“Defy them all, and feare not to win out.” Elizabeth Melville, Scotland’s first woman in print

 “Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore/ Defy them all, and feare not to win out.” Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross (1578-1640)

What wonderful, bold and stirring words! Perhaps doubly so when you realise they were written by a woman living in 16th-17th century Scotland. Even though I studied Scottish History at Edinburgh University, I have to confess I’d never heard of Elizabeth Melville. Though as I was a student some decades ago now, that’s perhaps not totally surprising. Women have tended to be left on the back-burner when it comes to academic recognition. So it’s great that she’s finally being acknowledged for all that she achieved.

But if I didn’t know about Scotland’s first woman in print from  university days, how did I come to hear about her now? The answer is quite simple. It’s thanks to Dr Jamie Reid-Baxter, a Scottish historian and former European Parliament translator, who has championed her work and brought it to attention as never before. In March 2017 he wrote a lengthy and fascinating article for iScot magazine, and from reading that I learned that Elizabeth was published in 1603, making her Scotland’s first woman in print. Her poem,  Ane Godlie Dreame, was such a success that by 1606 it was into its third edition, and by 1735 had gone through at least thirteen editions. Jamie describes the work thus, “480 lines long, it is a dramatic account of the human spirit’s journey from depression and despair to final affirmation, on a cosmic scale.”

The work was written for imprisoned Scottish kirk ministers, one held in Blackness Castle, the other in the Tower of London, in the early 17th century. Imprisoned because they disagreed with King James VI’s policy for the church. Today many may find it hard to understand the strength of feeling that existed when it came to religious beliefs. Nowadays we can ‘take it or leave it’. Yet for many outwith the West today, and certainly for those in past centuries, what you believed was at the very core of your life. What you believed could determine whether you lived, or died a grisly death. Many of the freedoms we take for granted today only exist because of the struggles of people like Elizabeth Melville. To simply shrug off their beliefs and actions is to demean and belittle the sacrifices of previous generations. And who knows what future generations will smile at about the things we hold dear today!

But where this story takes an especially delightful turn is in 2002, when Jamie unearthed a huge collection of anonymous religious poetry written in Scots, and realised that it had been penned by none other than Elizabeth Melville. Not only have these works now been published, but Elizabeth has been recognised as one of Scotland’s great makars – poets – and in June 2014 her name was added to those other greats in the forecourt to Lady Stair’s Close in Edinburgh, right beside the museum dedicated to writers of Scotland. Germaine Greer unveiled the stone and there was an evening concert in St Giles, for like so much early poetry, the words were written to be sung.

Thankfully, over the past thiry years, there has been a sea-change in academic circles regarding women poets, but there’s still a  long way to go before their names become part of our national consciousness and we can all fully appreciate the women who went before us. As Jamie says, “People do want to take ownership of long-suppressed aspects of Scotland’s past. The role of the female 50% in creating what we know as Scotland is acknowledged in the Great Tapestry of Scotland, but most of the female images are anonymous because history has been written by men for men.”

Things are changing now, though there’s still a way to go. Yet, step by step, here in Scotland, we’re getting there. And I feel a debt of gratitude to Jamie Reid-Baxter and iScot magazine for bringing Elizabeth Melville to my attention. Not only do I feel sure that there is more to come that will enrich this country of ours for the better, but I can’t think of a better quote to help us on our way than hers: “Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore/ Defy them all, and feare not to win out”!

Good on you, Elizabeth!

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

The Battle of Carham 1018

I’ve just spent a day at Stirling Castle viewing the Great Tapestry of Scotland and it’s wonderful! Wonderful because of its aesthetic appeal, wonderful because of its succinct telling of thousands of years of Scotland’s history. Wonderful because of the way intricate, individual stitches turn into whole stories from our history. Wonderful for its sense of continuity – and that it can be added to as this country of ours continues to grow and develop and move forward.

Haakon’s Fleet at Kyleakin, Skye and the Battle of Largs 1263

I hadn’t expected it to make such an impact on me – after all it is silent, nothing moves, no CGI special effects or 3D specs – and yet it’s something far deeper and more lasting than that.  In detailed panels it tells Scotland’s ongoing story – the good and the bad, the tragic and the joyous, the heartbreaking and the courageous; all part of the rich tapestry of life that makes Scotland the country that it is.

Somerled First Lord of the Isles

Are there any particular themes that run through this magnificent Tapestry? On the one hand it celebrates the music, the literature, the scientific discovery, the exploration and political endeavour Scotland is rightly so famous for. The great high points in our history. But without doubt it clearly highlights the constant battle for survival faced everyday by ordinary people. The challenge to have enough to feed and clothe your family. To survive the ravages of war and famine. To retain dignity in the face of the harsh treatment of rulers, landowners and employers who held the power of life and death over the people they controlled. Life was seldom easy in the past!

But equally it highlights many of the brave and determined men and women who have, throughout the centuries, struggled to make life better for ordinary people – all too often at the cost of their own lives.  Ordinary decent Scots who have battled over and over again against enemies both within and without.

The Scottish Reformation, a School in every Parish, 1560s

It celebrates the poor and downtrodden who stood up to grasping landlords. It celebrates the men and women who strove to make life better for their fellows against the horrific conditions in mines, in rural poverty, in the wretched industrial cities and the factories where greedy owners cared nothing at all for the cruel suffering they inflicted, interested only in their own comfort and wealth.  How many people have struggled over the centuries against the inhuman and barbaric treatment those with wealth and power have meted out on the poor and vulnerable?  And how often have all those who should have spoken out, stood by silent in the face of such iniquity? How uncaring and how callous the rich and powerful have been and all too often still are. For even today so much of this country’s wealth, and land, is still held in the hands of the few.

The Discovery sails from Dundee, 1901

But, as The Great Tapestry so eloquently shows, life is never static and history moves constantly onwards. Everything changes, slowly but surely. As long as enough people care and are prepared to stand up for what is right then a future where the people of this country really matter – all of us – is possible. But equally, it’s all too easy for the precious gains of the past to be lost and for the rich and powerful to continue to hold sway over the rest of us.  Sadly, it’s very clear right now that it is not the goal of all in Britain today to see a country where there is social justice and all are treated with equal value and worth.

Women get the Vote

Perhaps this tapestry can be a wonderful lesson to all who view it.  A chance to reflect and think on how we, the citizens of Scotland today, can add to this history in a way that does honour to all in this wonderful country of ours.  How will we play our part in the life of Scotland now? How will the things that we do now be woven into the tapestry of our future?

We all have a wonderful opportunity in our own lifetime to work for the good of all in this Scotland of ours. To stand up against the injustices that continue to exist today. What will we chose to do?  And will our choices stand the test of time?  It is in our grasp to do so much for good.  Will we do it?  It will be interesting to see. People make history. What sort of history do we want to make right now?

For the story of the making of the Great Tapestry follow this linkThe Great Tapestry of Scotland

For the designer’s website and his other works follow this linkAndrew Crummy