Speaking Out: recalling Women’s Aid in Scotland

Speaking Out image.jpg

On the blog today, Emma Gascoigne from Scottish Women's Aid introduces us to the inspiring women associated with the Women’s Aid movement in Scotland, who persisted in the face of adversity.

Women are all too often written out of history. Their contributions to society overlooked and their achievements relegated to the shadows. It’s a story women are very familiar with. We don’t see ourselves represented in the history books or memorialised by plaques and statues. We’re left with the impression that Scotland, as a nation, was built on the ingenuity and accomplishments of men alone. That’s why, when I first heard about the #Scotswummin project back in January, it put a huge smile on my face.

I’m currently working on a women’s heritage project, Speaking Out: Recalling Women’s Aid in Scotland, and definitely feel there’s a positive groundswell of projects and research focused on highlighting the impact that women have had and continue to have in shaping Scottish society and communities. We have to make the effort to recognise and celebrate the importance and influence of Scottish women over the years and #Scotswummin is set to be instrumental in that mission.

Speaking Out is a Heritage Lottery Funded partnership project between Scottish Women’s Aid (Scotland’s national domestic abuse charity), Glasgow Women’s Library, Women’s History Scotland and the University of Glasgow Centre for Gender History. We’ve been collecting oral history interviews with people who have been associated with the Women’s Aid movement in Scotland over its 40+ years of history. So far, we’ve interviewed women who helped set up local Women’s Aid groups, current managers and workers, service users, politicians and academics who were influential in pushing forward the domestic abuse agenda.

We’re sharing the information and stories we’ve been gathering through a touring exhibition, project film, young people’s learning resource, publication and Scotland-wide programme of events. You can find out more about the project and view the film on our website www.speakingout.womenslibrary.org.uk and by connecting with us on Twitter @SpeakingOut_SWA.

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There have been so many incredibly inspiring women associated with the Women’s Aid movement in Scotland, who persisted in the face of adversity – unsympathetic local councils, apathy from the police, denigration in the press – to successfully establish services to support women, children and young people experiencing domestic abuse and to change the ways in which Scottish society understands and talks about domestic abuse. This tradition is carried on by the many current Women’s Aid workers spread all over Scotland, from Dumfries and Galloway to Shetland, who work to provide information, support and temporary refuge accommodation for women and their children and also by the call handlers at the National Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline (0800 027 1234) who provide confidential assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The women of Women’s Aid in Scotland, both past and present, are all inspirational #Scotswummin, champions of women’s rights and tireless campaigners for the eradication of domestic abuse. A world without domestic abuse is not just a dream, it’s a possibility.

How Joan Severn and John Ruskin came to meet

Last week. Scotswummin interviewee Maggie Stuart introduced us to Joan Severn, cousin of the famous John Ruskin and her own addition to our exhibition of forgotten historical heroines. Joan would eventually come to play a huge role in John's life, her correspondence with him often acting as his personal diary. But how did they come to meet in the first place? Maggie explains...

Joan Severn (née Agnew) by John McClelland © National Portrait Gallery, London

Joan Severn (née Agnew) by John McClelland © National Portrait Gallery, London

John Ruskin was very proud of his Scottish connections. His father’s side of the family included many well-known Galloway names: the Agnews of Stair, Adairs of Gennoch (near New Luce), and the Tweddels or Tweddales of Glenluce. The Tweddales were a staunch Presbyterian family, originally from the Lothians. There is a story, told by Ruskin, that one member of the family, Catherine Tweddale, had been given a copy of the National League and Covenant by Baillie of Jarviswood before his execution in 1785. She passed it to her nephew, a minister of Glenluce, whose son succeeded him as the parish minister and when he died it was donated to a museum in Glasgow. Subsequent efforts by the Ruskin scholar Helen Gill Viljoen to validate this story were unsuccessful.

Joan’s mother’s side of the family were Tweddales. Her mother was Catherine Tweddale, the daughter of James Tweddale, collector of customs in Wigtown. James was the brother of the Catherine Tweddale who had run away to marry the young English grocer John Thomas Ruskin, the grandparents of the now-famous John Ruskin. Also brought up in the Tweddale home in Wigtown was Catherine’s brother John. This uncle of Joan’s went to live in London and was later to be an important link between the Ruskins and the Wigtown relations.

For young Joan, life cannot have been easy. Until the age of six, she must have lived in a sad and stressed household - her father in and out of madness and her mother struggling with pregnancies and bereavement. Joan’s education appears to have been sketchy. The literature of the time has many examples of a basic education being given at home and there were also numerous small private schools catering for the middle classes. Girls would be taught the skills thought to be essential for young ladies, fancy needlework, perhaps a little French, nothing highbrow. We know she had singing lessons; Joan’s own description of being taught by a blind man appears in Ruskin’s Praeterita, part of which was written by Joan, her cousin at the time suffering one of his many mental breakdowns. She could play the piano and her Scottish dancing was admired, especially by Ruskin. Her upbringing, in spite of straitened circumstances, would have been that of a lady. For example, she seemingly never learned to cook. It would be fairly unusual for a girl of her class to be given an academic education. It is unlikely that she attended the Subscription School in Harbour Road where her father had been the first name on the list of subscribers.

Yet in 1864, when she was 17, Joan made the journey from Wigtown to London. It is quite possible that she travelled alone. We don’t always appreciate that Victorian children were not wrapped in cotton wool and in fact many were sent on long journeys with instructions to carters, ship’s stewards and the like to keep an eye on them.

Not all the accounts agree on the details of Joan’s move to London - it’s not easy to work out the sequence of events. We know that she first went to stay with her uncle John and his sisters in London. Was it discussed before she left Wigtown that she would become a companion to Ruskin’s mother after the death of his father? Ruskin's father had also died in 1864. He needed to find a companion for his mother; he knew that without her husband, she would make great demands on him and so he resorted to what was a common practice in Victorian times and cast around for someone within the family to befriend old Mrs Ruskin. It is not clear exactly how Joan came to his notice but in the same year as his father’s death, Joan joined the household.

It is surely too much of a coincidence that she just happened to be visiting her uncle when old Mrs Ruskin needed support. The story, according to Ruskin in his autobiography Praeterita, is that her uncle introduced her to John with the words "This is Joan." She almost instantly endeared herself to him and his mother, and arrangements were made for her to join the household. Ruskin had met Joan and her family three years previously on a visit to Scotland. He wrote that he couldn’t remember Joan but knew that she "would be nice." It seems strange that her mother would want to let her go. In the days before the telephone and when travel took so much longer, it would be a serious decision. Did her mother let her go with a heavy heart, sacrificing her own feelings in order to give Joan all the advantages of a life with the wealthy Ruskins? Or was she so broken in spirit that she wanted no more family responsibility? Whatever the circumstances it was agreed that Joan would visit Wigtown for one month every year, a rather cut-and-dried arrangement more like an employment contract than an easygoing family agreement. Her mother does not seem to have made any trips to London.

It cannot have been an easy transition from the quiet life she had in Wigtown to the much grander and intellectual atmosphere of her new London home. Ruskin was 40 and at the height of his intellectual powers. His mother had a difficult temperament, nor was she liberal in her views; she insisted upon having the Turners and other works of art covered over on Sundays because they gave too much enjoyment on the Sabbath. It is to Joan’s credit that she was able to develop a warm and loving relationship with her ‘auntie’.

Joan’s life became very different from the one she would have had in Wigtown. In less than a year, Joan became Ruskin’s ward, staying with him at Denmark Hill, the rather grand house bought by his father. She was given three rooms, beautifully furnished, and a very generous allowance. She seemed to settle easily into the Ruskin household. It was a much grander establishment than she had known at home where her mother, according to census returns, had only two teenage servants. Young Joan took over the running of the place, dealing with the servants, helping Ruskin with his affairs and even cutting his hair.

Maggie will be blogging for us over the next few weeks, revealing more about Joan's life, her connections to John Ruskin and Wigtown, and why she thinks this Scotswummin deserves her moment in the spotlight.

Who was Joanna Ruskin Tweddale Sproat Severn?

Our Dumfries and Galloway researchers are busy interviewing the women of Wigtown as they prepare for this summer's exhibition at Glasgow Women's Library. And they've discovered a whole new generation of heritage hunters to help along the way!

Maggie Stuart originally came to the group as an interviewee, but it turned out she had a Scotswummin suggestion of her own: Joanna Ruskin Tweddale Sproat Severn. Here, Maggie introduces 'Joan' and the beginnings of her own Scotswummin research.

In September 1924, this letter was published in the Galloway Gazette, Wigtown’s local paper.


It is rather a remarkable thing how events of particular moment are often allowed to pass unnoticed. Recently there appeared in the press a more or less casual reference to the death, at Brantwood, Coniston, of a Wigtown lady whom the average Wigtonian knows little or nothing about, although she in herself, the intimate friend of an imperishable genius, were guarantee enough that the name of the old town should not wholly be forgotten. I refer to Mrs Joan Ruskin Severn, whose mother was a cousin of the famous philosopher and art critic John Ruskin. She was the daughter of Mr George Agnew Sheriff Clerk of Wigtown and Catherine Tweedie [sic] and was born in a house adjoining the old County Buildings on the site of which the present Sheriff’s Clerk’s office stands. Some time after the unhappy ending of Ruskin’s love romance [it will be remembered that in 1853 his wife Euphemia Grey obtained a divorce decree, and married the great Millais] Mrs Severn went to live with him and his mother at Herne Hill, London. The depth of friendship which resulted may be judged from the beautiful tribute which the renowned author pays her in ‘Praeterita’. This gifted woman maintained feelings of the most sincere affection for her native town, and was in constant communications with several of her old friends therein up to the very time of her death.

I am etc

An Admirer

The letter was sent to the paper almost three months after Joan’s death. The writer gave no name and the letter contained two inaccuracies: the spelling of Tweedie should be Tweddale, and Joan went to live with the Ruskins at Denmark Hill, a much grander house than their earlier home of Herne Hill. This suggests that the letter-writer was not that well acquainted with the family. However, Ruskin’s unfortunate marriage is mentioned in what seems to be a rather inappropriate context. Was this some local know-all trying to be clever or someone genuinely interested in celebrating a local woman he admired? Sadly we don’t know. The reference to "old friends" is interesting, it seems more likely that her contacts would have been relations and fairly distant ones at that. There was no follow up to the letter and no local memories of her appear to survive.

Not long after the death of Ruskin, there was an article in The Gallovidian by a man from Manchester but with Galloway connections. It mentioned Joan but it was mostly a florid homage to her cousin, based on Ruskin’s autobiography Praeterita. Apart from this instance, I have been unable to discover anything of note in the local literature about either of the cousins.

So who was this "gifted woman" and what was her relationship to the great John Ruskin?

John Ruskin and Joan Severn © National Portrait Gallery, London

John Ruskin and Joan Severn © National Portrait Gallery, London

I came across Joan Agnew’s family and their connection with John Ruskin when I was researching the history of our house for a community project looking at Wigtown’s buildings. This excellent idea was the brain child of The Wigtown and Bladnoch Business Association.

In the course of my research I discovered that at the top of the list of subscribers to establish the Subscription School, the building which is now our home, was one George Agnew. This was the father of the woman who was to be so important in the life of John Ruskin. I dug a bit deeper into her life and prepared what was originally intended to be used as a talk to be given to our local group Wigtown Talks and Walks. The talk was duly given with airings at other local societies but I couldn’t get Joan out of my head and extended my researches into her life beyond Wigtown. After wading through a fraction of Ruskin literature, I wanted to redress the balance. Joan devoted her life to him yet she is hardly mentioned in any of the many books about John Ruskin. 

I hope this brave and resourceful woman will gain a few admirers and not be completely forgotten, hopefully leading to more research.

Maggie will be blogging for us over the next few weeks, revealing more about Joan's life, her connections to John Ruskin and Wigtown, and why she thinks this Scotswummin deserves her moment in the spotlight.

Have you seen this #scotswummin?

WANTED for services to science and the sisterhood

Agnes Eleanora Miller, known to friends and family as Nora

Earlier this year, the Scotswummin team paid a visit to the National Library of Scotland. We came to learn more about using historical documents in our hunt for influential Scottish women. We stayed (even longer) to hear curator Catherine Booth speak on the hundreds of hidden women who shaped our nation’s social, cultural and scientific history. But one particularly captured our imaginations: Agnes Eleanora Miler.

And today, on International Women’s Day, we need your help to honour another Scotswummin.

Who was she?

Nora Miller was a noted Scottish noted zoologist and academic. Born on 7 September 1898 at Dunipace, Stirlingshire, at the age of seven Nora moved with her parents to Glasgow's West End. This was to be her home for more than 50 years.

Educated initially at Westbourne School for Girls, she then spent a year at Skerry's College before attending Glasgow University. Nora originally intended to study medicine, but she quickly came under the spell of Sir John Graham Kerr, Regius Professor of Zoology. He was to remain her inspiration for the rest of her days. She abandoned her plans for a medical career and graduated with an MA in 1920. Sir John invited her to become a demonstrator in the Department of Zoology and in 1924, she was appointed Assistant Lecturer. She was promoted to Lecturer in 1929. In her research work, Nora closely studied the development of archaic vertebrates, particularly lungfishes and sharks.

Catherine thrilled us with tales of Nora’s groundbreaking research (often flying in the face of established paleontological theories) and travels through the world. We discovered that she was the one of the first people ever to make an underwater film in colour; that she didn’t worry about submitting her PhD until 1962, after almost 40 years of teaching and research; and that she loved to dive and was no mean organist!

What did she look like, we clamoured, this veritable Scotswummin?

“We don’t know”, was the disappointing answer.

What are Scotswummin going to do?

Scotswummin and the National Library of Scotland are on the hunt for a photo of Nora.

Nora’s life is actually quite well-documented – she features in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and several of her scientific article are available online. But none of these records feature her photograph or portrait.

We would like to find a photo of her: to help us create a richer historical record, update online resources like Wikipedia, and inspire a new generation of Scottish scientists.

How can I help?

We would love to hear from anyone who can help us track down a photo of Nora during her academic career. Please get in touch if this is you.

Meet the team: Dumfries and Galloway Council

Forty young people. Five youth work projects. One mission: to give Scots women their rightful place in history.

At the foot of the Galloway hills, work is already well underway to make our #scotswummin mission a reality. Newton Stewart is home to the biggest of our projects, with youth workers Lisa and Shaun training up 22 young heritage investigators. Laura Kiltie, Community Learning and Development worker at Dumfries and Galloway Council, reports back on their first month.

Since we launched in January, our group have been busy making a start on their Participative Democracy certificate. The Certificate helps young people to develop communication, decision-making and negotiation skills. Lisa and Shaun led team-building and research activities, all of which helped frame the group’s research questions. We’ll be focusing our research on four areas: community champions, education, hobbies and leisure, and jobs and work.

So now they’re ready to start interviewing potential Scotswummin and local influencers – it turns out they already had a few in mind! The group have organised coffee morning events in the local community, inviting women from all over the local area to take part in focus groups. They’ve also arranged to visit local hospital and day centres, hoping to discover more hidden historical heroines from some of the residents there. 

There’s also plans afoot to celebrate International Women’s Day on Wednesday 8 March with a coffee morning in Wigtown County Buildings. We hope from that they will be able to identify local women past and present who have made a significant contribution to the community.  

Shaun meets other #scotswummin youth workers from across Scotland.

Shaun meets other #scotswummin youth workers from across Scotland.

We’re always looking for stories, photographs and memorabilia of influential women from Dumfries and Galloway, so please get in touch if you’d like to nominate a potential Scotswummin.

My inspiring #scotswummin in youth work

My train was running late. Often, the early morning train from Aberdeen to Haymarket does. It was my first-ever meeting for the Year of Young People Interim Planning Group. As usual, I got to the Young Scot offices with minutes to spare. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, or the journey I was about to undertake.

Emmie and June try out the photobooth at last year's Young Scot Awards

Emmie and June try out the photobooth at last year's Young Scot Awards

It was there I met June Osborne. I could tell from the other young people around me that she was well-liked and respected. I took to her immediately. As I progressed in the group, I got to know June more and we got on really well. She believed in me and my skills and abilities from the second we met.

During my time on the Year of Young People group, I went through a period of personal turmoil that turned my world upside down. I'd kept the details of my ordeal to myself for so long - I finally needed to let it out. I turned to June and told her what had happened. She understood, listened and reassured me that I was not in the wrong and that I would be OK. Over the next few months, I hit the lowest of lows. I left university, lost my self-esteem and questioned my self-worth and all my abilities. Often, I would take to Twitter in an attempt to find someone who could reassure and talk to me, and June was always there. She would meet me just to chat and to let me talk through my problems, no matter how irrational they may have been.

June believed in me and pushed me to believe that I was worth so much more than I believed I was. She helped me to realise I should not be defined by what happened to me and that it was possible for me to move on. June saw my potential as a youth worker and helped me find opportunities in Young Scot to take the lead and take part in projects. She encouraged me to apply for my Community Education degree and pushes me now to do more to become who I want to be. June’s role at Young Scot is based around Equalities and Inclusion, but what she does is so much more than that. She champions young people. She is the kind of youth worker I want to be and she is a perfect example of a #scotswummin who is making a difference.

There are so many other inspirational women in the youth work sector for young women to look up to, both locally and nationally. Youth work is the perfect way to promote equality and to encourage young people to think about the role that women play in Scotland. The #scotswummin campaign embodies this and I’d encourage as many people as possible to take part.

Emmie Main is a Community Education student at the University of Edinburgh. She is a trustee for Youth Scotland and a Young Scot volunteer.

Jute, jam... and women

Anna Murray, Learning and Audiences Officer at Verdant Works in Dundee, explains how women played a vital role in making Dundee the jute capital of the modern world.

Jute is a word synonymous with Dundee: the city was once nicknamed 'Juteopolis.' Jute changed the face of the city. In 1883, more than one million bales of raw jute were unloaded in Dundee and by the turn of the century, the industry employed more than 50,000 people in over 100 mills. The city was truly the jute capital of the world.

Dundee's jute workers

But the city was also known as 'Women’s Town' or 'She Town.' In the 1901 census, there were three women for every two men in the city. There was little alternative employment in Dundee at this time; two-thirds of the 39,752 workers employed in textiles in 1901 were female. The amount of working women in jute factories led to a unique social structure within Dundee, based on a matriarchal hierarchy. This was particularly unusual within Victorian society, which was based on the notion of a woman’s place being at home looking after the children. If a woman was to work, it was a widely-held opinion that this would be abandoned once she was married.

However in Dundee we see a high level of married female workers. For example in 1924, 24 percent of female workers were married compared to just 6 percent in Glasgow or 5.6 percent in Edinburgh. The level of independence work gave the women means we also see significantly more later marriages compared to the rest of Scotland. The unusualness of this situation - and just how much it went against accepted norms - is highlighted by the fact that middle class trade unions of the time weren’t campaigning for better living conditions for the people of Dundee, but rather for more jobs for men. Dundee's men were frequently dependent upon the earnings of mothers, sisters and daughters. The high male unemployment rate and a dependence on seasonal work led to a ‘role reversal’ in Dundee households. The men became known as ‘kettle bilers’, so called because they stayed at home to look after the children and complete household chores.

Despite difficult conditions, the mill girls were not meek or passive. There was a strong sense of community and friendship that grew between them. Frequently they developed their own ways of speaking and sign language to communicate over the din of the machines. This was often to the annoyance of their male colleagues who wouldn’t be able to understand what they said. The independence and power the women of Dundee gained from employment also gave them a distinct character. They were described as strong willed, loud and coarse. They were also known to drink and snort snuff to clear the jute dust in their noses, characteristics definitely against the notion of the respectable view of the Victorian lady!

What does youth work have to do with feminism?

Researcher Lisa explores what the women's movement of the 1970s has done for youth work today.

What does youth work have to do with feminism? At first glance, they don’t seem much related but when you really stop to think about what youth work is and what feminism is, it becomes clear that the two are interlinked and have been historically.

Broadly speaking, a big part of youth work is about developing young people and encouraging them to question the values, attitudes and behaviours they have grown up with. It’s also about increasing confidence and self-worth, which are too often lacking in girls and young women. Feminism is, and always has been, about raising awareness, advocating for equality and improving the lives of girls and women. Most importantly, women meeting in women-only groups to share their experiences and raise their consciousness were a hallmark of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

These practices were adopted by feminist youth workers as a template for youth work with girls. In many ways, feminist youth work in the 1970s and 1980s was directly influenced by what was happening in the women’s movement.

Whichever point in history you look at, providing youth services which meet the needs of girls and young women in an ever-changing society is really important.

Lisa beginning her research

I joined YouthLink Scotland in 2016 to work on #scotswummin. As part of our campaign, I'm writing a report on the contribution of youth work to the women’s movement since 1850. I’ll be uncovering the story of girls and women within youth work, bringing a Scottish perspective to the topic. To make this happen, I'll be examining historical archives and exploring some of the larger youth organisations like Girlguiding and the YWCA. I’ll also be speaking to people at the forefront of youth work today and considering where we are now in terms of the impact youth work has on the lives of girls and young women in Scotland. 

I have a background in research and I can honestly say this is the most interesting project I have ever worked on. I hope that #scotswummin will showcase the talents, achievements and impact of Scottish women, and as a feminist I want to make sure that youth work’s historical input into the wider women’s movement is brought to light. 

#scotswummin: young people researching and celebrating awesome women

Our Project Officer Amy tells us who Scotswummin are and what we plan to do.

Watching the Women’s Marches over the weekend was a wonderful reminder of how far we’ve come and the power of the collective roar of women across the world. It was also, however, a stark reminder of the uncertain times we are living in and the need for women’s voices to be heard.

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Scotswummin is a celebration of the contribution of awesome women in Scottish communities, historically or in the present, who have perhaps been forgotten - or (most likely) not been widely heard of. Along with Glasgow Women’s Library, we are providing early career youth workers from five youth groups across Scotland with training in youth-led research, youth work skills and heritage, curating and exhibiting skills. The purpose of this is to provide them with the skills, knowledge and confidence to support young people to research and celebrate women in their community.

As part of this training programme, we are taking the youth workers on a number of visits to heritage sites. So far this has included the National Records of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland. We hope this will inspire them to engage with heritage and to use this inspiration in their youth work practice.

At the National Library of Scotland, we were given a tour of the library including the vaults. This was a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how heritage is collected and looked after, as well as a way of bringing heritage to life. This was particularly the case when the political curator at the Library allowed us to hold petitions sent to stop suffragettes being force-fed in prison. Holding the documents in our hands was a reminder of the awful oppression women have and continue to suffer, and the importance of making sure these stories are not forgotten.

We have some more training dates for our youth workers over the coming months, including visits to Glasgow Women’s Library and the People’s Palace, Glasgow. As the youth workers now work directly with young people in their communities and share with them their learning from the training and heritage visits, I excitedly wait for what they uncover. The research will be led by young people, based on their interests, and so we don’t know where that might take them... Watch this space!