Groundbreaking female explorers at the heart of new National Library of Scotland exhibitions


06 July 2021
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Petticoats and Pinacles exhibition curator Paula Williams
Two new exhibitions at National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh focus on intrepid explorers, adventurous ambassadors and overall rebels against convention.

Major exhibition Petticoats and Pinnacles: Scotland’s Pioneering Mountain Women presents the unsung heroes of mountain climbing, namely women. 

The characters range in date from a young woman who climbed Ben Lomond in 1760 (and was home in time for tea without appearing tired) to the first all-female expedition to the Himalayas in 1955, with a supporting cast up to the modern day. Well-known names such as Nan Shepherd, Isobel Wylie Hutchison and Isabella Bird sit alongside less familiar names such as Evelyn McNicol, Una Cameron, Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming, Jane Inglis Clark and Jane Duncan.

Ladies Scottish Mountain Climbing Club

Exhibition Curator, Paula Williams, said: “When I became the curator of maps and polar collections 10 years ago, it wasn’t long before I was asking – where are all the women? The Library has extensive collections of material documenting pioneering mountaineers, and I found that historically, women’s achievements were at best ignored, at worst vilified.


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“This exhibition is the result of considerable research into Scotland’s first known women mountaineers, and I am delighted to finally present this to the public. These women defied social convention and overcame considerable obstacles in their quest for adventure. Many of them were also celebrated poets, diarists and artists – all inspired by the breath-taking landscapes of Scotland, as well as the Alps, Himalayas, the Rockies and Yosemite. Some of their work will be on display alongside their epic stories.”

Henrietta Liston's Travels

The Collections in Focus display, The Eye of a Stranger: Henrietta Liston’s Travels, presents the journals and letters of a Glasgow woman who travelled by diplomatic means to Constantinople (Istanbul) more than 200 years ago, and spent years observing and documenting international relations and local customs.

Henrietta Liston, botanist and prolific travel writer, accompanied her husband Robert Liston, who was appointed British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte. Neither had aristocratic or diplomatic origins, but the influential couple navigated circles that included presidents, writers and monarchs.

Curator Dora Petherbridge said: “In her travel journals Henrietta Liston writes about Sultan Mahmud II, the Ottoman elite and the European diplomatic corps with discernment and wit. Her enquiring voice also takes us with her to walk through Constantinople ‘as much incognito as possible’, to watch pilgrims depart on the hajj, see burial grounds full of plague victims, and to marvel at Mount Olympus. Full of curiosity, wonderment and moments of dynamic intercultural connection, her writing shows her consciousness that she looked at Turkey with the ‘eye of a stranger’.”

Exhibition details 

Both free exhibits open to the public on Saturday 10 July, at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.

‘The Eye of a Stranger: Henrietta Liston’s Travels’ runs until 6 November.

‘Petticoats and Pinnacles: Scotland’s Pioneering Mountain Women’ runs until 28 May 2022. The exhibition is supported by Baillie Gifford.

There will be some degree of Covid-19-related restrictions in place, so people are strongly advised to visit the Library’s website for the latest guidance before visiting. Entry is free, but booking is essential. Visit National Library of Scotland.

Report and images courtesy of National Library of Scotland.