Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 will celebrate ‘Unforgotten’ Highland Women 

A Podcast series run by XpoNorth with support from Museums and Heritage Highland will share stories of remarkable women from the Highlands.

A jewel thief, a witch, a doctor and an inspirational teacher are just some of the stories of incredible Highland women which will be revealed from museum archives and broadcast to audiences around the world in a new ten-part podcast series set to air later this year. 

Run by XpoNorth, the support mechanism for creative industry businesses across the Highlands and Islands, in partnership with Museums and Heritage Highland and supported by the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund, the series will be presented by freelance BBC producer, reporter and podcaster, Pauline Moore. 

Pauline Moore, freelence BBC producer, reporter and podcaster

As part of her research for the series, Pauline and the team from XpoNorth will host events across the Highlands to share stories with communities, interview the ‘keepers’ of the tales, and hold information gathering sessions to help complete the picture.  The importance and relevance of the tales uncovered will be discussed, and the first event will take place on Tuesday June 21 at the Highland Museums of Childhood. At this event the story of the notorious Mary Marjory MacDonald will be told.  The only child of a local Gaelic speaking fishing family, Mary was orphaned in her teens and took to London society, travelling across Europe to become a very successful jewel thief. Gaining the trust of the ladies she worked with, Mary stole from them and was caught and tried a number of times.  The event will hear Pauline in discussion with Siobhan Beatson, curator at Ullapool Museum, and Morven Macdonald, curator at Highland Museum of Childhood, to uncover Mary’s story.

Other events will take place on June 23 at Brora Heritage Centre where an audience will learn about Megan Boyd, one of the best salmon fly fish tyers to have lived, and about Caroline Ross, a single schoolteacher who concealed her pregnancy and delivered her illegitimate child alone in her lodgings in a rural community in the Scottish Highlands in 1930.  Caroline was arrested and charged with child murder and the case was widely reported at the time. 

An event in Castletown on June 24 will discuss Margaret Swanson who influenced the education of generations of girls with her interest in the physical and mental development of children.  The story of Orkney doctor and photographer, Beatrice Garvie (1872 – 1956), will be told on June 28 at an event which will be held on Zoom from the Orkney Archive Centre, and the story of ‘The Witch of Auldearn’, Isobel Gowdie, will be explored on June 30 at Nairn Museum.

Julia Jeffrey drawing of Isobel Gowdie
Julia Jeffrey drawing of Isobel Gowdie

Nicola Henderson, heritage specialist from XpoNorth said, “It is a real joy to unearth these tales of remarkable Highland women and the podcast series will be a brilliant mechanism in which to do so.  We are very much looking forward to bringing the stories alive and it will be fascinating to discover any forgotten memories about the six women when we visit the communities to re-tell their stories.”

This event and podcast series has been supported by the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund. This fund is being delivered in partnership between VisitScotland and Museums Galleries Scotland with support from National Lottery Heritage Fund thanks to National Lottery players. 

Marie Christie, Head of Development at VisitScotland, said, “We are delighted to be supporting Unforgotten Highland Women through the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund. Events play an important role in our communities as they sustain livelihoods and help to celebrate and promote our unique places, spaces and stories. Themed Years are all about collaboration and Museums Galleries Scotland, National Lottery Heritage Fund and VisitScotland are pleased to work in partnership to create this fund to showcase community stories. By supporting events taking place within our communities, including Unforgotten Highland Women, new opportunities with be provided for locals and visitors to come together and find out more about the diverse stories, past and present, that our communities have to share.” 

About XpoNorth

XpoNorth is Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s (HIE) specialist year-round support mechanism for creative industry businesses based across the Highlands and Islands. The project delivers a range of responsive programmes to encourage the continued growth and innovation of the creative economy throughout one of the country’s most diverse regions. XpoNorth also produce a well-established annual conference connecting our business base with some of the most influential networks in the global marketplace.

XpoNorth is funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and is delivered by IronWorks Venue.

About Museums and Heritage Highland

Museums and Heritage Highland (MHH) is a membership organisation for museums, galleries and heritage organisations from across the Highlands. They exist to strengthen the heritage sector in the Highlands for the benefit of everyone living in and visiting the Highlands. Projects are drawn from their membership with the key aim of helping museums and other heritage organisations raise standards, engage with more people, collaborate with each other and be sustainable and resilient.

Further information about each event

Unforgotten Highland Women – Mary Marjory MacDonald, Ullapool

21st June, 10.30am Highland Museum of Childhood, Strathpeffer

How is a notorious story which would have been thought of as shameful and shunned at the time remembered now?  Mary Marjory was the only child of a local Gaelic speaking fishing family who had a successful business in town.  She was orphaned in her teens and took to London society, travelled across Europe and became a very successful jewel thief – gaining the trust of the Ladies she worked with  in high society circles.  She was caught and tried a number of times, including on the platform at Strathpeffer Old Railway Station where this event will be held.

Pauline will be in conversation with Siobhan Beatson, curator at Ullapool Museum and Morven Macdonald, curator Highland Museum of Childhood to uncover Mary’s story. There will be opportunities to explore the platform where she was caught, look at the museum display in her memory, enjoy some tea and cake and to be interviewed for the podcast, giving your thoughts on the story.

Unforgotten Highland Women – Megan Boyd and Caroline Ross, Brora

23rd June, 1pm Brora Heritage Centre, Brora

Megan Boyd – fly fisher (born 1915)

Though she never fished herself she is regarded as the finest tier of fishing flies in the world.   She took to the craft of creating fish flies under the supervision of a Sutherland gamekeeper.  She won her first award in 1938 at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow and received the British Empire Medal in 1971.  Discussions are taking place about commissioning an art installation in her memory and erecting it at one of the gateways to the village of Brora. The move came after a Norwegian angler and Megan Boyd devotee made a pilgrimage to Brora to pay homage to her, but was shocked to find nothing about her there. 

Caroline Ross (1904-1985)

Caroline Ross was a 26-year-old, single schoolteacher who concealed her pregnancy and delivered her ‘illegitimate’ child alone in her room in her lodgings in a rural community in the Highlands of Scotland in 1930.  The child was discovered dead the same day. 

She was put in custody and charged with Child Murder and appeared in court three months later. The case was widely reported in the papers at the time.  Writer and historian Nick Lindsay writes that – ninety years on and the sense of the stress and tension of the terrifying court case in which she spoke not a single word of evidence, is tangible.  The medical evidence appeared damning; the cause of the infant’s death was throttling, but the jury delivered a verdict of ‘Not Proven’.  An absolute cliff-hanger to the end! It’s an extremely sad story with a tragic outcome but it illustrates a lot about attitudes and lack of support for young woman who found themselves pregnant at the time.  The court case was a media sensation at the time. How can stories like this be remembered and reflect on changing attitudes?  

Pauline will interview Nick Lindsay, author and chair of Clyne Heritage Society. Pauline and Nick will be joined by Mary Warrier for Megan’s story and by Wattie and Angela Macbeath for Caroline’s story. There will be an opportunity to look at objects related to the stories and enjoy a cup of tea.

Unforgotten Highland Women – Margaret Swanson

24th June, 1pm Castlehill Heritage Centre, Castletown                                                    

Margaret grew up in Castletown, Caithness, the daughter of the village cobbler. Despite her humble beginnings she went on to influence the education of generations of girls.  After early schooling at the local school, Margaret was sent to board with an elderly lady to allow her to attend Wick Academy for further education. She became a pupil teacher in the town and embarked on teacher training in Aberdeen. She stayed in Scotland when her family emigrated to Nova Scotia.  It was her interest in the physical and mental development of  children which allowed her to change the “Code “ or requirements for sewing on the School Curriculum. The emphasis at the time was on the fineness of stitching on a delicate white material. This Margaret declared to be as meaningless as using black chalk on a blackboard. She became an instructor in the Glasgow school of Art,  Charles Rennie MacIntosh was among her associates.  She developed the “ Margaret Swanson System of Educational Needlework” revolutionising its teaching in Britain and abroad. Children were encouraged to choose the bright colours of thread they preferred , learning to stitch on unbleached calico with wool and cotton. Older girls were shown how to make their own embroidered garments, allowing imagination and creativity . Margaret continued to travel, research ,lecture and learn until ill-health put an end to her devotion to her craft.  

Pauline will interview Muriel Murray who first learned of Margaret’s story. There will be an exhibition of objects related to Margaret on display for everyone to peruse over the tea and cake break. We will also be joined by the local school and local crafts groups as the audience is invited to make their own ‘sampler’ in Margaret’s memory

Unforgotten Highland Women – Beatrice Garvie

28th June, 11am – Zoom from Orkney Archive Centre

The Orkney Doctor and Photographer – Beatrice Garvie (1872-1956), was one of the earliest women to qualify as a doctor, and worked in Glasgow, India, and London. She understood the links between poverty and ill health, and was prepared to champion equal entitlement to healthcare, even when it meant putting herself on the line. Beatrice spent 15 years on North Ronaldsay as the GP in the 1930s, and 40s. She was a keen photographer and took lots of pictures of everyday life. Local people were well used to Beatrice and her camera, and would ask her to capture the important moments of family life for them. This work is now an important and unusually privileged record of island history.

Pauline Moore, BBC producer and reporter and experienced podcaster, will be joined by Fiona Sanderson, artist and researcher, as they talk with special guests linked to Beatrice directly. This event will be held on Zoom and recorded for use in an upcoming podcast series. Link details to follow

Unforgotten Highland Women – Isobel Gowdie

30th June, 1pm, Nairn Museum, Nairn

The Witch of Auldearn – Isobel Gowdie  (17th century) The story of Isobel Gowdie is embedded in the world of academia as part of the Scottish Witch Trial accounts.  Her story has also featured in a music composition by James McMillan.  And most recently an American novelist (Nancy Hayes Kilgore )has recently published a novel  – Bitter Magic – based on Isobel’s life.  What makes Isobel’s story different is that she confessed her witchcraft without the usual torture imposed.  She was regarded as a great story teller and her story has influenced later studies of witchcraft. 

Pauline will be in conversation with Melissa Davies, curator of Nairn Museum, Andrew Grant Mackenzie, Highland Historian and Helen Wright who designed the mural to Isobel that can be found in Auldearn. There will also be an opportunity to view some objects related to withcraft from the local area.

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