the Red Cross throughout the War.
After the War, Constance Stewart Richardson continued to dance, and dedicated much of her life to education, developing and publicising her own theories on methods of teaching until her death in 1932. Her views on education stemmed from a desire to ‘improve’ the human race, specifically through an appreciation of natural beauty. To this end, she argued that children should be ‘educated to see ugliness, mental and physical, as sins of the most serious description’. (10) While she may be regarded as socially progressive in many areas, she also expressed an interest in eugenics and the possibilities this presented to improve the human condition, though she preferred the idea of improvement through education.
Lady Constance Stewart Richardson was a woman who challenged the expectations and gender norms of her time. She swam, danced, shot, rode, hunted, travelled, and played the bagpipes, as well as, if not better, than many in her period. She was, as the media described her in 1909, ‘unconventionality itself’ and ‘a true daughter of Scotland’. (11)
1) The Leominster News and North West Hertfordshire & Radnorshire Advertiser, 6th May 1904, p. 7.
2) The Chicago Tribune, 13th February 1910, p. 55
3) The American Register, 15th August 1903, p. 4.
4) The Northern Times, 19th May 1904, p. 4.
5) The Dundee Evening Telegraph, 1st August 1904, p. 3.
6) The Bystander, 3rd February 1909
7) Constance Stewart-Richardson, Dancing, Beauty and Games, (London: Humphreys, 1913), p. 78
8) The Chicago Tribune, 13th February 1910, p. 55
9) The Advertiser, 9th September 1916, p.4.
10) Stewart-Richardson, Dancing, Beauty and Games, p. 41.
11) The Sketch, 1st September 1909, p. 260.
Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan
Poster by Dr Christine McGladdery
Women and Golf in 1930s St Andrews: Chrissie Thomson
Blog post by Dr Sarah Leith
Most roads in St Andrews lead to the Cathedral. The most important ecclesiastical building in Scotland during the mediaeval period, it used to draw pilgrims from across Europe, but it was left to rack and ruin following the Scottish Reformation in 1560. It is known locally as the ‘mither of stane’, and buildings nearby, including Deans Court directly opposite, were constructed using fallen masonry. Today, visitors are still drawn to this sacred spot on the edge of the North Sea, and they are often found walking amongst the ruins or taking photographs of fiery sunsets. Although the Cathedral is a magnificent visitor experience, it must be remembered that its grounds are comprised of two cemeteries; both town and gown are buried here, from William T. Linskill, Dean of Guild and collector of St Andrews ghost stories, to Professor James Irvine, sometime Principal of the University of St Andrews.
With St Andrews being the ‘Home of Golf’, there are also golfers and those involved with the golf industry who are buried in these two cemeteries, including feathery ball maker Allan Robertson. Near to St Rule’s Tower, golfing ‘pilgrims’ have worn a muddy track which directs the way to the graves of father-and-son Championship golfers Old Tom and Young Tom Morris, the latter of whom is said to have died of a broken heart. During the 150th Open last July, golf balls, rather than flowers, were left in remembrance. On their way to the Morris and Robertson graves, however, visitors will unknowingly pass by the stone which remembers another St Andrews golfer, Christine ‘Chrissie’ Thomson. Although not a famous player like her contemporary Joyce Wethered, Chrissie also challenged the conventions of women’s everyday life in the 1930s; she did so by playing an active role in St Andrews’ golf industry.
Born in St Andrews on 15 November 1904, Chrissie lived in Argyll Street, close to the West Port. Her father, James Thomson, was a golf club-maker who had worked for Forgans, Auchterlonies and the Kilrymont Golf Company, before becoming the manager of Old Tom Morris’s workshop, which was situated opposite the Old Course’s 18th green. James’s obituary tells us that ‘When he first went into clubmaking, wooden heads had to be fashioned from the rough and shafts from square shaped lengths of hickory. It was all craftmanship in those days, the only machine used being the circular saw.’ (1) He was also a self-taught musician and the conductor of the town’s Fishermen’s Flute Band; apparently, James’s ‘musical hobby left him little time to give to golf, but he could play a good round as well as his neighbours.’ (2) Chrissie, however, was a keen golfer and a member of the St Regulus Ladies Golf Club, which may still be found today on Pilmour Links. In 1920, her father set up his own clubmaking business to provide employment for a son, Allie, who had been a Prisoner of War. While James and Allie made the clubs in their workshop, Chrissie sold the clubs in their shop, both of which were situated where we find the St Andrews Brewing Company today on South Street. The advent of steel clubs and the arrival of the Great Depression both had hugely negative impacts upon the business.
Chrissie’s life, however, was in no way parochial. Her diary contains the addresses of men and women from Long Island to Singapore to Wellington, which suggests that she may have played golf with them when they visited St Andrews. Another possible reason for her global address book is that she met some of these people whilst on her own travels; as well as challenging gendered expectations by playing golf and being involved with the golf industry in St Andrews, she also defied convention by travelling with her female friends to France and the Netherlands. An avid reader, her diary also contains reading lists, and we learn that she was reading the latest Scottish literature, from Eric Linklater’s Magnus Merriman to H. Kingsley Long’s and Alexander McArthur’s No Mean City.
Reading was a pastime she shared with her late brother, Lewis Thomson, who had worked in Henderson’s bookshop on Church Street before volunteering during the First World War. Lewis was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme on 16 October 1916, aged twenty; on this day, the 8th Black Watch had tried to repulse enemy flamethrowers in appalling weather conditions. (3) Chrissie was only eleven years old when her brother died, and her reading lists make clear her desire to learn more about this conflict and, perhaps, to come to terms with his premature death; she read Philip Gibbs’ Battle of the Somme and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Chrissie herself died on 5 January 1941, aged only thirty-six. Amongst her surviving possessions is a copy of Courage, J.M. Barrie’s 1922 rectorial address to the University of St Andrews, which is inscribed with these words from Allan, one of Chrissie’s friends:
A good time many a friend may wish you
and kind words send
But none with wishes more sincere
Than the kind words I send you here.
1) ‘Clubmaker and Musician: The Late Mr James Thomson’, The St Andrews Citizen, 4 May 1939.
3) Thanks to Dr Derek Patrick for this information.
Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar
Poster by Dr Christine McGladdery
Women and the wars of the 1540s
Blog post by Dr Amy Blakeway
The importance of women to the Anglo-Scottish wars of the 1540s, has long been acknowledged by historians. Fought over the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, who came to the throne aged six days old in 1542, the wars took place in the context of questions over how a woman could rule a country, meanwhile, Mary’s own mother, Marie de Guise, used her own connections to the French court to negotiate for support in the conflict from Scotland’s auld ally.
However, turning away from the archives of the Scottish crown and looking into the records of local communities, especially Scotland’s burghs, and even reports by English spies, shows the importance of Scottish women in this war.
Moving a little bit down the social spectrum from Mary to her female nobles, we see women taking an active role in defending castles and negotiating for prisoners. For example, in 1544, Isobel Lindsay, Lady Borthwick, took on a leading role in managing her family’s defence. In or before February that year her father-in-law, William, fourth Lord Borthwick, had died, and shortly after this her husband, John, now fifth Lord Borthwick, had been taken prisoner by Sir George Douglas of Pittendreich, a Scot who had assured with the English. This left Isobel in charge of the strategically important Borthwick Castle – located between the border with England and Edinburgh. Soon after her husband’s capture Isobel received a message from Patrick Hepburn, earl of Bothwell. Bothwell had approached Lady Borthwick with amorous intent – a spy report of the incident observed that ‘the lady being fair, he came to her for love’.
Feigning a reciprocal interest, Lady Borthwick arranged an assignation, whereupon her plan to capture Bothwell was promptly and seamlessly put into execution by some of her husband’s kin. Having been instructed to come discretely and alone, when Bothwell entered Borthwick castle the gates were closed behind him and he was captured. She then arranged a prisoner swap: the man who had wanted to commit adultery with her for her husband. Evidently, Lady Borthwick’s attractive qualities extended beyond the realms of the physical!
Moving still further down the social scale, our evidence might be less detailed but we can still see the impact of the largest Tudor invasion of Scotland on ordinary women.
In early 1548 the good people of Perth were understandably concerned. Following a major Scottish defeat by the English in September 1547 at Pinkie, the English quickly took Broughty Castle – this gave them control over the nearby entrepôt of Dundee and the Tay more broadly. Rumours whipped through Tayside that the ships which took Broughty Castle could soon be directed against Perth. Elizabeth Crighton, recently widowed, was left facing an awful dilemma. As a property owner in the burgh she was legally obliged to remain in the town to help with defence – but she was worried this would put her daughter, Janet, at risk, because ‘sho had not ane house nor place sufficient for the conseryng and keeping of the said Jane Blair hir dochter and air foirsaid now in this trublus tyme of weir’. Accordingly, she evacuated Janet to stay with her husband’s uncle, in the country, arranging favourable land and financial transactions to support this new arrangement and securing her own access rights for when she was again able to leave Perth.
This might seem sensible – but underneath it lies a legal concern surrounding women’s rights. Under normal circumstances in Scots law in this period, a woman had no automatic right to care for her children. A father could leave his wife the right to be ‘tutrix’ to her children in his will, but if he died intestate, children would automatically be looked after by his relatives – a situation designed to preserve property. Following the defeat at Pinkie, this was replaced with a new law – now mothers would automatically have the right to care for their children if their husband died. When Elizabeth arranged for Janet to go to her great-Uncle, she explicitly acknowledged that she was giving up rights ‘pertenyng to hir of the law’. Whilst the war had improved the ability of widows to care for their children, practical impediments remained.
These two stories are of women with very different lives. Both, however, show women managing challenging situations where complex layers of familial concerns intersected with responsibilities surrounding defence. Whilst such stories often appear in periods of war – when, with fewer men in communities, records reveal more female activities – the fact that these women immediately showed high levels of skill shows they must have been accustomed to negotiating and managing complex situations. The evidence we have, although rich, is obviously only the tip of the iceberg.
‘La Belle Rebel’: “Colonel” Anne Mackintosh and the Jacobites
Blog post by MLitt student Andrew Simpson
While many can call to mind the image of Flora MacDonald whisking Prince Charlie across the sea to Skye, most historians would be hard-pressed to remember another Jacobite woman who participated in the Rising of 1745. Yet, a rich history of female support for the Jacobite cause is the backdrop for some of the most incredible stories of the risings, and few heroines can match the daring of “Colonel” Anne Mackintosh.
Anne Farquharson, originally of Invercauld in Aberdeenshire, would hardly have suggested herself to a life of daring heroism from her beginnings. Her father, a Highland clan chieftain and member of the Clan Chattan confederation instilled sympathy in the young Anne from an early age for the “King across the water” and a staunch Jacobite adherence. She married the chieftain of the much larger Clan Mackintosh, Angus Mackintosh and, by all accounts, enjoyed a happy marriage to her government-employed husband at the clan seat near Inverness. Had Charles Edward Stuart not arrived in Scotland in 1745, Anne likely would have lived in relatively quiet solitude.
Yet, Prince Charles did land and raised his standard at Glenfinnan in 1745 as a call to the Scots to rise and restore his father to the throne. Angus Mackintosh, a leader in the Hanoverian-supporting Black Watch, remained reticent in calling out Clan Mackintosh to support the Prince’s banner. Anne experienced far less difficulty in deciding the proper course of action. Upon the failure of her husband to call out Clan Mackintosh to fight, Anne saddled her horse, armed herself with a bag of coin and two pistols, and set out to raise Clan Mackintosh to fight for the Stuart cause.
The sight of a woman of no more than 22 years of age riding across the Highlands near Inverness to raise a clan that her husband had refused to call out must have been astonishing. Anne proved quite persuasive when convincing Mackintosh clansmen and raised 300 men to fight for Prince Charlie. Placing Alexander MacGillavry as the military commander of her soldiers, Anne led the men to meet the Prince at Bannockburn in January 1746, earning her the moniker “Colonel” and the nickname by Prince Charlie “La Belle Rebelle” or “the beautiful Rebel.”
The Prince, by all accounts, took a strong liking to the Highland lady and chose to partake in a dinner at Moy Hall, the traditional family residence of the chieftains of clan Mackintosh, in 1746. The festivities were cut short when Anne’s mother-in-law sent word that the Government commander, Lord Loudon, had set out from Inverness with an army of 1500 men to capture Prince Charlie. Anne’s cunning, along with the aid of Donald Fraser, the local blacksmith, saved the Prince to continue his military action. Anne sent Fraser along the road from Inverness to Moy and had the blacksmith and his four crew members shout the war cries of nearby clans in order to frighten the Hanoverian troops away. The ruse proved successful, as the Hanoverian troops fled at the commotion, and the Prince was able to use the distraction to capture Inverness the following day.
A final highlight in Anne’s illustrious career was her brief stint as a jailer on behalf of the Prince. In March 1746, Anne’s husband, Angus, was captured by Jacobite forces north of Inverness and, much to the amusement of contemporary and modern commentators, Prince Charlie released Angus into the custody of Anne. Upon meeting the prisoner, Anne greeted her husband, “Your servant, Captain.” Angus replied, “Your servant, Colonel,” and permanently cemented the moniker of “Colonel” Anne into the annals of history.
Yet as with any account that features a Jacobite, the story must eventually turn to sorrow, and the case is no different for Anne Mackintosh. While the soldiers Anne recruited served fiercely in the Jacobite ranks, they fell en masse at the battle of Culloden and were buried around the Well of the Dead. Anne was arrested swiftly thereafter and placed in custody in Inverness to await her fate. While the possibility existed that Anne would be executed for her participation in the rising, a combination of influential friends and Anne’s social status ensured that she escaped the gallows, and retired to live out the rest of her life in relative quiet.
Anne Mackintosh’s life and actions are undoubtedly impressive, inspiring inspired admiration of her courage among the Jacobite and Hanoverian supporters of the time. She returned to her life with Angus relatively unscathed and, several years later, they were invited to a party in London at which the Duke of Cumberland, the victor of Culloden, was present. Cumberland invited Anne to dance with him to the tune, “Up and waur them a’, Willie”, a pro-Hanoverian reel. Never one to step away from a challenge, Anne danced with the Jacobite nemesis and then requested a second dance to the pro-Jacobite song “Auld Stuart’s Back Again.” The remaining Jacobite supporters in Scotland praised the action as one last act of defiance against the victor of Culloden, permanently cementing the bravery of “Colonel” Anne in the Jacobite tradition.
While Flora MacDonald reamins the most famous female Jacobite, the escapades of Anne Mackintosh are second to none. Her bravery and courage made her a figure of impressive stature in the historical record, and it is surprising that more has not been written about Anne’s incredible life. Regrettably, her fate was like many of her Jacobite counterparts: eventual anonymity. She died in 1784 and was buried in a remote and relatively forgotten cemetery near Leith, yet her passion for the Jacobite cause deserves to be remembered and celebrated.
Craig, Maggie. Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45. London: Mainstream Publishing, 1997.
Lenman, Bruce. The Jacobite Clans of the Great Glen 1650-1784. London: Methuen, 1984.
Macdonald, F. “Colonel Anne” Lady Anne Mackintosh 1723-1784. Edinburgh: Scotland’s Cultural Heritage, 1987.
Murdoch, W. G. Blaikie. The Spirit of Jacobite Loyalty: An Essay Towards A Better Understanding of “The Forty-Five”. Edinburgh: William Brown, 1907.
Pittock, Murray G. H. Jacobitism. London: MacMillan Press, 1998.
The Fisherwomen of St Andrews
Blog post by PhD student James Fox
As part of ISHR’s focus on ‘Challenging Gendered Expectations’ in celebration of Women’s History Month, I’m exploring a group of working women whose activities were vital to the industry they supported: the fisherwomen of St Andrews.
As in harbour towns up and down the British coastline, the St Andrews fishwives were an integral part of the local economy from the middle ages to the twentieth century. When construction began on St Andrews Cathedral in 1158, a fishing community gathered in an area known as the Fishergate at the west end of North Street. In the following centuries St Andrews took its place among several East Neuk burghs as an important centre of Scotland’s treasured fishing industry. While the men of these communities were absent for extended periods aboard fishing boats, it was the women who took centre stage in organising almost all other aspects of the fisheries.
Jobs of a fishwife
In understanding the importance of fisherwomen to the success of fisheries like St Andrews, the testimony of Mary Somerville, who attended school in Musselburgh in the 1790s and saw first-hand the fisherwomen’s activities, is revealing:
‘The women helped to land and prepare the fish when the boats came in, carried it to town for sale in the early morning, kept the purse, managed the house, brought up the children, and provided food and clothing for all’.
As if that wasn’t enough, some women in towns without large harbours even carried their husbands through the shallows and onto the boats to keep them dry! On shore the fishwife’s main tasks included gathering bait and attaching it to fishing lines. In St Andrews the shallow waters of the Eden estuary provided plenty of mussels, which were ideal bait for the haddock found in deeper waters. Fisherwomen also made and mended nets and worked in smokehouses, which unlike seasonal jobs provided year-round employment as whitefish could be smoked in between the herring and the kipper seas.
But it was the processing of herring which came above all to define the image of the fishwife in popular imagination. Herring had been a familiar catch among Fife fisheries since the Middle Ages, but the nineteenth century saw unprecedented growth in that industry. Along Scotland’s east coast the production of cured herring grew from under 9,000 barrels in 1810 to some 413,000 by 1840 and over a million barrels by 1900. The fisherwomen’s role in processing herring was as arduous as it was important. Herring gutters stood at the large troughs or ‘farlins’ where they swiftly removed the fish entrails. Contemporary observers keenly remarked on the speed of their work; an experienced gutter could prepare a herring every one or two seconds.
The farlins stood outdoors on the exposed harbours of the North Sea coast, and any protection either from the elements or the sharp knives and salty brine in which the fish were packed was barely sufficient. Working up to thirteen hours per day, gutters wrapped linen rags around their hands and wore layer upon layer of petticoats, both as a means of insulation and padding as they carried the heavy creels of fish on their backs to market.
In St Andrews the smell of rotting fish guts corrupted the air while the viscera itself polluted the Kinnessburn. So unpleasant was the situation as early as 1697 that a letter to the Provost of St Salvator’s College recommended that the University be removed to Perth, one reason being that ‘herring gutts are exposed… in all corners of the towne’, which was thought to have caused an outbreak of dysentery the previous year.
Those fish not packed into barrels, such as ‘red fish’ (some considered the term ‘salmon’ to be unlucky), or oysters (a popular pub snack and suspected aphrodisiac), were carried by the fisherwomen to market. Burghs retained strict control over the sale of fish landed within their precincts. Jaccie Newlins surely joined a long line of fishwives when in November 1800 she was imprisoned in St Andrews toll booth for selling fish outside the market. The South Shields fish wife Dolly Peel achieved notoriety for her smuggling activities, as well as for protecting fishermen from being press-ganged into Royal Navy service during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15).
Back at home managing household finances was another key task, made all the trickier as purchases had to be made on credit before the men were paid on return from their voyages. Keeping household accounts was rare, so great mental dexterity and strong numeracy skills were required in household budgeting based only on bills and verbal obligations, always jeopardised by the uncertainty of how lucrative the season’s catch would be.
The fisherwomen’s identity
The communities occupied by these fisherwomen were tight-knit and insular. Custom, tradition and a sense of shared identity were inherited by each generation. Easily recognisable in colourful clothing carrying their heavy creels, fishwives were known to drive a hard bargain in selling their wares. Despite the hardships of tasks such as gutting, their work offered a sense of belonging and the chance for formative experiences. Unlike many working people who scarcely left home, gutters followed the shoals of herring as they migrated south from Shetland to East Anglia through the year. They lived together in communal huts which provided the opportunity for independence and encounters with different people.
The distinctive identity and working experiences of fisherwomen have now largely disappeared, but they remain a valuable aspect of local heritage and an important concern for historians of work and gender. Unlike many workers who were marginalised by a dependence on exploitative wage labour, fishing communities’ prosperity depended above all on the strength of the catch, while the patriarchal division of labour present in most industries was less rigidly felt. While the men were at sea, fisherwomen enjoyed greater agency and autonomy in their working lives, social experiences and financial affairs. Their example reminds us not only of the importance of female labour throughout history, but that the structural inequalities that have marginalised women’s work in the past need not be a feature of the present.
Agnes Keith, Countess of Moray and Argyll (c.1540-1588)
Blog post by MLitt student Olivia Dunderdale
The political role of noblewomen in sixteenth-century Scotland has largely been overlooked by historians, who have suggested that Scottish noblewomen were merely informal helpmeets or even shady and formidable. However, focusing on the correspondence of noblewomen can reveal much about their self-presentation as political actors: letters allowed women both a space and a language to negotiate power relationships outside formal political institutions. This was a period, in the tumultuous aftermath of Mary, Queen of Scots’ personal reign, where personal performance took centre-stage and interpersonal relationships were crucial. Thus, focusing on the rhetorical construction of power, rather than simply traditional political roles in governance or institutions, can draw attention to the tactical, political choices of language in the correspondence of noblewomen.
One example of a noblewoman whose correspondence changes our viewpoint, and provides evidence of this political self-fashioning, is Agnes Keith, Countess of Moray and Argyll (c.1540-1588). The daughter of William, fourth earl Marischal and wife to James Stewart, the Regent Moray (half-brother to Mary, Queen of Scots), Agnes has been paradoxically presented by historians as both peripheral and extraordinary. While the rich archive of letters left by Agnes are extraordinary, it is likely that her activities were not unusual at all but actually reflect those of noblewomen across sixteenth-century Scotland.
A particular treasure of Agnes’s archive is a 1568 letter to the earl of Huntly, after the skirmish at Langside that would decide Mary, Queen of Scots’ fate in Scotland. (1) Much of the historiography on early modern noblewomen has focused on women accessing traditionally ‘feminine scripts’ and manipulating the prescribed gender roles as wives and mothers.(2)
This letter, however, demonstrates that noblewomen in Scotland accessed gendered scripts available to all genders when rhetorically constructing political roles. Agnes writes as though she were earl of Moray, speaking to (and threatening) her equal. Invoking high rhetoric such as ‘God’, ‘commond well’ and noble duty to the ‘natyf kung’, this letter is a masterpiece in political persuasion, employing suggestive stances and double-negatives to threaten Huntly with the ‘bruit’ of his treachery against the Lord Regent, ‘beand for this tym in his majesteis plas’. She reminds Huntly of the ‘fath’ he ‘promast to his Regant’ that she ‘can ber wetnes to’, though she declares it ‘wald be tedyows’ for her to detail in writing ‘for I kaw your memory to be better nor myn gif ye pleis to imploy it well’.
Not only does Agnes declare ‘ye haf mad me anagry’, she reminds Huntly that if he would act ‘trewly’, then she would be glad to restore him to her favour, but if not, then God ‘bath pvnyses and chawis mercy’, though she ominiously hoped he ‘woll cheis best’. Agnes’s choice to begin this letter by declaring her anger speaks to her confidence in this political performance, as strong emotions such as anger, were the preserve of authoritative men, and the articulation of them signalled their power. For all the skilful rhetoric employed in this letter, the fact it does not actually say anything concrete speaks to its political skill: it is full of suggestions, taunts, sarcasm, and weighty discussions. Indeed, reading this gender-blind, one would never know that this masculine rhetoric of honour, duty and power was the work of a noblewoman. The fact that it is to one of the most powerful magnates in Scotland only speaks to Agnes Keith’s confidence as an independent political agent.
1) Sixth Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, (London: 1878), p.649.
2) For example, James Daybell, Scripting a Female Voice: Women’s Epistolary Rhetoric in Sixteenth Century Letters of Petition’, Women’s Writing, 13:2, (2006), pp.3-22.