‘If we cannot imagine it, how can we build it?’
Where are the Women? A Guide to an Imagined Scotland
By Sara Sheridan
Published by Historic Environment Scotland
SCOTLAND – a version of the present day. Arthur has been unseated and Triduana has taken his place. Her mountain is girt by the Livesey Crags, named after Doris Livesey Reynolds, geologist and the first woman elected to be Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The one o’clock gun has been silenced, and every day at the Scottish Parliament an MSP presides over a ceremony to commemorate the life of a woman who fostered political change. The Mother’s Monument to all women who died in childbirth has stood in Glasgow’s necropolis since the 1970s, inscribed with the words ‘our foremothers, our heroines’; in Dundee an architecturally striking new museum stands on the docks, it is the Museum of Misogyny because that is a thing of the past.
This is the country as imagined by writer Sara Sheridan, in her new book Where are the Women: A Guide to an Imagined Scotland. It propels its reader into a powerful counterfactual thought experiment, one that asks what it might be like to live in a world that honours women’s achievements in its toponymy and memorializing practices.
Sheridan herself honours the work of American feminist and environmental writer Rebecca Solnit, who relabelled the Manhattan Transit Authority map, naming all its subway stations after women, and turned the five boroughs pink. In the essay that accompanied this radical female topography, Solnit pondered life in this alternate universe, writing, ‘I can’t imagine how I might have conceived of myself and my possibilities if, in my formative years, I had moved through a city where most things were named after women.’ Sheridan asks this question on Scottish ground and invites her reader on a tour of the country, to imagine and experience it for themselves. Bestriding fact and fiction, this Scotland is a place that memorialises its great women in a public and permanent manner. She calls the book a ‘provocation’, it is certainly that. But it is also a call to action and a vision of hope for the future.
It takes the form of a guidebook, making us tourists in this uncanny land. Women’s names are inscribed on familiar cityscapes and well-known landmarks. Neptune’s Staircase has been renamed for Salacia, Roman goddess of saltwater, and individual locks take the names of Highland women writers, celebrating the local. The reader will learn much from the lives and works that are named in these pages.
In the capital, where the memorialisation of men’s national accomplishments is most intense, St Andrew Square has been replanted in green, white and purple, transforming it into Suffragette Square. It is adorned with statues of individuals who fought for the vote or worked to advance the cause: Bessie Watson the child piper, Anna Gillies Macdonald Munro, sisters Flora & Rosaline Mason and Margaret Sackville. The new Square commemorates collective action and the deeds of outstanding individuals simultaneously, reflecting the contribution of each and raising both as inspirational examples.
Both square and staircase are places of the imagination, but realising such a scheme would (and should) not be beyond the realm of possibility. Indeed, a strange effect of this book is that, though phantom monuments are marked with a ghost-shaped asterisk, it can sometimes be difficult to catch the exact moment when reality gives way to imagination, and vice versa. While this can be disorientating, it also testifies to the force of the idea driving the book: much of what Sheridan envisions is eminently plausible.
There is wry humour here too. The towering gothic spire of Walter Scott’s Monument has been replaced by the graceful curve of Susan Ferrier’s Arch. Ferrier, whose bicentenary was memorialised in 2018 by Val McDermid’s sound and light show Message from the Skies, was the author of three novels Marriage (1810), The Inheritance (1824), and Destiny (1831). Sheridan has selected the last of these for her re-christening of Waverley Station and remarks that the name has ‘prompt[ed] a thousand jokes about “getting off the train at your destiny”.’ A crucial element of the book is her imagining of the life of this re-gendered Scotland. She brings her novelist’s craft to the book: people live here, they engage with their past and take its examples forward into the future.
On reading Where are the Women? you might start to think that life in this world might be a bit crowded, that there might be so much memorialising going on that it would be impossible to move without brushing up against a plaque or cairn or stumbling across a poetry reading, commemorative concert or lightshow. There can be no doubt that project adds to the built environment and increases cultural activity while it reorientates it. To those who would say ‘there’s no space for this’ this book serves as a reminder that lots of space has been designated, and buildings, statues, monuments, and plaques have been raised to men. To read it is to have your eyes opened, not only to the one-sidedness of the environment that we have built and named, but also to the possibilities for improvement that lie within easy reach.
A distinction exists between urban and rural Scotland, though. To test the power and the bounds of the imagined Scotland I took Where are the Women? with me on a long, looping journey across Scotland, from Edinburgh to the Uists and Barra, returning via Oban and through the Trossachs. I learned a huge amount and found the landscape re-peopled and suddenly brimming with stories. However, I found that once I moved beyond the towns and cities, places which were built and named coextensively with the industrial capitalist revolution, I travelled through a landscape mostly named after its own natural features. Surroundings become more neutral, or even feminine. The need for polemic, for thoroughgoing iconoclasm, seemed less severe.
In South Uist, a landscape overlooked by Hew Lorimer’s granite Bana Thighearna nan Eilean (Our Lady of the Isles), I stopped at Flora Macdonald’s birthplace, which is signposted and memorialised by a cairn, and visited the nearby Kildonan Museum. Flora Macdonald, perhaps like Mary Queen of Scots, is a special case, but the museum tells her story in a powerful, balanced and conscientious manner. Gender is integral to story of the fugitive Charles Edward’s escape to Skye, Raasay, and thence to safety in France. One of the first things you see is a fabulous modern portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie in costume as Flora’s female servant, and the interpretation panels deliberately recognise Neil MacEachern’s pivotal role in the scheme, one which was deliberately downplayed at the time in order to protect his activities as a Jacobite spy.
Furthermore, at Kildonan a ‘Future Curators’ programme, which sees high-school pupils working at the museum, was operating. It may have been pure coincidence that it was only women leading that day, but I observed some very accomplished young women telling the story of their island to a group of boys. One of the dangers of a provocative polemic is that its pursuit of its own radical agenda can tend to brush aside the progress already under way. Kildonan has its own thorough entry in the guide, but a display about the South Uist bards (male) is reworked into a display about women who contributed to the Gaelic tradition through teaching, recording, preserving and storytelling: Peggy McClements, Ella Carmichael and her mother Mary Carmichael, and sisters Marion Campbell and Catriona Macdonald. These women should absolutely be named and memorialised, yet I was left with the feeling that the museum had been in some way criticised, its efforts discounted, for not being completely perfect. I felt fiercely protective of the all-female staff and young curators I met there. I don’t doubt that Sheridan herself would too. This is one of the pitfalls of transformative discourse: it ruffles feathers, even feathers belonging to birds of the same species.
There have been a number of projects in recent years that have rebalanced the scales of historical representation, moving away from conceptions of history as the great actions of great men, they have attempted to insert women’s stories into the story Scotland tells about itself. Academic specialisms have emerged, much archival work is being undertaken but, as Sheridan notes, these stories need to go mainstream, they need to be permanently and publicly installed into the national story. Glasgow Women’s Library is curating an impressive and accessible archive; Rosemary Goring’s recent anthology Scotland: Her Story and the Great Tapestry of Scotland have begun to make women’s contributions to the broad sweep of Scotland’s history more visible. Where are the Women? does the same for our public spaces, work that is all the more vital because it is so visible. Sheridan’s imagined Scotland is a place that doesn’t and (most likely) will never exist, as she acknowledges in her prefatory essay. It is, however, a fascinating place to visit and from which to imagine a more equal world.
Where are the Women? A Guide to an Imagined Scotland by Sara Sheridan is published by Historic Environment Scotland, priced £16.99