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Anni Donaldson reviews Celtic Connections’ Songs of Separation for Common Space 26 January 2016

THE sight of 10 women – some of the UK’s most creative and uniquely versatile traditional musicians – walking on stage at the Mitchell Theatre on Sunday 24 January for Songs of Separation as part of Celtic Connections had quite an impact.

The title of the evening was an idea conceived by Jenny Hill, who drew in Karine Polwart, Hannah Read, Hannah James, Mary Macmaster, Eliza Carthy, Hazel Askew, Kate Young, Rowan Rheingans and Jenn Butterworth to an innovative women’s cross border collaboration.

Fine singers and musicians all, they had the packed theatre eating out of their hands and singing from their songsheet. The fare was heavily laced with Eigg-y bread and was a tribute to that blessed isle whence they gathered in an innovative musical project in 2015 to explore the theme of separation.

Fine singers and musicians all, they had the packed theatre eating out of their hands and singing from their songsheet.

The evening, however, was far from a dolorous affair. In a clearly affectionate and sisterly endeavour, the cast of their creative nets and interpretations were wide. In their own words, Songs of Separation is about our shared experience, through songs and poems written by people who preceded us, whose words tell us much about our experience of the world today.

Their music celebrated the joy and connection between women and men, mothers and children, people and soil, land and lore, sea and sail as well as parting. Clearly enjoying themselves on what was the final night of their tour and their album launch party, they packed the evening with self-penned works, exquisite arrangements and lyricism in new and often long forgotten poems and songs which showed off the women’s artistry.

Their range and musicality offered glimpses of their muses and the breadth of their interpretation of the chosen theme. The concert was firmly anchored by the relaxed compering and joyous singing of Karine Polwarth as the concert opened with the crake and croak of the fiddle emulating that illusive bird in Echo Mocks the Corncrake, a song celebrating the bird’s stubbornness against the threat of eviction from its natural habitat.

The lush string arrangements and vocal harmonies of Poor Man’s Lamentation an English broadside ballad adapted from a poem by Uriah Smart and the powerful 10-voice a cappella choral arrangement of the Unst Boat Song, a nordic sea prayer and one of the oldest collected fragments of Shetland song given an almost hymnal treatment were mesmerising.

In a clearly affectionate and sisterly endeavour, the cast of their creative nets and interpretations were wide.

Each woman shone in her own way: Kate Young’s extraordinary vocal range seemed quite at home in a Bulgarian folk song, Jenn Butterworth’s fluid guitar playing anchored the many rich string arrangements and Jenny Hill’s mellifluous double bass spread a rich chocolate base over the evening.

Hannah James gave her accordion its head in a beautiful solo composition dedicated to fellow accordionist Tuulikki Bartosik showing off her instrument’s dynamic range and surprising delicacy with those well-known clog dancing feet making a surprise appearance as her very own rhythm section.

Hazel Askew’s crystal clear voice and melodeon lent extra poignancy to her reworking of London Lights singing the hopes of a destitute young unmarried mother for her new-born ‘blue eyed treasure’. The Salvation Army-esque arrangement gave the song a surprisingly hopeful air.

Eliza Carthy’s composition Cleaning the Stones, inspired by the death of a goldfish, offered as the comic song of the night had more existential depth than she let on. Eliza’s powerful voice offered a rich womanly tenor to the ensemble’s choral range.

Nowhere more effectively than in the powerful synthesis of Over the Border, a song which crossed the marches between England and Scotland, Lowland and Highland and emerged from its time of writing in 2015, post-independence referendum when the call of home and the achingly necessary trudge across borders for folk from the Middle East became yet again more pressing and tragic.

Kate Young’s extraordinary vocal range seemed quite at home in a Bulgarian folk song while Jenn Butterworth’s fluid guitar playing anchored the many rich string arrangements.

The delicate harmonies of Rowan Rheingans’ and Hannah Reid’s The Road less Travelled inspired by a Robert Frost poem were given a delicate backdrop by their banjo and plucked fiddle arrangement.

With regular sprinklings of fairy dust from Mary Macmaster’s harp and her beautifully expressive Gaelic songs, the evening never forgot its Hebridean conception on the Island of Eigg and the importance of its pierhead Tea Room and late night libations for the creative process.

The tribute paid by the women to the island as both inspiration and catalyst for Songs of Separation was loudly endorsed by the enthusiastic Eigg contingent in the audience – an island which has itself become a symbol of self-determination and the power of community.

While inspired by separation, the women conveyed the beauty and power of connection and left their audience with a warm and shared glow.

Click here to follow Anni Donaldson on Twitter, and click here to visit the Celtic Connections website for more information about the festival. Follow Songs of Separation on Twitter: @SSeparation



GRCH entrance

This review first appeared in Common Space 15 January 2016

“GIVE us a song!” Growing up in Glasgow in a large extended family of first and second generation Irish immigrants – all good singers – this was an order, not a request.

I grew to realise the importance of song to those not long removed from their homeland and others for whom, without it, home would have become a distant memory. It holds their history, how they used to live and its meaning.

Songs live in hearts and memories. They are our belongings, a precious part of the load. Peter Shepheard, Tom Spiers and Arthur Watson, the founders of the Traditional Song and Music Association of Scotland, recognised that 50 years ago and the anniversary was celebrated with great brio in The Carrying Stream, the opening concert of Celtic Connections 2016 on Thursday 14 January.

The enduring beauty and fun of traditional song was on full display following the powerful opening by the massed pipes and drums of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland.

The enduring beauty and fun of traditional song was on full display following the powerful opening by the massed pipes and drums of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland. The cast of performers, young and old, offered a highly appreciative and well-versed audience a powerful reminder of the importance of keeping these songs alive.

The musical director of the show, Siobhan Millar, is one of the finest traditional singers in Scotland today. Still in her 20s, Millar has become a worthy tradition bearer herself and, like every other act on the bill, expressed her debt to foremothers and forefathers in the Scots, Gaelic, travelling and Irish and American traditions.

Accompanied by the excellent house band, Millar’s version of ‘False False’ was a fine tribute to Sheila Stewart, the great singer of the travelling tradition, who died recently.

Barbara Dickson, member number two of the Dunfermline TMSA and long time supporter, returned to her folk roots with a poignant rendering of ‘I aince loved a lad’.

Irishman Tommy McCarthy sang ‘Lady Margaret’, a centuries old ballad in the traditional Irish sean-nos style. His highly ornamented, complex, almost liturgical style used the full range of his extraordinary voice and reduced the hall to a deep silence.

Adam McNaughton’s celebration of the ‘Soor milk kairt’, Misha McPherson’s Gaelic waulking song and Shona Donaldson’s tragic 17th century ballad ‘Edam O’ Gordon’ conveyed the mood and meaning of their times.

The cast of performers, young and old, offered a highly appreciative and well-versed audience a powerful reminder of the importance of keeping these songs alive.

However, although Sam Lee’s tribute to Jeannie Robertson – ‘The moon shone on my bed last night’ – was hauntingly arranged with accompanying hammer dulcimer, Lee unfortunately lost the story in his vocal gymnastics.

Traditional songs accompanied the work inside and outside the home, to express the many emotions – love and sadness of daily existence, to record local and other historical events and to often mark the loss of family and friends whether by death or by emigration.

They also rose from the difficult lives and choices facing ordinary people. The political heart of the folk song was not forgotten in the witty and often pointed repartee of compere BBC Radio Scotland presenter Mark Steven, who reminded us of its importance in sustaining a nation’s sense of itself.

The evergreen Arthur Johnston spoke of the importance of song in political struggles, in giving voice to the injustices of the Highland clearances and the troubles in Ireland. His rendition of Northern Irishman Tommy Sands’ ‘Your sons and your daughters’, singing it ‘because he was tellt’ by Siobhan, was a moving tribute to those working people who ‘sowed the seeds of freedom, justice and equality’ in the minds of their children.

North East Bothy Balladeers Jim Taylor, Sandy Morrison and Joe Aiken were on cracking form with ‘The bonny lass o’ Fyvie’ and its irresistible chorus. With the excellent Malinky, the always show-stopping Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, who are fast becoming like a comfy pair of old slippers, the show was drawing to a close when Sheena Wellington reprised her performance of ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’ at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

The show ended with a grand finale performance of Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom come all ye’ with barely a silent voice in the house.

Described by Steven as a ‘defining moment’ in Scotland – the power of its words seemingly lost on the royal party there present – Wellington’s soaring voice electrified an audience living a quite different Scotland from 1999.

The show ended with a grand finale performance of Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom come all ye’ with barely a silent voice in the house.

The value of song is universal. The TMSA was among friends and Millar pulled off what felt like an intimate, rousing house ceilidh within a majestic packed Royal Concert Hall.

Click here to follow Anni Donaldson on Twitter, and click here to visit the Celtic Connections website for more information about the festival.


It was touch and go for the ham hough.  You never know the  bloody minute… well more the elongated moment…when I was happily but sedately bowling along Loch Lomond-side, already bored with what was on the radio, planning to stop at Tyndrum to get out the Kindle for some decent driving tunes, past the engineering feat that is the stilt borne road-widening marvel at Pulpit Rock.

Pulpit Rock Pulpit Rock

Breathing in at the narrow parts as too-wide trucks and vans stole precious territory on my side of the dotted line, slowing down through the water cascading downhill and forming eddies which regularly threatened to drown the nearside of the road, ever alert on a tricky road, well-travelled over the years, it was the second of January and my first trip out in the brand new year.


A82 one of the Loch Lomondside narrows

I was heading to see my friend Jan perform in the annual Easdale Island new year panto, curtain up two forty five, ferry at 2.15 – plenty of time, no rush.

Turned out it wasn’t the news quiz on Radio 4 at twelve but the awful Moneybox Live (why live?  Is their news ever so breaking it can never be pre-recorded? Maybe the banking crash gave them a sense of immediacy they’ve never known before.).  I was hoping for the News Quiz to pass the time enjoying the quick-witted giggly MC-ing of Sandy Toksvig until Tyndrum and a slug of my nutri-smoothy made with Jack’s belter of a blender before negotiating Loch Aweside’s mighty glen and the scenic drive onward to Oban.  Carefully around a wide left-ward curving bend, no one in front, a few cars behind then my car suddenly veers to the right refusing my corrections, foot off hovering the brake, gently, go with it I remembered, it was having none of it, wibbly wobbly, my no longer steady, heavy horse of a Saab hurtled for the watering hole that was Loch Lomond on my right, rushing toward the trough it crashed willow, saplings, bramble and flew over the steep embankment, its momentum allowing it one last decision to face back the way we had come, flipped over and landed on its back.

Careering at speed towards the loch, up in the air and through the trees, time really did motion slowly as I contemplated the end of me in a parallel and equally real time.  Simple, pure terror washed through my mind and body. Utter helplessness, hands still pointlessly gripping the steering wheel …nothing I can do….. Eyes wide to see it, inside voice to speak it, scream it, feel it: the river, the trees rushing toward me instantly felled by the car’s speed…I’m heading for the river….! THIS IS IT! THE END! NO…! The horizon flipped and it all stopped….

I’m heading for the river….!” THIS IS IT! THE END! NO…!

In a blink I did a quick body check.  OK…I’m hanging upside down, held fast by my seat belt, the engine’s still running, the radio is still on but I’m not in the water.  With what I was even then aware was a remarkable calm, I thought, turn the engine off,  all that petrol I had just pumped into the tank not an hour before might be pouring out. Slowly I moved the automatic gear stick to P for park, switched the engine off, removed the key and silenced Graham Norton’s wittering. A voice was calling and then a man’s face appeared ahead of me, seeing me seeing him, “Hello!”, I gave him two celebratory thumbs up and shouted “I think I’m ok!”. “He called out, “Stay where you are, don’t worry we’ll get you out, anyone else with you? “, ”No just me.” He turned and called out “Just one woman and she thinks she’s OK”.  Another man’s voice came from behind the car.  “Do you think you can get out?  I’ll try to open a door.  There’s a chair here” [that’s another story].  I felt the rush of air as the door opened, I smelled that strong familiar sodden, woody, decaying smell of fresh riverbank. I braced my left arm, against the roof of the car, hooked my right knee under the steering wheel, wedged the other against the side of the central column, reached across myself with my right hand and pressed the button on the seat belt.  The limb bracing worked. Gravity did its job and I slowly untangled myself from behind the steering wheel one leg at a time thanking thingummy that I’d recently restarted my yoga practice and crawled along the roof to the open door behind me.

“I’ll put the chair out here and you can stand on it,”, the man said, “that’s handy.”  I climbed up, grabbed the door sill then his hand and with one swing of the leg then the other I was out! I barely knew what way up I or the world was. I scrambled and climbed up and through the sinking, stinking mud, grabbing and avoiding the scratching brambles to the road, a line of parked cars and what seemed like rows of concerned helpers on the roadside looking over then taking me, asking how I was, talking on mobile phones, directing traffic and telling me what happened. Men halted the traffic as I was led across the road by a nice woman in a red jacket, “You need to sit down, come on.” She motioned me to sit in her driving seat.

“You were driving quite slowly, I was right behind you,” said kind Nicky from Crianlarach with the wee red car and the bouncing Jack Russell, “Then next thing you were turning right, I wondered where you were going as there’s no turn off there!”  Charlie in the car behind her confirmed all that, “You were driving quite slowly then you seemed to birl off.”

I turned round in her driving seat and saw three lovely, holiday-bright and smiling young faces saying ‘Hello! Are you OK?”  “Yes I think I am thanks.”

The woman in the red jacket said, “My daughter and her pals are in the back. “  “Where you heading then?”   I asked. “We’re going to a hotel in Glencoe for a few days break to get them out.”  “They’ll likely be on their phones all the time!” I said, “Aye probably” she laughed.  “Might not be any signal up there though.”  “Probably not!” we both laughed – the chat normalising, restoring me to the place and time.  I turned round in her driving seat and saw three lovely, holiday-bright and smiling young faces saying ‘Hello! Are you OK?”  “Yes I think I am thanks.” Another woman approached me with a mobile phone.  “The emergency services want to speak to you.”  I took the phone, answered the questions asked by a very kind operator lady about how I was, any injuries, bleeding, can I stand, don’t eat or drink anything until the ambulance gets there, they’re on their way. With thanks I returned the phone to the woman, she asked if I was alright and I said I was. It was true.  I seemed to be.

“You were driving quite slowly then you seemed to birl off.”

Charlie meanwhile offered to stay till the emergency services arrived and to direct them to the Ardlui Hotel where, they all decided, Nicki would take me to wait for the paramedics.  My other first responder offered to get anything I needed from the car.  “A handbag, a holdall, two jackets and can you please look for a poly bag with a ham hough in it!”.  He laughed and a few moments later he appeared with everything I had asked for. The hough wasn’t going to make it to Easdale and Jan’s kitchen after all.

Can you please look for a poly bag with a ham hough in it!”

Assured that all was being done that could, the people gradually drove off and on their way. Previously anonymous drivers and passengers had, in an instant, become a highly organised flashmob rescue team  –  all instinctively knowing exactly the right thing to do in this sudden drama – heroes all.

We’re fine now, the ham hough and I.  While that, my last Saab, nearly did for us both, its now obsolete Swedish aerodynamics also saved my life.   The hough is presently doing what it does best here at home: comforting spirits with the ummistakable smell of what will soon become lentil broth.  Just what’s needed after that loch-side driving drama.

We’re fine, the ham hough and I.

With my deep and sincere thanks  to Nicki and Charlie, all the kind anonymous drivers heading  northwards on the A82 less than a mile beyond the Ardlui Hotel just after midday on Saturday 2 January 2016 and the paramedics from Arrochar who all reassured me,  got me out, checked out and home safe. Immense gratitude goes to my wonderful daughter Emily who drove miles to rescue me, to dearest son (1) Jack for the ham eggs, tattie scones and Stornoway fry he made us on our return, to dearest son (2) Louis for the delicious dauphinois, peas and haggis dinner he rustled up later it seemed out of nowhere, to dearest (1 and only) grand-daughter Maella round like a shot, Cleggie for the hugs, to Lynne for the flowers, for rushing round in a wink and for the kindest of friendship, to Carol for her phone calls, messages and timely Samye Ling remembrances, to cousin Jim for his love and concern, to Jan for being so concerned but the show going on regardless, avoiding breaking a leg and playing a pure blinder, to Gus for trying but failing to keep our secret till it was over, to Alex for his sweet post-party good wishes despite having had a bucket! You are all marvellous.  My life is sweeter because of you.

 It is a Happy New Year. OH YES IT IS!

Easdale Island Panto 2 January 2016 – Jack and the BeanstalkEasdale panto 2016

Photo:  Colin MacPherson

Che poster Havana

“Communism sucks!”, so said the well-heeled and well-travelled English NHS Consultant as we discussed the state of Cuba during my recent trip there.  “Capitalism sucks too though,” I retorted, on reflection, rather too defensively.  “I know where I’d rather live…” he said.  The truth is poverty sucks wherever you live.  As members of a party of eighteen cyclists on a recent cycling tour of Cuba, we had many chances to observe the Cuban hinterland at a leisurely pace.  We also had the advantage of the perceptive and remarkably honest reflections of Angel our highly competent and personable young tour guide about life in the island republic –  his homeland.  Some poverty is relative and relatively speaking, Cubans appear poor.

It is hard to deny with average monthly wages between 500-1000 Cuban pesos (roughly £700-1,400) for all workers including professionals.  Cubans pay all their utility and household bills in pesos but have to convert their pesos into Cuba Convertible Currency to buy anything else.  There is food rationing, state ownership of absolutely everything including land, big business and cattle, and a shortage of oil, cars and consumer goods.

“We were the Soviet Union’s pretty boys, we just sat there and they fed us with oil and all that we needed.”

During the severe depression of the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and the flow of oil and roubles stopped, Cuba’s dependent economy, lacking its own industrial base, almost caved in. Oil pumps were turned down to a trickle and people were hungry.  To Angel, “We were the Soviet Union’s pretty boys, we just sat there and they fed us with oil and all that we needed.”  It has been a hard road for ordinary Cubans since the hardships of the 1990s.

working horses

Farm workers in Matanzas

Horses and bicycles again became the mainstay of working life and transport in the countryside. The government monopoly on land ownership inhibits the growth of a vibrant agricultural sector.   Rural buses are converted trucks, doctors moonlight as taxi drivers to earn extra cash; far too much rural land lies fallow, no real industrial base, restrictions on the freedoms of ordinary Cubans leave something to be desired, white goods cost many month’s wages, there’s no credit and yet…and yet…


Che Guevara Mausoleum, Santa Clara

While Cuba may look a bit of a shambles, appearances are deceptive.  The Revolution takes care of its own and its achievements in the face of many attempts at sabotage by its large and powerful neighbour cannot be denied.

Havana hospital

Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, Havana

Cuba’s health service however is world class and its education system free for everyone from nursery age through to university.  High levels of literacy are clear from the plethora of bookshops and libraries in all cities and most small towns. Radio and TV are free, cinemas charge pennies to view recently released US and European movies. Adult education in later life is also free with television channels, local colleges and universities providing distance learning programmes and evening classes. Unemployment is very low as most folk are employed by the government. When a baby is born in Cuba its parents are entitled to one year’s maternity/paternity leave and pay with guaranteed childcare when they return to work.

“No one starves in Cuba.”

Angel didn’t gloss the flaws, neither did he talk up the Revolution’s achievements unduly.  He was clearly both frustrated and proud of his country just like most people are of theirs.

He claimed that “No one starves in Cuba.” Indeed with universal food rationing, the government ensures everyone has their most basic needs met:  to each citizen a ration book provides a heavily subsidised ration of rice, eggs, meat, oil, bread, coffee, butter, milk and…would you believe…sugar.

Cuban rationbook

Cuban Ration Book

Fruit and vegetables are not rationed and are available in local farmers markets.  I doubt if we could say with Angel’s confidence that no one starves in Scotland or the UK and that anyone can access a university education on ability alone. The government is slowly offering people opportunities for private enterprise:  farmers can take long leases on farms; ‘palades’ offer local people the chance to open little restaurants in their homes.  ‘Casas particulares’ provide bed and breakfast in family homes.  These welcome alternatives to the vast government-run Soviet era hotel complexes like Rancho Luna (built in the 1980s) with their attendant bureaucracies and overblown décor will open a window on ordinary Cuban life and offer a more relaxed welcome to travellers.

tancho luna

Rancho Luna Hotel, Cienfuegos

Soon, as relations with the Yanqui improve, Havana harbour will be transformed into an enormous berth for US cruise ships. The senoritas and senors of Old Havana in their colourful  traditional costumes posing for tourists cameras for one peso, the cigar and moquito sellers and the ubiquitous jazz and salsa musicians will delight droves of the curious from across the water.

Trinidad musicians

Musicians in Old Town, Trinidad

The Yanquis may well love the carefully preserved old Chevvies but how they will take to vast billboards of Che Guevara exorting Cubans to keep the revolution alive is anyone’s guess.

Angel is nervous.  “We need to change the bad in Cuba but we also need to keep the good.”    I wish them well in their next revolution.

“We need to change the bad in Cuba but we also need to keep the good.”



Women 50:50

Anni Donaldson is a, journalist, blogger, violence against womenresearcher and oral historian. Anni won the award for Best Article in the first Write to End VAW Awards in 2013.

The Women 5050 campaign stands full-square on the shoulders of the women who pushed the equality agenda in the lead up to Scottish devolution and beyond. To everyone’s frustration, while the gender power gap seems to quiver at times on the verge of contraction, it still seems to have settled below the bar. However to keep spirits up, it might be worth reflecting that after over fifteen years of devolution we can look back to a real and fine example of how one corner of the gender power gap closed and achieved lasting change. The campaign for the elimination of violence against women, rebooted during the resurgence of feminist activism during the 1970s has been a long haul. However, looking back…

View original post 369 more words


This article was written for The National Saturday 29 August 2015

I was delighted, and genuinely surprised, to be announced the winner of the inaugural Write to End Violence Against Women Awards in 2013.


Since then, Scotland has witnessed a dramatic shift in its political landscape which included some devastating critiques of mainstream media and its messages. Civic Scotland brushed off its ideas, flexed its debating muscles as the independence referendum campaign warmed up and new voices began to emerge.  Among those who  ‘dared to dream’ that ‘another Scotland was possible’ were women ready to challenge a deeply macho culture once described as ‘cold and hostile to women’s lives and values’.  Bloggers, freelance journalists, writers, artists and commentators created a new estate of citizen journalism.  The bandwidth broadened, women’s space for debate and critique opened up and all of a sudden it was open season on Scotland’s gender architecture.  What the referendum started now stubbornly refuses to go away and the momentum has not diminished one jot.

Groups like Women for Independence offer online and village hall platforms for women’s concerns and safe places to discuss them. What most Scottish women have known for years is now part of the national conversation: women are still not equal, get paid less than men, do most of the caring and have less political and economic power than men. There is now growing public concern that children are growing up in a culture full of inequality, everyday sexism and all forms of violence against women.  The scandal of high reported rates of these forms of violence has now entered public debate, is a focus for Government action and placing new demands on print and online media to bring their news values into the twenty first century. The Write to End Violence Against Women Awards cleverly caught the zeitgeist in 2013 when they demanded the media raise the bar in its coverage of violence against women.

Now in 2015 there is a growing public appetite for debate on these issues and the old dismissals no longer wash.  People are joining the dots between women’s persistent inequality and the many forms of violence against women such as domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, child sexual abuse, prostitution and pornography.  The prevalence of these crimes is a national scandal with no place in modern Scotland.  Their roots lie in laws only repealed in the nineteenth century whereby wives and children were the property of husbands or fathers who had the right to ‘chastise’ them.   While these laws were eventually repealed, unfortunately the attitudes to women which went along with them display remarkable longevity.   None more visible than those in much of our popular culture which continues to demean women, treat them as sex objects in ways which subliminally reinforce women’s second class status.

The good news is that some surprising heavy hitters are now joining the fight back.  A recent controversial media campaign against rape #WeCanStopIt had Rape Crisis Scotland and Police Scotland joining forces to get the message out. #EndProstitutionNow, a campaigning coalition which aims to do what it says on the tin is fronted by a fully on-message Glasgow City Councillor.   Clever PR is now unleashing these issues on an utterly changed Scottish media landscape.  Two years down the line gender is on the national agenda and violence against women is emerging from behind those closed doors to where it should be – right up front in the public eye.


West Dunbartonshire Women are making history

A woman’s place was, until recently, in the home and it certainly wasn’t in the Scottish history books. Up to the 1980s and 1990s if you were looking for women in Scottish history, apart from queens and standout individuals like Flora Macdonald they simply weren’t there –  they weren’t writing history  either.  Uncharted Lives published in 1983, the first book written by Scottish women about their lives changed all that and blazed a trail and women’s history groups spread across the country.

unchartedlives cover2

Uncharted Lives 1983

Glasgow Women’s Library was part of that original 1980s movement and  since then they have been making sure that women take their rightful place in our national story. Since last year, GWL workers Morag Smith, Lorna Stevenson and writer Sue Reid Sexton have been working with an enthusiastic group of women in West Dunbartonshire keen to record their local history.

The Women Making History Group in West Dunbartonshire have gathered together a rich storehouse of women’s memories of growing up, courting, working and motherhood in the 1950s and 1960s.


1950s Vanity Case

They tell the other half of what has been until now the very masculine history of West Dunbartonshire – full of ships, strikes and sewing machines. The group have collected oral histories and objects that tell women’s stories and preserve them for future generations. With funding from the Sharing Heritage Lottery Fund the Group have created a lasting treasure trove for the West Dunbartonshire community celebrating the lives of local women. In an imaginative and richly illustrated booklet and two remarkable Memory Boxes  of artefacts from what seems  like a bygone era, a fascinating story emerges.

Pollocks dumbarton

 Pollock’s of Dumbarton for the Pearl of the Paris Collections

Not so long ago women’s lives were so very different from today:  school girls (not boys) in the 1950s learned how to ‘sew and knit, how to cook, do the laundry and ironing’; daughters (not sons) had to do the housework and shopping at home; Dumbarton Academy had night school classes for young women in shorthand and typing.


‘Friday Night is Amami Night’,

‘Friday Night was Amami Night’, when hair rollers were used with the famous setting lotion before setting off for ‘the dancing’ here many met their future husbands – Clydebank Town Hall and Dalmuir Masonic were firm favourites – yet very few dances were ‘Ladies Choice’.

Dancing at CTH

For many of the women, it certainly was a man’s world: married women generally didn’t go back to work after they had their babies and few fathers took much to do with their children,   ‘You never saw a man walking along the street pushing a pram.  It was an unsaid rule. A man was a man and that wasn’t his job.  They were the breadwinners’.

‘You never saw a man walking along the street pushing a pram. It was an unsaid rule. A man was a man and that wasn’t his job.  They were the breadwinners’.

Women share their often hilarious, occasionally surprising and sometimes sad stories to remind us just how much women’s lives have changed for the better over the years… and yet…and yet… they suggest that we might still have a bit to go yet.

The  Memory Box and Booklet Launch:

Friday 21st August from 1pm to 3pm in the Heritage Centre of Dumbarton Library.

This event is free and open to all – booking is required.

Contact Glasgow Women’s Library: 0141 550 2267 or email info@womenslibrary.org.uk or visit their website

Follow GWL on Twitter @gwlkettle

Memory Box Workshop Session run by the creators:

Saturday 22 August 10.30 – 12.30  Heritage Centre Dumbarton Library

Memory Box Drop-in Exhibition

 Monday 24th – Wed 26th August 10am – 3pm Heritage Centre of Dumbarton Library

See The History of Working Class Marriage in Scotland at Glasgow University

Follow Working Class Marriage in Scotland on Twitter @WCMScotland


Rape Crisis Scotland and Police Scotland have launched a high profile media campaign to tackle rape.  The latest phase of the #WeCanStopIt rape prevention campaign is aimed at 16-27 year old men – an age group who commit one third of reported rapes in Scotland. Young women in the same age group are also the most vulnerable to attack.


A hard hitting post-watershed TV and viral ad shifts the focus to potential perpetrators and sends out the message that sex without consent is rape.   Sandy Brindley, confirming Rape Crisis’ commitment to the campaign said “The law is clear – sex without consent is rape, but we need to do much more to increase public awareness around this issue.”  Chief Constable Sir Stephen House echoed this, “Sex without consent is rape.  There are no excuses.”

Recent revelations about US comedian Bill Cosby show his widespread use of sedatives on his victims prior to sexually assaulting them.  Cosby claimed he used drugs to ‘facilitate consensual sex’. Men like Cosby don’t use drugs to gain consent but to prevent women from saying no!  Cosby’s victims’ stories show the importance of focussing on the legal issue of consent in rape cases as Scot’s law now does.

Scottish law on rape and sexual assault changed in 2009 and is quite clear that rape occurs where the victim does not consent and the person responsible has no ‘reasonable belief’ that the victim is consenting.  If the victim is incapable of consenting then it is likely a crime has been committed. A woman’s use of drugs or alcohol is not an invitation to rape.   Consent can also be withdrawn at any point even if a couple have already had sex. Prior intimacy is no invitation to rape either – rape in marriage is illegal.

Rape is not ‘having sex with someone’, you cannot have sex “with” another person if that person is unconscious, asleep or unwilling.  With implies free agreement.  Rape is something a rapist does to another person and potential rapists are being told in no uncertain terms that the victims’ rights supercede theirs.  With most rapes are carried out in private by people who know their victim, coupled with public attitudes to victims this has until now made reporting a rape a daunting prospect.

With this campaign the focus shifts to potential perpetrator of rape.  The message is clear: rape is the responsibility of the rapist and involves a decision they make.   The prevalence of sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment in young people’s lives is higher than it should be.  While women are mostly the victims, boys and men are also victims.

The aftermath of a rape or sexual assault can have devastating consequences. Rape Crisis Scotland Helpline is there to talk confidentially to victims who can often feel isolated and worried about speaking about their experiences to friends or family.


Rape Crisis Centres across Scotland work closely with Police Scotland’s RapeTask Force who are ready to provide a sympathetic response. There is a great deal of excellent work going on in Scotland to tackle all forms of sexual violence and other forms of violence against women. This is the latest national initiative to send out the message that the days of so-called ‘rape culture’ in Scotland are numbered.

If you are affected by any of these issues, please contact:

In an emergency call:  999

National rape and sexual assault helpline:  Freephone 08088 01 03 02

Conversation piece image-20150608-8700-1qedfba

This article was first published on The Conversation 9 June 2015.

Here’s the link:


A form of violence against women or a legitimate career choice? That’s roughly where the two sides stand on the debate over what we should do about prostitution. Voices from the violence camp have just become louder in Scotland thanks to the launch of the End Prostitution Now campaign, which is backed by various civic organisations.

It is pushing for the buying of sex to be banned north of the border, along with decriminalising prostitution and introducing support services to help people leave the trade behind. The campaign argues that sexual exploitation cannot be addressed without challenging the root causes: gender inequality and men’s demand to buy sexual access to women.

Among its supporters is Rhoda Grant, the Labour MSP for the Scottish Highlands and Islands, who is pushing for an amendment banning the buying of sex to be added to the human trafficking bill currently making its way through the Scottish parliament. Grant recently spoke at an event in Belfast to mark the passing of a similar law in Northern Ireland. She praised Northern Ireland for joining the countries, “sending out a clear message that people should not be bought. Prostitution is a form of violence against women which should not be tolerated”.

Regulation or removal?

There are two distinct approaches to prostitution internationally. There are those who wish to challenge, criminalise and eventually eliminate “demand” and those who support safe and continuing “supply”. In countries persuaded by the latter camp, prostitution is legal or has limited legality, including Germany, New Zealand, Spain and some counties in Nevada in the United States (where otherwise it is illegal).

Advocates for this approach say that prostitution is happening anyway, it is a legitimate career choice for women who enjoy sex and should be classified as “work”, with trade unions to protect the interests of its “workers”. Individual prostitutes and owners and managers of brothels are regulated in the countries that have gone down this route. Health and safety checks are made on the women and the establishments and business often booms.

The new Scottish campaign makes the opposite argument, arguing that for the safety of those involved and women in general, there is no room for libertarianism – and no truth in “realist” arguments that it will keep happening regardless. Since Sweden became the first country in the world in 1999 to criminalise buying sex, it has been followed not only by Northern Ireland but also by Norway (2008), Iceland (2009) and France (2013). We are also seeing a growing volume of debate in the likes of England, Wales and Ireland for a similar direction.

There is evidence of positive results. Sweden has reportedthere has been a shift in attitudes for the better, a decline in the number of men buying sex and a reduced market for traffickers. There are also positive reports from Norway, though Iceland admittedly appears mixed and you can read a more critical summary of the Swedish experience here.

Harm not work

When people refer to the “oldest profession”, I would more accurately describe it as one of the world’s oldest cultural practices. It exploits women in a marketplace for access to their bodies and maintains their second-class status. Most women involved in prostitution are among the poorest and most vulnerable in any community. Substance misuse is commonand many have previously experienced childhood, sexual or domestic abuse. The United Nations and Council of Europeboth say that prostitution, as a form of violence against women, is a function of gender inequality.

The single most harmful aspect is to have to repeatedly endure unwanted sex. In a recent Channel 4 programme Strippers, about women working in lap dancing and pole dancing clubs in Scotland, many commented on having to shut off emotionally to get through their evening and some remarked that it had changed their personality altogether. This can create long-term psychological damage and lead to drug and alcohol abuse in order for sex workers to be able to detach emotionally. Substance use often rapidly escalates Calling prostitution “work” doesn’t make it any less harmful.

Harm by any other name

The attitudes of the “punters” rating the performances of prostitutes on websites often display deeply disturbing attitudes towards them, as last year’s Invisible Men exhibition in Glasgow revealed. Little wonder that sex workers regularly experience extreme physical and sexual violence. And from the back streets of Victorian London to the modern streets of Norwich and Glasgow, many have been murdered.

Working in prostitution also often starts early. A Glasgow study in 2000 showed that 24.5% of the women surveyed had entered prostitution before age 18, with 8.2% starting at age 16 or under. Much of the industrial-scale grooming and sexual exploitation of children exposed in places like Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford in England has shown that prostitution sometimes involves the trafficking of young people. The long-lasting emotional damage of early and continued involvement in prostitution can only be imagined.

For these reasons, I am much more inclined to the argument that we should seek to eradicate prostitution altogether. Reframing the debate as an issue of human rights and gender equality, while focusing on harms, may allow people to ask the right questions: is it ok to buy or rent women’s bodies for sex in the 21st century? Certainly not in my view.

White mountains better

This article appeared in The Lennox Herald on 2 April 2015

In April, A Woman’s Place relocated high in the Apokoronas region of western Crete in the foothills of the White Mountains.  April is a good time to speak of brighter things and sunnier climes.  Far from Scotland’s pantone grey, these bright breezy hillsides are exploding with springtime: lambs, almond blossom and camomile.  Snow still dresses the highest peaks of Kastro and Spathi to the south while the Mediterranean’s azure waters twinkle to the north beyond Souda Bay.

Apokoronas mapdownload

Crete has experienced waves of overseas invasions and cruel treatment over the centuries. Occupations by the Venetians and Turks, and later by the Germans during the Second World War are visible in hilltop forts, military roads, bullet-holed walls and in local memory. The Cretan code of filoxenia – a generous hospitality towards outsiders – camouflages a healthy caution of foreigners.  Nowadays budget airlines bring gentler hordes each summer.  Mainly from northern Europe, tourists delight in Crete’s sunny weather, lovely food, stunning scenery and beaches.  Filoxenia accommodates and caters well but Cretan people expertly sustain their own way of life and culture alongside the whims of seasonal visitors.

The tourist season has not yet started and the village life of Crete can still be glimpsed through the boarded up beach resorts, tourist-lite tavernas and quiet alleyways.  I pass the local shepherd every day.  Herding his tinkling belled flock to one juicy pasture or another I often see him later, heading home for lunch, arms draped over the knarled crook he wears yoked across his shoulders.    People are busy in the fields, or cleaning up the fine red dust which blows over from Africa in the winter and can turn the mountains pink; they are painting, and rebuilding after the winter’s storms, sprucing the place up for their Easter holiday weekend. A week later than our Easter, the Greek Orthodox Easter Liturgy is a deeply religious occasion when whole villages and extended families join together in religious rituals followed by feasting centred on spit-roast local lamb.

Sunset is a time of cool and calm.  Folk settle in the cafes to relax and review the day.  First sightings of the colourful hoopoe bird are discussed and the fruits of lemon and orange trees are exchanged.   The men gradually trickle home.  Women begin to drop in, they joke and laugh, they settle down and play board games late into the night.  I speak no Greek, am warmly welcomed, we toast each other, we nod and smile and settle comfortably together into that special Cretan woman’s place.

Crete tavernaimages

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