[Heroines of Scotland Contents]
HE world has been loud in its praises of heroic women,” says an anonymous writer. “They have figured in battle, reigned as queens, been hailed as deliverers, and suffered as martyrs.” Their patriotic courage and devotedness, and their prowess in war, brighten many a dark page of the world’s history, down from remote times, as when, for example, Queen Semiramis of Assyria went forth at the head of her armies. The annals of every nation record the deeds of heroic women. In the early British annals we read how yellow-haired Boadicea, the widowed sovereign of the Iceni (a tribe inhabiting Norfolk and Suffolk), appeared as the valiant defender of her country’s liberty against Roman aggression; nor, as she reminded her wild troops, was she the first woman that had led the Britons to war. The Roman legionaries with whom she contended could not have been surprised to encounter Amazonian antagonists, for in the German campaigns female warriors had often been seen in the midst of the native hosts, and numbers of them were found amongst the slain on hard-fought fields. As Tacitus relates, the German husband’s first gifts to his espoused were not “frivolous trinkets” for personal adornment, but “oxen, a caparisoned horse, a shield, a spear, and a sword,” to show that “she was received by her husband to be his partner in toil and danger, to dare with him in war and suffer with him in peace.” So it was of old with the German races. The second Crusade, under the French King, Louis VII., and the German Emperor, Conrad III., was joined by two bands of women, armed as Amazons and mounted on horseback – the German squadron being led by a lady who, from her gilt buskins and spurs, was called “The golden-footed dame,” whilst the French party had Queen Eleanor for commander. In short, “the history of the middle ages,” says Professor Meniers of Gottingen, “exhibits in every nation numerous exampled of the masculine, or rather more than masculine, intrepidity with which females defended their native honour and their children against hostile invasion.”
Our own mother land, “Caledonian, stern and wild,” has produced heroines of various degrees. Hector Boece, the historian, who dabbled a good deal in fiction, and seemed to care little about winnowing the false from the true, tells us that in the days of the ancient Scots “the women of out country were of no less courage than the men, for all stout maidens and wives marched as well in the field as did the men.” At least this was once a common custom among the Scoto-Irish tribes. “It appears that the existence of fighting women had arisen from the native Celtic usages of a Tribal Feudalism,” writes the Duke of Argyll. “The Tribal obligation of ‘Hosting’ included women. It seems to have been regularly enacted among the Scoto-Irish Celts,” down to the time of Adamnan, Abbot of Iona, who died in 704. On one occasion, Adamnan, at the earnest desire of his mother, crossed over to Ireland “that he might obtain from an Assembly of Chiefs and Abbots an abolition of such practices. This he succeeded in doing,” and “the new exemption of women was called the Lex Innocentium.”
Coming to later periods, our authentic records bear the names of many Scotswomen who distinguished themselves by a fearless and self-sacrificing sense of duty amidst national troubles. One of our old chronicles, The Book of Pluscarden, relates that on the eve of the Battle of Largs, which was fought on 2nd October, 1263, resulting in the repulse of King Haco of Norway’s invasion of Scotland, a wondrous vision was vouchsafed to a bed-rid Scottish knight, Sir John de Wemyss by name, who dwelt apparently in Fife. He “had long been laid up and suffering from some incurable feverish sickness;” but one night he dreamed that he was in the church of the Abbey of Dunfermline, beneath whose hallowed roof King Malcolm Canmore and his consort, St Margaret, with some of their offspring, lay interred. As the dreamer gazed around with reverence, a strange train approached him: a queenly lady, arrayed in gorgeous apparel of gold, and wearing a crown, and leading by the hand a most comely king, clad in bright armour, with a crown encircling his helmet, and a royal robe hanging from his shoulders; while behind them walked singly three other kings in their robes. At this sight, Sir John instantly knelt on the pavement, and exclaimed, “O, glorious lady! I beseech thee deign to show me who thou art, and those who accompany thee, and wither thou are bound.” The august personages paused in their progress, and the Queen answered, with a benignant smile, “I am Margaret, Queen of Scotland: he whom I lead by the hand is my illustrious husband, King Malcolm; the others are my sons, who all three were kings of this realm, and we are hastening to a place called Largs, to defend our country against the Norse invader. God granting us grace, we shall gain the victory. And, for a token of the verity of what thou seest and hearest, come again to this church of our burial, and thou shalt recover from thy sickness.” Sir John awoke, and with the morning light proceeded, though very weak, to obey the nocturnal injunction. he made his way to the Abbey, where he told the astonished monks of his vision, and they bringing him to Queen Margaret’s tomb, he prayed devoutly there, and presently the fever left him. Short time elapsed, when tidings came of the utter discomfiture of the Norwegians by sea and land – a dreadful tempest having shattered their fleet, and their host being routed on the shore by the Scottish army.
So runs the legend, and, let us say that the patriotic impulse which, as the old chronicler believed, had roused St. Margaret from her tomb to defend her adopted country, was not awanting in the breasts of Scotswomen of after-days. And we fancy that the individual biographies of a select group of Scottish Heroines, memorable for their patriotism, their romantic destinies, their misfortunes, or their sufferings, will not prove labour thrown away.