Scots Women of History. 2 – Wendy Wood

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A firebrand figure from Scotland’s recent past, Wendy Wood (born Gwendoline Meacham), artist, poet & writer, was a passionate Scottish Nationalist and activist for her whole life.
Born in Kent in 1892 as her parents were in the process of emigrating from Scotland to South Africa, Wendy spent her early years learning and growing in a tough environment. A child during the Second Boer War, many of her earliest memories were coloured by her mother’s work in nursing the wounded and the violence and noise of nearby warfare. After the war, Wendy was given a huge amount of freedom to roam and get up to misadventures with her younger brother, whom she had been asked to be a brother to. This was brought to an end when, after organising strikes and frequently being sent home from school for outspoken behaviour, Wendy was sent to an all girl’s private school in Tumbridge Wells.
Upon leaving school, she decided to train as an artist, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, Samuel Peploe Wood. Though not even 15 years old, she joined an artist’s studio in Chelsea, studying under Walter Sickert and lived in a women’s hostel run by nuns. At this point in her life, influenced by her older sister, Wendy met with a number of London’s pre-war Literati, including WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.
But Wendy put aside her dreams of being an artist when she married at the age of 19. In 1913 she toured the Highlands with her husband, culminating in a visit to the Wallace Monument in Stirling which was to have a lasting effect on Wendy. From their she went on to join the Scottish League in 1916, the Home Rule Association in 1918, the Scottish National Movement and, ultimately, helped to form the National Party of Scotland in 1928.
A deeply committed activist, Wendy regularly went on speaking tours around Scotland to drum up support for Home Rule. These were not neatly arranged and tidily organised tours, these were tours that required spirit and gumption, neither a quality that Wendy lacked. Taking a van, a handful of activists and some camping gear, they would roam the country, stopping in villages and towns along the way to hold ad-hoc public meetings. Many nights were spent under the stars at all times of the year and every kind of weather Scotland could throw at them. It was on these tours that Wendy honed her firebrand style of speaking which later led her to all kinds of trouble.
During the annual Bannockburn Rally in Stirling, in 1932, Wendy led a group of Nationalists up to the Castle, where they pulled down the Union Flag and replaced it with a Lion Rampant. Wendy stood on the Union Flag accidentally during the excitement and it was torn. She did not, as Eric Linklater alleged, flush the flag down the toilet, so she sued him for defamation. The Union Flag was recovered and raised again over the castle.
She was arrested and imprisoned several times during her long life, all for activities connected with her Nationalism. Her first experience was at Saughton in Edinburgh after being arrested for disrupting a rally being held at the mound by fascist Black Shirts.
Her second spell in prison at Duke Street in Glasgow was prompted by her desire to observe the appalling conditions there for herself. Realising that she was most likely to be jailed for Nationalist activity, she undertook a protest of non payment of National Insurance, whose headquarters had been moved from Edinburgh to Cardiff. When on trial, the judge was apparently most bemused by her enthusiasm for a custodial sentence, particularly as he pointed out to her she wasn’t really earning enough to qualify for payment. Duly sentenced none the less, Wendy spent several frigid and dreadful weeks at the prison, discovering for herself the dreadful conditions. Afterwards she lobbied the authorities mercilessly until Duke Street was finally closed.
Her final spell in prison was at Holloway, where she was sent after being convicted of inciting a crowd of Scotland fans in Trafalgar Square on the day of a Scotland v England game in 1951. She was beaten by policemen during her arrest and began her sentence in the prison hospital. A well known nationalist, she had been under some suspicion the year before when the Stone of Destiny was stolen from Westminster Abbey. Because of this, she took a lot of abuse during her time at Holloway.
She had an often fraught relationship with the SNP, resulting in her leaving the party on several occasions. One of these instances was when she stood as an Independent for the Glasgow Bridgeton constituency.

Get it from your library! (links to National Library of Scotland catalogue)

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A little suggested reading

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This is a highly entertaining read, well written, personable and humourous. Ms Wood was a devoted Scottish patriot who lived and breathed nationalist activism for her entire life. She was also an eccentric and outspoken character who lived a full and fascinating life. She should be remembered in this year, when, hopefully, her beloved Scotland will finally achieve it’s Independence. If you are undecided, you could do far worse in your search for understanding than to read this. If you are a definite Yes, you really should read this to gain a longer view of how we got to where we are today. If you are a No, Wendy will either charm or revulse you with her directness about her views.
The most startling thing about her book are the facts, figures and incidents of Westminster calumny that she cites. This is not, for me any way, because they are nasty little secrets hidden in the past, but because they are so familiar. The book was written in 1970, before the North Sea Oil, yet she constantly cited examples of economic imbalance where Scotland still paid more into Westminster than she ever got back. It reminds me of the old maxim – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I hope to write a more detailed biography piece about her soon, so watch this space.
Slainté, Wendy. I’ll not forget you this 19th of September.
You could buy it here, but I recommend trying your library first.

Scots Women of History. 1 – Gruoch, Queen Of Scots aka Lady Macbeth

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If I were to ask you who Lady Macbeth was, I don’t imagine it would take you very long to answer. She was the wife of MacBeth, you’d say. You’d name her a murderess, no doubt, tell me of plots and regicide. Perhaps you would even recite her most famous lines :

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But if I were to ask you who Gruoch ingen Boite was, the chances are you would tell me you have no idea. They were, in fact, one and the same person. Approximately.
After King James VI became King of England in 1603, Shakespeare penned the play MacBeth in his honour, basing many of it’s characters on historical figures, including that of Lady MacBeth. Yet, in the name of theatrical entertainment, his play was more embellishment than fact, throwing in witchcraft, spurious ancestors and even a completely different fate for both the titular Lord and Lady.
In truth MacBeth and his wife, Gruoch certainly led lives both less scandalous and possibly more interesting than their fictionalised counterparts.  Gruoch was Queen of Scots in her own right alongside her King, and together they reigned for 17 long and largely peaceful years (1040 – 1057 AD), respective to their tumultuous times.
A  great grand-daughter of King Kenneth III, she was first married to Gille Coemgáin mac Maíl Brigti, the Earl of Moray.  With him she had the only child of hers that history remembers, Lulach, who later became King of Scots after MacBeth’s death.
It was indeed a very turbulent time in Scottish History, and Gruoch’s first husband  is said to have killed MacBeth’s father. MacBeth took his revenge, serving it cold a dozen years after his father’s death, having Gille Coemegáin killed with 50 of his men.
It may not have been the best bedrock on which build a successful marriage, but in reality Gruoch outlived her husband and wielded power and influence alongside him as Queen. In the only document that survives baring her name,  she gave land to the Culdees, an aesthetic order of monks. Their reign together was peaceful enough for Macbeth to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, and it was rich enough that he “scattered silver like seeds” to the poor.
Gruoch outlived her husband, although the date of her death remains unknown.
Only fragments remain of Queen Gruoch’s life, but those fragments hint at a woman of some strength of character who thrived in a difficult world. It also seems her reign was peaceful and prosperous, belying the image of a poor, frigid northern kingdom with little to offer history that we have been led to believe . Shakespeare’s account of her life has usurped an important female figure from Scotland’s history. This is why I have begun this little series with her rather than other, better known figures.
It is said that women are less engaged than men in our constitutional debate. I’ve heard it said, even, that the “Braveheart” nature of Scottish Nationalism dissuades women from engaging, as if Scottish History were somehow the province of men alone. I hope that you can see in Gruoch’s story the glimmers of truth that this is not the case. Over these last months of the Referendum campaign I hope to outline the lives of many other fascinating and compelling women in Scottish History, from Isabel of Mar, through Flora MacDonald to Kay Matheson, as well as many others, just to highlight how much women have shaped our Nation in the past.

Written with many thanks to David R Ross and his book, Women of Scotland.