She kept a stir in tower and trench
That brawling boisterous Scottish wench.
Came I early, came I late
Black Agnes was always at the gate.
So runs a verse, allegedly penned by an English soldier, about the spirited defence of Dunbar Castle in 1338 against an English army by Agnes, countess of Dunbar, during the Second Scottish War of Independence. About a month ago, there was a television broadcast featuring her story. Well known to lovers of Scottish history in earlier centuries, Agnes had largely slipped from popular historical consciousness in the twenty and twenty-first centuries, apart from being portrayed on the sign of a pub in Dunbar (now closed, I believe). In recent years, however, Agnes and a whole host of other women are being brought back into the popular history of Scotland, with such initiatives as the Mapping Memorials to Women in Scotland website, the campaign to choose a woman for the Hall of Heroes in the Wallace Monument, the Saltire Society’s Outstanding Women of Scotland local walking trails of women’s history, and many others. Women’s History Scotland and the Glasgow Women’s Library are at the forefront of promoting academic work on Scottish women’s history. At a time when the country has its first woman First Minister and two of the other major political parties are led by women, it seems opportune to reflect on the development of my own involvement in research and teaching in the subject.
My journey towards the history of Scottish women began, ironically, furth of the country, shortly after I had left Edinburgh University for Canada in 1985, having completed my PhD on social life in fourteenth-century Scottish towns. Some women featured in my research but it did not occur to me to give them more than a passing mention. Interest in the history of women was only beginning to develop at the time in Scotland and had not made much impact on the academy, despite the efforts of some early pioneers. It was my first academic position, at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, which opened my eyes to women’s history. In the next office was a colleague who worked on the history of women, a field which was considerably more developed in North America than it was in Scotland. Suddenly I became aware of a whole new field of historical enquiry. I organised conferences on the history of medieval women at both Western and in my next position at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. When I moved to the University of Guelph in1988, I was able to bring together my twin interests in Scottish history and women’s history.
Working at Guelph has provided opportunities which I was unlikely to find elsewhere in North America. The graduate programme has included Scottish history among its fields of emphasis since first being established in the mid 1960s by the Scottish historian, William Stanford Reid. Since 2004 with the appointment of the first endowed Scottish Studies Foundation Chair (Professor Graeme Morton, and since 2015 Professor James Fraser), there has been a Centre for Scottish Studies. As a result, Guelph has always included a lively cohort of Master’s and Doctoral students working on Scottish topics, including several from outside Canada, with many of them studying the medieval and early modern periods. This has provided an ongoing vibrant intellectual atmosphere from which I (and I hope the students!) have benefited greatly. The History Department itself includes many staff with interests in gender history and this has been very valuable in providing a comparative context for those who work on Scottish history. Since the 1990s, the Guelph graduate programme has been part of the Tri-University Graduate Program with the nearby Universities of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier, giving graduate students access to the expertise of over 50 historians during their studies.
In the last decade especially, interest in medieval and early modern Scottish women’s and gender history has increased among the graduate students at Guelph. PhD and MA thesis topics have ranged from women and crime in medieval Scotland and in early modern towns, to servants’ lives, the making of marriage in early modern Scotland, medieval marriage contracts, early modern women’s economic roles, the role of speech in the witchhunt, women’s ambition, masculinity in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, aristocratic women and queens. One of the joys has been working with the students on publications. As well as the annual open-access journal International Review of Scottish Studies The Centre produces a series of volumes, Guelph Studies in Scottish History, which are co-edited by staff and current or recent graduate students. These will shortly
be available as open-access publications. Shaping Scottish Identities (2011) co-edited with Jodi Campbell and Heather Parker included several articles on gender topics, and Gender and Mobility co-edited with Sierra Dye and Alice Glaze is due to appear this year. Several Guelph students have contributed entries to The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2006) and also to the new expanded edition which will appear in 2018. I have also benefited from the work of many students over the last decade in compiling and updating the online bibliography and resource WISH (Women in Scottish History) Many of our students have gone on to teach Scottish history elsewhere, including in the UK, Australia, and many of the different provinces in Canada. Through this new generation of scholars, many more students than ever before are being introduced to the field outside Scotland.
In the age of the internet, being based in Canada no longer means relative isolation from the academic community in Scotland (and indeed the rest of the world). Our students have access to scholars and resources in Scotland, both online and through research visits. Much of my own work has been focussed on bringing together both new and established scholars from around the globe to produce co-edited collections on new fields in Scottish history including volumes on medieval and early modern women (1999), the family (2008), children and youth (2015), and most recently masculinities in Scottish history medieval to modern (2017). I have also been able to work with Women’s History Scotland on collaborative projects such as The Biographical Dictionary and with other groups. One of my favourite projects was working with the developers of The Real Mary King’s Close on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile in 2003 to bring to public attention the story of Alison Rough (c.1480-1535), a middling-class Edinburgh woman whose unusually-well documented life came to a tragic end. Since then Alison has been portrayed in processions of Edinburgh notable historic characters, an advent calendar projected on Edinburgh City Chambers, and even a tea towel and a coffee mug! For me, Alison Rough is my own Black Agnes, brought back from historical oblivion, creating a stir, and always at the gate.
Dr Elizabeth Ewan is the University Research Chair and Professor of History at University of Guelph. She can be found on twitter @kiritekatawa or reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org