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Women and Scotland

Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon


Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

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1There are outstanding women in the history of Scotland, from Mary Queen of Scots to Kathleen Jamie or Nicola Sturgeon, but overall, the history both of the country and of the country’s literature is mostly male. Tom Devine’s The Scottish Nation: 1700-2000 (2006) includes a chapter specifically devoted to Scottish women, a fact which, in itself, points to the lack of integration of women in the mainstream of Scottish history. In the field of literary history, there have been in the last two decades several publications, from the landmark History of Scottish Women’s Writing (1997) edited by Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan to, more recently, Glenda Norquay’s Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Women’s Writing (2012). Those books, devoted to women artists’ specificity, recognise and define the part they play in the cultural make-up of the country. At a time when Scotland is envisaging itself as a nation again, when both the country’s First Minister and the Scottish Makar are women, this book examines what place there is for women in Scotland, and their role in the constitution of our idea of the nation over the centuries. This is a very topical issue. For example, the project has undertaken the mapping of memorials dedicated to women who “helped to shape Scotland”.1 This book offers its own contribution to the endeavour, by examining cultural and political history, women in myth, in political movements, but also patriarchal and conservative discourses and how they have left visible marks in the contemporary period. It also looks at the impact of women’s literature on our conception of the world, and at cross generic forms of art, in order to trace, as Glenda Norquay points out in the title of her chapter, the line between mothers and daughters, and maybe also, I would argue, that between mothers and offsprings, with the various realities covered by that term. Norquay reflects on the notions of motherhood and motherland, on the “ongoing dialogue around maternal spaces and ‘daughterlands’” (p. 250), explaining that “[t] he idea of a motherland brings together the national and the domestic with considerable ideological power. And that has compelled women, just as they resist the figuring of women as muse, also to confront the symbolic use of the woman as representative of the nation.” (p. 245) The various contributors, writing either in French or in English, all engage with women’s symbolic, representative function, bringing their own theoretical, historical and sometimes personal backgrounds to the issue. This is not addressed in a comprehensive manner, but the contributors foray into territories not always covered in monographs on women in Scotland. They have focused on the perennial question of “what place for women?” – which sometimes takes a more specific shape, for example that of discussing whether independence is a “gendered issue” – in a way that traces the path from historical, artistic and political exclusion (or under-representation) to political activism and literary prominence. The chapters very much echo one another, bringing different perspectives to this complex topic, highlighting lines of fracture, as well as the confluence of issues that are sometimes kept apart. The book therefore takes its reader on a journey across time and space, from Irish and Scottish mythical figures to the 2016 Scotland Act. On the way, the contributors explore whether there can be a historical recognition of the part played by women in the Covenanters movement, or look at early modern Scotland and the destiny of Mary of Lorraine Guise and her role in the introduction of the idea of Franco-Scotland, both in history and in drama. They look at many other feminine figures, whether famous or anonymous, and at their representation in literature, history and the press. The first part, “Scottish women in history and myth” gathers contributions which all point to a circulation between those two notions when we look at great historical figures. Opening this part is a chapter by Ian Brown, which provides both personal insight – Brown uses his own plays on Queen Margaret and Mary Queen of Scots as examples – and a wide-ranging critical assessment of the treatment of female historical figures by twentieth-century dramatists. He places Scottish historical drama in theoretical and historical context, by going over the shift from what he calls the deconstructive, post-modern streak of the 1980s to the “potential of a reconstructive drama” (p. 39) that followed. By drawing on examples taken from his own plays, but also drama by Robert Kemp, Bill Bryden and Liz Lochhead, Brown shows how they argue for “the performative nature of political and gender roles in drama and daily life, and the fluid nature of history and historical reality” (p. 39).

2Following Brown’s cue, and contributing to giving the volume historical depth, both Jean Berton and Céline Savatier-Lahondès go back to the origins of the Scottish (feminine) mythical past. Berton does this by going over the origins of the figure of Caledonia, of her antagonism with Britannia, quoting Anne Clintock who argues that “women have often served as the metaphorical limits of the national body” (p. 44). Savatier-Lahondès examines Scotland’s pre-Christian and pre-Roman past, and the legendary Irish characters of Deirdre, Grainne and Medb. Like Berton, she retraces the history of their representation, but she emphasises the shift from the representation of strong independent rulers to the image of the woman-nation questioned by Berton in his examination of Caledonia. Savatier-Lahondès draws a distinction between the Celtic heroine and the classic heroine, describing Deirdre as “the woman leader, who compels men to face their own destiny” (p. 68), while Berton appeals to the poetry of Robert Wedderburn, and later of Robert Burns, to trace the icon’s historical, symbolical and geopolitical destiny. The significance and prominence of the emblem leads him to round up a series of iconic representations, which include Maw Broon, a figure who comes up again in Alistair McCleery’s study of the Scots’ reading habits in the twentieth century.

3Famous historical figures are also discussed with a view to reassessing their contributions to Scottish history. Annette Bächstadt, writing about Marie de Guise, argues that her influence and legacy are more important and more complex than those of her more famous daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. She brings a different approach to the subject than that adopted by dramatist Ian Brown. Sabrina Juillet focuses on the seventeenth century and on how figures like Jenny Geddes, whom she describes as half real and half imaginary, have granted symbolical power to the Covenant, and have come to embody not just a revolutionary identity (a claim which is conventionally made by the male figures, who were more numerous and remain historically more prominent) but also a religious, and ultimately a Scottish identity. More contemporary, but no less symbolic, the Scottish Makars of the recent past are brought into the picture by Christelle Ferrere, who highlights their contribution to the ongoing story and history of Scotland.

4The second part, “Women in Politics and Culture”, examines the current political context, by focusing on the part played by women in the independence movement from both a judicial and political point of view, looking at the campaign, legislation, the electoral process and analysing female activism in Scotland. Some of the chapters included in this section take a step back and look at political history, but also cultural history, to make for easier connections between the present and key moments of the women’s movement. They examine the link between women and domesticity, the participation of women in culture, understood as living culture or readerly culture.

5Starting with the here and now, the two chapters by Gilles Leydier and Edwige Camps-Pietrain focus on the independence referendum and its legislative aftermath. Leydier qualifies the assertion often made about the gender gap which was observed in the 2014 referendum, that some issues were specifically female and that the campaign did not cater to these issues in the same way as it did with other, more “male oriented” issues. He goes on to raise the question of how to understand the gender gap by looking at the four main hypotheses that were made – demographic, socio-economic factors, but also what he calls the risk-taking factor in connection with women’s – and men’s – attitude in the referendum campaign. Camps-Pietrain analyses what happens further down the line, going over the 2016 Scotland Act, and the reasons that, according to her, made it into an instrument of political and social equality for women. She examines key issues, such as the representation of women in the political life of both Scotland and Great Britain, and the legislation about some symbolic rights, such as the laws on abortion, social inequality and poverty. Making a connection with women’s rights, Camps-Pietrain’s essay sees the Scotland Act as an instrument to counter what it considers to be the adverse effect of British law as far as female poverty and female labour are concerned.

6Addressing that last point more specifically, both Christian Civardi and Sarah Perdersen, in their complementary chapters, historicise our approach to women’s rights and women’s involvement in politics, by respectively looking at women in the Scottish Labour Movement and the Women’s Freedom League in the first half of the twentieth century. Civardi discusses women’s involvement in wholesale cooperatives, trade unions, political parties before and during the Second World War, and shows that it was a period which was about class rather than gender, as he indicates in his title. If he quotes a member of the Edinburgh Socialist Labour Party, Lily Gair Wilkinson, who in 1906 expressed the commonplace opinion that “[t] he enemy of the women workers is not the male sex, but the capitalist class” (p. 159), Civardi also goes over the contribution made by prominent female politicians to the history of the Labour movement, in particular Jennie Lee, a fiery member of the Parliament for Labour elected in 1928 at the age of twenty-four, and Jean Mann, Labour MP for Motherwell from 1945 to 1961. Pedersen examines the Scottish side of the famous Suffragettes movement, and their campaign against Asquith and in favour of votes for women. By focusing on the WFL and its disagreements with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s WSPU, she underlines the distinction between constitutional and militant suffragettes, and their divergent goals and tactics.

7The brand of Scottish feminism that Pedersen examines can be envisaged against the ideological background that prevailed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which Christian Auer and Alison Taylor McCall bring to light as they focus on gender politics. Auer focuses on a short period in the second half of the nineteenth century, and on the ideology expressed in the People’s Journal of Dundee, especially in reference to its discursive construction of ideal womanhood. He explains how this construction reflects the gender ideology of the period. Taylor McCall looks at this question from a different perspective. Confronting literary works with historical records on the very Scottish concept of the lad/lass o’ pairts, she argues that contrary to what happens in literature, there were virtually no lasses o’ pairts in real life. Auer uses Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic power and his views on masculine power to explain how the journal participated in a process of dehistoricization in order to maintain women in traditional and subordinate roles. Taylor McCall compares literary lasses o’ pairts – in the novels of Nan Shepherd, Catherine Carswell or Lorna Moon and in the classic Sunset Song– with their real-life counterparts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to argue that real-life lasses o’ pairts in fact very probably did not claim the title because they did not emphasise their working class background in the same way as their male counterparts did. This argument leads us back to Civardi’s chapter on the respective impacts of class and gender.

8While Taylor McCall compares and contrasts literary with real-life lasses o’ pairts, Margery Palmer McCulloch looks at the connection from the opposite end of the spectrum, by examining life-writing, in particular Willa Muir’s writing. Both Palmer McCulloch and Taylor McCall focus on how women’s writing, or women in writing, contribute to our understanding of the wider social and political context of their times, an understanding coloured by what Palmer McCulloch, quoting Muir herself, describes as “the empathy of personal feelings and memories” (p. 226). By choosing Muir and showing the contradictions at work when one looks at her novels and her other writings, she successfully depicts the ambiguity of women’s place in the society of their times. In addition, she shows that the comparison between Muir’s life-writing and her fiction is also a fruitful means of interrogating the very genre, together with its purpose: “it is […] clear that this life-writing source has developed lives of its own in the making of the Imagined Corners novel, widening the range of interrogation and maintaining a creative impersonality in relation to original life story” (p. 223).

9 Finally, examining cultural politics, albeit from two different angles, are Alison McCleery and Alistair McCleery, David Finkelstein and Linda Fleming. Alison McCleery discusses the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage (a convention that the UK, and therefore Scotland, has not signed). She looks at ICH, or “living culture”, in a Scottish context opposed to the rest of the UK, by exploring reports on her personal research with the ENrich team. As she puts it, “Scotland positively embraces the divergent and politicised concept and actuality of ICH” because it “legitimises the sense of place and underwrites collective cultural, sub-national community identities” (p. 176). And yet, she wants to argue in her chapter that Scotland should not uncritically embrace ICH, because it is not as unproblematic as it seems. She focuses on the tensions in the sustaining and promotion of ICH, whether at grassroots level, or by the government or other bodies, supplying us with case studies which underscore challenges that are gender-related. Her case studies include music festivals, the tradition of the Burns Supper, or the Shetland “Up Helly Aa” festival. Between them, those examples underline the tension between women’s part as supporting team or main agent of cultural events.

10Alistair McCleery, David Finkelstein and Linda Fleming look at literature in Scotland in the first half of the twentieth century in terms of types of readership, also a very interesting reversal on our usual perspective. Their chapter is based on evidence collected for a reading reception project, Scottish Readers Remember (SRR), which gathered oral testimonies from Scottish people born before 1945. Although they focus on the particular importance of gender in such research, and discuss reading preferences and their connections with the transcending of class, their observations lead them to focus more generally on social history and the reflection of identity manifested in reading habits. By looking at what McCleery calls life histories, as opposed to conventional historical sources, they show the importance of reading in the construction of the social imaginary. There are interesting links to other chapters. For instance, McCleery explains how leather-bound volumes of Walter Scott’s novels are said by the interviewees to be considered with awe, revered, but not read. This fact comes up again in recent fiction, as we are reminded by Jess Orr’s chapter on Ali Smith’s novel Shire, in which Helena Shire recounts poet Olive Fraser’s act of rebellion from the strictures of her society and its literary culture by tearing apart the spines of the Waverley Novels found in her family library.

11From culture, in a very rich and diverse sense, the volume therefore moves to reading, and finally to writing. The third part is devoted to contemporary women writers, well-established authors such as Ali Smith, Janice Galloway, Kathleen Jamie or the underrated Agnes Owens, to more recently published, and very successful artists such as playwright Morna Pearson, and artist performers and nature poets Hanna Tuulikki and Linda Cracknell. This part is introduced by Glenda Norquay who, in her chapter “Mothers and daughters”, makes the connection between past and present, underlining the line of continuity female writers, poets in particular, have always maintained with their sense of themselves and of their land. Looking at sources as diverse as tweets from Jackie Kay about her mother, Janice Galloway’s memoir This is Not About Me (2008), and Kay’s, Jamie’s, Duffy’s and Lochhead’s poetry, she articulates a cogent reflection on how what she describes as the emotionally charged mother-daughter dynamics can challenge dominant models of national and political belonging. For Norquay, “Kay is one of a number of women writers who, in their literary engagements with maternal spaces, have contributed to a reshaping of political consciousness” (p. 246), and Galloway’s memoir shows how women’s sense of identity and of their place in society is often reached through a process of “negative articulation” (p. 249), which is very much present in their literary output. Her essay articulates the implications and consequences of that process. It offers a new, thought-provoking take on the trope of the connection between gender and nation, and on the way recent fiction and poetry by women challenge dominant identity formation, by a careful delineation of an inbetween, moving, dynamic space, by a “nuanced use of the negative” (p. 254).

12The other papers choose to offer a closer view of the many ways in which the dynamic space has been and is being configured. Benjamine Toussaint is interested in vulnerability. She addresses the connection between class and gender, victimization, and writing as an act of insurrection in a welcome chapter on Agnes Owens, about whom too little is written. Looking not just at Owens’s fiction, but also at her defiant, sometimes rather conventionally anti-feminist positioning of herself in interviews, Toussaint uncovers the paradoxes in Owens’s depiction of vulnerability, her clearly non feminist stance within her portrayal of female characters which includes issues that can be described as belonging to a feminist agenda. The chapter also delineates a form of literary empowerment in Owens’s fiction, a metafictional impulse pointing to the vulnerability of writing which, for Toussaint, is a form of activism: “Through her meta-fictional comments on the precariousness involved in the transmission of one’s story, Owens appeals to our response-ability as readers to engage fully with her works and see the characters who – within the diegesis – are denied visibility.” (p. 272)

13Danièle Berton-Charrière is also interested in the narrative of violence, to women and by women. In the only chapter in this book discussing contemporary theatre, she takes a close look at very recent plays by Morna Pearson, written in “lurid, postmodern Doric” (p. 304) In her analysis of The Artist Man and the Mother Woman (2012), Berton-Charrière retraces the lethal combat between man and woman carried out in most of Pearson’s plays, in which verbal and physical violence, rape and incest define a dysfunctional and asymmetrical relationship that, in the case of The Artist Man, leads to the brutal murder of a young woman.

14Jessica Orr and Sarah Bisson go back to the problematic notion of belonging in the work of Ali Smith, Orr with a view to delineating the textual space between Helena Shire’s twentieth-century project of posthumously publishing the poems of little known Olive Fraser, and Bisson, who writes about the significance of reaching out to the past, in order to characterise the rewriting of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Smith’s Girl Meets Boy (2007). Orr discusses Smith’s more recent work, Shire (2013), and its insistence on presenting the voices of the past, so that they can be heard afresh, a method reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s argument in A Room of One’s Own. Bisson is concerned with how the rewriting of myth shows up a common enough attitude which consists in essentializing, mythifying the discourse on the impossibility of lesbian love and sexuality. In that context, the novel questions heteronormative discourse and, according to Bisson, uses the protagonists’ voices to demythify myth, while the novel metafictionally reflects on the mythifying process in order to critically deconstruct it.

15Camille Manfredi takes us on a comparatively less well-trodden path, as she focuses on contemporary Scottish nature writing and environmental art, and reflects upon what she describes as the “ecopoetic and teleological value of the works that have been produced by women artists in Scotland in the past few years” (p. 326). Looking in particular at the work of environmental writer Linda Cracknell, vocal artist Hanna Tuulikki and nature poet Kathleen Jamie, Manfredi takes her reader on a trek between vocal performance, performance involving walking the land and ecopoetry to show how women artists work to demythologize, even de-fantasize the pastoral image of Scotland. Taking the example of Cailleach, the Crone Goddess, she shows how, in their place-responsive art, these artists reinvestigate Celtic mythology, and “recover […] idioms of land that are continuous with ancient form” (p. 329) while being critical of the concept of the untouched wilderness. Nature or environmental writers, Manfredi tells us, need to emancipate the narrative of nature from its anthropocentric, place-based, androcentric romantic models. Nature has to be un-written in order to be narrated, the idea being to enact, rather than to represent the experience of nature.

16In his book Le Parlement des Invisibles, historian Pierre Rosanvallon speaks of untold lives and of the way those slip under our radars, becoming non-lives in the process:

Des vies non racontées sont de fait des vies diminuées, niées, implicitement méprisées. C’est une absence qui redouble la dureté des conditions de vie. Être invisible – puisque c’est de cela qu’il s’agit – a d’abord un coût pour les individus eux-mêmes. Car une vie laissée dans l’ombre est une vie qui n’existe pas, une vie qui ne compte pas. Être représenté, à l’inverse, c’est être rendu présent aux autres, au sens propre du terme.(
Rosanvallon 11

17The purpose of this collection of essays is precisely to fulfil the goal suggested by Rosanvallon – to tell, or rather in this case, re-tell lives that have their own independent, emergent or well-publicised, sometimes problematic narration. Because, as the historian points out, the political cost of non-representation is high. The variety of approaches and topics gathered together in this book will, I hope, underline the diverse and powerful voices of women in the production of what Homi Bhabha described as “the ambivalent, antagonistic perspective of nation as narration” (Bhabha 4)



Bhabha, Homi (ed.), Nation and Narration, London: Routledge, 1990.

Devine, Tom, The Scottish Nation: A Modern History (1700-2007), London: Penguin, 2012.

Gifford, Douglas and Dorothy McMillan (eds.), History of Scottish Women’s Writing, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

Norquay, Glenda (ed), The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Women’s Writing, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Rosanvallon, Pierre, Le Parlement des Invisibles, Paris: Seuil, 2014.



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