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8 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:01pm

Follow a trail of women’s statues to find the real undiscovered Scotland

Meet the woman who led a rent strike, and the first female doctors in the UK. 

By Gillian Martin

A century after women’s suffrage, women are still underrepresented in public statues and art.

To mark International Women’s Day, I am launching a campaign for a tourist trail highlighting Scotland’s best memorials to women. I hope that the concept will be adopted by tourist agencies and schools to highlight the important role played by women throughout history – as well as encouraging local councils to create more memorials to women.

The trail will be based on research I’ve conducted, asking all Scottish councils to provide a list of known memorials, as well as the Women of Scotland website – a crowdsourced resource attempting to create a comprehensive list of Scotland’s memorials to women.

To highlight some of the memorials that could be included in a tourist trail, here are some of my favourites:

1. Statue of Mary Barbour, Govan

Mary Barbour led thousands of Glaswegian tenants in a campaign against the steep rent rises during World War 1. With many men fighting on the continent, Glaswegian women – known as Mrs Barbour’s Army – led a rent strike.

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When tenants faced eviction for non-payment of rent, their neighbours would physically resist the sheriff officers, attacking them with flour and wet clothes.

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The campaign was successful, with the government capping rent at pre-war levels.

Barbour went onto be one of the first women elected to Glasgow council, and later opened Glasgow’s first family planning centre.

Her statue – unveiled outside Govan subway station this morning to mark International Women’s Day – shows Mary, clenched fist in the air, leading men, women and children of Glasgow in protest.

2. Memorial of Jane Haining, Dunscore Church, Dumfries and Galloway

An hour and a half drive south from Govan, in a small village in the Dumfries countryside, lies the picturesque Dunscore Church – home of a memorial to Jane Haining, who died in Auschwitz after protecting Jewish schoolgirls.

Jane was born in Dunscore and worked as a missionary in Budapest in the 1930s and 1940s.

After war broke out she ignored advice from church officials to return home, refusing to leave the schoolchildren during the “days of darkness”. She was arrested in 1944 and died in Aushwitz. She is the only Scot to be recognised at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Israel.

Dunscore Church hosts photographs, letters and other personal effects, and a memorial cairn stands near the church.

There are also two stained glass windows in Jane’s memory in Queen’s Park Govanhill Parish Church – and, further afield, part of the main riverside road in Budapest was renamed in her honour.

3. Sophia Jex-Blake and The Edinburgh Seven, Edinburgh

A two-hour drive north from Dunscore will take you to Edinburgh, which, somewhat infamously, has more statues to animals than to named women.

But there are in fact dozens of memorials to women in the Scottish capital – albeit less visible than the statues of men, and animals, that dot the city.

Sophia Jex-Blake wanted to become a doctor but was refused access to university – first to Harvard, and then in 1869 to Edinburgh. The University told her that they could not make the necessary arrangements for one woman.

She was not one to be easily deterred. Sophia advertised in newspapers encouraging other women to apply with her, and they were ultimately admitted – with the Edinburgh Seven becoming the first women to be admitted to a university in the UK.

The struggle didn’t end there. They were stalked and harassed by male students, and a mob of 200 rioted outside Surgeons’ Hall when the women arrived for an exam. The University ultimately refused to grant them degrees, but in 1899, after the efforts of the Edinburgh Seven, an Act of Parliament sanctioned degrees for women.

Sophia became one of the UK’s first female doctors and was later involved in founding medical schools in London and Edinburgh. 

There are a number of memorials to Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven, including at Edinburgh University, St Giles Cathedral and the site of the former Edinburgh hospital for women and children in Bruntsfield.

The Edinburgh Seven were Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson, and Emily Bovell.

4. Jackie Crookston statue, Tranent

Drive 11 miles east of Edinburgh, to Tranent High Street, where a woman marches, drum under her left arm and her right fist raised, with a child at her side. The statue remembers Jackie Crookston, who was killed resisting conscription.

With the British Army in need of troops, the Militia Act of 1797 allowed men to be conscripted into military service. In Tranent, women stood alongside mineworkers in protest. Faced with massed ranks of cavalry, Jackie Crookston led protestors, beating her drum to the chant of “Nae militia”.

The troops charged into the crowd, killing at least 20 – including Jackie – in what became known as the Massacre of Tranent.

It was a time of rebellion in Scotland, with the United Scotsmen – a secret society who wished to re-establish an independent Scotland – leading a failed rebellion in Perthshire in the same year. Jackie Crookston reminds it is not just Scotsmen who can be rebels, but Scotswomen too.

5. Fisher Jessie statue, Peterhead

East Lothian to Peterhead, close to my own constituency of Aberdeenshire East, is a journey of 175 miles up Scotland’s east coast. Peterhead is a fishing town, and Fisher Jessie stands in memory not of one history-making woman, but of generations of North-East women.

Named after Jessie Buchan, the great-great-grandmother of the sculptor, Fisher Jessie is a typical fishwife. With a shawl wrapped around her, a creel on her back and a basket under her arm, Jessie’s hand sits affectionately on the head of a small child by her side.

It is one of my favourite pieces of public art, and a reminder that, while time passes and industry changes, our connections to the past remain.

Gillian Martin is a Scottish National Party MSP for Aberdeenshire East.