24 November 2009

The naming of parts: gender history & Holyrood...

Just an interesting titbit for today. Via Holyrood Magazine, I notice that it has occurred to our parliamentarians that they are missing a trick. Some rationalising namer of parts decided simply to name Holyrood’s Committee Rooms by number, one to six. Couldn’t we give them more interesting names, suggests the SNP’s gopherish Kenny Gibson? After all, most institutions christen their downstairs toilets and broom cupboards after some heavy-browed former patron that the contemporary membership want to cosy up to. Personally, I’m in favour of naming Holyrood’s gents facilities the “Jack McConnell Memorial Privvy”, but the former FM may gracefully, bashfully repel this honour. Actually, Gibson’s scheme is not a crashingly idiotic one – reflected by the news that apparently the Parliament’s Corporate Body agrees with his suggestion.

Now the question becomes – who to honour? This is the list quoted in the magazine: James Clerk Maxwell, Alexander Fleming, Adam Smith, James Watt, John Logie Baird and William Wallace. An interesting list, for a number of reasons. Firstly, their vintage – and how they relate to dominant account of Scottishness and the mythos of ‘Great Scots’. Will jaunty still-Jacobites empty their Edinburgh watering holes and petition for Charles Edward Stuart’s inclusion? Philosophical partisans of David Hume scratch out Smith’s name? Holyrood Magazine, absolutely rightly in my view, interrogates the list on another front. Where are the women? As they argue, “Are the Parliament honestly saying they couldn’t find a single Scottish woman to honour? That not one female Scot has made a contribution our life, our learning, our development, our history worthy of honouring”? History is not gender-innocent in this respect, simple memory and uninterrogated prominence not to be trusted. Women’s absences and silences in Scottish history are progressively being addressed and their lives and contributions uncovered by the work of members of Women’s History Scotland and others, in academic garrets across the country.

If their imagination simply fails them, our tribunes would do well to consult the Scottish women’s history movement’s recent and sterling publication – The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2006). The Dictionary contains entries on 830 Scottish women, from remotest historical memory to the present. 280 scholars contributed to the mammoth, 448-page recognition of women’s essential place in the warp and woof of Scotland’s storied past. The group have also produced, under the editorial steer of Lynn Abrams, Eleanor Gordon, Deborah Simonton and Eileen Janes Yeo, Gender in Scottish History since 1700 (2006) which is an important part of developing a more acute appreciation of the way ideas of gender are implicated in any understanding of modern Scottish history. I applaud the work of Women’s History Scotland – and prod our parliament folk towards their labours. It would be absurd to turn our parliament into another monument to masculinity, leaving the women of the past forgotten, overlooked. Other candidates are overlooked for other reasons. In particular, I wonder how many Scots are even aware that Adam Smith was from Fife? How many are aware of Adam Smith at all? While re-Christening their rooms seems like a nice idea, injecting a little more character to the parliament – in doing so, lets not replicate the gendered partialities of the past.


  1. Funny you should say that, I suspect that there have been one or two female names put forward...

  2. I'm pleased to hear that Calum.

    Lets just hope one of them isn't Murdo Fraser's last lament for the Queen over the Water, suggesting a Margaret Thatcher Room...

  3. I believe we are finally to see a female voice on the Canongate Wall. One of 26 - that's representative? Speaks much of the place of women in Scotland's public life I think.

  4. Polaris,

    Right you are. One of the two new chipped lines is a verse by Dundonian, Mary Brooksbank from her Jute Mill Song.

    It is my understanding the following will be the verse they use:

    “Oh dear me, the world’s ill-divided
    Them that work the hardest, are wi the least provided
    But I maun bide contented, dark days or fine
    But there’s no much pleasure livin affen ten & nine”

    This will accompany another slice of Norman MacCaig from 'A Man in Assynt':

    “Who possesses this landscape?
    The man who bought it or
    I who am possessed by it?
    False questions, for
    this landscape is
    and intractable in any terms
    that are human.”

    On your last point - there is much to be said, and certainly, representation and lived are not the same thing. It seems difficult to dispute, however, that Scottish women's share in the national mythos and in the public imagination are distinctly (and problematically) limited.

  5. It's interesting comparing the list there and the eventual outcome. I do think that Mary Slessor may have been a better selection then Livingstone though.