Five remarkable women from Scottish history

01 February 2018
Explore the lives of five women who have made their mark on Scotland’s history, with this selection of biographies chosen by Professor Elizabeth Ewan, co-editor of The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women.


1. Peace campaigner and politician Betty Brown

BROWN, Elizabeth Philomena (Betty),  n. Lynch, MBE, born Dalmuir 27 Nov. 1928, died Glasgow 28 June 2016.

Teacher, activist, rent strike organiser. Daughter of Dublin-born Rose Dempsey, and John Lynch, shipyard labourer.

Betty Lynch grew up in Clydebank, in difficult circumstances. Her father died in 1929, and when she was 12, her mother was accidentally killed by her younger brother handling his uncle’s gun. Sent to live with aunts, Betty Lynch left school as soon as possible to work at Singer’s Sewing Machines. At 17, she married David Brown (b. 1925) and they had three children, one of whom became the well-known TV actress, Barbara Rafferty.

With little formal education, Betty Brown dreamed of becoming a teacher, and in her mid-40s enrolled in college, took Highers, and trained at Jordanhill. She then taught at Gavinburgh Primary School, Old Kirkpatrick. At the same time, she was an active community politician, who famously ‘got things done’, described by the press as ‘Battling Betty Brown’.

She first encountered politics in Clydebank Women’s Guild, and went on to become a Labour councillor and eventually Baillie of her home town. In 1971, she marched alongside Jimmy Reid during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ sit-in. They once more co-operated to launch the 1973 Clydebank rent strike against the Heath government’s Housing Act, raising council rents, but ultimately lost that particular battle.

As a peace campaigner, Betty Brown succeeded in having the Dove of Peace incorporated into Clydebank coat of arms. She campaigned for local causes to improve citizens’ lives. Garnethill Park, once a rubbish tip, is one of her lasting legacies, as a park, children’s play area, and multicultural community centre. She was awarded an MBE and named Evening Times Scotswoman of the Year, 1995. SR

Sklair, L. (1975) ‘The struggle against the Housing Finance Act’, Socialist Register 12, pp. 250–92; Glasgow Evening Times, 5 July 2016, The Herald, 5 July 2016 (obits.).

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2. Kay Matheson, helped recover the Stone of Scone

MATHESON, Katherine Bell (Kay), born Inverasdale, Wester Ross 7 Dec. 1928, died Aultbea 6 July 2013.

Participant in retrieval of Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey, Christmas Day 1950. Daughter of Margaret MacKenzie, and John Matheson, marine engineer.

Kay Matheson trained as a teacher of home economics in Glasgow. Joining the non-party Scottish Covenant Association which supported home rule within the UK, she met law student Ian Hamilton, who had campaigned successfully for the election of Covenant leader John MacCormick as Lord Rector of Glasgow University.

Hamilton gained unofficial support from prominent sympathisers for his scheme to retrieve the Stone of Scone. This sandstone block on which ancient Scottish kings were crowned had been carried south by Edward I, and built into the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey. Recruiting fellow-students Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart, Hamilton persuaded Kay Matheson to act as driver and decoy in a hired getaway car. She later said ‘there were only two girls in the Nationalist Movement mad enough to take part in the raid’ (Telegraph 2013).

The bold plan quickly ran into problems. During its move, the Stone fell into two unequal pieces: as Hamilton carried one part to the car, Kay spotted a policeman approaching and the pair quickly posed as young lovers, keeping him in conversation, while the others dragged away the bulkier portion. Having driven off alone to find a haven for her section of the stone, Kay Matheson returned home by train to avoid Border checks, her two broken toes a lifelong souvenir.

Reports of the exploit read like a comic thriller, and won sympathy for the reivers and their cause. English police eventually tracked down those involved, and the Stone was later returned to London. Kay Matheson was interviewed for five hours, but no charges were ever brought. When in 1996 the Queen granted the Stone’s return to Scotland, Kay was the only one of the four to attend its installation at Edinburgh Castle. Regarded as a heroine, she continued teaching in Highland schools and working for nationalist causes, saying: ‘Our recovery – not theft – of the Stone informed our whole lives.’ (Scotsman 2013). JMR

Gerber, P. (1992) The Search for the Stone of Destiny; Hamilton, I. R. (1952) No Stone Unturned; MacCormick, J. (1955) The Flag in the Wind; The Herald, 9 July 2013, The Scotsman, 8 July 2013, The Telegraph, 14 July 2013 (obits).

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3. Flora MacNeil, singer

MACNEIL, Flora,m. MacInnes, MBE, born Leideag, Isle of Barra 6 Oct. 1928, died Glasgow 15 May 2015.

Traditional Gaelic singer. Daughter of Annie Gillies, and Seamus MacNeil, fisherman.

Immersed in a rich oral tradition of Gaelic songs and stories from birth, Flora MacNeil ‘soaked up’ hundreds of songs, particularly from her mother, and her aunt, Mary Gillies. Aged 19, she went to Edinburgh to work in the telephone exchange, and began to perform regularly. In 1951, she sang at the Festival of Britain exhibition, and at the first People’s Festival of Edinburgh; thereafter her reputation soared. Following her return to Barra to run the telephone exchange, she met Alister MacInnes, a Glasgow solicitor. They married in 1955, and settled in Glasgow, raising five children.

Flora MacNeil's natural voice, traditional songs, and style of delivery set her apart from the more formal styles of the day. Her songs, she said, were ‘from another world, a world that had passed’, with a value beyond measure. She performed in Europe and the Americas, recording three solo albums, and appearing on TV and radio. In 1992 she was awarded an MBE, and in 2005 was inducted into the Scots Traditional Music Awards Hall of Fame. She was also Honorary Fellow of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (UHI) receiving the ‘Sàr Ghàidheal’ (‘Exceptional Gael’) award (2010), and Honorary Fellow of the ASLS (2014). Flora MacNeil passed on her songs to her daughter, singer and harp player Maggie MacInnes, and to many other singers who have been inspired by her singing and her songs. MMaci

MacNeil, F., albums: Flora, Caledonian Music Co.; Craobh nan Ubhal (1976 and 1993), Orain Flòraidh (2000), both Temple Records.

The Guardian, 20 May 2015, The Scotsman, 19 May 2015 (obits).

Personal knowledge.

4. Margery Sampson, bell ringer

SAMPSON, Margery Fletcher, born Leith, 10 Aug. 1890, died Edinburgh 14 Jan. 1915. Bellringer and teacher. Daughter of Alexandrina Dobbie, and William Brook Sampson, Clerk.

Bellringing was an exclusively male occupation in Scotland until 1907, when Margery Sampson joined the band of ringers at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, where her father was ringing master. She rang her first peal two years later, at St Cuthbert’s Church in Edinburgh – the first peal rung by a women in Scotland.

After leaving school, she studied at the Edinburgh School of Cookery then moved to Tamworth to work for Staffordshire County Council. While there she joined the St Martin’s Guild of Church Bellringers in Birmingham, and later became a founding member of the Ladies Guild. She rang a total of twelve peals, becoming only the second woman in the world to ring a peal of Stedman Cinques (12 bells) – a remarkable achievement for a young woman at that time.

Following her two-year stay in Tamworth, she returned to Edinburgh to teach at the Cookery School, but died aged 24 early in 1915. Tribute peals were rung in several towers after her death, and she was warmly remembered for her ‘whole-heartedness and enthusiasm which was an example to others’ (Ringing World, 29 Jan. 1915). BEA

The Ringing World, 22 Jan., 29 Jan. 5 Feb., 12 Feb., 5 March, 29 Oct., 1915; 28 Jan., 14 July, 1916.

5. Maud Sulter

SULTER, Maud, born Glasgow 19 Sept. 1960, died Dumfries 27 Feb. 2008.

Visual artist, photographer, writer, cultural activist. Daughter of Elsie Sulter, tramcar conductress, and Claud Ennin, eye surgeon and diplomat.

 Of Scottish and Ghanaian descent, Maud Sulter left Glasgow at 17 to attend the London College of Fashion, later graduating with MA in Photographic Studies at the University of Derby. A cultural polymath, she co-founded and was active in a range of Black feminist and lesbian projects from the early 1980s, and was uncompromising in her indictment of the inequalities that dogged the creative endeavours of Black women, both historically and in contemporary culture. Her work across several genres explored the terrain of colonialism, the erasure of Black Women’s history and the enduring presence of Africa in Europe.

From the landmark The Thin Black Line exhibition curated by Lubaina Himid (ICA, London, 1986), to her inclusion in the Johannesburg Biennial (1995), Maud Sulter’s work was widely shown, and is in many private and public collections including the NPG, SNPG, Scottish Parliament and Victoria and Albert Museum. She was the recipient of a Momart fellowship at Tate Liverpool (1990).

Maud Sulter joined Lubaina Himid as co-director of the influential Elbow Room Gallery at the end of the 1980s. As both curator and editor, she showcased her own work and that of other Black women creatives in ground-breaking exhibitions such as Zabat (1989) and Syrcas (1993), and publications including Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity (1990). Her photographic works and montages, such as Hysteria (1991), Les Bijoux (2002) and Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama (2003) are increasingly read as pioneering (see Cherry 2015).

Alongside academic writing, she published a play, Service to Empire (2002) and several collections of poetry: As a Blackwoman (1985, which won the Vera Bell Prize), Zabat: Poetics of a Family Tree (1989) and Sekhmet (2005). A prolific prose writer, she contributed many essays to magazines and journals as well as exhibition catalogues. In her final years, Maud Sulter, who had three children, returned to Scotland, a country to which she remained closely connected. She died from cancer aged 47. AP

GWL, Scottish Poetry Library, Stuart Hall Library: holdings by and about Maud Sulter.

Sulter, M., Works as above, and (1990) Necropolis.

Cherry, D. (ed.) Maud Sulter: Passion (2015).

For more information on sources on Scottish women, visit the Women In Scottish History website.

Extracts taken from The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, published by Edinburgh University Press.

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