Have Women Been Hidden from Scottish History Due to Inconsequentiality in the Past?

February 6, 1995

Gender plays an important role throughout history. Even so, many claim that women have been "hidden" from the history of Scotland. The question posed in this essay is twofold: have Scottish women been "hidden"; and if so, is it due to their being of no consequence. The main scope of time will be from 1700 to 1840.

That women have been hidden from history can be analyzed from different perspectives. Much of the study done of Scottish history can be classified in one of two ways: androcentric; or focussing on the upper class. Androcentrism is the focus on males, and ignoring women, under the assumption that what went for men was assumed to go for women. The focus on the upper class focuses on the nobility or royalty of both sexes, but it allows some leeway for the study of the lower classes of men, but little or none for women. It is often contested that the only woman of renown in Scottish history is Mary Queen of Scots.

Much of this is due to the fact that until relatively recently, social history of the mass of the population was neglected in favor of topics that could be considered "more exciting." These include royalty, war, governments, churches, and diplomacy. If one accepts that a division can be made between the public and private spheres, and that the above topics fall within the public one, it makes sense that women were ignored, in that their providence lay mostly within the private, or domestic, sphere.

Scotland can be said to be an obviously patriarchal society, but such a charge ignores that women did play consequential roles in the public sphere, and that their control of the private sphere delineated a certain amount of power to them. There is an "unquestioned value judgment that the public is of paramount importance and the private safely ignorable as insignificant." (footnote 1)

In showing women's significance in Scottish history, and how and why they might have been hidden, one must deal with the economy, literacy and education, religion, politics, and law.


Perhaps the first problem to be dealt with when examining women's place in the economy is work, which has varying meanings. Work can be defined in its physical sense as simply any time energy is expended, or it can be considered as paid labor. But if it is dealt with as paid labor, then much of the output of Scottish society would be overlooked, since it would ignore much labor not paid in wage, especially that of women, and children. Also, it begs the question is domestic labor work? One must accept that all the duties consummate with keeping the home were quite burdensome in and of themselves, and still many women worked outside the home to supplement the family's income. Domestic labor encompassed many duties, including stocking the house with fuel and sustenance, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of any children. To say that women were not a substantial part of the work force in the period is neglecting the vast amount of work done in the private sphere, where women were the most significant.

This helps illustrate that there was a sexual division of labor in Scotland, where the genders often received different tasks and responsibilities. Women were mostly given domestic and reproductive tasks, while men were given work considered more productive. Agriculture saw a division, where men were mostly working with horses, in "ploughing and carting,'' while women were left with the more labor intensive types of work, such as weeding, sewing, thinning, and gathering crops from spring to early winter,(footnote 2) most any job which involved stooping, and getting wet and dirty. As well, in mining, women went underground to carry up the coal. In industry in general, women were given much of the unskilled, but tiring work. (footnote 3)

Women were an important factor in Scotland's rapid industrial revolution. Cotton spinners in Scotland, though they were technologically backward when compared to England, had a ready pool of women to work at low wages, thus allowing them to remain competitive. This was Scotland's secret, that, although it's process began later than England's, industrialization was facilitated by the cheap female labor force.

A good portion of the female population was looking for any available employment because subsistence was so difficult. A main reason for this was Scotland's Poor Laws, which restricted relief

to periods when the need ... was seen to be absolutely critical, during the winter months when casual work in agriculture was hard or impossible to find... [They] kept potential workers alive, but at a level which normally made it necessary for recipients to find some sort of paid employment...(footnote 4)

Unskilled labor provided low wages to begin with, so in order to provide for the family, the woman would typically have to work outside the home. Soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars, a growing flow of Irish immigrants, and the rapid increase in Scotland's population growth rate after 1800, drove wages in general down, and further pushed women to work.

The greatest demand for female labor in the 1700's was the textile industry; "at the time of the Union of 1707... linen cloth was probably Scotland's single most important manufactured export... [and] a major employer of female labor...". (footnote 5) But Scotland's staple industry was not the only employer of women. Sir John Sinclair came up with statistics showing that approximately 62.3 percent of Scotland's total manufacturing workforce. The figures were even more tilted towards women in domestic service: 78,000 single women versus about 6,500 males. (footnote 6) Literacy and Education Education and literacy are important when discussing women's importance in Scottish history. In general, women's levels of both were minimal, though varying by region, and in cause.

Literacy rates among women were consistently low. In the mid-1700's, when Lowland men were but 65% literate, women were 30%. In the Highlands at this time, women were merely 10% literate. These figures can be explained by the type of education offered and available to both sexes and the necessities presented by the sexes' social, cultural, and class roles.

Educational standards for women were much poorer than for men. In classes, males and females were separated, with usually a higher proportion of males, most likely due to the fact that fewer women were sent to school. This led to females receiving less attention than they might otherwise have achieved.

As well, the education offered to women was quite different from that of men. Women were taught only what it was deemed was necessary for them; a minimalist education. If she were of the upper classes, she would be instructed in French, manners, and all that was needed in preparation for dependence in her marriage. A good education was a selling point in her marriage, and turned her into a status symbol for her husband. A lower class woman, however, was taught those skills that were thought needed to make her productive in marriage.(footnote 7)

There can be seen a cycle of subordination of women in Scotland, difficult to break. "Restricted access to education and low literacy rates were used to explain, justify, and perpetuate women's lower status in Scottish society."(footnote 8) Professor Houston notes that women tended to appear as "implicitly ill-informed and of weak judgment, a fact which... [had] much to do with their low literacy and their subjection to male-dominated educational ideas."(footnote 9)

However, illiterates were not separated from the written word and literate culture, as long as they were in proximity with someone else who could read aloud. Women were in fact "particularly important in preserving oral forms" of communication, particularly in this period when the mass of males were becoming literate, but the women progressed much slower.(footnote 10) Women could also be assumed to trade and transmit information and ideas while trading goods at the marketplace, which was considered generally to be a female domain.


Women played a rather important role in the maintenance of Scottish Catholicism, a fact which has been often ignored. If historians are not focussing on the celibate male clergy, they turn their attention to the male politicians and plotters who fought for a counter-Reformation in Scotland, from the early days, through the Jacobite uprisings. (footnote11) Women as a force have been neglected in these analysis's.

John Bossy makes the argument that English wives continued the practices of Catholicism, often without their husbands' connivance, in the private sphere. This typically manifested itself in enthusiasm for "seasonal fasting," and the like. He notes that since the diet of a family was generally considered the domain of women, men tended not to interfere in such regards. (footnote 12)

Unfortunately, "earlier evidence on the activities of women in Scotland is meagre," and it is difficult to deal with the subject. The focus for Scotland "must be mainly on noble and gentry families." Mary Queen of Scots, the most prevalent, came to be seen in her time as a model of female Catholic piety.

Of the rest of the populace, matters varied, but from what records are available, a trend can be found.

... [Of the] references to conversions and heroic acts of sanctity in the Jesuit reports which were sent annually to superiors... more of these refer to women then men. (footnote 13)

A role of general importance can also be found at birthings. In the Highlands and Islands, with priests hard to come by, and the fears of a newborn dying without baptism, drove women to carry out their own ceremonies. Thus did midwives take on a serious religious significance. Even better, "in Glengairn, north of Balmoral, baptism by midwives had become ... taught by Canon Law, [to be enacted] when there was danger of death..." (footnote 14)


Although females were excluded formally from higher governmental politics, and generally prevented access to church government, they were certainly not politically silent in this period. They can be found to be participating in riots and strikes. Women have been thought inconsequential in this area due to the fact that less than a quarter of rioters were usually female, and they were less likely to be prosecuted for participation in a riot; this would mean fewer would be listed in records.(footnote 15) Despite this, they did participate, and tended to be in the forefront. In 1797, in the militia riot in Tranent, women complained that military service was taking away their sons. (footnote 16) In 1703, the spokesperson for the Loanhead coal workers when they were locked out was female. (footnote 17)

While the pre-Victorian crowds in which women featured most prominently were concerned with the price and availability of bread, their role and interest in industrial disputes, alongside men, should not be overlooked. (footnote 18)

Perhaps the most important supporters of the 1824 strike against James Dunlop and Son's Broomward Mill in Glasgow were female, according to virtually all of the witnesses. The scabs complained of harassment by women who sang and shouted at them, as well as lobbed numerous missiles, all while the men were "farther off and behind them." (footnote 19)


The Enlightenment saw the development of what came to be known as civic humanism. A citizen was defined as an independent man; "an adult male landowner, at the head of his household. (footnote 20) No provision was made for female citizenry.

In their actual legal status, women varied depending on their marriage status. Although they were not citizens as such, they still had rights. In fact, widows were almost on par with men. (footnote 21)

A married woman had various property rights. Any inherited or immovable property was her own domain, though any other property was at the disposal of the husband. As far as her rights in the domestic sphere, which the law

held to be a married woman's `natural and proper province', the wife was deemed to be in control, meaning that she could enter into contracts for food and furnishings necessary to the dwelling. (footnote 22)

In the act of marriage itself, women tended to have fair status. In Scotland, a marriage was considered valid if "two people capable of marriage freely declared that they married each other." It was not considered a sacrament. Parental consent was not required. Arranged marriages were usually typical of only the upper class.

Accompanying these rights and freedoms, however, came increased responsibilities. Where formerly, offenses committed by women were the responsibility of their male governor - the father if unmarried, the husband if married, and with the son if a widow - it became increasingly common for women to be charged with their crimes and to be held accountable legally. They were considered imperfect witnesses in courts due to their ‘passion,' but they could still be charged. In witch trials, women made up approximately 80% of those accused, making them ‘more equal' than men. (footnote 23)


It has been shown that women have played an important role in various aspects of Scottish history from 1700 to 1840. In economics, their provision of cheap labor facilitated a rapid process of industrialization. Their contributions to and maintenance of Scottish oral culture were many and varied. In politics, they were major voices in riots and strikes, and often class warriors more vicious than the men. In religion, they kept alive Catholicism in Scotland, in the home, and in birthing, at a time when popism was under extreme pressure. In the law, they had varying rights, though generally they were lesser than those of males.

It has also been seen that they may have been hidden for many reasons. The cycle of subordination in female education restricted females' access to and control over the literate world. Politically, they would not automatically be shown to be important in riots and strikes, as they were less likely to be charged, and thus less likely to appear in official records. The examination of their legal status has shown that they were not considered citizens, and that they were thought unfit to provide witness in court trials.

Joy Hendry has stated that

women are awarded a place in history only if they are the wives or Kings, nobility, poets (very occasionally), mistresses, or mothers of important men. Otherwise, their existence goes unremarked...(footnote 24)

Such a statement, until recently, could have been considered quite accurate. However, more attention is paid nowadays to the place, and significance of women in Scottish history, so that although they may have been `hidden' in the past, it was not due to their being inconsequential, but to the biases of the historians, who simply ignored them. A feminist theorist might claim this to have been a conspiracy to sustain the subordination of women through justification of their previous non-importance. However, one could simply attribute the hiding to general ignorance.


  1. "Snug in the Asylum of Taciturnity: Women's History in Scotland." p. 129
  2. "Women in the Economic Transformation of Scotland c. 1740-1830." p. 26
  3. Sexuality and Social Control . p. 52
  4. "Women in the Economic Transformation of Scotland c. 1740-1830." p. 21
  5. "Women in the Economic Transformation of Scotland c. 1740-1830." p. 25
  6. "Women in the Economic Transformation of Scotland c. 1740-1830." p. 29
  7. "Women in the Economy and Society, 1500-1800." p. 135
  8. "Women in the Economy and Society, 1500-1800." p. 136
  9. Scottish Literacy and Scottish Identity , p. 204
  10. Scottish Literacy and Scottish Identity , p. 201
  11. "The Role of Women in Scottish Catholic Survival." p. 129.
  12. "The Role of Women in Scottish Catholic Survival." p. 130.
  13. "The Role of Women in Scottish Catholic Survival." p. 140.
  14. "The Role of Women in Scottish Catholic Survival." p. 149
  15. "Women in the Economy and Society, 1500-1800." p. 137
  16. "Women in the Economy and Society, 1500-1800." p. 137
  17. Scottish Literacy and Scottish Identity . p. 204
  18. "Women, Girls, and Vitriolic Song." p. 75
  19. "Women, Girls, and Vitriolic Song." p. 73
  20. Sexuality and Social Control . p. 61
  21. "Women in the Economy and Society, 1500-1800." p. 129
  22. "Women in the Economy and Society, 1500-1800." p. 129
  23. Sexuality and Sexual Control . p. 50
  24. "Snug in the Asylum of Taciturnity: Women History in Scotland" p. 130


Hendry, J. "Snug in the Asylum of Taciturnity: Women's History in Scotland." The Manufacture of Scottish History . I. L. Donnchie and C. A. Whatley (eds). Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992.

Houston, R. A. Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Houston, R. A. "Women in the Economy and Society, 1500-1800." Scottish Society . R. A. Houston and I. D. Whyte (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Leneman, Leah and Rosalind Mitchison. Sexuality and Social Control . Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Roberts, Alasdair F. B. "The Role of Women in Scottish Catholic Survival." The Scottish Historical Review, Volume LXX,2: No. 190: October 1991, 129-150.

Whatley, Christopher A. "Women, Girls and Vitriolic Song." The Jounral of the Scottish Labour History Society . No. 28: 1993, 71-6.

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