Upon the death of Scottish Doctor and Suffragist Elsie Inglis, Winston Churchill remarked that Inglis and her band of nurses would ‘shine in history’. From a Lady who raised rebel troops, to a seafaring businesswoman, here are five real-life heroines who have shone against the backdrop of Scottish history:
Dr. Elsie Inglis – Surgeon and Suffragette
16 August 1864 – 26 November 1917
Elsie Inglis had the good fortune of having enlightened parents who considered the education of their daughter just as important as that of their sons. Upon the family’s return to Scotland from India, Elsie enrolled at the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1886 under Dr Sophia Jex-Blake. At the time women were barred from admission to Scottish universities. Upon qualification Inglis was appalled at the general standard of care and lack of specialisation in the needs of female patients. This prompted her to establish a medical practice, followed soon after by a maternity hospital in Edinburgh’s slums and a midwifery resource centre. Inglis often waived fees for patients and would also pay for her patients to recuperate by the seaside.
Inglis was an active suffrage campaigner in Scotland – by 1900 she was speaking at up to four meetings a week throughout Scotland, and in 1909 was made secretary of the Federation of Scottish Suffrage Socieites.
On the outbreak of World War One, Inglis suggested to the war office that women’s medical units be allowed to serve on the Western Front, to which the office famously replied – “My good lady, go home and sit still.” However other allies were desperate for help, with France and Serbia accepting her offer. The first unit left for France in November 1914, and by 1916 units had been stationed in Serbia, Corsica, Salonika, Romania, Russia and Malta. Inglis went with the teams sent to Serbia, where her work was instrumental in restricting the spread of typhus.
During active service in Russia in 1917, Inglis was taken ill with cancer and died a day after returning home. A memorial plaque hangs on the wall of St Gile’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, and from 2009 Elsie’s image appeared on £50 notes issued by the Clydesdale Bank.
Flora MacDonald – Jacobite Heroine
1722 – 1790
Perhaps the most well known of Scottish Heroines, Flora MacDonald’s story has been immortalised in many Jacobite ballads and legends. Bought up under the care of the chief of the MacDonalds of Clanraid, Flora was living on the island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides when Prince Charlie sought refuge there following his defeat at Culloden. The island was controlled by the Hanoverian Government, but the MacDonalds were secretly sympathetic to the Jacobite cause.
After some hesitation Flora agreed to help the Prince escape the island by disguising him as the Irish spinning maid, ‘Betty Burke’. She obtained permission for her party to leave the island, and set sail to Skye on 27 June, 1746. Flora and her party hid overnight in a cottage and then traveled over the next few days overland to Portree, at one point narrowly avoiding government soldiers. Charles eventually escaped to France, however Flora was arrested after one of the boatmen had talked about the strange maid who had traveled with them to Skye. She was imprisoned, first in Dunstaffnage Castle, then in the Tower of London, where she was allowed to live nearby “on parole”. Flora was later released under the Indemnity Act of 1747.
Three years later Flora married Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh, and in 1774 they emigrated to North Carolina. Allan was captured while fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. They returned to Skye following Allan’s release in 1779. It is said that Flora was buried in a bed sheet used by Prince Charlie during his stay in Benbecula.
Captain Betsy Miller – Sea Captain and Businesswoman
11 June 1792 – 12 May 1864
Captain Elizabeth (Betsy) Miller achieved the distinction of being the first woman to be certified as a ships captain by the Board of Trade. Born in Saltcoats on the Ayrshire Coast, Betsy was employed in the family shipping business as an office assistant. Her brother Hugh was in line to take over the seafaring side of the business, but tragically drowned in a shipping accident. When the increasingly elderly Captain Miller succumbed to an illness that left him bedridden, the business rapidly started running up debts.
Approaching 40, Betsy stepped in to take command of the family’s brig Clytus and 14 man crew, soon gaining a reputation as a fine seawoman capable of handling the brig in the stormiest of conditions. Betsy came to be known as ‘The Queen of Saltcoats’, and was mentioned in the House of Commons during a debate on the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 1834.
For more than three decades Betsy sailed between Ayrshire and Ireland, also becoming well-known as a shrewd businesswoman. She expanded the cargo of goods shipped by the business to Ireland to include limestone and coal, reinstating the family name and making her fortune. She retired at the age of 70 and died two years later, leaving her younger sister Hannah to continue where she had left off.
Black Agnes Randolph – Countess of Dunbar and March
1312 – 1369
She kept a stir in tower and trench,
That brawling, boisterous Scottish wench,
Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate.
- From a ballad attributed to the Earl of Salisbury
Named after her flowing black hair, Black Agnes was married to Patrick Dunbar, 9th Earl of Dunbar and 2nd Earl of March and keeper of Dunbar Castle. Situated near Berwick in South-East Scotland, the castle was considered the key to Scotland and was the scene of many battles during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Edward III was determined to conquer Scotland and sent the Earl of Sailsbury to take Dunbar Castle. With Patrick away on military duties, William considered the castle easy pickings with only Agnes and a handful of men keeping guard.
On 13th January 1338, Sailsbury presented himself and his army in front of the castle, demanding that Agnes surrender. To his suprise she refused and stayed in the castle, stating “Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, He pays me meat and fee, And I will keep my gude and house, While my house will keep me.” Sailsbury ordered his army to fire catapults loaded with lead and rocks at the castle walls. Lady Agnes responded by having her maids dress in their Sunday best; leading them to the outer walls, where with their handkerchiefs they nonchalantly and slightingly dusted away the damage from the bombardment.
Sailsbury’s next attempt at taking the castle was by battering ram. Agnes gave the signal to her men as the ram approached the gate, and they dropped over the castle wall a boulder captured on the earlier assault, smashing the battering ram and dispersing the English troops. Over the coming five months, Sailsbury attempted many methods to force Agnes to leave the castle, including forcing the occupants out by starvation. However, he knew nothing of the secret door, partly underwater, that lay off the unguarded rocky side of the castle. Under cover of darkness, Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie arrived with men and supplies and delivered them through the concealed entrance. Salisbury was none too pleased when a few days later, Agnes sent him down a fresh loaf of bread and some fine wine. On 10 June 1338, Sailsbury was ordered to withdraw from Dunbar, leaving Agnes in sole possession of the castle.
Lady Anne was a Jacobite of Clan Farquharson and wife of Angus, chief of Clan MacKintosh. Despite her husband fighting for the Government during the ’45 Rising, Anne raised around 300 men from Clan MacKintosh and Clan Chattan to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie. As women could not command in the field, the command of the regiment was given to MacGillivray of Dunmaglass. The regiment joined the Prince at Bannockburn in January 1746, twelve days before the Battle of Falkirk.
One month later, the Prince was staying at Moy Hall, Lady Anne’s home when Anne received a message from her mother-in-law that Lord Loudon’s men (including her husband’s company) were planning a night raid to steal the Prince. Anne sent five of her staff out with guns to crash about and shout clan battle cries to trick the government forces into thinking they were about to face the Jacobite army. The ploy worked and the government army fled. The event became known as ‘The Rout of Moy’.
The next month her husband and 300 of Loudon’s men were captured north of Inverness. The Prince paroled Captain MacKintosh into the custody of his wife, Lady Anne, commenting “he could not be in better security, or more honourably treated.” She famously greeted him with the words, “Your servant, captain” to which he replied, “your servant, colonel” thereby giving her the nickname “Colonel Anne”. She was also called La Belle Rebelle (the beautiful rebel) by the Prince.
After the Battle of Culloden, Lady Anne was arrested and turned over to the care of her mother-in-law for a time. She later met the Duke of Cumberland at a social event in London with her husband. He asked her to dance to a pro-Government tune and she returned the favour by asking him to dance to a Jacobite tune.