- The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women
As the introduction to this volume states, there has indeed been an ‘impressive amount of Scottish historical writing in recent years’. In that category, not least have been tomes focused particularly on Scottish women and their contributions to the nation’s history and culture, ranging from collections such as A History of Scottish Women’s Writing and An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets to individual studies, such as Pamela Ritchie’s Mary of Guise in Scotland, 1548–1560: A Political Career and John Guy’s My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. With The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, the editors and the numerous contributing authors do an admirable job of reclaiming the sometimes ‘lost’ achievements or fame of Scottish women, as well as admirably summarising the careers of those who are better-known, through the more than 1,000 brief biographies featured in this work. The significance and visibility of the women represented in this volume cover a remarkable range both chronologically and in the level of their obscurity, from the shadowy Taneu, or Thenew, traditionally identified (according to this book) as the daughter of a 5th century king of Lothian, to HRH Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, whose death in 2002 [End Page 354] was marked by major public tributes reflecting her long, well-documented, and affectionately remembered life.
The editors set out the criteria for inclusion clearly in their introduction, including their explanations for potentially controversial choices. One was their decision to include ‘quasi-historical’ figures for which no evidence other than brief mentions may exist, as in the case of Marion Braidfute, whose appearance in Wyntoun’s Chronicle and Blind Harry’s poem on William Wallace cannot be substantiated by any other source, but whose role is of considerable importance in the Wallace saga and in Scottish historical memory. Equally interesting is the editors’ decision to include women who represent a certain role in ‘Scottish life or economy,’ such as the Newhaven fishwife Barbara Flucker (n. Johnston), who serves as both an illustration of the individual lives of the stalwart and strong-minded women of the Scottish fishing villages and as a window into the life of a tightly-knit community, or the Canongate innkeeper and ‘ale seller’ Lucky Wood, for whom no stronger evidence exists than a poetic elegy by Allan Ramsay, who presents her as a symbol of a dying world. The volume even extends to the inclusion of the unarguably fictional cartoon character ‘Maw Broon’, who the editors describe as a ‘Scottish icon.’
The writing varies, with some entries exhibiting a lively wit and fluidity, and others reading a bit more stiffly, or occasionally resorting to cliché. However, creative word choices, such as ‘hyperactive’ to describe the philanthropic activities of Ishbel Maria Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, or the inclusion of the author’s assessment regarding the enervating qualities of the writer Helen Adam’s works, give an appealing humour to the text and a personality to the subjects which is likely to appeal to both the general and scholarly reader, and perhaps prompt them to further examination of the person in question.
The editors acknowledge the difficulties inherent in the highly charged issue of deciding whether someone qualifies as ‘Scottish,’ a point that the entry for James Barry, here provisionally identified also as Margaret Bulkley, directly addresses, using Barry/Bulkley as a pertinent example of the fluidity of both sexual and national identity in certain cases. Such arguments will be familiar to any art historian who has been involved in discussions over what can be included in collections devoted to ‘Scottish’ or ‘British’ art in a way that does not discount the value of the diaspora, or the itineracy of artists in search of education or inspiration. No doubt the editors of this richly layered volume will encounter arguments from colleagues and readers over inclusions and exclusions, but they have stated their rationale well.