Virtual Walk- The Forgotten Women of Aberdeen’s Past

The WayWORD festival got off to a fabulous start with a virtual walk around parts of old Aberdeen. The festival from Aberdeen University has had to go online and this walk did so at short notice producing a film and a great Q&A afterwards.

Alison McCall of the Aberdeen Women’s Alliance, took us a half hour stroll not only round parts of the city but through the lives of some of the women who had lived there.

Some were women of wealth, some of poverty but all were mostly forgotten by history. This was all too clear to see when Alison took us to the monumental grave stone of Arctic explorer Captain William Penny. Those interested in Dr John Rae and his story will know that Penny undertook the first maritime search for the ill fated ships of the Franklyn expedition in 1840. Beside his towering grave stone is a much smaller and humbler one of his wife, Margaret (Irvine) Penny. She was also an Arctic explorer accompanying her husband and later on she published her diaries. In her day she was well known but has faded from our history – not even mentioned on Captain Penny’s Wiki page.

So many of these women’s stories have melted away from our history but Alison McCall’s walk and talk revealed some of them to us.

The tale of Elizabeth Crombie Duthie, benefactress of Duthie Park in Aberdeen, is the stuff of scandal, blackmail and shame. Like all the stories of these fascinating women it would make a great film or TV series. She was born into wealth but had a passionate affair with an Alexander Gray, a man beneath her social ranking who when the affair ended successfully blackmailed her. He had letters and for £500, (a massive sum compared to his £1 a week wage) returned them to her. But like all blackmailers he was not done and came back for more. A court case ensued and it was in all the papers of the day – quite a scandal for those times. Time rolled on and perhaps to rescue her reputation or whatever her motives were, Elizabeth Duthie funded many worthy causes.

Duthie Park Aberdeen by Colin Smith

Aberdeen too, like Orkney, saw its share of witch hunting encouraged by the fanaticism of James VI . There is no memorial in the city to the 26 women and 1 man condemned as witches in 1596. They were eventually strangled and their bodies burned – except for Janet Wishart accused as being their leader. She was burned alive. The metal rings are still visible in St Mary’s Chapel at the Kirk of St Nicholas, where the condemned were chained up awaiting their fate. (Witches and Witchcraft in Aberdeen)

Alison McCall told us the stories of: the Lumsden daughters; Anne Baxter; and Ma Cameron. We heard about Elizabeth Bessie Craigmyle, Isabella Fyvie and Annie Cass. The intriguing story of Dr E Forbes Semple, registered at birth as a female which would have prevented access to professions and inheritance whose application for a new birth certificate (male) was successful.

The women of Aberdeen who significantly changed the lives of others were touched upon in this brief but enlightening talk . Women like Mary Slessor, born in Aberdeen, Fenella Paton who set up a Family Planning clinic in 1926 – one of only 2 in Scotland – and Annie Murray who nursed the injured during the Spanish Civil War. You can listen to an actor speaking the words of Annie Murray here: 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War

In the Q&A which followed we heard of other women whose stories are still untold or which have faded from our history.

You can find out more about the WayWORD festival here: WayWORD Festival Goes Online


Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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