Kate Mathis: Bursary Winner Report – Medieval Gaelic literature in the Scottish Celtic Revival


Medieval Gaelic literature in the Scottish Celtic Revival: The case of Deirdre in the work of Alice C. Macdonell

Written, with gratitude, for receipt of a Women’s History Scotland Bursary 2018, which enabled presentation of the following research at the Sixth International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI

The period of the Celtic Revival (c.1880–c.1920) saw a network of writers and artists on both sides of the Irish Sea take their inspiration for wide-ranging creative endeavour from an especially rich source: the literature of medieval Ireland and the deeds of characters like Fergus, Meabh, and Cú Chulainn, the ‘Hound of Ulster’, fashioned afresh to reflect prevailing sympathy with the alleged ideals of a reimagined Celtic past.

 Sketch for Alexander Carmichael’s Deirdire by John Duncan, ca. 1905 – https://www.wikiart.org/en/john-duncan/deirdre-of-the-sorrows; (public domain)

Particular fascination, too, surrounded the character of Deirdre, Yeats’ and J. M. Synge’s ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’, whose prominence during the Revival – as the “Helen of the Gael”,[i] their most tragic heroine and most famous beauty – far outstripped the significance of her role in its oldest-known depiction. This, a short prose text composed initially during the eighth or ninth centuries, survives from a twelfth-century copy written down as Longes mac n-Uislenn, ‘The exile of Uisliu’s sons’,[ii] an English-language translation of which was published by antiquarian scholar Eugene O’Curry (1794-1862) in 1862 (its most accessible contemporary source, since few Revivalist authors spoke Irish).[iii] Its subsequent promotion, however, as the greatest of Gaelic romances, sits uneasily beside its actual plot, in which Conchobor, the king of Ulster, decrees that a new-born baby girl – for whom only death and destruction have been foretold by his druid, should she survive – be preserved and raised in seclusion from the rest of his court until such time as she is sexually mature (‘reared according to my own will, so that she will be the woman in my company’). A ruler’s inherent duty to protect his people’s best interests pales in comparison to Conchobor’s lust for the girl’s tremendous beauty, also foretold, though her original name – Derdrethar or Deirdriu – means only ‘disruption’. When a trouble-making female poet flouts his authority and introduces the nearly-grown Deirdre to Noísiu, Ainnle, and Ardán – the three ‘Sons of Uisliu’ of the tale’s title – she compels them by invoking a geas (‘tabu’) to remove her from the king’s jurisdiction, and accompanies their fían (‘warrior-band’) from Ulster into Scotland. A briefly peaceful interlude is shattered when the brothers are betrayed by their former ally, Fergus mac Róich, and return to Ireland to meet their deaths at the king’s command. Deirdre, recaptured and forced at last to submit to his desire, but refusing to speak, grieves a full year for the Sons of Uisliu instead, killing herself accidentally whilst attempting to escape from his captivity a second time.

The basic narrative of Longes mac n-Uislenn developed gradually, with often differing emphasis placed upon the characters’ respective roles within each later version. The element of romance – implying that compulsion of love, not fear of dishonour, inspired Noísiu’s removal of Deirdre to Scotland – occurs initially in the oidheadh or marbhadh (‘death-tale’) composed during the 1630s by eminent scholar Seathrún Céitinn (c. 1569-c. 1644), its narrative woven firmly amid the sweeping chronology of his greatly influential Foras Feasa ar Éírinn (‘History of Ireland’). This more personal tone may have been inspired by a now-lost tochmarc (‘wooing-tale’), only the title of which – Aithed Derdrinne re maccaib Uislenn (‘The elopement of Deirdre with the Sons of Uisliu’) – now survives in a late-tenth-century list of stories which educated poets ought to know, though more pragmatic acknowledgement of some such liaison is implied by the claim of a twelfth-century text that Deirdre, whilst in Scotland, gave birth to two children who were fostered by the lord of Emain Abhlach (Arran, ‘island of the apple trees’).[iv] Some version of the brothers’ acquaintance with Deirdre was known also in Gaelic-speaking Scotland, as well as Ireland, from an early stage. An important fifteenth-century manuscript (‘Glendaruel’, or ‘Glenmasan’), its narrative commencing several years later than their flight from Conchobor’s court, sets the location of their temporary refuge in Argyll,[v] a detail retained by the majority of later, similar copies such as Ewan Maclachan’s compilation, in 1812, of several Scottish versions from the Highland Society’s Gaelic collection, established during their recent investigation of the so-called Ossianic Controversy.[vi] The latter, arising from James Macpherson’s (1736-96) claim in the 1760s to have rediscovered and translated three-thousand-year-old verse composed by Oiséan (‘Ossian’), son of Fionn mac Cumhaill, stimulated valuable interest in recovering genuine Gaelic poetry, story, and song – whether written, or transcribed from the oral recitation of local seanchaidhean (‘tradition-bearers’) – but had also the unfortunate effect of entangling Deirdre’s name, and her older portrayal, with the sickly heroine of Macpherson’s poem ‘Darthula’ (1762), whose contents differ wholly from all known existing versions. According to Macpherson’s own explanatory notes – in fact, an attempt to justify the contents of his “monstrous fabrication” of a poem[vii] – Darthula, etymologised as ‘a woman with fine eyes’, lived at Seláma in Ulster and was desired by its usurper king, Cairbar, whose advances she rejects. Meanwhile, three brothers, now ‘Nathos, Althos and Ardan’, are sent from their home near ‘Loch Eta’ in Argyllshire to Ulster, to learn arms from their uncle Cuchullin. Upon arrival, and discovering his recent death, Nathos assumes command of Cuchullin’s army and is seen from afar by Darthula, who falls in love with him, but their attempt to escape to Scotland is prevented by bad weather. Forced to resume battle against Cairbar, Darthula takes up arms alongside the brothers and, like them, is killed amidst a hail of arrows (‘her shield fell from Darthula’s arm, her breast of snow appeared […] but it was stained with blood for an arrow was fixed in her side. She fell on the fallen Nathos like a wreath of snow’).[viii]

‘Dun Mac Uisneach or Beregonium, at Benderloch Station’, from William Graham Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach, 1908 –  https://archive.org/details/deirdresonsofuis00grahuoft; public domain

The pervasive influence of Macpherson’s poetry throughout the nineteenth century upon monoglot English-speaking, Anglo-Highland authors – unwilling, but also unable to appreciate its numerous departures from Gaelic tradition – is apparent in the gradual establishment of ‘Darthula’ as a standard for uncriticised authority, frequent praise, and devoted imitation. William Graham, author of Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach: A Scoto-Irish romance of the first century AD (1908), rather spoils the effect of his stated intention – to present “the full narrative, embracing the wanderings of the heroes in Scotland” – by prefacing his otherwise well-informed summary of existing English-language discussions with a decorative quotation from Macpherson’s poem.[ix] The same quotation (‘Awake, Darthula, awake, thou first of women!/ The wind of spring is abroad/ The flowers shake their heads on the green hills/ The woods wave their growing leaves’) is placed in the mouth of R. Angus Smith’s (1817-84) Ossian-obsessed Lowland tourist, one of a party of quietly parodied travellers[x] whose tour of Argyllshire forms the basis of his excellent book, Loch Etive and the Sons of Uisnach (1879), arranged as a series of conversations between members of the group at each related site along their route. A visit to Dun Uisneach – a key location for Macpherson’s poem – provides the opportunity for ‘Mr O’Keefe’, an Irishman, to regale his companions with an account of Deirdre’s connection to the region (“peculiarly interesting to Irishmen”, he observes, “because the sons of Uisnach came from Ireland and lived about Loch Etive for a long time”). The medium of O’Keefe’s expository narrative provides the opportunity for Smith to correct his readers’ misconceptions, fostered by ‘Darthula’, and advise them of the existence, extent, and far greater complexity of the genuine Gaelic tradition discarded by Macpherson.[xi] When the Lowlander complains that O’Keefe has referred throughout his tale to ‘Deirdre’, not ‘Darthula’ (“a far more beautiful name”) the latter responds that “in Ireland it is never used” (p. 112). O’Keefe is also chastised for “try[ing] to remove the romance” from Dun Uisneach itself, identified by Macpherson – as well as Thomas Pennant (1726-98), citing Hector Boece – as the newer name for the ancient fortress of Beregonium (“such a city as Caesar found in our island at the time of his invasion”).[xii] In the ensuing debate between O’Keefe and another Lowlander, ‘Mr Cameron’, who declares that the topic of Ossian’s authenticity is “so dear” to his heart that he “cannot see [Dun Uisneach] without covering it with the spirits of the heroes that lived here” (p. 159), Smith disposes swiftly of the likelihood that its association with Deirdre’s alleged dwelling-place has any basis in historical fact (“I am not inclined to see anything mythical in the name when more than one [site] is called after her”), echoing the trenchant conclusion of eminent Gaelic scholar John Francis Campbell of Islay (1822-85) that “the geography [of Darthula] is entirely changed. Upon this geography learned men found theories as to ‘Selma’ and ‘Beregonium’ which the ignorant who speak Gaelic ignore”.[xiii]

‘Miss Alice C. Macdonell of Keppoch’, The Celtic Monthly 1 (1893) – https://digital.nls.uk/early-gaelic-book-collections/archive/75842630?mode=transcription; public domain

Smith’s underlying intention for his humorous, erudite, and undeservedly forgotten book was, one assumes, the procurement of better-informed Highland-bound tourists, but his efforts appear to have gone largely unremarked.[xiv] William Graham’s preface to his own book, following its Ossianic dedication, observes that an accessible version of Deirdre’s sojourn in Scotland “has not previously been made public in a united and popular form” (p. 15). He shares, however, Smith’s secondary aim – to provide a convenient guidebook for the region surrounding Loch Etive – declaring that his own interest in Dun Uisneach was roused by a family holiday nearby (p. 5). The influence of both writers’ attentiveness to named locations, but also of ‘Darthula’ and Macpherson more generally, may be discerned in a similarly discursive (and personalized) article entitled ‘Deirdre: The highest type of Celtic womanhood’, composed by Alice Claire Macdonell (1854-1938) and published in two parts in The Celtic Review during 1912-13.[xv] This important periodical was founded in 1904 by Elizabeth Catherine (‘Ella’) Carmichael (1880-1928), daughter to folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), also the founder, a decade beforehand, of the Celtic Union at the University of Edinburgh (in protest at the continued refusal of its established Celtic Society to admit women members).[xvi] Alice, alongside Skye poet Neil MacLeod, was appointed by Ella as their honorary bard – the only woman, other than Lochaber poetess Màiri Nic-Ealair, Mary Cameron MacKellar (1836-90), appointed bard to the Gaelic Society of Inverness in 1876, to hold an office-bearing role of this kind. Several of Alice’s poems composed for meetings of the Celtic Union, such as ‘The New Invasion’ (1894) and ‘Autumn winds’ (1902), appeared in a range of periodicals and later in her own substantial collections, Lays of the Heather (1896), dedicated to Prince Rupert of Bavaria (‘heir to the Royal House of Stuart’), and Songs of the Mountain and the Burn (1912).[xvii]

As one of its official poets, Alice was almost certainly present at the Celtic Union’s annual Mòd in the summer of 1906, when a series of tableaux was performed by its members – including Ella Carmichael – inspired by scenes from her father’s recent book Deirdire and the Lay of the Children of Uisne (1905). Illustrated by Scottish Symbolist artist John Duncan (1866-1945), the publication consisted of a facing-page Gaelic and English prose tale based loosely upon a version taken down in 1867 from the recitation of John Macneill, an 83-year-old cottar from the island of Barra. The performance was reviewed enthusiastically by The Oban Times (‘Tableaux Vivants at the Edinburgh Mòd’, 9 June 1906) and in the first edition of another long-running Gaelic magazine, An Deo Grèine:

Bithidh an céilidh ainmeil gu h-àraidh air son feala-dhà sonraichte a bha aig a’ chuideachd. ′S e tableaux a chanadh na Frangaich ris – ′s e sin air eadar theangachadh riochdachadh. Bha caob no dhà air a ghabhail as a sgialachd eireachdail ud a thug Mac ′ille mhicheil dhuinn air Deirdre – agus feadhainn a dol ann a’ riochd na seann laoch ′s a sealltuinn dhuinn fa chomhair ar sùl direach mar a thachair a réir na sgeoil.

(The Cèilidh will be recalled in particular for the special entertainment that those present enjoyed. The French call it tableaux – that is translated as representation. There were one or two parts from the handsome tale that Carmichael gave us about Deirdre – and some portrayed the old heroes, appearing right before our eyes according to what happened in the story).[xviii]

Alice’s discussion of Deirdre would later refer directly to Carmichael’s book, in which his informant’s original Gaelic was altered substantially (including, for example, entire sections imported almost verbatim from the ‘Glenmasan’ manuscript).[xix] Deirdre herself is reshaped by Carmichael into the epitome of a modest, gently-reared young lady, who insists that her marriage to Conchobor – no longer the “indeterminate conjugal union” imposed by the king without consent in Longes mac n-Uislenn[xx] – may not take place until she has spent a year at his court receiving instruction from “merry, mannerly, modest maidens”, since, she admits, she “had no knowledge of the duties of wife” and “had never sat in gathering or in company before” (pp. 49-51). John Macneill’s brief acknowledgement of Deirdre’s beauty is also expanded at length, with a series of similes asserting the magnificence of her idealised modesty, as well as loveliness:

Deirdire [at fourteen] was growing as lithe and fair as the stately sapling, and as straight and symmetrical as the young moorland rush. She was above comparison of the people of the world, shapely in her person, lovely in her beauty, while her skin and gait were like those of the swan of the lake and the hind of the hill. She was the blood-drop of finest form, of loveliest complexion, and of gentlest mien between earth and sky in Eirin. And whatever other colour or complexion she should have on before, no eye looked in her face but she instantly went into blushes like glowing fire on the occasion (p. 25).

Alice’s initial description of her heroine, whom she envisions – akin to Smith’s ‘Mr Cameron’ – as continuing to haunt the wooded shores of Loch Etive, adheres faithfully to Carmichael’s insistence upon the excellence of her character, as well as good looks:

The long waving tresses of golden hair reach far below her waist; her eyes are like twin stars of deepest blue fringed with long black lashes. On her delicate cheek the colour comes and goes, like unto the rays of the sun reflected in the pool below; flaming like its setting when the human eye rests upon her. On her low white brow is set the seal of knowledge, of wisdom, and of future vision. But beyond, and above all, the wealth of beauty that is hers, far surpassing the fairest of Erin’s daughters, is virtue, gentleness, and truth (CR vol. 8, p. 347);

In Deirdre we have beauty, learning, and virtue all united in one person (CR vol. 9, p. 42).

According to Alice, Deirdre’s “daring moral courage” also underlies her determination to pursue the Sons of Uisneach, a vision of whom, hunting in the hills nearby to her secluded home, she claims to have seen some time before their actual existence is confirmed. It also inspires their flight to Scotland, following the initial meeting at which Naoise, at first, hesitates to embrace the “destined bride of the king”, and whom Deirdre must persuade with the strength of her belief in their foreordained love (“the light which illumined her beautiful starry eyes was never quenched until the hour when she closed them in death”) and the gift of a single red rose (“as a Knight of the Red Branch you cannot refuse it, except for a valid reason”). Alice even disputes the accuracy of any version of Deirdre’s death not ascribed to devastation at the brothers’ murder by the king, rejecting the likelihood of:

Both Lady Gregory’s and Dr Carmichael’s accounts [which] say that she went down to the shores of the sea, and taking a knife from a man working there […] she stabbed herself, throwing the knife to the right so that no man might be accused of her death. I think this part of both narratives to be wrong. Suicide was, and is, a form of cowardice unknown to our [Celtic] race, and in direct contradiction to what we know of the character of Darthula (CR vol. 9, p. 47).

Though Alice does not engage with the accuracy of Macpherson’s claim that ‘Darthula’ took up arms and fell in battle, her discussion, like William Graham’s, betrays the clear, unquestioned influence of his poetry, especially in its second half when the action is transferred to Scotland. The choice of ‘Alba’ as the exiles’ destination is qualified by the statement that it was “the heritage of Usnach, called by Macpherson the Lord of Etha” – Etive – and his creative etymology for her own name informs Alice’s assertion that “sweet Dearshula, Darthula [was] the name they knew her by in Alba on account of her dark blue eyes”. Her poem, ‘The Motherland’, published the same year in Songs of the Mountain and the Burn, combines a number of Macpherson’s heroes from his “brave old Fingalian days” directly:

…sweet Mother land,

With thy cool delicate airs, and the songs,

The old time songs of the hills, Dearghull [sic] and Naoise sang,

In their wattle hut by the side of Etive loch:

Cuchullin sang, in the far-off Isle of the Mists,

And Ossian sang, away there by the fairy haunts of the Treig (v. 2).

Similar overlap underlies her declaration that Deirdre’s exemplary character is the equal of Ossian’s son’s, Oscar’s, ideal knightly valour, though the language of Romantic chivalry is also innate to the Deirdre-tale of Yeats’ close acquaintance Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852-1932) in her Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), which Alice also cites directly as a source for her own discussion (Gregory intended “put[ting] together the Irish legends into a sort of Morte d’Arthur, choosing only the most beautiful or striking”).[xxi] Like Graham’s, the Ossianic veneer of Alice’s prose is jumbled with a fairly well-informed awareness of recent publications – in English – concerning Deirdre, though she is clearly unaware of the extent to which the versions of both Carmichael and Lady Gregory do not represent the actual detail of the “old Gaelic manuscripts, lying neglected for ages in the Dublin archives”, which the latter is credited with translating literally (CR vol. 8, p. 350). Alice implies that her own intention, like Gregory’s, is to “give the complete story [of Deirdre] from the best sources” (p. 354), but makes no distinction between those of genuine authority, like Eugene O’Curry’s edition of Longes mac n-Uislenn, and Aubrey de Vere’s (1814-1902) fanciful poem ‘The Sons of Usnach’ (1882), attested (p. 352) as an accurate description of the infant Deirdre’s arrival into Conchobor’s court (“Thereon a little maiden-wonder lay, /Unlike all babes beside in mien and hue, /Bright as a lily bud at break of day /That flashes through the night’s unlifted dew”).[xxii] It is also clear that Alice’s occasional use of Gaelic – scattered at random throughout her discussion in a manner similar to its haphazard occurrence in her poetry – is copied directly from Carmichael’s Deirdire, as is the otherwise unattested name, Gealbhan, given to a warrior sent to spy upon the returning exiles’ first night in Ireland.

Alice does not refer directly to any other sources for the ‘Scottish section’ of her discussion, but at least one other must have lain behind her well-informed account of Naoise’s infidelities during the exiles’ time in Loch Etive, the first of which – quite contrary to her firm rejection of its likelihood for a woman of such outstanding moral fibre – leads Deirdre to cast a small boat “without sail, without oar” onto the waters of Loch Ness, “hoping that its waves might close over her pain, neither caring to live, or to return” (CR vol. 9, p. 41). The earliest-surviving version of Naoise’s liaison with ‘a daughter of the Earl of Dun Tréoin’, with whom he dallied whilst on visits to Inverness, occurs in a seventeenth-century Irish manuscript,[xxiii] but it would have been available to Alice in The Death of the Sons of Uisneach (1887), a translation by renowned Irish scholar Whitley Stokes (1830-1909) of the texts of ‘Glenmasan’ and of the Highland Society manuscript, Adv. Lib. 72.2.6, edited previously by Ewan Maclachlan, which was also translated fully in The Story of Deirdre (1894) by Rev. Alexander Cameron (1788-1872).[xxiv] It may be most likely, however, that Alice learned of the episode from Smith’s book instead – where it is taken from Theophilus O’Flanagan’s translation Derdri, or the lamentable fate of the Sons of Usnach (1808) – since her emphasis upon Deirdre’s knowledge and refinement, as well as beauty, is also reflected there. Smith declares, for example (p. 112), that if Deirdre were famed for being ‘lovely as Helen’, she was also “truer than any ideal of Greece, and wise and thoughtful. She seems to have been a very noble character”.

Whatever the actual range of published translations by which Alice was inspired, one especially significant episode in her account of Deirdre’s adolescence does not derive from an existing source, but is introduced somewhat abruptly to her description of the schooling received by the girl in the year of preparation for her marriage. In addition to being taught “all the knowledge and accomplishments fitting for her future position in life as his own queen”, Conchobor is alleged to have deployed his druid, Cathbad, to “instruct her in religious lore”, in the course of which she inquires:

‘Tell me, who made the stars, the firmament above, the earth, the flowers, both you and me?’ To which the old man, awed, replied: ‘God. But who God is, alas! no man can say.’ Upon this, Deirdre impetuously snatches his Druid wand from his hand, breaks it in two, flinging it far out on to the waters as she says: ‘Ah! there shall come One in the dim future for whom all your Druid spells and charms are nought’. Seeing a tear steal down the cheek of her friend, for the Druids knew, although dimly, of the coming of our Lord, and felt that their Druid faith would then be doomed, Deirdre flings her arms round his neck, kissing him on both cheeks (CR vol. 8, p. 352).

The claim that Deirdre’s peculiar intuition extended to include foreknowledge of the birth of Christ is utterly anachronistic to all existing versions of her life, but Alice – clearly keen to present her, in every way, as the king’s ideal bride – may have been inspired by the conclusion of Conchobor’s entirely separate Middle Irish death-tale, in which the end of his life is said to have coincided with the hour of the Crucifixion, prompting his own belief in the Christian God.[xxv] It is also the case, however, that Alice’s personal Catholicism was often transferred to the characters portrayed by her creative work. Her novel, The Glen O’Dreams (1929), describes the relationship between impoverished artist, Monica Lesmesurier, and her unhappily-married employer, Sir Archibald Graeme (‘the Chief’), owner of the fictional Dalcraig Castle in the wilds of Argyllshire.[xxvi] Monica’s modesty, sweetness, and intelligence contrast sharply with Lady Graeme’s frequent bursts of temper, distaste for her son – whom Monica adores – and the hard-drinking frivolity of the fashionable set she has installed at the castle (Alice, now in her seventies, displays commendable familiarity with the latest trends). Predictably, Sir Archibald and Monica fall in love, but the unexpected back-drop to their burgeoning affair is revealed as none other than Glen Etive, a setting enhanced by Alice with the exemplary romance of another woman said to have strolled, long ago, beneath the branches of its “silver birches and red-berried rowan trees”. On his first walk with Monica, Sir Archibald reveals its history:

“This is called ‘The Glen of Deirdré’, our famous classic heroine, famed not only for her great beauty but for her learning and her wisdom. She was the daughter of Felim, the Bard, in Ireland, but that wicked old devil, King Conor, King of High Ireland, coveted her beauty, hiding her away with a learned lady of his court until she was old enough to be his bride. But Naoise, the son of the King of Etha, here in this country, saw her and fell in love with her at first sight, as she did with him; so the long and the short of it was that he and his brothers Ainle and Ardan stole her and brought her here to reign as Queen”.

The latter part of the exiles’ tale is also recounted to her, instilling for the reader a note of foreboding which Alice will develop throughout the novel:

“I wish I could add that they were happy ever after”, Sir Archie said with a little laugh. “Were they not?” Monica asked, intensely interested. “Surely no cloud came between them?” “No, as the old saga has it: ‘He gave her the love that he never gave to any other, as she did to him’. But the course of true love is bound never to run smooth always. That wicked old Conor wiled them back to Erin under false pretences and had the brothers treacherously murdered” (p. 48).

For “the whole of that beautiful Celtic saga” he recommends “Aubrey de Vere’s wonderful version in verse”, a copy of which is presented to Monica later that evening and devoured at a single sitting. In the days which follow, the story’s most salient aspects recur, woven around the couple’s recognition of their mutual love. On a subsequent excursion to ‘Deirdre’s glen’, Monica declares suddenly: “Archie, I love you, have loved you, from the first moment I ever saw you”, receiving a similar confession in return (compare ‘he fell in love with her at first sight, as she did with him’), after which several hours are spent:

Pacing slowly along the isle of dreams and romance that had seen the loves of Deirdre, the babe of destiny, and the dark-haired son of the King of Etha before them, in the far-away ages of chivalry and daring; time stood still for them as the Chief unfolded his plans for the future (p. 134).

Carried away by the strength of his love, Sir Archibald resolves to divorce his wife, but Monica, conceding at first (“she determined to crush all doubts, and to give herself to him wholly, no matter what might betide; reasoning that such love as theirs must be, could not but be right”) is later assailed by her conscience, declaring that she cannot marry a non-Catholic and that, even as a convert, he could not take another in marriage so long as his wife should live (cf. ‘he gave her the love that he never gave to any other, as she did to him. But the course of true love is bound never to run smooth’). Taking refuge with a cousin in Paris on the eve of the Great War, Monica becomes a nurse, tormented by the memory of her love until the dramatic arrival of Sir Archibald at the same hospital, mortally wounded, reunites them. Salvaged, miraculously, by her devoted vigil at his bedside, he is baptised in the hospital chapel and Monica accepts his formal proposal of marriage (Lady Graeme having perished, off-stage, from a convenient zeppelin). The novel’s final chapter sees the newlywed couple returning to ‘Deirdre’s glen’, walking its sheltered groves in quiet celebration of the Armistice, and the happy resolution of their own brief conflict.

Alice’s suggestion in the novel that the environs of Loch Etive remain infused by the strength of Deirdre’s love for Naoise reflects the conclusion of her earlier discussion in The Celtic Review:

Do not the mists of the fair Deirdre, Naoise, Ainle, and Ardan still hover around far Glen Etive, giving a more mysterious glamour to its hills and its waters? Sweeter the bloom of the heather, and fresher its perfume; more pungent the smell of the wild bog myrtle, whiter the cotton grass, and greener the soft wet mosses for the memory of the fairest flower Glen Etive has ever seen – Deirdre, our highest type of Celtic womanhood (vol. 9, p. 48).

Smith’s ‘Mr Cameron’ would doubtless have concurred, but Alice’s reference to the ‘mistiness’ of a genuine location in the landscape of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, and her range of highly-personalized responses to a thousand-year-old Gaelic tale – or, more properly, to its Revival-era, post-Ossianic incarnation – is characteristic of the typical sentimentality of contemporary ‘Celtic Twilight’ authors like ‘Fiona Macleod’, pseudonym of Paisley-born critic and travel-writer, William Sharp (1855-1905).[xxvii] Novels such as Phàrais, A Romance of the Isles (1894), whose token smattering of Gaelic dialogue was lifted straight from the pages of Màiri Nic Ealair’s Tourist Hand-Book of Gaelic and English Phrases for the Highlands (c. 1882), served to “rarify and exoticise the Gaelic-speaking people and their culture, idealising the way of life in the Hebridean islands at a time when many islanders were experiencing severe economic hardship”. Their emphasis upon “the nature of the Celtic psyche”, which “set the characteristics of the straight-thinking, rational Anglo-Saxon against those of the spiritual, emotional Celt”, found little favour amongst actual Gaels. Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay (1859-1905) dismissed Phàrais, and its author, as “just another MacPherson’s Ossian”, while Katherine Whyte Grant (1845-1928), Appin-bred author of Dùsgadh na Féinne (1908) and Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll (1925), complained that the vogue for ‘Celtic Twilight mistiness’ threatened the dismissal of genuine Gaelic literature as similarly “shadowy and indistinct” – “[it] never lacks clearness”, she observed, “if read in Gaelic”.[xxviii]

William Sharp, ‘Fiona Macleod’ in 1894, by Frederick Hollyer – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Sharp_(writer), public domain

Use of the term ‘Celtic’ – to “imply a Gaelic authenticity” where “there was no obvious ‘Gaelic inheritance’” – was also viewed with distaste, but Alice’s regular usage in her own work probably escaped censure of the type heaped upon the likes of ‘Fiona Macleod’ due to the impeccable credentials of her family, the MacDonalds or MacDonells of Keppoch.[xxix] As the youngest-surviving daughter of their 20th chieftain, Angus (d. 1855), and sister to his heir, Donald (d. 1889), she belonged to a line of highly-respected Gaelic poets and scholars, including Sìleas (c. 1660-c. 1729), one of the most prolific female poets of the eighteenth century, and Patrick, minister of Kilmore and compiler of A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (1784), the first published anthology of Gaelic songs with musical notation (Patrick’s wife, Barbara, was third daughter to the 17th chieftain Alasdair, renowned ‘Keppoch of Culloden’ (d. 1746), from whom Alice descended on both sides).[xxx] Alice’s prolific range of poetry, fiction, and semi-factual prose combines the same mixture of publications – “romantic fictional tales set in the Highlands” and “non-fiction articles on [family-related] aspects of Highland history” – identified by Priscilla Scott as characteristic of Anglo-Highland women writers who “stressed their authentic Highland heritage, although no longer Gaelic-speaking” themselves. Her suggestion that their work, despite its occasional aura of “twilight and fairy lights”, was received with greater sympathy in consequence, reflects the positive review of Alice’s poetry collection Songs of the Mountain and the Burn (1912), printed in the same edition of The Celtic Review as the first installment of her ‘Deirdre’ (“Miss MacDonell’s poems show strongly her Gaelic inheritance, and are sure to be appreciated by Highlanders”).[xxxi]

Alice’s later years were spent chiefly in London and Sussex (she died in Hove on October 12 1938), and the volume of her contributions to Gaelic periodicals declined, though she continued to publish novels until the late 1920s. She may also have overseen the posthumous publication of An Historical Record of the Branch of ‘Clann Domhnuill’ called the MacDonells of Keppoch and Gargavach (1931), compiled by her sister Josephine Mary Macdonell (1852-1915), and continued to defend their father’s right to the chiefship of Keppoch (against a rival, US-based claimant) until shortly prior to her death, aged 83.[xxxii] Unlike contemporaries such as Lady Gregory, Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926), Eleanor Hull (1860-1935), and Ella Young (1867-1956), Alice’s published work did not engage extensively with medieval Gaelic literary characters, suggesting that her interest in Deirdre arose from personal affection for the alleged tragedy and pathos of her life – as well, of course, from a sustained affection for Macpherson’s Ossian! Though far from the greatest of the Scottish women writers active during the years of the Celtic Revival, Alice Macdonell is representative of their typical creativity, abundance of output, and sheer dedication to their work, and is deserving of wider publicity than she has hitherto enjoyed.

For more on Alice’s complex family-tree, and her siblings’ descendants, see https://descentfromadam.wordpress.com/, the excellent blog maintained by her great-great-great nephew, Justin Kirby. A useful anthology of Revival-era works concerning Deirdre and the Sons of Uisliu may be found in Tadaaki Miyake (ed.), Deirdrefrom the earliest manuscripts to Yeats and Synge (Okayama-Ken: University Education Press, 1999). For Alexander Carmichael, see Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (ed.), The life & legacy of Alexander Carmichael (Port of Ness: Islands Book Trust, 2008), and the ongoing development of the Carmichael-Watson collection in Edinburgh University Library (http://www.carmichaelwatson.lib.ed.ac.uk/cwatson/).

Kate Mathis (University of Glasgow)


[i] Fiona Macleod, ‘The Gael and his heritage’, in The Winged Destiny: Studies in the spiritual history of the Gael (London: Chapman & Hall, 1904), 207-46 (at 240).

[ii] Vernam Hull (ed.), Longes mac n-Uislenn: The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1949).

[iii] Eugene O’Curry, ‘The “Trí Thruaige na Scélaigheachta” of Erinn I: The exile of the Children of Uisneach’, The Atlantis, or register of literature and science of the Catholic University of Ireland 3 (1862), 377-422.

[iv] Whitley Stokes (ed.), ‘The Wooing of Luaine and the Death of Athirne’, Révue Celtique 24 (1903), 270-88, discussed in Kate Louise Mathis, ‘Parallel “wives”; Deirdriu and Lúaine in Longes mac n-Uislenn and Tochmarc Lúaine ocus Aided Athairne’, in Gregory Toner & Séamus Mac Mathúna (eds), Ulidia 3: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales (Berlin: Curach Bhán Publications, 2013), 17-25. A similar claim of Deirdre’s maternity is observed by the contemporary Bansenchus (‘History of the Women of Ireland’); see Margaret Dobbs, ‘The Ban-Shenchus’, Révue Celtique 48 (1931), 163-234 (at 209), and Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin, ‘The Banshenchas – Genealogy and women of the Ulster Cycle’, in Toner & MacMathúna, Ulidia 3, 75-87. O’Curry’s English-language translation of Longes mac n-Uislenn included a brief account of Deirdre’s children, Gaiar and Aebgréine, whose lives were the source of some fascination to Yeats and his closest associate, Augusta Lady Gregory; see Mathis, ‘An Irish poster girl? Writing Deirdre during the Revival’, in Willy Maley, Paddy Lyons, & John Miller (eds), Romantic Ireland from Tone to Gonne: Fresh perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 263-81 (at 270).

[v] National Library of Scotland Adv. Lib. 72.2.3, compiled c. 1490; see Caoimhín Breatnach, ‘Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach’, Ériu 45 (1994), 99-112. The popular suggestion that the manuscript was compiled in the thirteenth century is erroneous, based solely upon a note on its inside cover penned by an owner, William Campbell (1713-93), who may have been attempting to situate an even older Scottish version, now lost.

[vi] National Library of Scotland Adv. Lib. 72.3.4, Analysis of the Contents of the Celtic Manuscripts belonging to the Honourable Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland by Ewan Maclachlan; Henry Mackenzie (ed.), Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland into the nature and authenticity of the Poems of Ossian (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable & Co., 1805).

[vii] Theophilus O’Flanagan, ‘Derdri, or the lamentable fate of the Sons of Usnach’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Dublin (1808), 143. O’Flanagan’s intention in compiling the testimony of several copies of Longes mac n-Uislenn belonging to the library of Trinity College was to demonstrate conclusively the falseness of Macpherson’s claims; see Kate Louise Mathis, ‘Mourning the maic Uislenn: Blood, death, and grief in Longes mac n-Uislenn and ‘Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 29 (2013), 1-20 (at 6-7).

[viii] James Macpherson, Fingal, an ancient poem in six books: together with several other poems, composed by Ossian the son of Fingal. Translated from the Gallic language by James Macpherson (London: T. Becket & P. A. De Hondt, 1762), 155-72; Howard Gaskill (ed.), The Poems of Ossian, and related works (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996).

[ix] William Graham, Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach: A Scoto-Irish romance of the first century AD (Edinburgh: J. Gardner Hitt, & London: Marshall Brothers, 1908).

[x] The dramatic rise in literary tourism, post-Macpherson, is discussed by Nigel Leask, ‘Fingalian topographies: Ossian and the Highland Tour, 1760-1805’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 39/2 (2016), 183-96.

[xi] Smith’s basis for O’Keefe’s discussion (pp. 88-105) is the version of the oidheadh, similar in detail to the Glenmasan manuscript’s, printed by O’Flanagan in 1808 from TCD H.1.6.

[xii] Thomas Pennant, A tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772, ed. Andrew Simmons (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1998), 356-8; see also Nigel Leask and Alex Day, ‘Thomas Pennant in North Argyll – ‘in search of the lost city of Beregonium’ (http://curioustravellers.ac.uk/en/pennant-in-north-argyll-blog-in-search-of-the-lost-city-of-beregonium/).

[xiii] J. F. Campbell, Leabhar na Fèinne: Heroic Gaelic ballads (London: Spottiswoode, 1872), 19. Campbell’s summary of genuine Gaelic ballad poetry concerning Deirdre, predating Macpherson’s publication – such as Archibald Fletcher’s, collected in 1750 – remains of value; see also Derick S. Thomson, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s Ossian (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1952), 54-5, and Hector Maclean, Ultonian hero ballads collected in Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland (Glasgow: Archibald Sinclair, 1892), 34-57, 108-21. The association between Deirdre’s dwelling-place and the ‘ancient fortress’ persists into twentieth-century travel-writing, e.g. Patrick Gilles, Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its neighbourhood (London: Virtue & Co., 1909), 80 (“[it] is still known as Dùn-mhic-Uisneachan, but in the guidebooks it is called Beregonium”), and is even provided with an equally spurious derivation from the Gaelic ‘Barr-na-gobhan’ (‘place of the smith’), Latinised, allegedly, by George Buchanan into ‘Beregonium’; Alexander Carmichael, Deirdire, and The Lay of the Children of Uisne (Edinburgh: Norman Macleod, 1905), 143.

[xiv] An eminent chemist, Smith is most famous as the ‘Father of Acid Rain’, from his pioneering study Air and Rain: The Beginnings of a Chemical Climatology (1872).

[xv] Alice C. Macdonell, ‘Deirdre: The highest type of Celtic womanhood’, The Celtic Review 8 (1912), 347-56 [part i]; The Celtic Review 9 (1913), 41-8 [part ii].

[xvi] Priscilla Scott, ‘“With heart and voice ever devoted to the cause”: Women in the Gaelic Movement, 1886-1914’, PhD dissertation (University of Edinburgh, 2013), 123, 166-75 [https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/docview/1775215323?pq-origsite=primo].

[xvii] Alice C. Macdonell, Lays of the Heather (London: Elliot Stock, 1896), 187-9; Alice C. Macdonell, Songs of the Mountain and the Burn (London: John Ouseley Ltd., 1912), 76 (headed “Written for the meeting of the Celtic Union, October 30th, 1902”).

[xviii] Translated by Priscilla Scott, ‘With heart and voice’, 255.

[xix] See Alan Bruford, ‘“Deirdire” and Alexander Carmichael’s treatment of oral sources’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 14 (1983), 1-24, and Tristan ap Rheinallt, ‘Alexander Carmichael, Alan Bruford and Deirdire’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 28 (2011), 227-32.

[xx] See Cornelius Buttimer, ‘Longes mac n-Uislenn Reconsidered’, Éigse 28, 1-41 (at 27), and Mathis, ‘Parallel Wives’, 19-20.

[xxi] James Pethica (ed.), Lady Gregory’s Diaries: 1892-1902 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1996), 290.

[xxii] Aubrey de Vere, ‘The Sons of Usnach’, in The Foray of Queen Meave and other legends of Ireland’s Heroic Age (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., 1882), 1-70 (at 2).

[xxiii] That is, Royal Irish Academy B iv 1 (1671). It is possible that a similar episode once formed part of the ‘Glenmasan’ manuscript (c. 1491), but the relevant page of the text has been lost; see Mathis, ‘Mourning the maic Uislenn’, 13-15.

[xxiv] Whitley Stokes, ‘The Death of the Sons of Uisneach’, Irische Texte 2/2 (1887), 109-84; Alexander Cameron, ‘Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach’, in Alexander MacBain & Rev. John Kennedy (eds), Reliquiae Celticae: Texts, papers and studies in Gaelic literature and philosophy left by the late Rev. Alexander Cameron, Volume ii (Inverness: The Northern Counties Publishing Company Ltd., 1894), 421-61.

[xxv] An accessible translation of the text had been published by Kuno Meyer, Professor of Celtic at the University of Glasgow: The Death Tales of the Ulster heroes [Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series XIV] (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, & Co. Ltd., 1906), 9-11.

[xxvi] Alice C. Macdonell, The Glen O’Dreams (Edinburgh: Thomas Allan and Sons, 1929).

[xxvii] See Mark Williams, Ireland’s Immortals: A history of the gods of Irish myth (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016), 370-89. For Fiona’s Deirdres, versions of which were published in 1897 and 1903, and may also have been known to Alice, see Sìm Innes & Kate Louise Mathis, ‘Gaelic tradition and the Celtic Revival in children’s literature in Scottish Gaelic & English’, in Sarah Dunnigan & Shu-Fang Lai (eds.), The Land of Story Books: Scottish Children’s Literature in the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, forthcoming).

[xxviii] Scott, ‘With heart and voice’, 163 – citing Grant, ‘The Influence of Scenery and Climate on the Music and Poetry of the Highlands’, Caledonian Medical Journal 5 (1902-4) – & 171-2; for Grant, see Sìm Innes, ‘Dùsgadh na Féinne (1908): Katherine Whyte Grant’s Scottish Gaelic kinderspiel’, in Sharon Arbuthnot, Síle Ní Mhurchú, & Geraldine Parsons (eds.) Proceedings of the 2nd International Finn Cycle Conference (forthcoming).

[xxix] Scott, ‘With heart and voice’, 170.

[xxx] See Colm Ó Baoill (ed.), Bàrdachd Shìlis na Ceapaich / Poems and songs by Sìleas MacDonald (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972); Karen McAulay, Our ancient national airs: Scottish song collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era (Abingdon, Routledge, 2013).

[xxxi] Cited in Scott, ‘With heart and voice’, 170.

[xxxii] See Josephine M. Macdonell, ‘The Maidsear Mòr of Keppoch’, The Celtic Monthly (IX, 1901), 156, and An Historical Record of the Branch of ‘Clann Domhnuill’ called the MacDonells of Keppoch and Gargavach (Glasgow: The Celtic Press, 1931), 124-5. Alice’s letters defending her father’s claim were published in The Oban Times during 1935, part of the controversy re-awakened by the publication of Josephine’s book, which disputed the line taken by established Clan Donald histories such as Alexander Mackenzie’s History of the MacDonalds and Lords of the Isles (Inverness: A. & W. MacKenzie, 1881), 500-1.

The Suffrage Oak: Marking 100 Years of Women ‘Living and Growing’ into the Body Politic

Suffrage Oak, 2015, before storm damage, © Glasgow Women’s Library

One hundred years ago today, Louisa Innes Lumsden (1840-1935) proclaimed:

‘the vote was the door to everything and the door was open’. [1]

On 20th April 1918, in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park, Louisa Lumsden was ‘honoured’ to plant an oak tree to commemorate and celebrate the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave some women the vote. The oak tree stands at the top of Kelvin Way and has continued to be a reminder, symbol and inspiration to the women of Glasgow over the past hundred years. In 1995, on International Women’s Day, the Women’s Committee of Glasgow City Council erected a beautiful plaque next to the tree which reads, ‘This oak tree was planted by Women’s Suffrage Organisations in Glasgow on 20 April 1918 to commemorate the granting of votes to women’. The oak won Scottish Tree of the Year in 2015, nominated by the Glasgow Women’s Library who feature it as a stop on their West End Heritage walk. While sadly damaged and much reduced by Storm Ophelia in 2017, the tree is still standing and will hopefully weather future storms. Glasgow City Council donated the storm damaged oak cuttings to the Glasgow Women’s Library.


I first noticed the oak wandering up Kelvin Way many years ago thanks to the plaque and often wondered who were the women that planted this tree. It seems fitting that for the centenary of its planting we should learn their names and more about that Saturday in Kelvingrove Park.

Image of Louisa Lumsden in her St Leonard robes from her autobiography Yellow Leaves: Memories of a Long Life (1933), p.178

In Louisa Lumsden’s autobiography, Yellow Leaves: Memories of a Long Life (1933), she mentions the event briefly and tells us it was presided over by Frances Melville (1973-1962) with the thanks offered by Eunice Guthrie Murray (1878-1960). Lumsden, 78 years of age at the time, had come down from Aberdeen to plant the tree. She was a pioneer of higher education having been one of five women who attend Girton College, Cambridge in 1869 and was a lifelong advocate for girls and women’s education. At one point, she was the Headmistress of St Leonard’s School in St Andrews where Eunice Murray was educated. In 1908, Lumsden was invited to become the president of the Aberdeen Suffrage Society (a branch of National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). She agreed as long as it did not take up too much of her time but she soon ‘found that little time was left for anything else’.[2] In her autobiography she recalls loaning the suffrage movement her caravan so they could do a kind of suffragists on tour with key figures such as Millicent Fawcett and Elise Ingis. Lumsden described herself as a constitutional suffragist and felt they were fighting a battle on two fronts with the militant suffragettes and the anti-suffragists. As we have seen throughout this year of #vote100, the distinction and tensions between suffragists and suffragettes has been highlighted (see WHS suffrage resource). The event in Glasgow was a ‘joint celebration by Women’s Suffrage Societies’.[3] A meeting after the tree planting was held Queen’s Rooms. Tickets were 6d and could be purchased from either Glasgow Society for Women’s Suffrage, a suffragist society, or the Women’s Freedom League, a suffragette association. After a bit of digging it has become clearer that the suffragists and suffragettes were united in this celebration.[4] The presence of figures from all sides of the Suffrage Movement, both militant and constitutional, indicates that this was intended to unite and celebrate the legacy of all women who fought for the vote.

Image: Queen’s Rooms, Clifton Street, Glasgow (opposite Kelvingrove Park). The location of the Suffrage Celebration meeting on Saturday 20th April 2018. Chaired by Chrystal MacMillan. © Yvonne McFadden

The planting of the Suffrage Oak in Kelvin Way was a collaborative event bring together multiple suffrage groups in recognition of this great step forward for women. The Glasgow Herald reported the event was organised by the Glasgow Society of Women’s Suffrage, Scottish Universities Suffrage Union, Women’s Freedom League, Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise and United Suffragists.[5] The tree planting ceremony was presided over by Frances Melville who was the Mistress of Queen Margaret College, Glasgow and a member of the Scottish Universities Suffrage Union. She was a suffragist and an advocate for women’s higher education. One of the first women to matriculate at Edinburgh University in 1892, Melville was the first woman in Scotland to be awarded a Bachelor of Divinity in 1910 from St Andrews. It was reported that Melville’s speech at the planting of the oak explained the choice of memorial:

‘The Enfranchisement of women would bring new life into the body politic, and therefore it was most appropriate to plant in commemoration a living and growing thing’

She also payed tribute to the role of early suffragists work to the ‘women and men who had so long and loyally upheld the cause – especially those of the older generation, who had worked so splendidly for the cause in its earlier days.’

Frances Melville, Mistress of Queen Margaret College, Glasgow. [source: https://universityofglasgowlibrary.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/frances-melville.jpg]

The vote of thanks was offered by Eunice Gurthrie Murray, who later that year would be the first woman in Scotland to stand as a candidate in a parliamentary election for Bridgeton. She was a lawyer from Cardross in Dunbartonshire and a prominent figure within the Women’s Freedom League. The WFL broke away from the Women’s Political and Social Union, unhappy with the Pankhurst heavy handed centralised control. Murray wrote, ‘I do not like the Pankhursts much, but I declare I bow to their spirit.’[6] Murray was herself arrested twice for addressing public meetings but not charged or imprisoned. She took part in WSPU processions in London and Edinburgh in 1910. A lifelong activist for women’s rights, Murray wrote extensively on the position of women in society. At the Kelvingrove celebration, she was reported to have said:

‘no woman looking back on the long fight for the suffrage could not help being glad she was a suffragist.’

Murray emphasised that women were ready and prepared to take on the responsibility of governance.

The vote of thanks was offered by Eunice Gurthrie Murray, who sat on the nation committee for the Women’s Freedom League.

The celebrations acknowledged the underlying tension of the 1918 enfranchisement in that only some women were now entitled to vote. Where all men over 21 years of age became enfranchised, it was only women over 30 who met the property qualification who could now vote. The events and speeches of the day addressed this and while 1918 was a huge step forward for women there was still work to be done. Later, at the meeting in the Queen’s Rooms, the chair Chrystal MacMillan was reported in the Glasgow Herald as stating that:

‘in celebrating this victory of women’s suffrage they were cognisant of the fact that many women were not included, and while they rejoice in the franchisement of women over 30, they hoped it would not be too long before other women were also enfranchised.’

Louisa Lumsden’s wisdom to young women who felt ‘bitterly’ about their exclusion was to ‘[h]ave patience, prepare yourselves; you cannot be too good for the opportunities that many come in the future’.

The oak tree is a symbol of reconciliation between all sides of the suffrage movement, it was a reminder that women must continue to grow women’s rights. After 1918, women organised themselves into various associations to campaign on issues including equal citizenship, women’s welfare and housing rights.[7] The Glasgow Society for Equal Citizenship held a regular commemorative dinner every year to celebrate the 1918 achievement. Prominent Scottish feminists were regular attendees including Marion Gilchrist, Elsie Inglis, Eunice Murray, Marion Buchanan and Frances Melville. These feminists continued to fight, campaign and advocate for women’s rights in all areas of society long after the vote was won. The Suffrage Oak is a physical commemoration to the legacy of the suffrage movement but it also is a reminder that the fight for women’s rights is a living and breathing movement that needs to be nurtured and maintained. I think Louisa Lumsden, Frances Melville and Eunice Murray would be proud of what their daughters and granddaughters have achieved in the hundred years since they planted their tree and to know that the Oak still inspires girls and women today to continue the fight for equality for all women.

Page signed by attendees of the Glasgow Society for Equal Citizenship Society Commemorative Dinner, 1938 including Frances Melville, Eunice Murray, Marion Gilchrist and others. Part of the Marion Buchanan Collection at the Glasgow Women’s Library.

Yvonne McFadden

Further Reading

WHS Suffrage Resource – https://womenssuffragescotland.wordpress.com

On the Suffrage movement in Aberdeeen see Sarah Pedersen, ‘The Conciliatory Sufragette’ http://womenshistoryscotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/5-The-Conciliatory-Suffragette.pdf

Frances Melville – http://www.universitystory.gla.ac.uk/biography/?id=WH0222&type=P

Eunice Murray – http://www.helensburgh-heritage.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=897:from-suffragette-to-councillor&catid=39:people-&Itemid=399

Louisa Lumsden, (1933) Yellow Leaves: Memories of a Long Life (William Blackwoods and sons: Edinburgh & London) https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015064809927;view=1up;seq=11


[1] Daily Record, 22nd April 1918, p.3

[2] Louisa Lumsden, (1933) Yellow Leaves: Memories of a Long Life (William Blackwoods and sons: Edinburgh & London), p. 170 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015064809927;view=1up;seq=11

[3] Daily Record, Public Notices, 19th April, 1918

[4] This is unsurprising as Sarah Pederson has shown networks and friendships between both sides were not uncommon despite their disagreement over methods.

[5] Glasgow Herald, 22nd April 1918, p.6

[6] Diary of Eunice Guthrie Murray: Volume 2

[7] See our suffrage resource for more information on these associations

Women as active citizens: politics and feminism in interwar Scotland

The ‘Extraordinary Slander Case’ – Dundee, 1892

I’m sure anyone reading this who has followed the news over the past few weeks will be neither shocked nor surprised at the latest revelations of how patriarchal power has enabled men to sexually harass and assault women. We all know that such behaviour doesn’t just happen in Hollywood, the acting, entertainment professions or in Westminster and the Scottish Parliament. While the feminist and women’s movements have done much to shine a light and challenge such behaviour, as Zoe Fairbairns powerfully argued in last year’s Sue Innes Memorial Lecture, ‘Five Decades, Five Feminisms’, still it persists.

But what does this have to do with women’s and gender history in Scotland?

Well unsurprisingly sexual harassment and discrimination is nothing new for Scottish women, or women anywhere. But we can learn lessons from the agency and courage that women in the past had in challenging sexist attitudes and harassment.

Here I’ll be discussing the ‘Extraordinary Slander Case’[1] that Marjory Panton, a 21 year old weaver, brought against David Craig, Assistant Mill Manager at Baxter’s Dens Works in Dundee. She took him to court seeking £500 in damages (about £41,000 in today’s money).

Women weavers at their looms inside Dens Works, c.1908, photograph (Photo courtesy of University of Dundee Archive Services) ©

First a bit of context. Dundee is known as a ‘Women’s Town’ as a result of the high proportion of women who worked in the city’s jute mills.[2]The largely female workforce had agency in withdrawing their labour if unhappy with their conditions.[3] If a woman was unhappy in one mill, she could easily find a job in another. Women’s work was very much in demand. This did not mean that they were paid well. Weavers were paid more than spinners, a distinction that became linked to notions of respectability with weavers wearing hats and gloves to work. Spinners thought the weavers were were ‘snobbish’.[4] But it’s worth underlining that no women working in jute earned the same as the male mill owners,  the male overseers, managers or workers. Regardless of the number of women workers, jute remained a patriarchal capitalist industry. Men made not only made more money but they had more power.

The incident

On the 10th of November 1892 Marjory sprained her foot on the stairs at work and spent eight days recovering at home and received treatment from her doctor. Three days after returning to work, David Steedman, a foreman working under Craig, ‘spoke to her about her health’ asking:

 ‘Don’t you think you are growing rather stout?, I do not think so myself but David Craig has been taking stock of you for a while’.

According to The Evening Telegraph Marjory ‘spoke to the defender the same day about the matter’. His response was to suggest that she was ‘uncommonly stout for her age’ and suggested that ‘her best plan’ would be to ‘get a line from her doctor certifying that she was not in a state of pregnancy’.

Marjory evidently went to see her doctor, Dr Miller, who informed her

‘that neither the defender nor any other man was entitled to get from her such a certificate’.

Instead he gave her a certificate to the effect that he had attended her while suffering from a sprained ankle. This was given to Steedman, who passed it to Craig. This was later returned to Marjory with ‘the remark that it was not what was wanted’.

All of Craig’s comments and requests were presumably made in full view of Marjory’s work colleagues, or she was concerned about gossip, as she argued in court that Craig’s

 ‘remarks and demand for a certificate as to her condition were all intended to insult and slander her and lower her in the eyes of her fellow workers’.


She accused Craig of making allegations that were ‘false and caluminious’ which were made ‘maliciously and without probable cause’. It was suggested that Marjory’s ‘feelings, character and health had in consequence had been injured’. No wonder!

Marjory demanded that Craig ‘make reparation’ but he had refused. He denied the accusations suggesting that neither he or Steedman ever said to Marjory or anyone else that she was pregnant, he also denied asking for a medical certificate of non-pregnancy. Yet, added that ‘any steps’ that he had taken ‘in the matter’ were ‘taken in the discharge of his duty’ as it was ‘a rule and custom in the Dens Factory to give girls thought to be pregnant warning to leave’. His argument was effectively that as Marjory had not been given warning to leave, he had not accused her of being pregnant.

So the question is whether Craig ever thought she was pregnant or instead used his power to cast aspersions on her character or ‘respectability’? Did he do it because he could? Or was Marjory put through this ordeal because she was ‘stout’? Did he want an excuse to dismiss her?

Obviously we will never know what happened in the Dens factory in 1892 but it seems to me that Craig had picked on the wrong woman! The fact that Marjory was a ‘respectable’ weaver may be significant in the fact that she challenged his behaviour and demanded compensation. Simply put, she wasn’t going to take it.

On the 29th of November Craig received a letter from Marjory’s lawyer requesting a payment of £50 as damages and suggesting that if this was not paid legal proceedings would follow. Craig agreed to a meeting with Marjory and her mother where he stated that ‘he was sorry for the misunderstanding that had arisen’, but ‘he could not apologise, as he had done no wrong’. He refused to pay any expenses. Marjory went ahead with her legal action against him. His response ‘for the sake of amicable settlement, and without admitting liability’ was to agree to pay Marjory’s expenses on the condition that she withdrew her claim for damages. Are these the actions of a guilty man? Marjory agreed to withdraw her claim. A receipt for £4 4s was drawn up to cover the expenses.

The Sheriff Court

However this was not the end of the matter. At a subsequent hearing at the Sheriff Court in March 1893 Craig suggested that Marjory’s statements were irrelevant and insufficient to support the conclusions of her petition, that her claim for damages or reparation had been discharged by her and thus she could bring no further claim against him. He argued that he was entitled to a decree of absolution. Moreover as he was ‘priveliged and had not acted in malice’ he was entitled to absolution with expenses.

Marjory’s lawyer responded that she had only signed the document ‘on the understanding that she was to be substantially recouped’ and ‘in ignorance of the real terms’. In other words, she had been misled.

While Craig’s lawyer demanded discussion on the relevancy of Marjory’s action against his client, the Sherrif ‘thought the action quite relevant’ and Marjory was instructed to appeal to the Court of Session for a jury trial.

In subsequent coverage of what was described as ‘a Dundee Slander Case’ it becomes clear that Marjory and her mother had been coerced into signing an agreement (described as ‘a line’)  to withdraw the claim of damages on condition that the expenses incurred would be paid and ‘promised to recompense her for the injury she had sustained to her feelings’. Marjory and her mother stated that ‘the line referred to … had never been read out to them and they were unaware of its contents’. Mr Murray, the Mill Manager, paid the expenses but ‘informed them that he could do nothing further in the case’. Marjory thus pursued damages through the court as we know. Mr Murray stated through his lawyer that ‘he had acted mainly for the sake of preventing a scandal in the works’, he alleged that he had ‘read over the line in question’ to Marjory, but also admitted that it had been written out by him before Marjory and her mother had arrived.[5] Indeed the Sheriff found that Marjory had signed:

 ‘under persuasion and pressure suddenly applied to her, when she had no opportunity of consulting her law agent or her father, by a person in a position of authority and superintendence over her, a friend of the defender, and who knew little or nothing about the merits of the cause that he pressed her to abandon, except what he had learned from the defender outwith her presence’.[6]


In October 1893 the case was settled out of court with Craig granting a letter of apology, paying £25 (£2,051.63 in today’s money) in damages, and paying all the court expenses for all actions.[7]

While the intention of Craig’s original actions remain unclear, Marjory was sufficiently insulted by the insinuation that she was in ‘a pregnant condition’ to pursue him for damages in the Sheriff Court in Dundee. As a young unmarried women, a ‘respectable’ weaver her reputation was obviously important to her and she didn’t want to be gossiped about or humiliated in her workplace on account of being ‘stout’.

Throughout the account of the slander case brought against Craig, his power as her boss is clearly evident, but she challenges this throughout. She is not scared to defend herself.

Whether or not Craig learned from the experience we’ll never know. What we do know is that he retired the following year in 1894 as manager of the powerloom factory at the Dens Works where his long service (40 years) and esteem was celebrated in Maxwelltown Hall by friends and employees. He was presented with a ‘gold albert chain’ and a ‘silver salver’ from the workforce. In his address he discussed the improvements in conditions for the workers over the years suggesting that ‘Formerly 12.5 per cent of the girls were thrown aside in bad health and now only about 3 percent were laid aside’. Paternalism indeed.

Valerie Wright (University of Glasgow)

With grateful thanks to Dr Alexis Wearmouth (School of Business and Management at Queen Mary, University of London) who first sent me the clips relating to the Slander Case while we were colleagues at the Univeristy of Dundee 

[1] ‘Extraordinary Slander Case’ The Evening Telegraph, Wednesday, 8 March 1893, p. 2

[2]V. Wright, ‘Juteopolis and after: women and work in twentieth-century Dundee’. In: Tomlinson, J. and Whatley, C. (eds.) Jute No More: Transforming Dundee. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2011, pp. 132-162.

[3] E. Gordon, Women and the Labour Movement in Scotland 1850–1914, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, especially chapter 4.

[4] Dundee Oral History Project, Oral History Transcripts, Dundee Library – Local History, 1985, 021/A/2:24.

[5] ‘A Dundee Slander Case’, The Dundee Courier & Argus (Dundee, Scotland), Friday, May 19, 1893; pg. 3

[6] ‘A Dundee Slander Case’, The Dundee Courier & Argus (Dundee, Scotland), Friday, May 19, 1893; pg. 3

[7] The Dundee Courier & Argus (Dundee, Scotland), Saturday, October 21, 1893; pg. 4

Finding Margaret Morice

Dr Deborah Simonton, University of Southern Denmark

This blog post first featured on the North American Conference on British Studies website on 10 April 2015 – http://www.nacbs.org/blog/finding-margaret-morice/

Detail from:  Milne, Alexander, fl. 1789-1818, ‘A plan of the City of Aberdeen with all the inclosures surrounding the town to the adjacent country, from a survey taken 1789’, http://maps.nls.uk/towns/rec/311.  ©National Library of Scotland 

I ‘met’ Margaret Morice in 1998. I had just finished writing A History of European Women’s Work.[1] Needing to get into some real primary research and since I was working at Aberdeen University, I asked myself the fairly simple question, ‘What kind of work were women doing in eighteenth-century Aberdeen?’ It was provoked by a number of factors, curiosity not being the least of them.

One of the first steps was a visit to Aberdeen City Archives, one of the best in Scotland. The initial visit was a bit demoralising, because the staff could only suggest the usual finding aids. Undeterred, I trundled through these and found the Register of Apprentices. This produced the first surprise, and was where I first found Margaret. The surprise was that with the exception of one entry for another female baker, she was the only one recorded—but in regular entries, between 1776 and 1797 she traded as ‘Margaret Morice and Co., baker in Aberdeen’.[2] This is notable on a number of levels. The bakers along with the weavers were seen as the most prestigious of the seven Incorporated Trades in Aberdeen and as their historian insisted:

Notably in Aberdeen, the baking of loaf and biscuit bread has been preserved as a strict monopoly for the men bakers. According to the acts and ordinances of the Baker craft in Aberdeen, women were not allowed to bake any bread, pastry, or pies to be sold in the streets or chops, a restriction that was maintained until the abolition of trading privileges in 1846.[3]

She also traded using her married name, when most Scots women kept their family name. She did so, I believe, because it furthered her commercial position as a widow.

Her husband had not been recorded in the Aberdeen Register of Apprentices, which misled me until I discovered that his were recorded in the Inland Revenue Apprenticeship Registers. She, in contrast, appeared only once at Inland Revenue; all of her apprentices followed his death.[4] As a relatively prominent member of the Incorporated Trades, and their Council representative from time to time, he would have paid the stamp duty and ensure that his apprentices were properly recorded. On the one occasion when she did, she had just ended a partnership with a previous apprentice. (She twice entered into such a partnership.) Thus a ‘properly’ registered apprentice may have been essential to retaining the prestige of the business. Over the 30 years that she ran the business herself, she apprenticed 16 boys from the tradesman classes (compared with John’s 12 over 25 years). The apprentice fee and the boys’ terms of service compared well with those for male bakers, including John’s, in Aberdeen, Essex, Birmingham and Staffordshire.[5]

This discovery sent me on a trail, which I followed alongside other research on Gender in European Towns.[6] In fact, I became addicted to finding Margaret Morice. Since there was little business information available in the archives, I turned to the parish records of births, deaths and marriages, available on microfilm in the Local Studies section of the Public Library. Here I found her birth in 1710 (though there is some doubt) and the birth of her seven children, including twins, beginning in 1739 and ending in 1750. Through serendipity, tucked in the back of the Council records, I found a notice of John’s burial in January of 1770, when she was 52. These also noted the death of a ‘child of John Morice’ on a couple of occasions. Thinking laterally, I tried Ancestry.com, and found the death of four of the children at very young ages. The eldest, David, and the female twin, Barbara, have a bigger part to play in her story. The seventh is still AWOL.

Trying a different line of enquiry, I went to the National Archives of Scotland (now National Records of Scotland), hoping for a will or inventory—no luck. I did however find window and inhabited house tax lists, showing her to have paid these through much of the same period that she was taking apprentices. Council Enactment Books added snippets here and there, mostly about John, but clarified that the bakery was well-established, that they owned the property from 1752 and that he was gradually building up a business and political persona. I felt I was coming closer to ‘seeing’ her, but frustratingly still with a great deal of speculation on my side. Through various venues, and thinking outside the box from time to time, gradually her story was becoming more and more visible—but still with gaps and a sense of incompleteness.

A return visit to the Archives, delayed by my move to Denmark, and assisted greatly by a Strathmartine Trust grant, turned out to be an epiphanic experience.[7] On arrival, Fiona Musk, the archivist, simply asked what I was trying to do. Not very optimistically, I told her, and then said flippantly, ‘What I would really like to do is find Margaret Morice’, literally locate her in the town. I knew roughly where the business was but her response, ‘I am sure I have seen her name on a map’, was astonishing after sixteen years of looking. A couple of hours later, she left the search room and returned with a bundle, and there was Margaret, on the plans for the ‘New Street‘ (now Union Street)—in one of the houses to be demolished.[8] And now, I confess, I did a dance in the record office to the amusement of the other four people in the room.

Map of Aberdeen with Margaret’s house marked (2) ©David Hastie

Margaret’s house also features in the image on the cover of The Routledge History Handbook of Gender and the Urban Experience

Furthermore, Fiona pulled up the records of saisine, which previously I had been told would be useless, to unfold the story of the property from John’s purchase to its sale to the Council in 1800. At first perplexed as to who the sellers were, two boys named Abercrombie, through antiquarian books in the Record Office, we identified that they were her grandsons, sons of her daughter Barbara, the second wife of an esteemed clergyman. This bundle corroborated and clarified the narrative of David’s bankruptcy and Margaret’s right to the property.[9] I had simultaneously been trying to read the whole of the Aberdeen Journal for the period, and there, in a notice she placed in 1789, I found her ‘voice’ for the first and only time, ensuring that none of David’s debts were charged to her and asserting her role as baker in Aberdeen.[10] All other mentions of her in the press had been oblique: a partner announcing the end of a partnership, her son asking for a lease for his mother, lawyers asserting her claim to the property. There are other small trails to follow up still, but from piecing together an array of disparate records, we can create a picture of her business, which was clearly long-standing and central to the commercial area of Aberdeen. It was also tolerated by the guild and held its own until near her death. Stories of such women are the bread and butter of our research, they whet our curiosity and through them we see the lives of towns come alive. This tale is not finished, and I intend now to develop it further and use this example with others with less detail to explore how businesses such as this inflect the character of eighteenth-century towns.

This tale of discovery probably replicates many other searches and journeys that other historians make. Our curiosity leads us on, we get ‘addicted’ to finding some answers, not all of which are terribly important. Perseverance and asking the same question, or similar ones, over and over, of the records, or of tangential material and of librarians and archivists is our stock in trade. In an age that prioritises publication—and publication of a particularly designated sort—we must not lose the curiosity and love of the past that drives us; we need to hang on to the wonder and joy of discovery—even with a little dance or two. And we need to keep using our skills, training and insight to solve these little mysteries; they can help solve the big ones.

[1] Deborah Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work, 1700 to the present (London: Routledge, 1998).

[2] Aberdeen City Archives (ACA), Enactment Books, 5. Register of Indentures, 1622-1878, see also Simonton, ‘Margaret Morice’, in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, eds, Elizabeth L. Ewan, Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds and Rose Pipes (Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 272; Simonton, ’Negotiating the Economy of the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Town’ in Katie Barclay and Deborah Simonton, eds, Women in Eighteenth-century Scotland (Ashgate, 2013), 225.

[3] Ebenezer Bain, Merchant and Craft Guilds, A History of the Aberdeen Incorporated Trades (Aberdeen: 1887), 212.

[4] Great Britain, Public Record Office, Board of Inland Revenue. Apprenticeship Regis­ters, 1710-1808, IR1. For John, volumes for 1743-68; for Margaret, 1788.

[5] Simonton, ‘Education and Training’, 341, 352; see also Joan Lane, Apprenticeship in England, 1600-1914 (London, 1996), 117.

[6] Gender in the European Town, www.sdu.dk/geneton

[7] See the Strathmartine Trust website on support for Scottish research, http://www.strathmartinetrust.org/

[8] ACA, New Street Trustees, CA/10/1/30 South Entry Plan – Castle Street & Narrow Wynd, 1799

[9] Ibid, CA/13/NStT/5-16 Act ordaining David Morrice jnr to dispone his real & personal estate, 1789.

[10] Aberdeen Journal, 20 July 1789.

The Invisible Crofter: Work, Crofting and Highland Masculinity

Dr Elizabeth Ritchie (University of the Highlands and Islands)

I have a favourite set of placemats. They feature old photos of men and women engaged in crofting activities: cutting peat, winnowing corn, manuring fields. Although crofting was a marginal form of part-time agriculture forced on the people, by the mid-nineteenth century the work, and the land, and the embattled culture which came from it were central to the identity of Highlanders. Recognising this, the lenses of academia and government have sharpened their focus on men’s crofting, but to the blurring and near invisibility of their female counterparts, of non-crofting men, and of the other facets of crofting men’s identity.[1]
All images © E. Ritchie

The cultural and political importance of crofting and its association with men suggested to me that it would be a central plank of nineteenth-century Highland masculinity. As I perambulated around dozens of Highland burial grounds, I assumed if I looked for crofters on headstones, I would find an awful lot. I found three. In graveyards, even male crofters are invisible. Instead I encountered hundreds of Highland men who had instead expressed their identity through their families, through a sense of place, through their religion, and through non-crofting work.[2]

The exercise was a salient reminder of the variety of Scotland’s north. On the extensive, low-lying arable of Badenoch and Strathspey commercial agriculture was developed. In those graveyards are many farmers. Upland places, like Laggan and Dunbeath, were transformed into sheep farms then shooting estates. There are buried many shepherds and gamekeepers. On the fertile island of Tiree are farmers, master mariners, ship’s captains and boatmen. The men of small towns practiced a wide range of trades and professions. In the graveyard of Portree, the capital of Skye, repose two ship’s stewards, two merchants, three bankers (one for the National Bank of India), and a fischurer, solicitor, shoemaker, medical practitioner, joiner, weaver, salmon fisher, tailor, butcher, procurator fiscal, and the owner of the Caledonian Hotel.


Men of the professional and business classes recorded their expertise and esteem in stone. John Shaw Brown erected a substantial family memorial in Bracadale, Skye. He ensured the inscription mentioned his career as municipal engineer in Burma. It was important to Alexander Mackenzie that his wife’s headstone noted he was an Inverness merchant. Indeed, some stones read like advertisements for the family business. For the middling class of Highland men, professional success and a lifetime of honourable work was core to masculine identity. Donald MacLeay (1783-1868) was ‘45 years forester’; Neil MacLean (1783-1858) was minister of Coll and Tiree for forty nine years; Donald MacLean (1852–1907) was doctor in Garrabost and Stornoway; Donald Fraser (1797-1836) was Agent of the British Fisheries Society in Ullapool; James Kinghorn (1809-61), Ardgay, was an innkeeper; and Murdo MacKenzie (d. 1901) was Invergordon’s bank agent. The Highlands had a middling class, and central to the masculinity of its members was professional commitment and recognition.

But what of the less educated and less privileged? Expense would make it reasonable to find no gravestones for labourers or servants. However there are a few. The stone of James Wilson (1847-1868), a railway surfaceman at Dalwhinnie, was paid for by his fellow workmen. That of Dalwhinnie’s boatman, Donald Kennedy (1814-1881), was erected ‘by a few gentlemen friends’. Occasionally a servant lies beneath an elaborate headstone. These display the master’s munificence as much an honouring the servant. William Anderson (d. 1850) was a ‘faithful servant for twenty five years of James Horne of Langwell and Donald Horne of Langwell Berriedale.’[3] The inscription suggests that, like Stevens the butler in Kazuo Ishigiuro’s The Remains of the Day, Anderson’s entire sense of identity had become bound up in his work.[4] This was particularly the case when the man was foreign, possibly originally a slave. Despite his Scottish name he was ‘a native of the West Indies’. The Highlands had strong connections with the Caribbean slave economy. Anderson’s dates, name and connection with Langwell make it probable he was born into slavery.[5] The employer of another servant, ‘Kopuri Tom’ (d. 1877), knew neither his birth-date nor his real name.[6] He was a ‘Native of the island of Rotumah in the South Pacific Ocean’. Having died at Relugas House, Edinkillie, he was memorialised as ‘the faithful & attached servant of GF Wood Esq’. These men were set apart from other servants by race and nationality.[7] However they thought of themselves, their employers identified them through their exoticism and their excellence as servants.

William Anderson’s headstone overlooks the Berriedale Braes in Caithness.

Most men of lower social classes have no grave marker. In Lewis most nineteenth-century crofters lie in rows, between the tiny head and footstones. Yet poverty does not adequately explain the lack of men describing themselves as crofters on their headstones. After all skilled and semi-skilled men, of a similar social status, appear frequently.

Burial ground at Barvas, Isle of Lewis

Alexander Chisholm (1814-1873) was blacksmith at Glentruim; James Hossack (1808-1896) was gardener at Cluny Castle; William Ross Fraser (1861-1895) was telegraph lineman at Inverness Post Office; Alexander Macqueen (n.d.) was shoemaker at Camustianavaig; William Ross (1794-1876) was carpenter at Alness Moor; John Clark (1820-88) was saddler at Bonar Bridge; Thomas Calder (1797-1870) was lockkeeper at Gairlochy. These ordinary men’s skill, proficiency and place in society were recorded on their headstones.

It is possible some of these men were also crofters. Crofting was specifically designed to require a man to also take on waged work. However if these men were crofter-shoemakers, crofter-blacksmiths and crofter-lockkeepers, crofting was not the work through which they identified themselves for posterity.

I suspect other crofters are invisible due to their piety. Highland Evangelicalism provided formal positions, paid and unpaid, through which ordinary men could exercise religious leadership. These are noted on their stones. Donald MacKay (n.d.); John MacKay (1761-1839); John MacKenzie (d. 1897); and Alasdair (Beag) MacKay (1801-83), were catechists in Kilmuir Easter, Loth, Gairloch and Skerray respectively. Malcolm MacLeod (1837-1897) was missionary in Snizort, Skye. The income from these jobs probably supplemented their croft. Church voluntary roles provided no income but conferred esteem and authority. Alexander MacKay (1808-1865); Alexander Kemp (1806-88); and Donald MacDonald (1829-1899) from Invercharron, Gairloch and Portnaguran were elders. It is likely these men also crofted, but it was their identity as men of faith that was commemorated.

The three men I found who were primarily identified as crofters were Simon Campbell (1820-88), Torgormack, Beauly; George MacKay (1816-73), Bogrow, Edderton; and John Cameron (1815-1880), Upper Achintore, Kilmallie.

The rarity of men being identified on gravestones as crofters gave me pause. My survey demonstrates that what historians have said about nineteenth-century Englishmen and Americans applies to Highlanders: that work was crucial for their sense of masculinity and their public persona. But why, in a region where crofting was culturally, politically and economically important, do men not display this aspect of their self-identity on their gravestones? Several possibilities present themselves.

  1. Perhaps most crofters could not afford a gravestone.
  2. Perhaps in the rural Highlands, crofting was so ubiquitous that recording this on a gravestone was superfluous.
  3. Perhaps crofting was held in lower esteem than a trade. If a man practiced both, his skills as a blacksmith or saddler would be commemorated.
  4. Perhaps for a pious man, honouring his religious faith and service was more important than his few acres and his milk cow.

So, amidst a historiography preoccupied with land and crofting, it is good for a while to leave aside the documents and instead consider what men and their families said about themselves in stone. Their own words, however selective and stylized, remind us that many Highland men were not crofters. They were merchants, innkeepers, railway surfacemen, servants and bank agents. It is impossible to imagine that crofting was not a vital part of the identity of the working men whose photographs are printed on my placemats. But their apparent invisibility in graveyards reminds us that crofting men had a much broader sense of identity than historians have appreciated.

[1] Female crofters, for example, rarely appear as such in government records or in most history books. Despite women frequently running crofts single-handedly, ‘crofter’ is equated with ‘man’. The gendered view of crofters is dissected in Isobel MacPhail, ‘Land, crofting and the Assynt Crofters Trust: A post-colonial geography?’ unpublished PhD, University of Wales (2002), 214-221; Lynn Abrams has also challenged this through her study of Shetland women. Lynn Abrams, Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World, Shetland 1800-2000, (Manchester University Press, 2005)

[2] The importance of place and of emotional relationships to masculine identity is examined in ‘Place, identity and Dead Men’ 15 February 2017 and ‘A dutiful relative, attached friend and obliging neighbour’ 21 March 2017 respectively. https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/

[3] The military and sheep rearing activities of Donald Horne were described in glowing terms in George Tancred, Annals of a Border Club (Jedburgh, T.S. Small, 1899), 261-263. His evicting activities were recorded by Alexander Gunn in ‘Tales of Braemore’, Northern Ensign in 1879. These are reproduced on the Badbea Families website http://www.badbeafamilies.com/gallery-10.htm (accessed 20 December 2016)

[4] Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (London, 1989).

[5] David Alston, ‘“Very rapid and splendid fortunes”? Highland Scots in Berbice (Guyana) in the early nineteenth century’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. LXIII (2002-2004), pp. 208-36; S. Karly Kehoe, ‘From the Caribbean to the Scottish Highlands: Charitable Enterprise in the Age of Improvement, c.1750 to c.1820’ Rural History (2016) 27.1, 37–59. The family who leased Langwell, before it was sold to James Horne, were Andersons with multi-generation links to the West Indies. It seems probable he was a mixed-race son. The Hornes bought the estate in 1814. They had also benefited from slavery. In 1836 Donald Horne and his sister Isabella McLeay were awarded £1981 0s 11d compensation as co-trustees for her late husband Kenneth MacLeay when slaves on his plantation in British Guiana were freed. Legacies of British Slave-ownership database https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/claim/view/8644 (accessed 20 December 2016)

[6] Kopuri is an Indian surname. Rotuma is a Fijian dependency.

[7]. Although not slaves, without local networks their options for changing their occupation or employer were more limited. However, A.S. Cowper notes that Anderson latterly ran the Berriedale Inn. I can find no source for this claim which appears in ‘Burial grounds of Caithness and Sutherland’ Caithness Field Club Bulletin, 3.5 (1983). http://www.caithness.org/caithnessfieldclub/bulletins/1983/april1983/burialgrounds.htm (accessed 20 December 2016). It is not supported by the 1841 census where the proprietors are MacLeods. As early as 1790, Bishop Geddes notes ‘dining at Henderson’s’ in Berriedale. William Anderson, ‘Bishop John Geddes: Journal Ambula Coram Deo, Part Second’, The Innes Review, 6.2, (1955), 140. It is possible Geddes misheard the name but he does not comment on Henderson’s race. This, the early date, and the name suggest this proprietor was not William Anderson. However it is perfectly possible he ran the business sometime between the 1790s and 1841.