Women Of Scotland
A small country at the western fringe of Europe, Scotland has produced more than her quota of outstanding personalities. The exploits of Scottish men such as William Wallace, David Livingstone and John Logie Baird are well known. However, Scotland has also produced an amazing number of outstanding women. From mediaeval warriors such as Black Agnes of Dunbar to Betsy Miller, Britain’s first female ship master, from Williamina Fleming, the leading female astronomer of the 19th century to Victoria Drummond, Britain’s first female chief engineer, Scotswomen have faced tribulation and emerged triumphant. Scotland has also produced politicians such as Flora Drummond and Katherine Marjory, and literary women such as Mary MacLeod and Alison Cockburn.
Nevertheless, despite such a gathering of genius and grit, it is perhaps the ordinary, unsung women of Scotland who deserve more praise, for they have held the nation together. From fisherwomen to mill workers, temperance workers to smugglers, this book introduces some of Scotland’s women.
Chapter One - Saints And Warrior Women Of The Celts: Folklore And Legend
‘Where there’s a cow there’s a woman, and where there’s a woman there’s mischief.’ Saint Columba
When the Romans invaded what was to become Scotland they had to contend with a ferocious enemy who fought with courage, skill and a mastery of guerrilla tactics that caused the legions many problems. Although they won a significant victory at Mons Graupius in 83 AD, the Romans could not conquer this northern land and eventually withdrew behind Hadrian’s Wall. Few eyewitness account relate the type of persons the Romans encountered in the glens and straths, but when Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman of the fourth century AD met the Gauls, a Celtic people similar to the Picts of Scotland, he said that they were ‘terrible from the sternness of their eyes, very quarrelsome and of great pride and insolence.’ It is a description that may still be apt to many Scots today. Yet, while the Romans considered that Celtic men were dangerous opponents, they seemed to hold their women in even greater awe.
Marcellinius claimed that ‘a whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance.’ It seems that these women were ‘very strong…especially when, swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size, she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks.’ As the Romans eventually defeated the Gauls, but failed to defeat the Picts, it is conceivable that the latter were even more formidable.
The morals of the Pictish women, at least, seem to have scandalised the visitors for, according to Roman accounts, they were free to make love with whomsoever they wished. Marriage among the Celts was easy, and divorce so simple that weddings may have been an annual event. However there were also legal concubines, a second wife who lived beside the first or principal wife. The law permitted a jealous principal wife to beat the concubine, which must have created some uneasy relationships. Yet concubinage appears to have been quite a common practice, despite the second wife’s title of ‘adultrach’: the adulteress.
There were as many as ten different forms of marriage in the Celtic world, from a conveniently casual sexual bond to permanent union. An echo of these arrangements was apparent as late as the 18th century when Handfasting, a form of trial marriage, was common in Scotland, despite the disapproval of the kirk. There is an interesting legend that a Pictish woman made love to the father of Pontius Pilate while he was on a mission north of the Roman Frontier. Between them they created the young Pilate who later became governor of Jerusalem. Although the story is probably apocryphal, it does illustrate the idea of sexual freedom that Scotswomen enjoyed.
But who would marry one of these dominant, ferocious women? Many, for Celtic women echoed society; warfare and quarrelling were major pleasures so a docile, humble wife would have been no fun, no challenge. A woman of might and assertion was an equal partner in life’s adventures.
When not fighting or loving, Celtic women took pride in their appearance. The Celtic women known to the Romans seemed to have lived short lives, with many dying in their early twenties, but they made the most of the time that they had. They married young, at about twelve years old and apparently flirted outrageously. They used dye from berries to tint their eyebrows and paint their lips, and also rouged their cheeks. They seem to have been immensely proud of their braided hair, and kept their combs in personal bags.
Celtic women wore plaid skirts and gold or silver anklets, necklaces and bracelets, they had rings on their fingers and in their ears and thrust decorated pins through their hair. The noblewomen wore elaborate torques around their neck and decorated the brooches that held their clothes. They even washed in warm water, a habit that many of their urban descendants forgot, and were very careful of their fingernails. It is possible that Celtic women wore sandals, so they could display the rings in their toes.
Indeed, Celtic women were so vain of their appearance that the law demanded a fine from anybody who insulted their looks, clothes or make up. Celtic law also forbade anybody from lying about a woman’s reputation or insulting her. If her husband had slept with another woman, a Celtic wife could legally kill her love rival provided she committed the deed in hot blood. The wife was allowed three days between discovering the adultery and despatching the culprit; after that her anger was supposed to have abated. There does not seem to be anything written about subsequent relations with her husband; presumably they kissed and made up once she had proved her love.
Men, however, enjoyed the beauty and appearance of their women. ‘Her upper arms were as white as the snow of a single night and they were soft and straight; and her clear and lovely cheeks were as red as the foxglove.’ So says the 8th century saga of Etain, the most attractive woman in Ireland. The description praised her eyebrows, teeth and eyes, smooth shoulders, long hands, slender sides and warm thighs. It concluded, ‘all are lovely till compared with Etain. All are fair till compared with Etain.’
So these assertive women did not overawe their men, nor did they adopt masculine habits to prove their capability; both genders accepted and joyed in the differences of the other. Women enjoyed equal legal standing with men; they possessed property and in widowhood they became owners of their husband’s goods. Women could lead the tribe as Queen or even war leader. Although there are no remaining records of Pictish Queens, leaders such as Boudicca of the Iceni, Cartimandua of the Brigantes and Medb of Connacht were powerful Celtic queens. There is no reason to doubt that their Pictish contemporaries were any different.
Women appear to have been extremely important in Dark Age Scotland. Celtic mythology awards women with skills, powers and prestige that were sadly lacking in many other peoples. Women were deeply involved in the spiritual cult of rebirth, and goddesses such as the Morrigan, or Great Queen, and Danann, the queen of other gods were at the apex of the Celtic pantheon. It is tragic that the Picts have not left us a literary legacy, but the Gaels told tales of the great Queen Medb of Connacht, while Cu Cuchlainn, the hero of Dark Age Ireland, was trained in the Isle of Skye. His trainers, Scatach and Aife were both women, while Welsh legends also tell of training schools where females instructed male warriors. Women seemed equally important in religion, where black-clad female Druids resisted the Roman assault on Anglesey.
Ancient tradition maintains that the name Hebrides evolved from the name Ey-brides or Isles of Saint Brigit, who looked after the outer isles. The original Saint Brigit was a Gaelic goddess, daughter of the Dagda, patroness of poets. Legend says that Brigit was also the goddess of fire, and only women of noble birth could attend the holy fires at her temples. These women were known as the ‘daughters of fire.’ With the advent of Christianity, Saint Bride replaced the goddess Brigit and a new set of legends began in the Isles of Saint Bride. The oystercatcher became Bride’s especial bird, the First of February became St Bride’s Day and Bride, who was also known as ‘Mary of the Gael’ was thought to have been midwife to the Virgin Mary. A charming folk tale relates how Saint Bride lit a crown of candles on her head, to distract Herod’s searchers from the Christ. Such a colourful and resourceful woman was the natural choice for a Celtic saint, so the Christian Church established the order of the nuns of St Brigit to eradicate memories of the pagan goddess Brigit. These island nuns were possibly the first community of Christian women in Western Europe. In time Christian women settled in other parts of what became Scotland, with, for instance, Abbess Aebbe ruling at Coldingham, southeast of the Forth.
Scotland seemed to produce a clutch of unique female saints. One of the earliest came from what is now East Lothian, which according to legend, was ruled by a pagan king named Loth. The king was unhappy when his daughter, Thenew, embraced the new Christian religion, and even more unhappy when she embraced a lover who was not only Christian but also from a lower social class. It was almost inevitable that she became pregnant, and that her father should notice. In those days of the 6th century, a king’s wrath could be explosive, and Loth ordered his warriors to throw Thenew over the sheer cliffs of Traprain Law. Perhaps it was because she was persecuted for the sake of righteousness that Thenew landed safely, and a cool spring gushed from the spot where she had fallen. Unabashed, King Loth remained determined to execute his daughter, so placed her in a coracle and pushed her without food, water or paddle into the Firth of Forth.
Secure in her faith, Thenew waited for the next miracle. The tide carried her to the Isle of May, then over toward Culross in Fife. When Thenew saw a fire on the shore, she took it for a message of hope from the Lord, and approached closely. She knew that her time was close, and gave birth to her son in the gentle warmth of the flames. The monks that tended the fire took Thenew to St Serf, who adopted the infant boy. The saint named the youngster Kentigern, which meant Chief Lord, or Mungo, which translates into Loveable Man, and when Kentigern grew up he created the religious foundation that became Glasgow Cathedral. Kentigern’s mother, Thenew was also sainted, and is remembered as Saint Enoch.
Another of Scotland’s early saints was Saint Triduana, who, according to legend, landed at Kilrymont in the company of St Rule. Kilrymont was an important Pictish community that is better known as St Andrews, but Triduana eventually settled at Restenneth near Forfar in the Pictish kingdom of Circinn. Unfortunately, Nechtan, the local king, was a passionate man with an eye for the ladies, while Triduana was young, shapely and beautiful.
When Nechtan’s attentions became too offensive, Triduana fled from Circinn and settled in Dynfallandy, in the hill country near Pitlochry. However, Nechtan was as persistent as he was amorous, and sent his men to scour the country for the eastern beauty. Naturally, a woman as exotic as Triduana could not remain undetected for long, and the king’s men found her.
‘Come back to Circinn,’ they pleaded, ‘for King Nechtan desires your company.’
Triduana listened to their requests then asked ‘What does so great a prince desire of me, a poor virgin dedicated to God?’
‘The king desires the most excellent beauty of thine eyes,’ answered the ambassadors, ‘which if he obtains not, he will assuredly die.’
‘Ah,’ said Triduana, ‘then that which he seeketh he shall assuredly have.’ Plucking out her eyes with a thorn, she handed them to the ambassadors, who carried them back to Nechtan.
Strangely, once he had her eyes, the king seemed to lose interest in the saint, who moved south to Lothian and settled in a cell near Edinburgh. Restalrig Church now stands where Triduana lived out her life, and because of her sacrifice, she is known as a saint for the blind.
These harbingers of Christianity were not always welcome. One monastic community was established on the island of Eigg, seven miles west of the Scottish mainland. At one time St Donan ruled over more than fifty monks here, white robed, peaceful and devout as they pastured their animals and prayed to the Lord. Unfortunately they had not reckoned with their neighbours. In 618 AD the Martyrology of Donegal relates: ‘there came robbers of the sea on a certain time to the island, when he, Donan, was celebrating Mass. He requested of them not to kill him until he should have the Mass said, and they gave him this respite, and he was afterwards beheaded and 52 of his monks along with him.’
Massacres of monks were virtually unknown in those pre-Viking days, and this particular act of butchery was highly unusual in that a woman sanctioned it. A Pictish queen from nearby Moidart grazed her sheep on Eigg and so resented the monk’s intrusion that she told her warriors to remove them. If the chronicles are correct, the reaction of this Moidart queen is an early example of what became a recurring theme of history: it is always better not to anger a Scotswoman. It was no real wonder that Eigg was also known as the ‘island of the big women.’
In these days before Scotland was formed, the country was a confusion of small kingdoms, each ruled by a petty sub-king. Interestingly, some historians, such as Nora Chadwick, believe that the Picts, whose kingdoms covered a great deal of the north and east of the land, followed laws of matrilineal succession. That meant that the kingship was decided on the bloodline of the mother, rather than the father, which highlights the importance of women in old Scotland. Other historians, namely Alfred Smyth, dispute this unique manner of selecting a monarch, and explain that the Picts may have been a subject people, ruled by foreign kings who may, or may not, have had a Pictish mother.