Poised as I was to fly to Scotland for a pre-Christmas visit, this was an excellent guidebook to dip into. Sara Sheridan decided that a new guide to Scotland was needed, that included all the women who have not been celebrated as they should have been.
She was inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s map of the New York Subway that renames the stops after women, and by Val McDermid’s ‘Message from the Skies’ trail that celebrated Edinburgh’s female literary history. She was also appalled by the statistics.
- English Heritage found in 2016 that 40% of respondents thought that women did not impact history as much as men.
- Bettany Hughes calculated that in 2016 ‘female material makes up a mere 0.5% of recorded history’.
- In the UK only 15% of statues are of women, and most of these are to Queen Victoria.
- There are only five monuments to women in the whole of Glasgow.
The result is a remarkable guidebook of playful and serious inventiveness. Each city or region has been thoroughly overhauled for its women’s history and achievements, and many well-known landmarks and institutions (and a city!) have been renamed to draw attention to women equally worth memorialising. Sheridan has also invented many places and monuments that ought to exist, like the Museum of Misogyny in Dundee, and the giant bronze cradle slung between two of Papa Stour’s sea stacks in Shetland.
There are hundreds of discoveries to be made. I was particularly struck by the invention of a whalebone arch called the Jaw to commemorate the many Inuit women who traded on Sanday in the Orkneys, following the fishing there in the 18th and 19th centuries, and those who settled in Orkney in the 16th century during the Little Ice Age.
But the real pleasure in the book is its unexpectedly rich reading experience, not just for learning about the hundreds of Scotswomen and their legacies, but also navigating your way through a thoughtfully altered country. St Andrews has been renamed Magdalene, and why not? This also gives us Magdalene University, which throws up questions about why women were not allowed to attend university, why women’s education was restricted, and why name a city after a male disciple and not after a female one? The ‘and why not?’ response keeps occurring, strongest when you know the real-world places that have been renamed, and yet perfectly reasonable when you don’t.
- The spectacular Orkney sea stack the Old Man of Hoy is now the Old Lady of Hoy (and why not?)
- Princes Street is now Princess Street (named after Queen Charlotte’s six daughters)
- Edinburgh Castle is St Margaret’s Castle (Queen Margaret, the Pearl of Scotland)
- the Scott Monument is now the Ferrier Arch (Susan Ferrier, respected and successful 19thC author and contemporary of Sir Walter Scott)
- Arthur’s Seat is now Triduana’s Seat (after St Triduana)
- the Royal Troon Clubhouse is now the Wylie Clubhouse (after top pre-war golf player Phyllis Wylie who lived opposite the Club but was never allowed in due to its ban on women members)
- Fingal’s Cave is now Malvina’s Cave (the bride of Oscar and Ossian’s nurse)
- Aberdeen Music Hall is now the Garden Music Hall (after the celebrated opera singer Mary Garden)
- Fort William is now Fort Mary (Queen Mary was the daughter of James II, William was only her husband)
- St Magnus Cathedgral is now Thora’s Cathedral (his mother, who brought his martyred body back to Orkney for burial).
Sheridan had noticed that in real life, physical woman-shaped memorials are only symbols (the Statue of Liberty) or unnamed (Sheffield’s wartime steel workers). Here she adds to the collection by including many new monuments to unknown women to represent the vast numbers who will never be known. The Lone Lass monument teetering on the cliff-edge on Dunnet Head commemorates the millions of Scottish women facing unmarried pregnancy and societal condemnation. The many monuments to known and unknown women accused and murdered for witchcraft are scattered throughout the country.
To avoid confusion in the book, the first mention of each renamed place has a tiny superscript symbol of a woman, and each invented place, object or memorial event has a leaping superscript fish. There’s also a useful list of the renamed places, and an index. The illustrations by Jenny Proudfoot are from the Alasdair Gray school of line art, sinuous, evocative and memorable. It’s an excellent book, a genuinely useful and imaginative reference guide and thought-changer.
Where Are The Women? (Historic Environment Scotland, 2019) ISBN 978 1 84917 273 8, £16.99, available here.