There was a round on Pointless last week that I found a wee bit irritating (for international readers, Pointless is a rather wonderful teatime game show on the BBC that (1) has proper good questions and (2) is quite tricky to win.) It was about Great Scottish People. All fourteen answers were men. They included such luminaries as Gerard Butler and some dude who won a car race once. “Meh,” you might say, “so what? It’s just a quiz show.” Yes, on its own it’s just a quiz show, but in the great beach of society it’s just one more grain of sand ignoring women and their achievements (that’s an awesome metaphor, shusht), and that is irritating. Especially at teatime.
This isn’t the first time Pointless has done something like this. It’s fairly common to have what sounds like a gender neutral topic and all or most of the answers are men. Playwrights was another topic last week. Were any of the playwrights women? No, they were not. Forshame. (A great Scot and playwright? Liz Lochhead, also the current Scots Makar, or national poet.)
Anyway, this was Great Scottish People, which meant it was personal, dammit. They couldn’t be bothered to find even a token great women in my country? Boo, I say. So to do a tiny wee bit to correct the balance, here are brief bios of Ten Great Scottish People (which, yeah, rather reflect my own interests: all were born before 1900, all have some connection to science or politics or military or law… but at least I recognise my biases.):
Matilda of Scotland (~1080 – 1118): Queen consort of England, she married Henry I in 1100. As Queen she controlled and managed vast estates, and much property in London, establishing a precedent for the power of Queens consort in medieval England. Her husband spent over half his reign in Normandy, and it was Matilda who was left to rule England, acting as regent. She both witnessed the King’s charters (where her name was signed second only the King’s) and issued her own. Her letters, where she mediated between her husband, the Pope, and Bishop Anselm during the Investiture Controversy, are the earliest surviving letters of an English queen.
Devorgilla of Galloway (~1210 – 1290): Devorgilla was rich, influential and could have been a contender for the Scottish throne if she’d lived a few more months. After the death of her husband, she lovingly had his heart embalmed and carried it around with her. She used her wealth to secure the founding of Balliol College at Oxford University, and founded a magnificent sandstone abbey in Dumfriesshire. The rather well-preserved ruins can still be seen today.
Agnes Randolph (~1312 – 1369): aka ‘Black Agnes’. One of the more common ways women were directly involved in warfare in the middle ages was as defenders of castles under siege. Agnes’ defence of her home took place in 1337 when the Earl of Salisbury attacked Dunbar Castle. Agnes refused to surrender, though she had only her ladies and a few guards to defend her castle. The Earl brought siege engines in to break the walls. When they took a break from firing, Agnes and her ladies walked the battlements and dusted the walls with their handkerchiefs. The Earl deployed a battering ram to take down the castle gates. Agnes has a giant boulder dropped on the attackers. Where did she get a handy giant boulder from? The Earl’s men had fired it over her walls. The Earl brought out Agnes’ captured brother and stuck a rope around his neck and threatened to hang him. Go ahead, Agnes told them, I’ll get his earldom.
After five fruitless months, the Earl of Salisbury gave up and lifted the siege.
Agnes Campbell (1526 – 1601): Agnes Campbell married the Irish chieftain Turlough Luineach O’Neill, and brought with her a dowry of some 1200 Scottish soldiers, which she led herself against occupying English forces. She was a leader in the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579 – 1583) against the English, and mobilised Scottish support for the Irish.
Mary Stuart (1542 – 1587): Mary Stuart’s rule of Scotland was, in the circumstances, a remarkable one, with a tragic end. She’d been Queen since she was six days old, but raised in France from five years old. At eighteen, she returned to Scotland, a country practically foreign in its cultural and political landscape, not to mention a wee bit barbaric compared to the sophistication of the French court. She was also a Catholic, and Scotland was now Protestant. Despite all this, Mary was, until her disastrous marriage decisions, a much loved and popular monarch. She was no religious zealot like her cousin, Mary Tudor, or Isabel of Castile, and recognised that it would be a fruitless task to try and convert Scotland back to Catholicism. All she fought for, and won, was her right to worship privately as a Catholic. This didn’t stop her using the fact that she was the Catholic monarch in a Protestant country to her advantage. When the Pope suggested she should get on with converting the heathen back to the One True Church, Mary said, sure I will, but I’m going to need money to do that. The Pope sent money; Mary put it to other uses.
She successfully put down a rebellion, negotiated tenaciously with Elizabeth to recognise her right to succeed her to the English throne, saw more of her country than most of Scotland’s monarchs with her extensive progressions, made dramatic escapes from both Edinburgh and Lochleven Castle, and managed to be civil to John bloody Knox.
It did all end rather badly though.
Mary Hay (d. 1758): In 1717 Mary Hay inherited the title of Countess of Erroll in her own right, as well as Lord High Constable and Knight Marischal of Scotland. She was a Jacobite, supporting the Old Pretender, James Stuart, son of the deposed James II of England/VII of Scotland. She was a spy for James, ensuring the unnoticed arrival of the Old Pretender’s agents on the Scottish coast at Slains Castle, before having them taken to another of her castles, Delgatie. In 1745, she raised an army in support of Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ to his friends) when he attempted to take the throne.
Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872): You know why the word ‘scientist’ exists? Mary Somerville. Previously calling scientists ‘men of science’ was what was going on, but since ‘man of science’ wasn’t an entirely accurate description of Somerville, the word scientist was coined by the critic William Whewell to describe her. She studied the physical sciences, and became famous after she translated Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste into English. She wrote immensely popular books on mathematics and astronomy. In 1835, along with astronomer Caroline Herschel, she became the first women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, and she was awarded a pension by the British Government in recognition of her work.
Betsy Miller (1792 – 1864): Miller was the first female sea captain certified by the Board of Trade when she took over as captain of her family’s ship, The Clytus, in 1847. She was a successful businesswoman, sailing with coal to Dublin and bringing back limestone to Ayrshire. She continued as captain until she was seventy, when she passed on her command of her ship to her younger sister, Hannah.
Williamina Fleming (1857 – 1911): Discovered the Horsehead Nebula. Also had a life that read a bit like some sort of lifetime movie: she went off to America with her husband, who abandoned her while she was pregnant, leaving her penniless in a foreign land in the nineteenth century. Luckily she found work as a housekeeper, and her employer happened to be the director of the Harvard College Observatory. The director – in a fit of pique at the incompetence of his current assistant, or because he was impressed with Fleming’s intelligence – offered her a job at the observatory.
During her time at the observatory she developed a new system of classifying stars, according to their spectra, that became known as the Pickering-Fleming System. She catalogued over 10 000 stars in nine years and was eventually put in charge of editing all the observatory’s studies, made curator of astronomical photographs, and employed dozens of young women to aid the observatory’s exploration efforts. (These women did all the mathematical calculations that would be done by computer today.)
Fleming discovered 10 novae, 59 nebulae, and 310 variable stars, and the existence of white dwarf stars. She was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and an honorary fellow in astronomy at Wellesley College.
Elsie Inglis (1864 – 1917): Inglis studied at the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women and Glasgow Royal Infirmary. In 1894 she opened a medical practice in Edinburgh, and set up a maternity hospital for the poor (today it’s the Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital), and became very active in the suffrage movement, speaking at numerous meetings across the country.
During the First World War, she became famous when she organised all female medical units to be sent to the Front. (The British War Office rebuffed her with charming words, “My good lady, go home and sit still,” but the French and the Serbs were more concerned with their soldiers and accepted her offer.) These medical teams were active in France, Serbia, Corsica, Salonika, Romania, Russia and Malta. As well as caring for the injured, these women went into the trenches to bury the bodies. In 1915, Inglis led a team herself, in Serbia. She and her team were captured during an Austrian offensive, but the American and British negotiated their safe release. Sadly, she died before the war ended.
Chrystal MacMIllan (1872 – 1937): In 1896, MacMillan was Edinburgh University’s first female science graduate, before she completed an MA and became a lawyer. She’s most famous for being the first woman to plead a case before the House of Lords, where she unsuccessfully argued that female university students should have the right to vote (at the time, many universities had their own MPs), but won a great deal of publicity and acclaim for her cause. She continued to speak widely and passionately about women’s rights. In 1913 she became secretary of International Woman Suffrage Alliance. During the First World War, she was a peace activist and one of only three British women to attend the International Congress of Women in the Hague (the low number is thanks to Churchill deliberately cancelling cross-Channel ferry services to prevent attendance) though she did have the chance to travel to the US to present President Woodrow Wilson with the Congess’ Wisconsin Plan, and many of its points were taken up by Wilson. She began working as a lawyer in 1918 and continued to advocate for women’s rights the rest of her life.