In this section you will find information on the following:
- An account of how WEA classes in the Highlands researched the women’s suffrage movement in the area
- What kinds of sources they consulted to find out what happened in the Highlands
- What kinds of sources were available locally, and who was able to help
- A summary of key findings about the extent of women’s suffrage campaigning in the Highlands
In 2009 the Highland branch of the Scottish Worker’s Educational Association (WEA) became involved in a project to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a suffrage march held in Edinburgh. Our involvement was to research what had happened in the Highlands, and then to create some suffrage banners and participate in the commemorative march in Edinburgh with a group of teenage girls and adults.
It all seemed straightforward: find the books and articles written about this, chase the references, and then publicise the results. But books and articles only made tangential references to the Highlands. Local historians didn’t have any better ideas, and one even suggested that suffrage just wasn’t a big movement in the Highlands.
Consequently our WEA class embarked on reading newspaper accounts. In fact we found lots of evidence, and even had to limit our searches to Inverness and Easter Ross (where most of the participants were from). There were challenges organising a number of people all trying to use limited microfilm readers and to record in a consistent way, but we set up a system, and libraries allowed us to keep recording sheets in the library. Where possible we have made scans of relevant articles.
Local newspapers showed information about outside speakers, and we gradually pieced together information on the growing body of local groups which began to be formed in their wake. The sources clearly showed two main periods of activity: the first 1868-1874 and then a gap until 1907-1914. We then used the suffrage journals, particularly Common Cause, the journal of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) which was the main influence in the Highlands. This led us to libraries in Edinburgh and London (how wonderful it would be if this source material was online). Not only the articles, but the financial details from branches allowed us to gauge numbers active in the many branches in the Highlands. In one case there was even a membership list (for Nairn), a wonderful find. The National Library of Scotland in particular facilitated a fantastic day with a tour of the facility and then a group session in a meeting room with suffrage journals. From these sources we are building up a detailed timeline and spreadsheet of people involved in the Highlands as a whole.
Although newspapers and the suffrage (and anti-suffrage) journals were our main sources, we also investigated others. Visits to the local archives found a police circular warning about suffragette activity, a Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) membership card and references to suffrage rallies attended elsewhere in the UK. The Burgh minutes held in the archives also had letters submitted from local suffrage organisations. Local police reports talk of patrolling the area when the Prime Minister was in the area and mention suffrage meetings.
Family history searches helped to provide information on people. A particularly interesting result from looking at census material was clear evidence in 1911 of some women falsifying their details, and in one case refusing to answer. The research has showcased a number of interesting and courageous women.
A local museum (the Highland Folk Museum) had done an early oral history project and had some transcripts of people talking about what they remembered of suffrage activity. We traveled down to see the wonderful collection in the Glasgow Women’s Library – no information about Highland suffrage, but useful to see the horrible anti-suffrage postcards which circulated at the time. By word of mouth and serendipity we found accounts where suffrage was mentioned in travel or local reminiscence books.
We also tried to get the word out as widely as possible. We sent letters to most of the local newspapers asking people to reply if they had family stories or memorabilia. No one replied with Highland information, but a few relating to activity elsewhere. Our talks to local groups have flushed out a few memories, postcards and even a photograph of Mrs Pankhurst in Wick.
A follow-on project in 2014 allowed us to expand the focus to several other areas, with courses centred around where newspaper archives are held (in the Highlands they are dispersed to various regions). It also allowed us to work with Eden Court theatre youth workers, where we provided information about suffrage activity in three areas, and then they wrote and performed short plays.
The picture which is emerging is of widespread activity in the Highlands, though with regional differences. Those places where the suffrage movement flourished were generally areas which had support from the NUWSS. Why was this story hardly known before? It was primarily due to the fact the activity in the Highlands was almost entirely non-violent. The only militant activity was when two outside suffragettes disturbed the Prime Minister’s golf in Dornoch, followed by a copycat local action the following year. The hard work of the suffragists of the NUWSS has always been eclipsed by the militant WSPU in media and public imagination.
Publicising the story
We still have two main areas to finish up, and then we will draw the material together into a book. We continue to give talks when asked, and have a display and banners which have travelled to various venues. With the theatre youth groups we had a day travelling the trains (as was the main way of getting around for suffrage supporters), presenting the plays on the streets of Nairn, Inverness and Golspie, and attracting a good bit of interest. We have also created a resources pack to go with the NLS Suffragettes project (https://suffragettes.nls.uk/) which has Highland source material for their main themes. Copies were sent to all the secondary schools in the Highlands. The intention is that all of our binders of information, on events, people and places will eventually be given to Inverness Reference Library once the book has been completed. Gradually the word is getting out, and at the next commemoration there will be a wealth of material to draw on.
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