Famous Women in Scottish History

It’s International Women’s Day! International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to reflect on and appreciate powerful women in history. As with most of our content, we use our platform to focus on Scottish culture and heritage, which is why we are using it today to share famous women in Scottish history. While there are ultimately too many to fit into our modest blog, here are 5 women who have made significant and powerful impacts in Scottish History.

The Edinburgh Seven

A collective of seven women, this group made massive ripples in the advances of women in medicine. These women were the first to enroll in a university in the UK in 1869. Their names were:

  • Mary Anderson
  • Emily Bovell
  • Matilda Chaplin
  • Helen Evans
  • Sophia Jex-Blake
  • Isabel Thorne
  • Edith Pechey

They were matriculated to Edinburgh University to study medicine and were hit with massive backlash. Miss Jex-Blake originally applied to the university alone but was told the university could not accommodate a lone female student. In response, Jex-Blake advertised to other women to join her in her application, resulting in the Edinburgh seven matriculating together.

The Edinburgh Seven were met with a riot when turning up for an anatomy exam and were blocked from entering the hall. They were hit with so much hostility, that they were eventually told by the university they couldn’t graduate.

This caused outrage, and support grew amongst other students, the media, and even Charles Darwin. It is used in examples of fighting for women’s rights worldwide and is an example of how hard women had to fight for the right to an education. Sophia Jex-Blake went on to set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1887.

Elsie Inglis

Elsie Inglis attended the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women and went on to found her own medical college. Born in 1864, Inglis was a Scottish doctor, surgeon, teacher, and suffragist.

Elsie was a massive leader of the suffragist movement, meaning she believed in peaceful campaigning to extend the vote to women.

The greatest example of her fight against misogyny was in response to the First World War when she tried to set up a medical unit to operate for the allies and was famously told “My good lady, go home and sit still.” Elsie ignored this advice and went on to operate tirelessly within France, Serbia, and Russia, starting up the project with £100 of her own money. She was at one point captured and sent home to Scotland but immediately returned straight back to the war. Elsie Inglis was the first woman to hold the Serbian Order of the White Eagle.

Shortly after her arrival back in the UK, she died of bowel cancer at just 53. Inglis's body lay in state at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, and both British and Serbian royalty on 29 November attended her funeral there. The streets were lined with people as her coffin went through Edinburgh to be buried at the Dean Cemetery. Winston Churchill commented that her work would shine within history, and in recent times she has been commemorated on the Scottish £50 note.

Lady Agnes Campbell

A less famous historical figure who definitely made a huge impact on Scottish History, Lady Agnes Campbell was a Scottish noblewoman who played a leading part in English resistance. Campbell is remembered in history as being well educated, politically motivated, and a fierce schemer.

Born in 1526 to the Campbell clan, the marriage to her first husband united the Campbells and the Macdonalds in 1545. Her first husband was killed whilst being held prisoner by an Irish chieftain who at the time was an English supporter. In response to this, Campbell decided to marry the man who succeeded the Irish Chieftain that killed her husband.

She traveled to Ireland with the mindset to lead the Irish clan away from the English and took with her 1,200 Highland troops. Gaelic tradition allowed her to direct these troops herself, which she did, against English occupying forces. Before long she had become the power behind the Irish clan and played an important role in the unsuccessful Second Desmond Rebellion against the English from 1579 to 1583.

She became responsible for raising Scottish support for the rebellion and impressed those on the English side with whom she negotiated with her fluency in English and Latin. For the rest of her life, she worked with her daughter, Finola O'Donnell, to mobilize Scottish support for the Irish.

Frances Wright

Frances Wright, born in 1795, was a Scottish socialist and philosopher from Dundee, who traveled to America to abolish slavery and fought for the rights of slaves.

In the 1820s Wright was the first woman to ever speak publically about political and social issues. She would gather support for the emancipation of slaves, birth control, equal rights, and liberal divorce laws. Her views at that time were deemed by many (especially the press) as radical, but she was one of the most vocal activists of her time.

Some of Frances’ most significant work was the Nashoba Commune she started in Tennessee, which was created as a community to demonstrate how to prepare slaves for eventual emancipation. Wright raised funds and recruited people. Among the first were the Englishman George Flower and his family, who had founded another settlement in Illinois. Wright could not raise sufficient monetary support and ended up using a good portion of her own fortune to buy land and slaves. She called it "Nashua," the Chickasaw word for wolf.

Wright died in 1852, and a plaque was installed in remembrance of her in Dundee, as well as an honorable induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Flora MacDonald

Flora MacDonald, born in 1722, is made famous for her help in Charles Edward Stuart's (Bonnie Prince Charlie’s) escape after the Battle of Culloden during the Jacobite Rebellion.

Flora’s family were members of the MacDonald Sleat and supported the government during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. When Macdonald was visiting Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, she discovered Prince Charles and a small group of his aides seeking refuge. One of these aides was related to Flora and subsequently asked her for support.

Although fearing for her and her family’s safety, Flora used her family’s connections to obtain permits that were used to allow Prince Charles to flee. The prince was disguised as an Irish maid, and a false passage in Flora’s name was put together.

Two weeks later, the boatmen on the trip were arrested and confessed to Flora’s involvement. She was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. She was later released and retired happily married in Skye.

Flora is well remembered in Scottish history, with The Skye Boat Song, a famous Scottish song sung by generations of Scots that mentions Flora's efforts. This was soon followed by the first performance of the Scottish Highland Dance "Flora MacDonald's Fancy", while a bronze statue was erected at Inverness Castle in 1896. The Flora Macdonald College, located in North Carolina is named after her, and two of her children are interred on the campus. Until 2009, it was also the site of the Flora Highland Games.