It takes a whole society and its culture to create a domestic abuse perpetrator. A critical look at our history can help us understand why.

‘a thousand words’ commissioned by Scottish Womens Aid and Zero Tolerance. Copyright Laura Dodsworth

The annual 16 days of international activism against gender-based violence ended yesterday. During this year’s campaign a report by ‘Counting dead women’ on the UK National Femicide Census made harrowing reading and showed that statistically, one woman or girl is murdered every three days.  In 2019, 115 women were killed by men (or where men were the principal suspect).  Writing in the Scotsman recently, Gina Davidson describes the ‘epidemic of violence against women in the UK’.  She highlighted the stories of the Scottish women who have died at the hands of their partners/ex partners and the stubbornly high rates of domestic abuse in Scotland, which have further spiked during lockdown. Twitter responses to Davidson’s  article, reveal a curiosity about the cultural underpinnings of domestic abuse and calls for more research.

My research has uncovered some of the historical and cultural roots of an issue which shows few signs of disappearing. I carried out an in-depth analysis of interviews with a group of women survivors and criminal justice professionals born between 1945 and 1966 about their memories of domestic abuse in post-war Scotland. Some of these are quoted below.

Becoming a girl or a boy

According to Engels, ‘the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male in monogamous marriage’.  Biology determined and differentiated female and male gender roles.  Historically, these roles became embedded in patriarchal marriage, societies, customs and culture.

Scotland remained a deeply patriarchal society in the second half of the 20th century.  At home, girls and boys learned different ways of behaving and playing, who earned and managed family money, who had the last word, who did the housework, who got privileges.

My childhood was very traditional – I was the oldest girl, I was expected to be the carer, the babysitter, helping Mum while my two older brothers went out to play on their bikes with their mates and stuff. (b. 1957)

Children learned to be seen and not heard, many lived with violence and knew not to tell anyone about it. Family matters were private. Gender socialisation continued at school in strict regimes ruled by ‘the belt’ preparing girls and boys for different futures of gender segregated jobs and unequal pay differentials.

In the late twentieth century, Scotland was still glorying in a very male cultural history of violence, hard man tropes and the romanticising of warriors, adventurers and political heroes.  Children soaked all this up as they approached adolescence.

Dating and marriage

Popular culture guided teenagers’ dating. From the 1960s – 1980s  there was remarkable consistency in the way young men began practicing male entitlement and satisfying their emergent sexual appetites.

All men were interested in in the sixties was sex and at that point I was terrified you know, I’d never met anybody that liked just me so I was a bit confused. (b. 1947)

I think that once we’d had sex he thought he had some sort of ownership over me. (b. 1966)

Even during the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ in Scotland, young men were bearing gifts and promises,  showing off their potential as future husbands and overcoming girls’ faint hearts by re-enacting the aged-old tropes of romantic literature and popular song in chivalrous displays.

A pearl ring for my birthday – an opal and diamonds for my engagement – I did marry him, rose coloured, tinted glasses and you think you’re in love and all the rest of it. (b. 1948)

The boundaries between sex and sexual violence became blurred.  Relationships too quickly featured violence as young men flexed their new patriarchal muscles and girls faced pressures to marry:

If you werenae married before you were twenty you were on the shelf.  All my pals were married and had babies – sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. That was the expectation, so here was I trying to get away from this man who was declaring undying love to me. (b 1957)

The classic patriarchal family with its clearly gendered hierarchies soon became established. During the swinging 60s and 70s, ardent young suitors quickly became Victorian patriarchs expecting sex on demand, dinner on the table, using violence and enforcing silence.  The age-old mantra women had absorbed since childhood continually played out in their heads: “You’ve made your bed…” – many told no one.

Policing domestic abuse

Police forces in Scotland turn a blind eye to wife beating. Police attitudes to domestic violence were very unfortunate, both from the point of view of the women involved and for society as a whole. It seemed that Scots lived in a society which accepted the use of violence by a husband against his wife. – Dr Rebecca Dobash quoted in The Scotsman 6/11/77.

The criminal  justice system minimised its interventions in ‘domestics’ focussing instead on stopping couples fighting, drinking and separating.

“See before we go in here son? This is between a man and a woman and we’re no’ getting involved in this.”  And that was actually before we arrived at the front door and… Aye keep it in your own house, keep it private, this is what you do (Police officer A 1980s).

Only cases of ‘severe’ violence, murder or where children were being harmed were investigated.

In the eighties, we were chasing drug dealers and guns and robbers and Starsky and Hutch an’ a’ that stuff…  I was in the CID pretty young…I didnae want tae go tae domestics.  (Police officer B 1980s).

Reporting to the police was a waste of time and could lead to violent reprisals by aggrieved husbands. The Scots legal requirement for corroboration made prosecution difficult while successful convictions, fines and imprisonment left women financially disadvantaged and stigmatised.

The police and criminal justice system remained male-dominated professions until the later decades of the 20th century. Sexism permeated highly macho workplaces, trivialised male violence against women and ignored domestic abuse perpetrated by their own staff.

Some of these women might well deserve the batterings they get from their husbands – Nicholas Fairbairn Scotland’s Solicitor General 1979-1982

These organisations were working patriarchies keeping patriarchal marriages together while violent men escaped sanction. Women rarely told the police. Family and friends were reluctant to interfere in couples’ private business, often turning a blind eye to threats and violence going on in plain sight.

Why women didn’t leave

Women found separation almost impossible in the face of social stigma and shame about being a ‘battered wife’ or a ‘single mother’ and the dismal prospect of poverty, isolation and homelessness.

We were buying a house.  All the money went into one joint pot.  I couldn’t work out how to extricate myself safely. Where would I go, what would I do?  I can remember thinking ‘do I want to go to a refuge?’ and thinking ‘no’.

Eventually the women I interviewed faced down the stigma and prejudice and the hostile misogynist culture. They separated with the help of a few trusted friends and encouraged by the faint glimmers of equality for women in late 20th century Scotland.

Getting off Scot free

For the women I interviewed, their violent husbands were never charged, held accountable or challenged by friends, family or the authorities for their violence and abuse – some went on to form new relationships and carried on abusing.  For abusers, silence is golden. The cultural transmitters of domestic abuse and violence against women will remain hard wired from the cradle to the grave unless a cultural circuit breaker comes along.  Until then history will keep repeating.

This post first appeared as a guest blog on Scottish Women’s Aid website on 6 December 2020 during 16 Days of Activism 2020. View the original article here


Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is available 24/7 for anyone who wants to talk about their experience of domestic abuse – whether it’s happening currently or if it happened in the past. You can call on 0800 027 1234 or email and web chat from The Helpline is free and completely confidential. We are here for you. 


STORM, a 10 meter high sea goddess arose from the River Clyde last Saturday morning 18 January 2020 in the calmer wake of her big brother Brendan who had battered these shore a few days previously.  Made entirely of recycled and natural materials, STORM is said to be the largest puppet in the UK. With her movements guided  by a hard-working, rope-hauling crew of fisherfolk in sou’westers and kilts, STORM stood up, raised her head and looked around at the hundreds of mortal folk below her.

This woman giant, the culmination of two years’ work by creators Vision Mechanics, immediately captured the hearts of all gathered by the Clyde to welcome her.


Slowly moving her giant feet and legs, her strolling rhythm soon settled; stately, her head turning this way and that, eyes blinking, she gazed around her, up and down, then, chin raised she proudly processed through the city. In busy Argyll Street, shoppers stopped aghast and children froze mid-bite at their Big Macs.  Even some folk with ears blocked by headphones, sensed something and looked up.

While countless mobile phones recorded her every step, in time they were put away as people just gazed in wonder as STORM paraded trailing her own boom-box soundtrack specially composed by Mairi Campbell and Dave Grey.

There were some moving moments when Storm dropped on one knee to honour the singing of the young women of the Dileab Choir from the Western Isles and for the Campbeltown Pipe Group.


The expertise of the puppeteers made us forget the humans in control as we were held in thrall by that same timeless magic of rhymers, guisers and Galoshan who have been entrancing and frightening folk by turns since technologically simpler times.   Their skill, and the symbolism of an other-worldly giant in our midst proved that we can all still believe in a bit of magic. STORM’s character began to shine through even as we saw her being worked from the back.  STORM led her entourage uptown to the steps of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall just in time to herald the opening of the first weekend of Celtic Connections.  Saturday 18 January saw a whole day devoted to our shores:  Coast and Waters 2020 – a mini festival within a festival celebrated Scotland’s links with the sea and the unique musical and cultural heritage it has gifted us.

STORM reminded us of how much we owe the sea, that it gives and takes away, how much our lives depend on it and our responsibility to protect it.  How timely then that last Saturday, we witnessed STORM finally come home tae the Clyde – Glasgow’s once mighty waterway to the world.


Storm’s debut appearance kicked off the first week of Celtic Connections which runs throughout venues in Glasgow until February 2.  The city’s halls and clubs are playing host to events featuring around 2,000 musicians who have travelled from around the world to perform.

Write to end VAW awards

A year ago I had the dubious honour of presenting the Write To End Violence Women Wooden Spoon Award. The Wooden Spoon is often awarded not for the stories themselves but for the way they are told – to journalism which is at the other end of the spectrum from the high quality work which the Write to End VAW Awards have been honouring annually since 2013.

Read Annie MacLaughlin’s Wooden Spoon Award presentation 2017

It was highly fitting that the 2018 award ceremony took place in the Storytelling Centre  in Edinburgh, in the shadow of Big John – oh the irony –  to celebrate the importance of stories about women; to honour  excellent journalism and  the formidable journalists whose business is to tell the important stories about women’s lives –  the difficult stories about violence against women.

To set the scene, let me take you to another land, one which is not so far from here but where things are not quite what they seem. Let’s go through the patriarchal looking glass to a parallel universe much like our own but which looks at life back to front. There are gaslights everywhere and it is populated by men who do no wrong, where domestic abuse, rape, sexual harassment, commercial sexual exploitation, murder and cruelty don’t exist and anyone who says they do is exaggerating or not in possession of all the facts.

Amid the smoke and mirrors of this distorted topsy-turvy world the men who do these awful things are quickly transformed, as if by magic, into the real victims, their crimes minimised or denied all together; where other factors or people, not infrequently the women themselves, are usually blamed.

jilted father

These lords of humankind, viewed through the patriarchal looking glass, are pillars of their communities, decent chaps who wouldn’t harm a fly, who can suddenly, and completely out of character, lose control in a moment of weakness or madness, faced by oh… I don’t know, pick your external locus of control…betrayal, his wife leaving him, a difficult childhood, bankruptcy, drink… they do completely random and uncharacteristic things like abuse, humiliate, rape or kill the women and children in their lives. Sometimes they even kill themselves.  They commit one-off crimes, they would never prolong abuse over days, weeks, months or years.  There’s no such thing as ‘a course of conduct’ in this world.

Daily Mail Wooden spoon #1

By an extraordinary sleight of hand, these upstanding public men, are transformed by a particular media magic called himpathy into devoted dads, salts of the earth, respected members of their communities.

he would do anything for anyone

They can be an esteemed football coach, a community leader, a successful business man, TV personality…men with great careers both behind and ahead of them, high ranking politicians or  even… presidents.  The world on this side of the looking glass may end up reading highly distorted stories which mask private tyrannies and blank out or deny women and children’s lives and experiences.

‘twisted act of love

Crime reports become eulogies to a nice bloke who has usually left his community and local police mystified; these stories serve to help resolve the collective cognitive dissonance people are left with about a man they thought they all knew well but whom they can’t quite believe was such a monster. The mask worn by such men in public hide the private tyrant known only to the women and children in his life.  It’s a common thing.

They were a lovely family. I’m honestly shocked. Lance couldn’t do enough for you. He helped me with DIY in my house, did all his up from scratch.

The patriarchal looking-glass world is perpetually spinning in what Judith Herman calls the social dialectic of trauma – where the desire to speak about horrible events is accompanied by a simultaneous desire to deny they happened at all.   Instead of seeking to investigate the true motives for violent crimes against women, this journalism delves no deeper than the benign masks on the public face of these lethal hypocrites.  Luke and Ryan Hart whose father brutally murdered their Mum Claire and sister Charlotte think the media narrative sets the bar far too low for men accused of violence against women and prefers to blame anything at all for the violence but the agency of the man responsible.

Wooden spoon #2

The 2018 Wooden Spoon award was a group award.  In an announcement proclaimed with absolutely no pleasure at all, the 2018 Wooden Spoon award went to all those NICE GUYS.  The upstanding blokes who had reasons for acting out of character and for committing these heinous crimes against women.  Now that they’ve been rumbled, we should turn off those big gaslights, drag them back through the patriarchal looking glass, shine a bright new LED spotlight on their lives and tell the full backstory of these men and the women they murdered; tell us too about how much the women were loved, what they did in their lives and the loss suffered needlessly by all who loved them.  So far in 2019 at least 90 women have been killed in the UK by men (or where a man is the principal suspect). Tell us about these women and their lives, their lives count too while sadly the death toll continues to rise.

16 days

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UCU16 days.PNG

As I joined the strike called by my union’s UCU’s members for Monday morning 25 Nov 2019, I couldn’t help see the connections with the other reason we traditionally mark this date in the calendar.  On the 25 November every year, I join millions of other women worldwide to call for 16 Days of Activism to end male violence against women. The links between the two won’t be lost on other feminists who work in universities across the country who study the extent and impact of the male violence women across the globe.  Universities have not always been at the centre of research into women’s lives and the violence they face but a growing tide of feminists, women activists and academics have, since the 1970s, been storming the academy for the right to be there and to study women’s oppression and inequality.  Being there on equal terms with no gender pay gap continues to be a challenge and that’s one important reason why I’m on strike.

Women’s inequality, the gender pay gap and violence against women on university campuses are closely linked. A wee history lesson: one of the reasons we mark the 25 November to 6 December as a period of 16 Days of Activism against VAW is to remember the Montreal Massacre of 6 December 1989.  That day, 25 year old Marc Lepine entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal armed with a shotgun and a hunting knife.  He shot and killed 14 women, injured 10 women and 4 men.  Lepine was furious at being rejected for a place at the Ecole which specialised in courses traditionally undertaken by men.  Before opening fire, the gunman was heard to shout, “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!”. The murdered women were studying what we would now describe as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), subjects leading to professions which have traditionally been male-dominated.   Efforts to redress this imbalance continue today.

I find it hard to separate my professional work in a university from violence against women as a real and present reality in women’s lives.   It’s been my research area and professional field for over twenty five years. Nowadays, I am focussed on preventing violence against women on university campuses which has recently been highlighted in all its grim reality.  It has always been there, from Professor Creepy et al and their scandalous free-wheeling moral turpitude in the 1970s to the solid research carried out nowadays showing its probably under-reported but nevertheless still shocking extent.

More generally, reported cases of all forms of violence against women are high and rising across Scotland. Reported sexual crimes here have increased by 8% from 12,487 to 13,547 in 2018-2019. The recording of these crimes is at the highest level seen since 1971. The clear majority of victims of other sexual crimes – mainly cyber-enabled – were female and the vast majority of perpetrators were male. Police Scotland recorded 59,541 incidents of domestic abuse in 2017-18 and the new Scottish Domestic Abuse legislation criminalises coercive control for the first time.  A pattern of behaviour largely experienced by women at the hands of male partners, coercive control enforces a regime over women in all areas of their lives and limits their freedom to live, work and be heard, in private, digital and social spaces and at work.

Campuses are not immune to the violence going on around them.  Universities have been highlighted as ‘sites of violence against women’, with particular emphasis on sexual violence and harassment; gender and age are two key determinants which increase the risk of such violence. One UK study found that one in seven female students had experienced serious physical or sexual assault; 84% knew their attacker and 25% had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour.  The Power in the Academy study found that 4 out of 10 students had experienced sexualised behaviour from a member of staff; more women than men and more post-graduate students than undergraduate students experienced sexual misconduct from a member of staff.  Overall, 60% of the staff responsible for the sexualised behaviour and misconduct were male and 13.5% female. UCU’s own research among women members found that just over half reported experiences of sexual harassment at work, two thirds reported having been sexually harassed by a colleague and over a quarter by a student. Violence against women on campus can be lethal, as the tragic case of Aberdeen student Emily Drouet has revealed.  Furious reaction to this and to the way Birmingham University handled reports of rape case and to the Warwick University groupchat case show the power of student survivors’ activism in speaking truth to power.  Research and personal experiences show that power and gender imbalances interact to facilitate sexual harassment and misconduct on our campuses.


This is not being taken lightly by feminists and campaigners who mark the 16 Days.  There is now a great deal of work going on in campuses in Scotland with Emily’s Mum Fiona Drouet #EmilyTest Campaign in the vanguard. As a UCU member and campaigner against violence against women it is wonderful to see the campus trade and student union movements in solidarity with the struggle to make sure our campuses are safe spaces as they strike to end the gender pay gap and the campus conditions which perpetuate it.  We should remember whose shoulders we stand on and to keep up the fight for a better, safer and more equal future for generations to come.









Madame Scotia book front

Click here for Review of Madame Scotia, Madame Scrap by Helene Witcher

Scottish Review of Books Vol 13 Number 1 2018

Published by The Islands Book Trust



Heloise Russell-Ferguson with ‘Harplet’ 1920

Author Helene Witcher will be appearing at Aye Write on 24 March 2018.

For further information click here


Danny MacAskill

Martyn Bennett’s second studio album Bothy Culture was given the full orchestral treatment on Saturday 27 January in Glasgow’s Hydro arena – mid-point highlight of this year’s sell-out Celtic Connections 25th  Anniversary Festival.  Building on the success of Greg Lawson’s arrangement of his friend Bennett’s album GritNae Regrets – premiered at Celtic Connections in 2015, this debut of ‘Bothy Culture and Beyond’ had a hard and complex act to follow.  The expectant capacity crowd – from babes in arms to mature silver backs – stacked in Glasgow’s vertiginous coliseum, mosh pit an all,  settled down for a spectacle which rocketed Bennett’s already innovative interpretations of Scots and Gaelic traditions in an altogether new direction.

Pumped up by the stomping beats and trippy lightshows of Skye’s Niteworks, their guitar riffs, steroid piping and paradiddles tanked through a traditional repertoire which successfully enfolded Julie Fowlis and The Shee. By the end of their set the event’s transition from ceilidh to house was complete. The 80+ strong Grit Orchestra et al took it from there with the velocity needed to continue the wholesale reboot of the audience’s Celtic Connectors which the evening was shaping up to be.

The son of Margaret Bennett the celebrated Scottish folklorist and singer, Martyn, who died of lymphoma aged 33 years in 2005, said of his work in 2003,

I’m not trying to change the face of Scottish music. It’ll change on its own in ways that I won’t ever know how in the future.

Bennett’s modest yet prophetic words may have been ringing in Musical Director Greg Lawson’s ear as he set about arranging his friend’s second studio album for GRIT Orchestra, trapeze, aerialist, spoken word, landscape, boat and trail bike.  The rationale behind this strange mega mash-up became clearer as the night went on but as sheer circus it seemed to work from the off.  The crowd were delighted by biking acrobat Danny MacAskill’s staged recreation of his Youtube smashhit ride on Skye in ‘The Ridge’ –  the cardboard rocks, lightshow loch, Cuillin backdrop, mountain trails and all managed somehow to stay this side of naff. Despite the scale and strangeness, the sweet, strong tones of Fiona Hunter singing ‘Blackbird’ accompanied by a harmonious men’s choir created a haunting delicacy around MacAskill’s wheelies and bunnyhops. Sweeping strings and a glorious heart-vibrating brass section were the necessary multipliers to the greatly expanded traditional line-up of whistle, pipe and drums sections which carried Bennett’s music across the cavernous auditorium and up to the furthest seats perched high up in the gods.

Aerial ballet

With Aisling ni Cheallaigh’s extraordinary aerial ballet and interwoven spoken word performances from David Hayman and Innes Watson (vocals + diddling), Lawson carefully wrapped Bennett’s ethics of connection around his Scottish, gamelan-tinged, Arabic and Indian infusions.  Could this curious Scottish orchestral admixture be the long-lost love bairn of the influential 9-piece Cauld Blast Orchestra  whose innovative and eclectic mix of Scottish folk, jazz and classical traditions blew through a startled Scottish music scene in the 1990s?    While the vast scale and physical remove of Bothy Culture and Beyond from its cultural roots and its audience may irk the critics and defy the copycats, a Scottish techno-circus for the 21st century may have been born.

Celtic Connections ends on 4 February 2018.

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As acronyms go MOOC doesn’t roll easily off the tongue.  Massive Open Online Courses harness the reach of the worldwide web to the immediacy of social media and magically turn teaching and learning into something entirely new for educators and learners alike.  As a key element in the Equally Safe in Higher Education (ESHE) Toolkit, developing a new MOOC  ‘Understanding Violence against Women – Myths and Realities’ with my ESHE colleague Roisin McGoldrick took us into uncharted technological and pedagogical waters. With no students in front of you and no entry requirements, these free courses, covering every subject under the sun, attract learners from across the globe who might be studying at all hours of the Scottish day and night. Designing a course on VAW, a complex and at times controversial topic, for an invisible audience, was a challenge to two experienced educators used to the cut and thrust of lectures, powerpoint, handouts and groupwork.  Converting what we knew into audio-visual learning steps to capture and retain learners’ interest over a six week period meant that most of how we did things went out the window. Knowing you are only ever one click away from internet oblivion at the best of times, teaching such a complex and highly controversial subject required us each to find a friendly yet authoritative ‘voice’, somewhere between a pal and a mentor.  I won’t even go into the whole teaching to camera business…

My long experience of teaching about violence against women has shown me that it is one of the few academic subjects where students’ personal opinions can sometimes trump all the research evidence you can throw at them. 

My long experience of teaching about violence against women has shown me that it is one of the few academic subjects where students’ personal opinions can sometimes trump all the research evidence you can throw at them.  Violence against women (VAW) is so deeply interwoven in the warp and weft of world history and modern life that finding a way to unpack its complexities was our first task.  We wanted to stimulate thinking and ideas around violence against women and girls and offer knowledge and perspectives for people to consider.  We were firmly feminist in our approach and were clear that our aim was not necessarily that everyone agree but that we provided them with a strong foundation from which to build their learning and their own analyses.  To do that we needed to introduce some serious sociological concepts such as gender, power and violence. We hoped this would help them make personal connections with underpinning theories, theoretical frameworks and the lived realities for women living with violence the world over.

Before we started on the content however we were clear we needed a clear ethical framework for learning. Given its high international prevalence and gendered nature, it was very likely that many of our participants would have either direct or indirect experience of violence against women and girls in private, social or public settings. We recognised that for some, this may well have influenced their decision to study the course and how they might interpret our materials. We would be covering topics which people would likely find distressing and because we were not around to have a private chat after class, we created a ‘Health Warning’ with regular reminders about the need for self-care and regular breaks to allow processing and learning.  We established clear groundrules stressing the importance of being mindful of themselves and respectful of others in group discussions and in responding to other people’s posts in the online space, their sole and virtual classroom.  We stressed that personal experience is wholly that – unique and personal – and should not be used as evidence of more general points that people might wish to make. The chances of disclosures were likely to be high and we asked people only to share information about themselves that they were comfortable making available in the course’s public online platform. This request was well adhered to and might be a useful reminder for use in other public social media platforms,

“Please be sensitive to the potential for causing distress to yourself and to others in what you say and post during your time studying on this course.

We observed this in action many times.  Participants contravening the ground rules were dealt with very effectively and graciously by the others in ways which were a model of pro-social, measured and well-argued rebuttals.

Each learning step of the six week course contained short lectures, reading materials, hyperlinks, video extracts and opportunities for online discussion. There were quizzes and ‘live streams’ where people could tune into a Youtube channel and post questions for us to answer live on air.  We eventually got used to teaching direct to camera, to breaking learning down into powerful packets of knowledge and getting to the point and sharpish! We dashed off compact articles, wandered down the vast storehouses of Shutterstock images, interviewed experts over Skype and chipped into online discussions being carried out across continents – reading discussions between people in Sri Lanka, Chile, South Africa, Russia, Italy, Burkino Faso, New Zealand, Australia was thrilling. We learned about media schedules, subtitling, editing and were fortunate in having tremendous contributions from a range of well-kent Scottish and internationally renowned experts in the VAW field and the support of a team of learning technologists and film-makers and audio-visual specialists.

Our community of learners included survivors, a range of professionals, VAW specialists, students and many FutureLearn old hands who were simply interested in exploring a new subject. Some were regular contributors to the discussion and many were not – content to learn in their own way. There is absolutely no requirement to chip in your tuppenceworth.  We witnessed extraordinary moments of enlightenment as people began to make sense of their own or others’ experiences or to connect their practice with new ideas.  We read with interest as people spoke of their growing confidence in their own knowledge to initiate conversations about VAW with family, friends and colleagues for the first time.

In an extraordinary piece of synchronicity,  the Weinstein story and the #MeToo campaign aftermath broke when we were dealing with ‘Media Representations of VAW’.   The chat was mighty and the analysis of the press coverage was a joy to behold in its confidence, knowledge and outrage!

The pleasure of taking part in discussions with participants from every corner of the globe, of hearing their perspectives and of reaching so many people was a new one to me. The feedback since the first course ended in mid-November 2017 has been extremely positive. People connected to the issue in new ways, realised that they could play a part in preventing violence against women and many resolved at the end to take action in their own communities.

The course page invites learners to join the global movement to prevent VAW.  By taking part in a course like ours I believe they made a start.  We explored VAW Prevention at the end of the course and when people read about the first Zero Tolerance Campaign in Scotland, the 16 Days of International Activism against VAW, the Inside Outside Project, One Billion Rising and White Ribbon for instance many were inspired into taking action in their own communities.  Learning about VAW is an intervention and a key part of primary prevention.  Knowledge is indeed power, we busted some myths and laid down some realities and just maybe we have helped bring about some changes of mind.

This blog  was first posted on  by  





Celtic Connections columnist Anni Donaldson reviews one show looking at the life and music of Margaret Barry

This article first appeared in Common Space

THE gulf separating the lived experience of singers Margaret Barry and Karine Polwart could hardly be wider. 

Margaret, born into a family of street musicians in Cork in 1917, and Karine, a 40-something from Edinburgh, show the distance women have travelled in the world of traditional music and song.

‘She Moved Through the Fair’ by Colin Irwin and Mary McPartlan, which played at the Tron Theatre as part of Celtic Connections, gave us a funny, poignant and honestly tuneful evocation of Barry’s colourful life.

Karine Polwart

Finding herself homeless at 16, she took her chances on the road with just her bicycle and her ‘banji’, as she called it. Living rough at times and singing for bed and board, she traipsed around Ireland’s cities and country fairs singing on street corners, in pubs or wherever she could earn her keep.

Although she learned the hard way how to command an audience and compete with the clatter of street and stall, her powerfully sweet and melodic tones gave voice to Ireland’s eternal longing for itself in ballads of migration, of loves lost and found, of failed rebellion and roving in the years after the failed Easter Rising.

The self-styled ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ was strong in the face of the Irish Catholic Church’s view of independently-minded single mothers like herself, of a male-dominated culture and general prejudice against travellers – she held her own and had the last laugh.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: James Kelman on the Dirt Road to Lafayette

Bumping into tradition-hunters Robin Roberts and Alan Lomax in 1951, Barry’s gifts were recognised and she went on to become the centre of the growing Irish community in London, taking up residence at sessions in the famous Bedford Arms with her new musical partner, fiddler Michael Gorman.

Caring little at all for her appearance, lack of front teeth and more for stout, Margaret went on to a colourful career touring the US. Mary McPartlan (main picture) lovingly rendered Margaret’s signature songs like the Galway Shawl, The Factory Girl, My Laggan Love, the Wild Colonial Boy and others including the exquisite title song.

Larne-born actor Ruby Campbell’s fine portrayal of Margaret through her life gave a real sense of this huge character and the size of the toss she never gave for convention or sobriety.

Polwart’s play, Wind Resistance, by contrast, expressed more 20th century concerns for land, nature, community, birth and motherhood. Centred on her beloved Falla Moss, Polwart’s multi-dimensional performance combined songs and stories old and new, chat, audio interviews and wondrous back projections of geese in flight.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: Is it time Scotland paid a new piper?

Polwart drew the connections and cooperation between bird, land, people, history and agriculture, weaving her tale around the love story of Roberta and Will who settled in Falla Moor in 1919. This deeply moving musical essay shared one highly creative woman’s art through reminiscence, via football, medieval medicine, peat bogs, moss and birth.

That Polwart had the funding and freedom to do what Barry could only do by force of will shows how far we have come in recognising the art women can make given half a chance.

We must thank Celtic Connections for reminding us of those uproarious foremothers like Margaret Barry who carved those first paths through the peat bog of centuries of tradition and silt and ended up on the boards of the Tron Theatre.

Pictures courtesy of Celtic Connections

Our Celtic Connections columnist Anni Donaldson goes on a musical journey with Dirt Road author James Kelman


JAMES KELMAN in conversation with Alan Bisset at a packed ‘meet the author’ session at this year’s Celtic Connections festival was full of surprises. 

The ‘connection’ celtic-wise between Kelman’s latest novel, Dirt Road, and Glasgow’s annual music festival is stronger than you might expect from Scotland’s renowned Booker prize winner, known mainly for his dark and gritty urban tales.

Kelman’s latest novel, which began life as a screenplay for the forthcoming film Dirt Road to Lafayette, is long in miles yet existential in spirit. This sojourn from Bute (maybe) to Louisiana via Alabama is a coming-of-age odyssey steeped in grief, west of Scotland male-style.

Read more from Celtic Connections – Anni Donaldson: Is it time Scotland paid a new piper?

It is a masterful portrayal of the inner life of Murdo, a bereaved, helplessly inarticulate 16-year-old accordion wizard, and Tom, his excruciatingly silent and grieving father. The moment when Murdo finally stops flayling around in his scant emotional vocabulary and gets to the point of his life and the book is simply a joy. That point is music.

The life-changing connection between oor Murdo and the Lafayette’s Zydeco culture he encounters on his travels is the core of the book’s journey. The discussion at the event revealed Kelman’s hitherto quiet passion and breadth of knowledge about American traditional music cultures which began when he emigrated to the States as a teenager with his family in the 1960s.

The musical mash-up between Kelman’s youthful musical discoveries and his political views emerged. For Kelman, the music of Appalachian, Zydeco, Cajun, Blue Grass, Hispanic, Scots and Irish cultures were all essentially “black and white working class people’s music which went around the world and moved people”.

They shared a common root in the experience of “poor people with agricultural roots making joy in their lives”. For Kelman, this music links Scots, Irish, African-Americans, Hispanic, Creole, French Canadians, Louisiana settlers and many more besides.

The maritime journeys and the fiddles, whistles, drums, accordions and harmonicas in their baggage created the opportunity for a shared migrant language which set the scene for jazz, blues and modern popular music.

Preston Frank and daughter Jennifer

Before the Beatles, the Everly Brothers had snuck their own rural family and community tradition of music and song into the emergent pop music of the 1950s. Blues hunters like Alan Lomax fed an appetite among the youth of Scotland and the UK for the truth of the African–American experience rendered in music and song and encouraged them to give voice to their own lives.

The forces of commercialism in popular culture in the 1960s tried their best to distance the new generation from its own cultural roots on both sides of the Atlantic while the previous generation hung on despairing that no one would listen.

Fortunately they did not succeed, family and community ties remain strong and Kelman’s pleasure was plain to see as he introduced his ‘Dirt Road Band’. The line up included Zydeco button box wizard Preston Frank and his daughter Jennifer on bass (pictured), Dirk Powell on fiddle and guitar and his daughter Amelia on guitar, and accordion player and singer Neil Sutcliffe (aka Murdo in the film).

Illustrating Kelman’s point perfectly, the set of Zydeco rhythms including Scottish and American versions of the famous MacPherson’s Rant had the audience not quite knowing whether they were in Townhead or Texas.

James Kelman, Dirt Road, Canongate 2016

Celtic Connections finishes on 5 February 2017.

Pictures courtesy of Anni Donaldson


Our Celtic Connections columnist, Anni Donaldson, explores the politics of gender in Scottish traditional music

WITH the chants of a women’s anti-Trump demonstration booming outside Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, it was an auspicious moment to start a new conversation about gender and Scottish traditional music. 

Judging by the audience’s response to the lively discussion during the ‘Exploring Gender and Music’ event on the second afternoon of Celtic Connections 2017, this apparently last minute addition to the festival programme billed this year as “a celebration of inspiring women artists” is long overdue.

The craic, as they say in ceilidh circles, was mighty. An impressive panel of female doyennes of the traditional music scene got down to it. Kicking off the discussion, Rachel Newton (main picture), harpist and vocalist in The Shee who organised the event, talked about the moment she became aware that almost all of the bands nominated for the 2016 Scots Trad music awards were male and there were only three women out of 39 band members in the whole category.

Newton hesitated before going public on Facebook but felt “overwhelmed by the amount of all-male and more importantly very masculine bands that are dominating the Scottish traditional music scene”.

Newton hesitated before going public on Facebook but felt “overwhelmed by the amount of all-male and more importantly very masculine bands that are dominating the Scottish traditional music scene”.

Newton found there was a growing band of women Trad musicians and artists who felt the same. They were staring into the cavernous depths of a newly discovered Scottish gender gap. The artistic gap may now be added to all the other fissures in Scottish society which add up to gender inequality (pay, care, income, representation, power, freedom).

The musicians, journalists, agents and publicists on the panel and in the audience were full of examples: of festival and gig programmers not booking enough women artists, of women being paid less than men.

Agent Lisa Wyttock talked about festival organisers rarely booking more than one so-called ‘girl band’ and how women simply do not headline Trad Scottish festivals. Journalist Sue Wilson had also observed a level of discrimination against women artists by festival programmers which just does not exist for all-male bands: “Turn it around the other way and that type of discrimination just does not apply.”

Expectations also differ. Whereas string-driven, or air blown, seriously fast and furious sets are what is expected from guys, women are more often favoured for their vocals over their instrumental skills.

Expectations also differ. Whereas string-driven, or air blown, seriously fast and furious sets are what is expected from guys, women are more often favoured for their vocals over their instrumental skills.

Guitarist and singer Jenn Butterworth was less than flattered by being told that her all-woman band had “balls” and “played like men”. According to Jenny Hill, double bass player, publicists and record labels often expect women to dress prettily and be ultra-feminine.

Hill and Butterworth were involved in a unique collaboration of women trad musicians from across the UK. The exquisite and critically acclaimed Songs of Separation (pictured) successfully premiered at last year’s Celtic Connections and was unusual not least for the fact that the sight of 10 extraordinarily gifted women composers, musicians and singers solely occupying a Scottish stage was in itself highly unusual.

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Funding is also an issue. Hill was unequivocal: “There’s a need for some positive discrimination for women to equalise the grants available.” Butterworth and Sandra Kerr, both also teachers agreed that while young women outnumber young men on folk music degree courses, this is not reflected in the numbers going on to sustain professional musical careers.

Michaela Atkins, press officer at Celtic Connections, described an industry which favours “those who shout the loudest”, and there was a consensus among the women and men in the audience that overall, women’s voices, ironically, were not being heard in the folk scene, that this conversation was long overdue and in need of oxygen and, above all, data.

To the sounds of the throng of protest still ringing from outside, the discussion ended with email addresses being shared, calls for more discussion, research and mutual support and in a firm resolve that women artists needed a fairer shout.

Guitarist and singer Jen Butterworth was less than flattered by being told that her all-woman band had “balls” and “played like men”.

Traditional music is, by its nature, well, traditional. Scots and Gaelic culture reflect the totems of Scottish identity which have always been essentially male with some outdated attitudes to women.

Our national story is a graphic boy’s own comic with its heroes and villains, emigrants, martyrs and the odd fruitcake queen or dead lover. It tells of blokes bonding in battles fought in factory, field or far away, of disasters and drams, triumphs over adversity, poverty, the English, other Scottish guys, the ruling classes, etc. Even with the soundtrack down low it is easy to detect whose voices are the loudest.

The folk singers and working class troubadors of the 1960s and 1970s Scottish folk revival did a fine thing – truly. However, that Sandy Bells culture of late night, drunken music sessions was full of hairy fellows with no visible means of support, who got the breaks and went on to successful professional careers as performers and national treasures – wizards of box and bow. There are not so many women among their number.

There’s an old joke that neatly sums up the gender politics of those times – Q: What do you call a folk musician without a girl friend? A: Homeless.

Q: What do you call a folk musician without a girl friend? A: Homeless.

Is it time for Scotland’s women musicians to wrench the trad scene away from its 1970s attitudes? Let’s call time on that old story: 21st century Scotland needs to pay a new piper, call a different tune.

Celtic Connections continues until 5 February 2017.

Picture courtesy of Celtic Connections

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