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Women of Glencoe Folk Museum

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

International Women’s Day has been celebrated officially since 1975. Every year on 8th March, people around the globe celebrate the historical, cultural and political achievements of women. So, what better day to take a look at some of our female-centred stories and objects.

You might be surprised that our museum’s conception is intertwined with women; in 1966 the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute celebrated its jubilee and Institutes were invited to take part in a competition to write their village history. Although our local WRI women did not win the competition, they did realise how rich the history of their area was and decided to create a museum. The museum opened in June 1967, but the collection quickly outgrew the original building, and so the museum moved to its present location in 1971.

One of our founders, Barbara Fairweather, was the backbone of the museum from its inception right through to her retirement in 1999. Her dedication and passion for local history established our museum as one of the best small museums in Scotland. She often invited visitors back to her house at Invercoe, which used to hold all the museum exhibits over winter. Barbara published many booklets on subjects related to the Highlands (e.g., farming, fishing, folklore). She was even awarded an MBE in 1994 for “services to the arts”.

Women have been involved in the running of our museum from the very beginning, but some of our most popular objects and stories are about women too, so Glencoe Folk Museum truly is a feminist museum both in its governance and content.

One of our most significant objects in the collection is the mysterious Ballachulish Goddess replica. She is a roughly life-sized figure of a girl, carved from a single piece of alder, with pebbles for eyes. She was found during building work in November 1880, under deep peat, around 120 metres from the shore of Loch Leven. The original is displayed at National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and looks very different from our replica because the wood was allowed to dry and it warped.

The figure has been radiocarbon-dated to around 600 BC, making her over 2,500 years old. Though similar figures have been found elsewhere in the UK and Europe (thought to represent supernatural beings), she is the only one of her kind here and is the oldest human figure found in Scotland!

We don’t know her exact purpose but due to her anatomy and design, one theory is that she is a fertility goddess with space at the bottom to place offerings. However, there have been other theories, one of which notes that often these kinds of figures are found in special places… The Ballachulish Goddess would have overlooked the dangerous straits linking Loch Leven to Loch Linnhe and beyond to the sea. Perhaps she is the goddess of the straits? Other interpretations have been that she is a hag goddess of winds and storms. These interpretations convey how women have been represented in artwork for thousands of years.

The striking portrait below depicts one of the most important time periods in history, one of the most essential industries and a profession which has been revolutionised by women leaders.

We believe the sitter to be Mary Eley, who was a nurse during World War One, a time in history were the roles of women in society started to change radically as they left the home for the factories to help the war effort. The British Red Cross as we know it as now was renamed to that in 1905 but its origins go back to 1863. Mary Eley was based in the 2nd Red Cross Hospital for British Officers in Rouen, France. The organisations iconic bright red symbol is easily recognisable on her pinnie.

Mary had lived with her parents at Airds House, Appin in 1913 before the war. Mary married in July 1918 in Paris, but the couple decided to live in Appin after her husband retired from the military. Mary went on to be one of our first Trustees here at the museum! Mary, her husband and daughter are all buried in Appin old churchyard and extension.

Nursing revolutionized warfare as thousands of lives were needlessly lost due to infection caused by poor hygiene and nutrition in dirty hospitals. On the 12th May every year, the world celebrates International Nurses Day, on the birthday of Florence Nightingale, or ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ as she is commonly known as, who is one of the most famous nurses and has a museum dedicated to her located in London.

Textiles and fashion objects have often been collections where women’s stories have been well preserved and celebrated. We have a beautiful dress that dates to the 1740s and was made with brocaded silk woven in Spitalfields, London. It belonged originally to an upper-class Jacobite supporter and was passed down through the generations of a local family. Latterly, the family’s children enjoyed dressing up in it. Unfortunately, we don’t know who the lady it belonged to was, we can admire the craftsmanship of the gown, how lovely the design is, while also appreciating how impractical it is compared to our own clothes now in the twenty-first century! We can wonder at how different modern life is for women nowadays compared to the 18th century, yet still the same in some regards, we do still wear dresses after all… just ones that are little bit different.

Women have often played a central role in folklore and superstition as they tended to tell the stories to their families and thus preserving these oral histories. There are many strong women figures in these stories who people perhaps admired, feared or worshipped. However, women were also victims of distrust and persecution within communities if they were too independent or unconventional. A large majority of the executions relating to witchcraft were older women after all.

In Glencoe, we have a story about a local witch named Corrag. Legend tells that she foretold the Glencoe Massacre… Apparently her warnings to the clan fell on deaf ears, and she awoke on the morning of the 14th February 1692 to discover the devastation that had taken place: houses burnt to the ground, families fled to the hills, and MacIain – the Chief of the MacDonalds – murdered as he rose from his bed. Corrag took up his broadsword and cast it into the waters of Loch Leven, saying:

“So long as this sword lays undisturbed by man, no man from this Glen will die in battle again.”

And so, the sword lay, providing protection to the men of the valley throughout the centuries. Though the MacDonalds took part in the Battle of Culloden and locals have fought at Waterloo, Balaclava etc, there are no records of any men from Glencoe having died in battle.

Then, in June 1916, a dredger was brought from Glasgow to clear the bed of the loch in order to allow the passage of bigger ships as part of the war effort. On the night of 30th June, the man went into a local bar to show off the old sword handle that he had discovered in the loch. Horrified, the locals who knew of the legend of Corrag immediately cast the sword back into the loch, hoping that they had done enough. The following day, 1st July 1916, was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest and most brutal of the First World War. Casualties were enormous and included seven men from the village of Glencoe – the first to die in battle since the Massacre of Glencoe.

At Glencoe Folk Museum, we are proud to have strong ties to women: from our founding and current governing, to our most intriguing objects, to our local women figures and their fascinating stories. Historically, women’s stories have been neglected by historians and heritage sites tended to portray a one-sided perspective, however, recently more women-centred stories are being shared every year through new collections and exhibitions, or by researching current objects and reinterpreting them in new ways. We look forward to continuing to celebrate women, as well as sharing even more with you, through our redevelopment project.

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